It's been a busy summer here at Flannel Jammies Farm: keeping bees, gardening, composting, working, canning, dehydrating, entertaining, teaching, volunteering... not to mention working on wedding plans with our daughter (but that's another post for another day)! Lots of to-doings. In the midst of this activity the time came to extract honey from our hives.
We are second-year beekeepers. During the first year, we did not extract any honey, choosing instead to leave all the honey on the hives as food for the bees through their first winter. This second Spring, we planned to take only excess honey, above and beyond what the bees' food, from the two hives that made it through the last winter. We'd never done it before, only watched and assisted in the process with other beekeepers, but it was time to jump in on July 4th.
First, let me tell you: honey is sticky stuff. And it tends to get everywhere. It's impossible to extract outside; bees will immediately join the party to enjoy the open stores of honey! We don't have a convenient honey house or garage, so our extraction process would be taking place inside the home, in our kitchen. I tend to unintentionally make the most glorious messes, flinging anything liquid into the most far-fetched places, so I knew that precautions must be made. We covered the items on our walls with a great product combining painters' tape and plastic sheeting. We covered the large farmhouse table with more plastic, and put a tarp on the floor to cover the tile.
Back outside, we peeked into the two chosen hives, determining that the top hive boxes had many frames of capped honey. Bees bring lots of nectar from flowers back to the hives during the blooming season, or nectar flow, and store the nectar in the hexagon cells of the honeycomb. When the bees have dehydrated the stored flower nectar to honey of just the right moisture content, they cover the honey with a thin coating of wax, forming "capped honey". Uncapped stores may contain too much moisture. If uncapped honey is extracted, it could ferment in the jar... not pleasant!
How do you get busy bee girls to leave the frames of capped honey and allow you to whisk them away for extraction? Glad you asked! We created a fume board by covering a piece of cut-to-size corrugated plastic with flannel scraps (it IS Flannel Jammies Farm, after all), securing the fabric in place, and attaching the fume board to an extra wooden inner cover for the hive. We then sprayed the flannel on the fume board with a product that would repel the bees without harming them, causing them to retreat from the frames of honey in the top hive box into the depths of the lower boxes below. The sprayed fume board was placed on top of the hive and we waited several minutes. When Tom returned and lifted the fume board, the top box of the hive had been vacated!
He loaded the top box into the plastic lined wheelbarrow and headed for the house. Heavy frames filled with capped honey were pulled from the hive box and brought inside. Any stray bees were encouraged to stay outside with their sisters.
Once inside, each frame was set in a large dish and a special sharp-toothed tool was used to uncap the cells filled with liquid gold! As the thin, wax caps were removed from the honey, it dripped down, sweet and thick and delicious into the dish below. Wax cappings were set aside for melting later, destined to become salves and balms and candles and such. Once all the cells were uncapped on both sides of the frame, the frame was place into the extractor.
We borrowed a manual extractor with a hand crank. There are power models out there, but for our small honey operation the hand-cranked extractor worked perfectly. We looked twice to be sure the honey gate was closed before beginning. Frames are placed in this extractor vertically, into metal guides to keep them in place during the process. When two frames were in place, we closed the lid, placed a honey bucket (with straining basket in place) below the honey gate of the extractor, and opened the honey gate.
The process was repeated throughout the afternoon. After filling the buckets and weighing the honey (a total of 76 pounds this season), we filled jars and jars with the amber treasure of honey. We returned the emptied frames to their hive boxes and placed them back onto the hives, allowing the bees to clean the honeycomb, enjoy a feast from the remaining film of honey, and reuse the comb for future brood or stores.
It was quite a day of work, but the reward was SO worth it! Our larder is stocked with half-gallon jars of honey to be used as sweetener throughout the year and with smaller jars to be given as gifts from us and from our bees.
My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste.