Easy swarm control using polynucs

It’s been a strange ‘swarming season’ in my apiary this year. Most of my colonies haven’t tried to swarm, and the ones that have have been rather half-hearted about the whole business.  One colony started to make queen cells, then changed their minds and tore them all down.  I’ve not seen that before in my own bees.

So far I’ve only had to do swarm control manipulations on four colonies, which is no problem at all now that I have my polynuc method so well-rehearsed that I could do it in my sleep!

Every year as the bees begin swarming preparations, I give thanks to whoever invented the polynuc . . .

Polynucs:  possibly the most useful thing you can buy

New splits in polynucs with 14×12 ekes and a feeder on top

I started beekeeping just eight years ago but I don’t remember polynucs being a feature of my early learning. Perhaps that’s because many of the books I read as a beginner were written before polynucs came into use.

(If you want to learn about polynucs and polyhives, look online e.g. dave-cushman.net)

At any rate, everything I read advised that you need a spare complete hive for every colony that needs an artificial swarm.

This always worried me, because I didn’t have the cash (or the storage) for so much spare equipment.

Polynucs to the rescue

I needn’t have worried though as I was about to be rescued by a polymer (how poetic!). The polynuc has changed the way I approach swarm control, and many other aspects of my beekeeping.

When a colony starts to produce queen cells for swarming, I just grab an empty polynuc and within 10 minutes the situation is dealt with, with no dramas.

It’s as simple as this:

  1. Find the queen and put the frame she is on into the polynuc having checked it thoroughly for swarm cells and destroyed them
  2. Put in two frames of sealed brood that is ready to emerge – check there are no swarm cells on them first (or the bees will swarm just like in a full colony)
  3. Put in a frame of pollen and stores
  4. Put in a frame of empty drawn comb if you have one, or a frame of foundation, or just a dummy board
  5. Shake in a couple of frames of nurse bees from the main colony (to ensure there are enough bees to take care of the queen and brood)
  6. Close and move the polynuc straight to where you want it to sit (close to the parent colony if you think you may want to reunite, but you can move it further than three feet – just remember that the number of bees will be depleted by the flying bees returning to the parent hive).

That’s the first stage of the swarm control manipulation; you then need to deal with all the swarm cells in the parent colony as per usual. (My advice is to choose one unsealed cell, not two (always a contentious subject!), and don’t forget to do a second knock-down of queen cells 4 days later.)

Why this works to stop swarming immediately:

  • The queen has been removed from the main colony, therefore it will not swarm (bees don’t swarm without a queen)
  • The polynuc will not swarm either although the queen is there; obviously you need to keep an eye on it because it will grow rapidly and you may well find queen cells in there in a few week’s time if you don’t give it more space.

Tips:

  • Have your equipment clean and ready, on site.  I stack mine up and leave it there
  • As soon as you see a primed queen cell, go for it!  In my experience this immediate action is crucial to success (I learned very early on that knocking down queen cells is not a method of swarm control!)
  • It’s essential that no swarm cells go into the polynuc so check everything carefully.  It can be a challenge to find every queen cell and I’ve missed queen cells many times . . .
  • Ensure that your queens are marked beforehand, it makes everything faster and easier
  • Having some spare brood comb is a real asset – you can get your bees to work on this for you during the active season, removing and storing the drawn comb for use when needed.

What to do with the colony in the polynuc

The new nuc establishes itself quickly.  Just watch that they don’t run out of food especially during the ‘June gap’.

You may need the nuc if the new queen in the parent colony doesn’t mate successfully – just reunite the two. However very few of the nucs I make up in this way ever get reunited with the parent colony.

I always like to have a half dozen nucs in my apiary because they are just so useful. I use some of them as ‘factories’ to generate all the components that I need for my small-scale apiary such as drawn comb, frames of brood and bees. You can keep them going throughout the season with a bit of delicate management i.e. don’t take too much at any one time. Obviously you have to give them more space to keep them going like this, and I use the handy extensions that you can get.

Try new things in your beekeeping

One of my ‘factory’ nucs using a polynuc extension

Once I learned all the things I could do with polynucs, I started trying more and more new things in my beekeeping.

