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Harvesting the honey

Honey is one of the few foods that will never decay. Honey thousands of years old has been found in the Egyptian pyramids buried with the kings.

How bees make honey is not as pleasant as it tastes. But when you bite into toast covered in your own honey, you will know your efforts have paid off.

A worker bee will visit a flower and using its long tongue will drink nectar filling its stomach. When the bee’s stomach is full the bee has almost doubled its weight.  Returning to the hive the bee will transfer the nectar to a hive bee by regurgitating it into the waiting bees mouth. This nectar is then transferred to several bees through the hive.

Chemicals in the bees mouth change the complex sugars of the nectar in to simple sugar which the bee’s find easier to digest. This nectar is then deposited into the waxy hexagon shaped cells. The nectar is still very runny at this stage so the bees fan the liquid with their wings to evaporate excess water. The resulting concentrated liquid becomes honey, which is then capped with a layer of beeswax and stored until required by the hive. This is normally in winter when flowers are not producing nectar.

So basically that stuff you have on toast each morning is regurgitated, chewed, spat out, wing-dried excrement stored in a container made from insect bodies, harvested  from thousands of insects running all over your honey with tiny hooked feet and hairy bodies! Gosh, but isn’t it yummy!

Honey is one of the few foods that will never decay. Thousand year old  honey has been found in the Egyptian pyramids buried with the kings.

To harvest honey from a top bar hive you require your bee brush or large feather, a long knife, your bee suit, a large lidded bucket and a smoker if you wish. Gently open  up one end of the hive. The bees will store excess honey at either end of the hive. The brood will be in the middle around the entry holes.  Carefully slide the knife upwards along each side of the hive to cut any comb which may be attached to the side of the hive. Lever the knife under the top bar to break away any propolis seal and then gentle lift the top bar  straight up and out.

Photo by Don Hankins via Flickr

It is very important to always hold the bar so the comb is vertical to the ground. If you swing horizontally it can easily break away from the bar. What you are looking for is a bar full of capped honey. It should look white. If you can see new comb or comb filled with nectar but not yet capped return it to the hive for a little longer. Remember to replace in the same order.

To harvest, gently brush the bees off so they land either inside the hive or in front of the hive and then quickly cut the honey off the top bar, leaving about 3cm of comb along the top bar. Replace the bar on the outside of the other bars. The bees will eat the remaining honey and start rebuilding the comb. Place the honey inside the lidded bucket to prevent the bees from trying to get it back. It is a good idea to do this in the morning around 10am. At this time most of the forager bees are out and about, but it is cool enough for the combs to be firm and the honey is not as runny as in the middle of a hot day. It can be a sticky process never the less.

Back in the kitchen with the doors and windows closed to prevent bees from following you, you can bottle the honey. I will often cut up some of the honeycomb and place in a glass jar and then cover with runny honey. To extract the honey from the comb place it all in a large bowl and crush comb with a potato masher then strain through sieve into bowl. The filtered honey can then be bottled. A warm day is best for this as it helps the honey flow faster. As the honey is not heated it retains all of its important vitamins and minerals so is the best honey to consume. You will notice different shades and tastes to your honey as the season progresses depending on what your bees are feasting on in the garden.

Save the precious wax. Use it to make creams, candles or furniture polish.

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