In summer 2021, it was finally time to harvest honey from our beehives for the first time. We prepared for a month in advance, acquiring an extractor and over 100 jars and squeeze bears. Our mentor let us borrow a stack of straining equipment and food-safe buckets with honey gates.
Over a weekend, we brushed bees off frames of honey from 4 hives, scraped off wax cappings, spun honey out of the frames in the extractor, ran the honey through 2 fine strainers, and bottled it in 113 containers. Chris’ mother was visiting and provided much needed support as we waded through the harvest process; this was tough, stressful work.
In the end, we had 260lb of fantastic amber honey with the delightful consistency of hot caramel. Here’s a short video of the process, with longer details below.
Robbing and Extracting
Where do bees keep their honey and how do humans get it? In a Langstroth hive (the hives that look like a stack of boxes), the boxes are filled with free-hanging “frames” where the bees build comb. The bottom, “brood” box is typically where bees raise more bees. The upper boxes are the “honey supers,” where bees spit nectar into comb cells to make honey. After moisture evaporates from honey in the cells, the bees cover the cells with wax cappings, signaling the contents are properly fermented and ready for winter storage – or human consumption.
To get to the honey, we first have to remove the frames from the boxes, then remove the bees from those frames. It’s an intimidating prospect. It’s not called “robbing the bees” because you’re making bees happy; you’re literally stealing food they made to survive the winter. As such, we made sure each colony kept above the minimum of honey they’re said to need for winter.
Honey bee colonies increase in population from winter solstice to summer. By late summer, they begin to decrease their population for the winter. Unfortunately, robbing usually happens when colonies are still big, so there are plenty of bees to usher off the frames. Our mentor suggested a leaf blower aimed through the frames to blow the bees out toward the front of the hive, so they can easily find their way back into the hive as you whisk the honey super away.
When I helped him rob, the blower worked perfectly, but our bees didn’t appear to care about high winds. The blower didn’t budge them. Our bees will leave if smoked, but too much smoke flavors the honey. Some add a compound to honey supers the night before robbing that repels bees so they leave the supers, but that sounded too chemical-ish for our taste. When the blower failed, we turned to the brush method, giving each frame a good, hard shake to remove most of the bees before brushing off the stragglers with an extra soft brush.
The concerns with brushing are that a) it’s time consuming because you work every frame separately and b) it might mangle bees. It looks rough in the video, especially where the footage is sped up, but it’s really a very soft brush. We dropped the bees in front of the hive, and when they wandered back to the entrance, there weren’t dead or struggling bees left behind. There wasn’t a noticeable die-off in the days following either, even though we’d reduced their living space. They seemed surprisingly well adjusted in their crowded digs.
Even hive inspections can occasionally result in enough casualties that I sometimes call this hobby “beekilling.” It seemed a sure thing that stealing their food would kill bees. It was almost unbelievable how well they fared. Another unbelievable fact: we didn’t get stung while robbing. We’ll chalk that up to luck. Whether the weather was right or there was a food source somewhere keeping the bees calm, they weren’t in an angry mood that weekend.
Anyway, after the bees were meticulously removed from each frame, we’d rush it to a sealed box to keep anyone from going back to it. Bees want that honey back, so you have to be mindful of where you store anything with honey on it or it will be covered in bees within minutes. That’s why we extracted the honey indoors.
Extracting is the process of getting honey out of the frames. Some people cut the comb out of the frames to make comb honey. Chris and I decided to try an extractor, an apparatus that spins the honey out of the comb after wax cappings have been scraped off. This preserves the comb for next year’s use as long as critters don’t eat it over the winter, saving next year’s bees some time on comb building. The extractor itself kept catching and had to be jury-rigged, so we ended up returning it but will try again with a different extractor this year. We liked this method.
Honey Color and Quality
We were thrilled about the amount of honey our hives produced and the color of it. Truly, we’d be thrilled with any color honey, but amber honey is sublime. The color may be due to the long poplar flow this year, with flowers opening all the way into May and not much rain to wash it out.
As poplar wrapped up, the bees were all over a blackberry bramble on the upper field, another nectar source for amber-colored honey. Meanwhile, we had no locust nectar flow. Locust honey tends to be lighter, but our locust trees completely skipped blooming in 2021. That was alarming, but locals say they’ve seen this before.
During extraction, as we scraped off the wax cappings, if I wasn’t too busy, I’d grab a sample from each frame. Any exceptional tasting frames would be extracted and bottled separately. The frames were organized by timing: early spring, mid spring, and late spring/early summer, so we could try to connect the timeframe’s nectar sources to flavors.
One frame was packed with honey that looked slightly blue and tasted herbal, with a subtle, surprisingly pleasant bitterness. This may have been from when the bees worked the poison oak near the upper field, or from when they were all over the oregano flowers in the garden. Another frame had the taste of grapes, indicating it could be kudzu honey.
While tasting the honey from a few of the late frames, my tastebuds yelled, sourwood. Caramel and spice with a ginger finish. On a lark, I later paged through a tree book, then combed the forest looking specifically for sourwood trees and found dozens that I previously thought were persimmon or locust trees. Sourwood bark is sort of between those 2.
If we continue to have harvests that taste like this, we’ll invest in pollen-DNA testing to see if our honey qualifies as true sourwood, and to learn what other special sources the bees have been visiting to make the honey this good. Bees have been known to fly 2+ miles to forage, so there could be entire nectar flows on other parts of the mountain we’re not thinking about. For now, rather than labeling and selling the 2021 haul, we’re simply enjoying and sharing the honey with loved ones.
Clean Up and Beeswax
After extracting, it becomes a blessing the bees want their honey back. We set the equipment outside, far away from our front porch. Thousands of bees arrived to scour the honey from every surface, including the big pile of wax cappings and comb accrued during extraction and filtration.
Even the stickiest equipment was bee-clean within 2-3 days, ready to scrub and sterilize and store for the next harvest. Wax cappings and comb can be melted into beeswax. Here’s the video I did on rendering using an easy method shared by our mentor.
Extracting took a solid weekend. Clean up, with the bees’ help, took all the way to the next weekend. It was an intense but rewarding experience, and the house smelled like honey and beeswax for days, which was awesome.