Even though this is our third year of beekeeping, recurrent problems with disappearing queens have meant that we’ve yet to get used to honey harvesting on any significant scale.
Last year our bees at our ‘out-apiary’ (i.e. away from our home) surprised us with a late batch of ivy honey. This had solidified in the comb, meaning that we had to melt all the wax to extract the honey.
Nonetheless, our excitement at harvesting our first honey from our bees meant that we were more than happy to overlook the messy and laborious task necessary to extract it.
This year we hoped it would be different and our hopes were raised early in the year when our out-apiary bees starting whacking in the honey as early as April. It was to be short-lived.
Hoping to extract lots of frames of honey, we brought a box of empties (front) with us. They weren't needed!.
Probably because we kept splitting the colony in order to (unsuccessfully) create new colonies, honey production dropped. So much so that when we went back in August we found that there was very little surplus.
This was a bit of a blow, as our other hive – in our back garden – had produced so little honey throughout the year we wondered if the bees had read their Job Descriptions properly!
But all was not lost: in a surprise twist, we opened our garden hive to find several frames of capped honey!
This was a relief in more ways than one because, for some strange masochistic reason, we were determined to enter this year’s Cambridgeshire Honey Show. And the deadline for entries was only three days away! (And I tell people I find beekeeping relaxing!)
A pleasant surprise from our backyard bees.
Anyway, because of our backyard bees little gift we hastily borrowed extraction equipment from the Cambridgeshire Beekeeping Association and got to work.
The equipment: the extractor (on floor), the settling tank (on bench), the uncapping tray (next to settling tank) and honeycomb stacked behind.
And that’s where the fun really began. The equipment needs to be as sterile as possible. The fact that it is borrowed by various members throughout the season – some more conscientious than others when it comes to cleaning – merely reinforces the need for a good scrub.
Dismantling, cleaning, then reassembling all the equipment is one of my least favourite jobs in beekeeping. Nonetheless, it is a necessity and, once it’s done, the real work can get underway.
The real work, in this case, is what I call the fun part of extracting. It begins with the uncapping: in practice this means removing the wax seal the bees have put over every honey-filled cell. They do this to prevent any moisture getting in, since this would not only water down the honey but also make it a perfect breeding environment for all sorts of nasty bacteria.
The bees spend many of their non-flying hours furiously flapping their wings to create a through-draught in the hive to remove excess water from the honey. So little wonder that they want to keep that water out (and also little wonder that worker bees only live for six weeks: a life of flying during the day and wing-flapping all night clearly takes its toll).
And so our first act of extraction was to undo their work by carefully cutting off the wax caps over the heated uncapping tray. Doing it this way ensures that the wax that falls off is melted, separated from any honey that also comes out, and collected for re-use.
It’s a slow process since we try to strike a balance between not cutting out too much honey and not cutting off any of our fingers (wouldn’t do anything for the flavour of the honey!) It also gives us an idea of the goodies to come as it exposes an oozing bed of yummy honey.
Try keeping your fingers out of this lovely lot (although the sharp knife is a bit of a deterrent!)
Once the honey is exposed – and before it all runs out onto the uncapping tray – we loaded it into the extractor. This looks a little like a hand-operated spin dryer and, in our case, is made largely of plastic and manually operated. Whilst it is possible to get electric, stainless steel versions these are more expensive (and, I’m guessing, more difficult to clean in terms of access to all the nooks and crannies).
Loading the frames into the extractor.
Anyway, the plastic version did the job for us – even though we need to have a regular sit-down after regular bursts of frantic handle-turning!
We’re not sure if there’s a recommended time for spinning the frames of honeycomb; in our case it comes down to the level of energy we can expend. From that you can safely assume that spinning time is not that long!
In fact, after a series of strenuous turning sessions we then left the whole thing overnight. Our hope was that the honey would have been sufficiently dislodged to surrender to the forces of gravity and ooze gracefully to the bottom of the extractor.
And it was! When we looked the next day there was a significant quantity of honey (well, by our standards anyway) in the bottom of the tank.
The photo to the left doesn’t really show the honey that well but, from our perspective, it was a truly abundant harvest. And it was also the first time we had managed to extract honey from the honeycomb without actually destroying the honeycomb in the process.
And so we did the first of our little happy dances. Then things became even more exciting as we moved ever closer to acquiring our precious new crop. The next stage was to run the honey through a sieve into the settling tank in order to remove the larger bits of debris, such as wax cappings and assorted bee parts.
