It can get messy.You wouldn’t expect honey not to be sticky, mind.It would be an odd world if honey wasn’t sweet and glutinous, wouldn’t it? What you might n’t expect is that although you might take every precaution and cover every available surface with newspapers, somehow some of that unctuous tackyness will stick to your shoes and before you know it the sugary, gluey goo will be trickling down your wrists. It’s benign stuff, thankfully and is easily removed with cold water…..that’s cold water, remember….
The honey harvest.That’s the scented , sweet treat at the end of the year’s bee-husbandry. If the weather during the foraging doesn’t let you down and the bees have enough to spare for the winter lay-off you might get some honey to steal.Obviously , you wouldn’t want to purloin all their stores without replacing their food source with some sugar syrup , a few bags of white sugar or some lovely squidgy, white bakery fondant. They love that stuff, so it ‘s a good idea to have some on hand if they need some fast-food as Autumn comes roaring in. They’ll convert it into honey and store it up. It’s the devil’s own business cutting that fondant up.You can maybe buy a big heavy box of it from your local bakery and if you’ve only got a few hives it’ll last some while. It’s like cutting a really heavy jelly that refuses to be cut and sticks to each side of the knife blade as you saw.Sometimes I’ll just take a bag of white sugar and dip it into a basin of water very quickly to soak the outside.This will form a lovely crunchy crust .After that I just poke a few holes in it to allow the bees access and leave it on the crown board at the top of the brood, just under the roof.The bees will soon find it and ravage and tear through the papery shroud and consume all that sweetness.Any papery bits will find their way in shredded dust to the front door .
It takes patience before you get to the first honey crop. There’s a lot of work involved collecting all that goodness. Each bee might make a teaspoonful of the stuff in a lifetime of toil. It took a couple of years developing my first couple of hives to the point where I could taste exactly what kind of a larder they were putting together at the bottom of my garden. I was amazed at the difference in flavour , colour and smell in comparison to any honey i ‘d ever sampled before. When you buy it in a store , it’s usually been heated , mixed and homogenised in some way. It’s perfectly good but bears scant comparison to the taste and aroma that fills your kitchen when you harvest your own hives. The funny thing was that each time I got some honey it had a different flavour every time .It even had a different colour and texture. Everything depended on which blooms the colony visited and at what time in the season they did so.I dare say that if you could sample a frame every week throughout the season , each jar would have a unique taste. That’s not usually possible because the bees will not necessarily wax over each frame to order. They may leave that honey to evaporate and cure for as long as possible. They’ll fan it with their wings until all the water vapour blows off.
Don’t presume that there will be gallons of the gloopy stuff either. One super box with ten full frames might produce around twenty or thirty jars and by the time family and friends make a hole in that little lot you may have a little left to sweeten your morning porridge. That’s why you’ll want to ramp up to several more hives. If you can get a few more working and building…each with maybe two or three super boxes loaded with honey, it begins to make a little more sense….and a lot more honey. All those new hives might not be immediately viable either. You might have one really good one and a lot of laggards. They usually take at least two years to get established and then they might decide to split and start the process all over again…A lot depends on the climate and location too.
Back with the sticky mess. I’m better at it now that I have some idea what to expect. I’m better organised and I know how much time and equipment I need for the extraction operation. This year I noticed that with six hives I was fast running out of super box frames if the bees should need more towards the end of the season , so the plan was to take any frames that had been fully capped and sealed , remove the honey and return them to the hive immediately , rather than waiting until the very end of Summer and possibly having no spares left. Like I said , they might wait to cap them all.
There was plenty of activity in the hives and frames were being filled , but there were only about half a dozen fully -capped, so I shook off any bees and secreted these six frames inside a tightly closed cardboard box. How can the perfume of freshly capped honey and pure white beeswax inside a box easily be described? It is the most entrancing sensory assault, mixing together every beautiful floral fragrance and balm to the point of being almost erotically edible .Some would crawl through shards of broken glass to inhale a bouquet like that. The bees think so too, so it’s best to get the frames inside as quickly as possible and close all the doors and windows. A warm room is best because that will allow the honey to flow easier.
