It’s the time of year that we all love . . . Whether honey is a motivation for your beekeeping or not, it’s always exciting to see those shining jars full of beautiful honey from YOUR bees. Talk about job satisfaction!
And yet a new beekeeper said to me the other day that they are ‘dreading’ their first honey extraction because they have read about how messy and disruptive it is.
There is a lot of advice written on the subject of honey extraction, ranging from the melodramatic (e.g. ‘it’s a nightmare, you’ll get honey all over your house, cat etc.’) to the overly-fussy and uptight (e.g. you can only do it with expensive kit and a specialised tool for every task).
To me the most important rule of honey extraction is: don’t mess up what the bees have perfected! They seal the honey in a pristine state and we come along and uncap it, and expose it to all kinds of spoilage risks. Our extraction methods should be designed to give the honey the best chance of staying as the bees intended!
Here are a few tips that I’ve learned through trial and error over the years.
Clearing supers: Porter bee escapes take at least 24 hours to clear supers (meaning two trips to the apiary to bring your supers home) and in my experience they can’t be relied on to clear supers completely. They also tend to break or get propolised by the bees. This year I have used Bee Quick as it clears supers almost instantly on warm days and avoids repeat trips to the apiary. It’s pretty much faff-free and that suits me!
Is it ok to extract unsealed cells?: you can extract unsealed cells as long as you check that the moisture content is not too high. You can use a refractometer to do this (they are easy to use and you can now find them relatively cheaply now) and also do the ‘shake test’ (shake the horizontal face of the comb downwards to see if any drops of watery nectar fly out). I prefer combs to be at least 70% sealed before I extract them. Remember that honey with too much water will spoil through fermentation. Honey from different floral sources can have different water contents so make sure you know what is right for yours. I know that 19% water is too much for my lavender honey to last more than 12 months (but luckily it’s never around that long).
Transporting and storing supers: remember to keep your supers and frames in clean conditions prior to extraction – don’t lay them on the ground or put them in the dirty boot of your car. This is food we’re talking about! And when you bring them home, keep them in a dry and odour-free place until you extract them which should be within 24 hours. Honey is hygroscopic (absorbs water) and can also absorb odours, which could ruin your whole extraction.
Honey extractors: the only expensive piece of equipment I use is a nine frame electric extractor which is worth its weight in gold. Every year I rent it from my local beekeeping association and it has transformed the extraction process in my house. It’s so easy to use and much more efficient at extracting every drop from the comb. Having said that, when I had just a few supers to extract my four frame manual extractor served me just fine and I still have it safely stored away. Whatever extractor you choose to suit your needs, I think this is one piece of equipment that is worth investing in.
Uncapping tools: one thing I will never use is one of those uncapping knives with the wavy edge. I bought one and used it for about 5 mins. It just seems to mash the comb. I much prefer a thinner, flexible blade. I have an old-fashioned, serrated bread knife and a carving knife which, when sharpened, does a brilliant job at getting just under the cappings and removing them in one piece. After all, you want the honey to go into the extractor, not to spill all over the uncapping tray. There are of course quicker ways to uncap. I have never tried an uncapping roller but I have seen them used and they are very speedy and efficient. Hot air guns of the paint stripper type are fine as long as you use them lightly and fast – or else they char the honey and can even cause damage to the comb.
Uncapping trays: this is where I get really low tech! You know how you sometimes get attached to a favourite thing that is old but does the job so well that you can’t find a replacement? Well, mine is a 10 year old serving tray from Ikea, with a cheesecake recipe printed on it! . . . and it is the perfect size and hygienic and just the thing for me. I once borrowed a steam-heated uncapping tray which was very efficient but it was huge, very hot and the steam peeled the paint from the ceiling of my kitchen. And it’s a very bad idea to have steam in the extraction room because honey will absorb moisture.
Tips for your extraction room: whether it’s your kitchen or another facility, your extraction room should be scrupulously clean – especially surfaces and floor. Please do remove the dog’s bed and the cat ‘s litter tray!!!!! It helps a lot to declutter surfaces and tidy everything away. The room also needs to be ‘bee tight’ i.e. keep windows and doors closed during extraction or you’ll have every bee from miles around trying to get in. It’s a good thing to keep the extraction room warm because honey ‘runs’ better when it’s warm and you’ll get a better yield. Put the oven on if necessary and put the extractor in front of it.
‘Operator Hygiene’: contrary to how this sounds, it’s not anything to do with surgery but is actually about food hygiene practices. I’m not going to go on a rant here but it should be common sense to stop your hair falling into the honey, or cigarette ash, or to not wear a fluffy woollen jumper while extracting or leave a basket of dirty laundry by the extractor! However you’d be surprised what some people think is ok. Whether you are selling your honey or giving it away, present it to the highest standards. It pays to be fastidious especially when dealing with a beautiful product.
Keep honey and water well apart: one of the most important things to remember is to keep water away from your honey. Obviously honey does naturally contain moisture but the bees manage it to ensure fermentation doesn’t take place. As soon as we remove the cappings the honey is vulnerable to absorbing too much moisture and drops of water or steam from the extracting room can spoil the whole extraction. I’t’s very easy to splash water into the extractor if its near the sink so put it elsewhere if you have room. You also have to be very careful when washing your hands – dry them properly before touching anything.
How to prevent stickiness: this really isn’t a problem or even an inconvenience. I simply start off with a clean, washed floor and lay down a sheet of newspaper on every drop of honey that falls. The newspaper can be scooped up and recycled when the extraction is over. I find that normal surface spray quickly dissolves blobs of honey on worktops, cupboard doors, doorhandles, taps etc. If you don’t like sticky hands or arms, wear disposable food gloves that fit (not ones that twist around because they’re too large) and a long-sleeved shirt.
What to do with the cappings?: if you don’t want to deal with cappings, there are methods of uncapping that deal with them for you e.g. hot air guns which melt them. I do however like to have some cappings left over. I filter mine over a bowl overnight, covered with clingfilm. I then strain this honey a second time into the main ripening tank before bottling. Some people spin cappings in muslin bags in the extractor but I’ve never tried this. It seems like a good idea. Remember that you can make mead from the water that you use when washing your extractor afterwards. You can also make it from water that you’ve use to wash the cappings. I haven’t made mead but I love the idea of nothing going to waste.
Be warned – honey is silent!! : just when you’re enjoying the sight of your hard-earned honey flowing into the filter, you turn your back for what you think is a second only to find honey overflowing down the sides of the tank and onto the floor without you hearing it. Unlike water, it doesn’t make a sound. The key moments of risk are when you have opened the tap to run honey into the wire mesh filter. It fills up very quickly especially if there is wax debris blocking the drainage; it can also happen when jarring. Don’t take your eyes off it!
Leaking honey gates: this is quite common so always test the seals before you use the equipment for the first time each year. If your honey gate is leaking it could be one of a few things. Have you taken the gate off to wash it? Make sure you put it back on the right way. The smooth side of the gate must face inwards and the grid side must face outwards. Make sure the seals are in good condition and are securely in place. Sometimes as they get older they sag and stretch, so you won’t get a good seal. Spare rubber rings should be supplied with any tap you buy but if not you can get them online.
Settling honey: I leave the filtered honey to ‘ripen’ for 24 hours before skimming it and running it directly into jars. Honey is vulnerable to moisture and odours while it’s settling. Now is definitely not the time to fry up some bacon! With my tank I find that if I push the lid on too firmly it’s hard to get it off again (in fact I think they used to have a label that warned they may break). So I sit the lid on top and drape a couple of clean tea towels over.
Once you get it all into the ripening tank you are just 24 hours away from some beautiful jars of honey. More on the jarring process soon . . . as that’s another story.
Wishing you a sweet and successful extraction!