If a strong colony is building up very quickly, you can remove a couple of frames of brood and a frame of stores and pollen to make up a nuc (splitting the colony). Do you have a spare queen cell that is too nice to waste? Make up a three frame nuc and let the bees raise her. Do you have a spare unmated queen that has just emerged? You can try introducing her to a nuc and see if she mates.

It was all these little experiments in my own apiary that gave me the confidence to start queen rearing. Now, I’ve learned to use three frame nucs as mating nucs because I find they work better for me than apideas and are more suitable to my small scale beekeeping.

I have even just bought some supers for polynucs. When these first became available I laughed at the idea. But now that I’ve learned a little more about how polynucs can really be put to work, I am converted!

So for me, a polynuc is the way to go when dealing with swarming colonies and I hope they prove useful for you too.

Oxalic acid, the varroa mite and me

I’ve just come back from a weekend course at the British Beekeepers Association in Warwickshire. I spent two days in the company of two Master Beekeepers, covering the syllabus for the ‘General Husbandry’ exam which – if I decide to do it this year – will put me through my beekeeping paces.

Exam preparation aside, it was great to pick up so many practical tips from the tutors. Simple but essential things like the right way to pick up queens; how to shake combs with queen cells on them (yes, it is possible) and the right way to give a colony a test comb when you suspect it might be queenless. Plus many more nuggets of information that you only get from beekeepers with a life-time of experience.

Right now I am still thinking about our discussions on the subject of oxalic acid. Having been concerned that I left my oxalic acid treatments too late, I was reminded by the tutors that oxalic acid isn’t just for the broodless periods of Christmas and New Year . . .

Why treat with oxalic acid?

Treating colonies for varroa with oxalic acid sublimation is now pretty standard where I live. When I started beekeeping ten years ago, the norm was to do a ‘trickle’ (or spray) treatment directly over the bees in the cluster during the broodless period roughly between Christmas and New Year.

But then the research done by Professor Ratnieks and his team at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at the University of Sussex demonstrated that it is more effective to sublimate the crystals (vaporise them using heat).

The LASI research said that 2.25g of oxalic acid applied to broodless winter colonies via sublimation killed 97% of the varroa. Furthermore, these colonies then had 20% more brood in spring than those treated via trickle or spraying, or untreated colonies.

Add to this the fact that you don’t need to disturb colonies when you treat with sublimation, and it seems a no-brainer . . .

From the ridiculous to the sublimation

I have a confession: I get put off by the need for extra equipment and by anything that sounds complicated.  And at first the need for car batteries, cables etc. put me off trying sublimation.  Trickle treatments continued to be the norm in my apiary – and there’s nothing wrong with that, they do work in knocking back varroa levels.

However this year a friend offered to lend me a Sublimox vaporiser. This was an opportunity to try a piece of kit that I couldn’t say no to.

Plenty has been written about this device elsewhere.  Suffice to say that it is compact and efficient to work with.  You can hold it in one hand.  The dose of oxalic acid vaporises when it comes into contact with an integrated heated plate.  You simply invert the device and put the ‘spout’ in the hive entrance, and it administers the does quickly and efficiently.

Sublimox ready for use

Using the Sublimox did make the process of treating all my colonies very quick and easy. There was no waiting around for it to heat up. Even I could handle the car battery/power set up. With a long extension cable I could leave the battery and adaptor in my car and run the power down to my apiary without any fuss. It was brilliant.

He’s wearing a safety mask, you just can’t see it in this photo

If you get the opportunity to try this lovely bee toy, be aware that you absolutely must have a proper full-face mask with breathing filter, because when you stand at the hive entrance and administer the vapour, you are bound to come into contact with some of it. This is very important because oxalic acid is highly toxic to humans.

What about the results of the sublimation? I had a hefty mite drop after each treatment, no surprise there. But as I said earlier, I’ve been wondering if it could have been even higher if I’d treated earlier, when there would have been less brood. I assume so.

Oxalic acid: not just for Christmas

Good news . . . oxalic acid treatments are affective at any time the bees are in a broodless state.

This is because oxalic acid acts on the mites that are attached to the adult bees (the mites in the phoretic stage of their lifecycle), rather than the mites in brood. It is thought that the acid burns their mouthparts, causing them to drop off the bees and out of the hive through the open mesh floor.