There is much equipment that can be used to extract honey, such as centrifugal spinners that shuck the honey to the side of a spinning drum where it runs down the walls and is then accessed by a valve at the bottom of the tank. I have one of those which has not been really that successful up to now l .My honey, so far , has tended to be heavy and slow flowing and loathe to spin out without wrecking the integrity of the frames. Maybe if our Irish weather was warmer , the liquid would run at a quicker rate but it would need to be warmer than it’s been these past months to get that flow going. Thankfully there are other more prosaic and basic methods which cost very little .A basin and a sharp knife can be utilised ;the wax is neatly cut from the face of the comb and the honey can be scraped off with a spoon. There’s a little more work involved but each frame can be stripped back on either side to the original wax base foundation. This sticky mess of wax and honey has to be filtered . There are all sorts of specialist sieves with different gauges and those double-fitted ones that the bee-suppliers provide are very handy, if only because there is more stability when fixed over a honey bucket. You could improvise with kitchen equipment. You’ll need some kind of settling tank with a tap before you finally “jar-up” , if only to allow some control of the flow. The least messy method I’ve arrived at requires a small sheet of muslin cheesecloth about the size of a small towel. I use this to line the double sieve. Then the honey and wax mixture from the scrapings is poured into this “trap”. The honey will find its way through the pores in the cloth and depending entirely on the heat of the room , will flow eventually into a honey bucket underneath. I tie the cheesecloth to form a parcel , cover the lot with a lid or a couple of tea -towels to keep everything clean and leave it overnight.
Any water content or air bubbles in the honey will find their way to the surface by the following day, leaving a little parcel of beeswax in the cheesecloth. After that it’s only a matter of getting that beautiful sweetness into jars. Pop open the gate on the tank and place a jar underneath and watch it flow. You might think that with only a few frames stripped down that there isn’t much in the bottom of that big bucket , but watch as it seems to effortlessly fill jar after jar. Nine jars ! A good little stop- gap. If you have a mind to , you can print up some labels and proudly display your work…or rather , your team’s work .Or just leave it at that .Again you can buy special jars or you can re-use some you might have saved .It all depends on how you want your work to look.
Now , the real work begins. The clean-up. Very few will mention this important part of the operation. The joy of collecting all that lovely honey has an amnesiac effect on the mere fact that there is a few hours cleaning- up afterwards. The first time will be a revelation. You’ll not have covered every surface with enough old newspapers. You’ll think…I only need to cover the area I’m operating in. That’s a big mistake. As sure as little green apples, that lovely sticky stuff will easily escape your imperial command and spread its loveliness everywhere. You’ll step on a tiny drop and discover that last week’s Observer is sticking to your left shoe. You’ll maybe have gotten some of that beautiful beeswax onto the worktop and somehow no amount of scrubbing will easily remove it .
What about that cake of sweet sticky beeswax that ‘s left in the cheesecloth…? Beeswax is expensive stuff and if you can gather enough of it up it can be made into candles or traded for new wax foundation. The honey can be washed out of it and some people will feed it back to their bees or have a go at making alcoholic mead like, Robin Hood’s friend, Friar Tuck. I like to feed the whole lot back to my bees. They can easily work their way through it .If you leave it in an open plastic bag on top of the brood nest , they use the honey up and leave behind the chewed wax like couscous. As for the frames you’ve just scraped off, the bees will clean them up perfectly dry if you put them back on the hive …and hopefully re-build new cells to fill with even more honey.
Remember I said at the very beginning …”cold water”..?
Under no circumstances try to wash all your mess up with hot water. Madness lies there! Most of the honey and wax will respond very well to a cold rinse , but it much easier if you can simply lift all your newspapers and bundle them into your recycling bin. That leaves only your various buckets and sieves to worry about. Believe me that more than enough.Throughout the whole operation, you’ll need to make sure all the windows and doors are shut or your little darlings will be scoping about in an attempt to retrieve their hard -won booty.
Then you can stand back and admire the sunlight shining through the amber loveliness of your jars of tasty swag.