The sight of so much honey in flow filled my heart with joy! It’s really quite an extraordinary experience to open up a valve and watch masses of golden honey flow out – especially when you know it was previously locked up in hundreds of tiny little cells.
Suddenly the expense and frustrations over the past three years are all forgotten as we finally see some really tangible results.
As it happens, the settling tank we borrowed had some lines drawn on the side, indicating the amount of honey within. We watched nervously as it struggled to reach the five pounds line. Then we breathed a brief sigh of relief as it passed that – and watched nervously as it progressed slowly to the ten pounds mark.
Just after it reached the ten pounds line we did everything we could to increase the output: the extractor was tipped over to an increasingly horizontal position and when that strategy began to fail we ended up literally scraping the barrel with a plastic spatula. In the end the honey stopped just below 15 pounds. By our reckoning, taking into account all the expenditure to date, that worked out at about 50 English pounds a jar!
Not that it really mattered. At this stage we were happy in the knowledge that we wouldn’t need to buy any honey for a long while and we had something to put into the Honey Show too!
And we took one step closer to that goal when we poured the honey out of the settling tank, through another filter and into the jars.
Of course we spent many nervous hours repeatedly inspecting the jars for any sign of the tiniest speck in the honey as well as waiting impatiently for all the little air bubbles to clear. Competitive honey-showing can be a stressful event – especially considering there’s no real prize at the end of it.
Honey in jars, honey in plastic containers...and lots of cleaning up to do!
But we were there. We were players! We’d amassed our product. And, as we lined up our various containers of home-grown honey one other fact became apparent – there was an awful lot of washing up to do!
And not just any old washing up; sticky, waxy washing up. Washing up that required you to get your head and arms right into honey-covered drums. So that when the honey came off the side of the drums, it attached itself to you (and, subsequently, the kitchen cupboards and benches and door handles and towels and taps…).
And the wax merely detached itself when hot water was applied and re-attached itself to another surface. For several days much of our home was sticky!
But, stickiness notwithstanding, we were ready for the Honey Show!
The Cambridgeshire Beekeepers Association Honey Show
It’s an annual event. There are no really big prizes. A few trophies for some of the classes but, overall, a fairly low-key, low pressure event. Or so we thought until we got there!
We had been advised to go early in the day in order to hear the judges comments as he inspected the entrants. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We thought they’d spend a minute or so on each entry then move on. Not so!
The pressure is on as the judges closely scrutinise the entries
When we walked into the Show tent the judges were in deep and intense discussion. The focus of their attention was, of course, a jar of honey. It was picked up, scrutinised from every angle, opened and tasted. then just when you thought the examination was finished, a flashlight was procured from somewhere and the jar held up against it to check for impurities and clarity.
Then more intense discussion, head-nodding and scribbling of notes. And that was just for one jar!
But it was enough to send me into a panic! All sorts of worries flooded my mind; what if they found a previously unnoticed air bubble in my honey – or something even worse. I left the tent vowing to come back half an hour later when it would all be over.
And I came back half an hour later – and they’d barely moved along the bench! So I left again and came back another half hour later. And another. And another…
That's my honey he's got his hands on!
At one point I returned to find them standing right in front of one of my honey jars. They didn’t know it was mine, since all identifying labels had been covered up. But I did!
I still don’t know why I found this spectacle so anxiety provoking. There was nothing at stake – money, my reputation, a job. But I left promptly anyway.
After about three hours I was beginning to become a bit obsessed; popping my head in the tent every so often then making a quick exit. Goodness knows what the people on the stalls made of it.
But eventually the judges finished – or went for lunch, I was never quite certain. And I returned to the site of my honey jar in the hope of a tell-tale sign. But there was nothing. And, of course, I told myself it was unlikely anyway, since this was my first time in the Show and I was up against far more experienced beekeepers than myself. So I made to leave.
But as I passed the end of the table, I saw a little red card. And it said “First Prize: Colin Clews”. I – or more precisely, my bees – had won First Prize for ‘Taste and Aroma’. We had the tastiest honey in the Show!
No prize other than a rosette - but I'm really happy!
It took a while to sink in but I have to say it’s not just my bees that have been buzzing ever since!
Sugar for my honeys!
And just to reward them for their efforts, I came home and gave them a celebratory dusting of icing sugar.
They obviously didn’t know what was going on (nor did many of them seem to appreciate the gesture – my fingers are still swollen from the stings!) but it only seemed fair to recognise their crucial role.
Now, how am I going to win it next year…?