Phoretic mites on adult bees

So if you’re planning shook swarms, or swarm control that involves separating the queen and flying bees from the brood and nurse bees, it’s a good opportunity to administer another treatment. I think this will make a huge difference to my own management of varroa throughout the year.

A word of caution about using oxalic acid

Interestingly, oxalic acid has been used by beekeepers to reduce varroa levels for years. It is a naturally-occurring organic acid. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t highly dangerous to work with, requiring precautions and care.

Also, unless you use Api-bioxal (see below), the crystals used in sublimation treatments are not an ‘approved medicine’ in the UK for use with honeybees.

This is important to know about, especially if you sell your honey. There is the potential for any treatment to leave a residue in honey or in other hive products intended for human consumption.  Obviously there was no honey on my hives at the time of treatment.

Api-Bioxal, is the only oxalic acid-based treatment that has been approved for use in the UK for trickle or sublimation (if you do use a Sublimox be aware that you can’t use Api-Bioxal in it because it has sugar in it, and it will mess up your lovely new toy).

You can of course buy oxalic acid crystals in the di-hydrate form and use those. I did and they are slightly cheaper. But when you buy your di-hydrate oxalic crystals and notice that it says ‘hive cleaner’ on the packaging, it’s because they aren’t approved for use as a varroa treatment and legally can only be sold for cleaning purposes.

For chapter and verse about licenced treatments search the National Bee Unit website for its leaflet on bee medicines.

And for further information about how to prepare oxalic acid, see The Apiarist’s blog.

Ultimately the choice as to how you treat your bees is yours. But don’t let indecision stop you treating your bees per se. In my opinion, anything we can do to keep varroa levels down without resorting to chemicals is a good thing.

So I’ll definitely be sublimating again. I just hope I can borrow that Sublimox. If not, it may be back to trickling for me!

Winter beekeeping

How many times have you been asked by non-beekeepers whether bees hibernate over winter?  It’s interesting that it’s such a common question.  People are always amazed to learn that the colony doesn’t hibernate or die.

It’s incredible to think that right now, while a winter storm is roaring outside and I’ve turned the heating up, my bees are living in wooden boxes on a freezing field in Surrey!

We all know that our bees have a lot stacked against them in their quest for survival.  Although the main preparations for winter are done in autumn, there are things we can do right now to give our bees a helping hand through winter.

 

Prevent winter starvation

This cluster has starved on the comb

This is one of the most critical threats our bees face over winter.  Starvation happens either through running out of stores generally or through isolation starvation (when the cluster loses contact with stores and dies despite close proximity to food).

Starvation often happens in spring, when the colony is growing rapidly. However don’t wait that long to give them some fondant. I heft hives over winter, but it only makes sense if you’ve done it in autumn too and can make the comparison.

Even when I know there are enough stores, I always give them a block of fondant in early January.  I put it over the feedhole in the crown board where the cluster can find it in the rising heat.  It comforts me to think that if they lose contact with other stores they will probably find the fondant.

I don’t make my own fondant, I buy it.  It’s better.

Remember too that its essential to remove the queen excluder in winter so that the cluster can move freely with the queen.  If you didn’t do it last autumn, pick a relatively warm day and whip it off.  Better late than never.

 

Take action on varroa during winter

Varroa feeding on larvae

What a nightmare varroa is. I have two colonies that, despite shook swarms, drone brood removal and MAQs, still went into winter with high mite drops. And now the problem requires action.

Oxalic acid is the treatment used at this time of year, now most widely done via sublimation (vaporising the crystals). It’s a good time to do it because there is less brood, so the phoretic mites are more easily knocked down.

Like starvation, varroa is something that you can’t take your eye off. I’ve been measuring the mite drop regularly over winter because I don’t want any nasty surprises in spring – I’ve had that before! Also I’d rather deal with the problem in winter while there is a good opportunity.  I’d rather not put varroacides into the growing colony in spring, so better all round to do it now.

The varroa tray is also a very useful way of monitoring where the cluster is, how big it is etc. – the debris on the tray will tell you.

Condensation

Too much condensation is a common winter problem which can be serious. Caused by the heat of the cluster meeting the cold surface of the hive walls or crownboard, condensation drips on the cluster and can kill a small or weak colony. I find it’s a real problem with polynucs.

The answer is simple: TOP INSULATION, BOTTOM VENTILATION. I haven’t looked back since someone helpfully pointed out that I should stop applying Ted Hooper’s methods to my open mesh floor hives!  I once heard a bee inspector describe lack of top insulation as being like leaving the loft hatch open in your house so that all the heat flows out, and the ceilings grow cold.

So I now insulate the crown boards of my wooden hives with those foam quilts (I cut a hole for feeding). Floors are all open mesh for ventilation.  No doubt there are other things you can use.

Polynucs get a piece of thick cardboard cut to size and inserted between crown board and roof.

The bees do use condensation in the hive for digesting winter stores but they really don’t need it dripping on them.

Bee poo:  is it dysentery or nosema?

What a lovely sight

Bees get dysentery from eating fermented stores. Nosema is an adult bee disease caused by a fungal parasite. Both can show up over winter or in early spring and the visual signs are impossible to miss:  squirts of bee poo on the outside of the hive – not just a few, LOTS.  It’s obvious that there is a problem! Usually with nosema there’s also bee poo inside the hive, on the combs, simply because the infection gets that bad.

Nosema is diagnosed using a microscope and looks like lots of tiny grains of rice on the slide.  In the UK, beekeeping associations often hold nosema clinics in the spring for you to have a sample of your bees tested.  This is simple to do and well worthwhile even if you can’t see any visible signs.

There is no licensed treatment for nosema anymore so clean boxes and a comb change are needed in spring, although progress with comb changes tends to be slow because these colonies are weakened. Sometimes re-queening helps with nosema. There’s lots of info online about how to manage this.  Check out the Beebase resources at www.nationalbeeunit.com.

Problems with hive or equipment failure during winter

Hives strapped for winter, with mouse guards and woodpecker netting

By this I mean the damp, leaky hive, the collapsed hive stand, etc. Hopefully you checked the condition of your hives and strapped them down in autumn. If not, you can still do it now. Sometimes replacing a roof is all that’s needed to fix damp. If hives do topple and they are strapped, your bees will probably be alright. Obviously try not to disturb the bees while you are making any necessary adjustments.  I always think that I won’t need a veil when I’m checking hives in winter and the bees always tell me otherwise!

Green woodpeckers, mice and other pests

Continue to check that mouseguards remain firmly on. Strong winds and animals knocking against the hives can cause them to come loose.  Boxes can also be knocked out of alignment.

It’s good to protect your hives with netting, even if you think you don’t have green woodpeckers. They can destroy hives and boxes by pecking through to eat the brood.  The have a very distinct ‘swooping’ flight pattern which is a giveaway even when you can’t see the bird clearly.

When I went to check my apiary last week there was a woodpecker sitting on top of one of my hives. The first time I have seen one in five years on that site!  Off I went to the hardware store for net.

Moving hives in winter

Of course one good thing about winter is that you can move hives within your apiary without recourse to the 3 feet/3 mile rule. But only after there has been a really cold snap for about two weeks and while the bees are still clustered (try not to disturb the cluster).

Those are, to me, the urgent essentials to watch when looking after your winter bees.  I think observational skills are even more important in winter, simply because we can’t get inside the hive to take a look.  I always take a look at how many dead bees are in the pile at the entrance, what debris is on the varroa tray and note any spots of bee poo on the outside.  This takes seconds but helps in maintaining a picture of what might be going on.

Keeping your eye on a few important things can make the difference between survival and colony loss.

Happy winter beekeeping!

 

Is Thomas D. Seeley the Stephen Hawking of the bee universe?

Today was day one of the National Honey Show here in Southeast England and it definitely delivered. I arrived early, found a seat in the lecture theatre and pretty much camped out all day. There were some good talks, but for me the highlights were the lectures by experts from the US and Canada.

The day began with a lecture by Tom Seeley. This was the first time that I had heard him speak in person. I should say that he is a hero of mine, not just because he is a truly great ‘bee scientist’, but because he clearly loves bees for the amazing and fascinating creatures that they are and he is brilliant at communicating this to ordinary beekeepers like me – whether through his books or in person. He is inspiring.

The title of his talk was ‘The Bee Colony as a Honey Factory’. This was not a talk about how to harvest more honey! Instead the emphasis was, as it always is with Tom Seeley, about the bees and their behaviour, in this case how they divide and regulate labour for efficient honey production, mobilising more foragers and also more bees to process and store food when there is a nectar flow.

Using video clips he showed us how the bees use dances to recruit help where needed: the waggle dance to recruit more foragers, shaking signals to wake up sleeping bees (yes, bees do sleep!) and tremble dances to recruit more bees to process incoming nectar.

And there are also the beep signals (like head butting with a buzzing squeak!) which bees inflict on waggle dancers to get them to stop, at times when the colony is already working at full capacity and doesn’t need more nectar.

His lecture gave us layer upon layer of insight and no doubt left many of us pondering yet again how a small creatures with tiny brains can gather and manage information within the hive to organise and direct a workforce of thousands.

I feel like I was given a glimpse into the incredible wonders and possibilities of the ‘bee universe’! I know that my bees are capable of mysterious and wonderful things, but to be shown the depth of possibilities was awe-inspiring!

In short, listening to Tom Seeley today was an absolute pleasure. He gave his talk with excellent awareness of his audience and talked about the bees in such a happy and affectionate way that it’s impossible not to feel good just by being there.

(Blissful sigh.)

There were some other great speakers too:

Ohio-based Kim Flottum gave a light-hearted but very interesting talk about drones, a subject to which we should all pay more attention (and I include myself in that!).  He showed us why drones are ‘special in so many ways’.

So often overlooked, they are of course central to the survival of our bees. As well as being a ‘gene transfer mechanism’, they are an important indicator of colony health and nutritional status.

He spoke about the need to make sure that queens mate with drones that are good genetic stock and how he has moved his bee yard close to particular drone congregation areas in order to facilitate this. He advised us to look for a combination of horizon, tree line and open area when seeking to locate our local drone congregation area.

When it comes to managing varroa, he recommended drone brood removal as an effective method of keeping the varroa population down. He has a weekly cycle of adding empty drone combs/foundation and removing sealed drone combs but warned that this must be done on a fastidious timetable before the brood hatches, or else we are just creating ‘varroa incubators’ (this is how he manages honey production hives; drone brood isn’t removed from mating hives obviously).

The last lecture of the day was given by Heather Mattila from Wellesley College. The title was “Hard Working Bees Need Pollen”. Heather’s research has shown how ‘pollen stress’ on larvae affects the performance of adult bees.

When pollen is in short supply, colonies respond by decreasing brood rearing at first, then, as the shortage progresses, by reducing the number of feeding visits that nurse bees make to larvae and by early capping of larvae.  When the shortage becomes severe, bees will cannibalise larvae rather than try to feed them.

Bees that have been deprived of pollen as larvae are smaller, lighter and have a shorter life span. Interestingly, they do less foraging and are twice as likely to disappear while foraging. They also have limited hypopharyngeal gland development, and feed larvae less food, less frequently.  And their dances are less precise.

A good supply of pollen is vital for the health of our bees, given that it provides almost all of a colony’s nutrients.  Pollen that is stored properly in cells in the hive (processed, packed into a cell and sealed with honey) has a relatively stable nutritive value. We should make sure our colonies have plenty of it for overwintering, as pollen substitutes aren’t as good as the real thing.

Each of these speakers is giving further talks at the Honey Show over the next two days, including Tom Seeley, so head on down to Esher for some inspiration.

Taking the Basic

The BBKA Basic

Is a rainstorm the best time to take a beekeeping test?

I like the wet thump of a juicy raindrop smashing into a pane of glass. Rain is natures percussionist. An afternoon in the living room listening to a performance played on my window is time well spent, add coffee and cake it’s perfect.  Rainy days, I love. Unless I’m taking the assessment for the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) Basic, which I am. Bugger.

Reading University says it’s the third wettest July since 1941. I don’t know that trudging muddy allotment path humming ‘rain rain go away’. An unlucky hive is going to be opened by me. Unlucky for the bees because bees don’t like being wet. Unlucky for me, about to put my hands in a box of 50,000 grumpy wet bees. I’m sure there are other things I could be doing on a Saturday afternoon than beekeeping the rain. I’ve been coaxed into taking the basic by my beekeeping friends. Beekeeper peer pressure is a powerful force, that’s why we lie about regular varroa checks, and it has landed me here.

But I’m in good company. The BBKA began providing formal qualifications for beekeepers shortly after it was founded in 1874. The adoption of moveable frames allowing a more standardised approach to the craft. The basic assessment I’m taking today is the very first qualification in a comprehensive system and has been taken by thousands of beekeepers before me. I’m here to prove I understand the basics of keeping bees.

The basic is gateway drug into the BBKA educational system. If I want to take another course I have to pass this assessment first, then I’m on my way to the coveted Master Beekeeper qualification; well maybe not it sounds hard work. The basic tests my knowledge and skill in the fundamentals of the beekeeping craft: equipment, handling and keeping them healthy. The assessment is practical exam – no papers – just me, bees,  the assessor and his clipboard.

Tracey, my podcasting co-host and tutor hands me a cup of tea then apologises for the weather – a very British habit. We chat about the day so far and how her other students have coped with both the assessment and the conditions. She has resorted to holding a large umbrella over the hives during the assessments hoping to keep both bees and humans dry.

I’m the last candidate of the day and my assessor is standing under the gazebo erected by the association apiary team. BBKA examiners have common traits. They want you to past, are helpful, have decades of experience, but, have a steely core forged in the heat of thousands of bumbling candidates that have come before me. He suggested we complete the oral part of the test first in the hope we’ll catch a break in the rain.

The basic has both practical and oral elements. The oral test is a series of questions ranging from hive types to the diseases bees may suffer from. Confidence is important when answering the questions. I start to answer a question about swarm control by saying – some people may .. my examiner quickly interjects – no Paul I want to know what you do, not other people. If you are taking the basic next year, keep this in mind.

I breeze through the questions, the evenings spent in the study group lead by Tracey pays off. I remember the life cycle of the different casts of bee, how to spot the most common of diseases, what jobs need to be done through the beekeeping year and how to extract honey. Making a frame is one of the practical skills I needed to demonstrate and just as I hand my completed frame to my assessor the rains slow to a mild drizzle – time to crack open a hive.

When you inspect your own hives there is a certainty to what you will find after you remove the hive roof. Opening someone else’s hives is like opening a birthday present from the serious aunt when I was a kid. I hoped it would be fun, but ultimately was disappointed after tearing the corner to realise its another education book. Walking towards my nominated hive I eyed it with the same mixture of hope and suspicion.

My lucky dip hive I has two brood boxes separated by either a crown board or queen excluder. I removed the roof and placed it upside down on the floor where it would provide a handy platform to store the other hive parts. On the crown board is a simple record card. The bees are a recently hived swarm, this is good news as newly hive swarms with a laying queen – in my experience – are easy to inspect. All the time through this process I’m explaining to the assessor what I’m thinking and doing. Being very verbal seems a good idea, he asks me some questions about the parts of the hive, what I notice about the bees coming and going from the hive entrance.  I crack the crown board, as I lift it there is a problem.

Fresh wild comb is beautiful, it smells lovely and has that sunset yellow colour.  The top broad box has no frames and the bees dutifully built five perfect combs from the roof. I’m rather pleased with myself manoeuvring the comb and laying the crown board on the roof with no damage to the wax.

Throughout the inspection the assessor asks me questions:  can you see the Queen, what’s in the cell, what is that, where are the stores. All stuff you should be thinking about when inspecting. The rain was holding off and it is going when, he points to a hole in a cell capping and asks – what’s that?

Erm … err….. erm …… that’s me bemused. I’ve seen them before and never considered the tiny holes you see at the top of the capping. Ding! My brain snaps into shape, the bees are capping the cell. And with that answer the assessment is over. After our goodbyes my examiner went home, leaving me to hang around with the association members who’d kindly given up their free time to set up the apiary for our assessments.

If you’ve been keeping bees in the UK for over a year and are a member of the BBKA I would recommend taking the basic it. Your association will run a study group and I found that it crystallised all the things I’m meant to do throughout the beekeeping and when I carry out hive checks, but, sometimes don’t.

Don’t let the practical assessment dissuade you from trying – you’ll be fine.

 

More information regarding BBKA educational programs can be found here: https://www.bbka.org.uk/learn/examinations__assessments

Tips for a hassle-free honey extraction

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.

A leaking honey gate caused by the tap being fitted wrongly:  the smooth side should be inside.

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.

A tank of honey after settling with a white froth of air bubbles on top

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!