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“How to Harvest Honey”

A little while ago, my dad and I harvested the honey at Tulipwood. My dad has been mastering the art of beekeeping for quite some time now. He had bees when he lived at Tulipwood as a boy and began again later in life. We learned some good lessons about honey harvesting this year that I thought I’d share in addition to showing you how we do it. It’s fun times.

Bees are among the most complex societies in nature and I’m continually amazed at how intelligent they are. Those that do the daily work are all female and they are called “worker bees.” They only live for about 30 days because they literally work themselves to death while furthering their kingdom, creating new bees, protecting the queen bee, and making honey. And they organize themselves in a meticulous fashion, and assign roles to each bee. There is everything from cell cleaning bees, nurse bees, wax production bees, honey capping bees, drone feeding bees, queen attendants, pollen packers, mortuary bees, fanning bees, guard bees, water carriers, and foraging bees.

It is a nice idea to have a wheelbarrow to transport your gear around when harvesting the honey. And a bee suit. The bees we have are very gentle but they aren’t thrilled when you rob them of their honey so you want protection.

Except I didn’t follow my own advice and things got interesting… more on that in a minute.

My dad uses this old shed that his grandfather built as his beekeeping workshop. Those are various bee frames on the shelves, along with buckets and sprays and smokers of sorts.

Most of the hives are in one area. He has some smaller hives that he’s been starting elsewhere on the land but these are the oldest and strongest.

He starts by puffing smoke around them with this little contraption called a bee smoker. It forces them to go further down into the hive where the queen lives and protect her because they think there’s a forest fire of sorts going on.

 

This is a spray we use that smells a bit like almond extract.

The bees don’t like it much either. But it’s harmless, I think they just don’t like the smell. So another way to get them to go below the honey area in their hive is to spray it on the lid of the frames and put the lid on and walk away for 10 minutes.

Usually when you return there are fewer bees.

Hopefully.

Then you do your best. And that’s what the bee suit is for.

Then you take the frames off that are the honey frames. They are on the top.

Check them to see what the honey situation looks like. This is a great one here. You can tell because all of the wax cells have been capped with that white looking wax, which means they were filled with honey and sealed. It is also bulging out which means there is lot of honey in there.

This one isn’t as good. They haven’t filled most of the cells and they’ve randomly started laying eggs in these cells. That’s what those little balls are. This one you can put back and let them finish filling.

Some of the chickens came over to inspect the situation.

Do did Charlie. Charlie is always looking for action. He often looks forlorn in photographs but is really quite the optimist.

And now is when I share hard won lesson #1: Don’t get honey in your hair while you are robbing the bees.

I was so busy taking photos without a bee suit and somehow, in the process got honey in my hair. Have you ever seen what happens when you leave something sweet out on your table on a warm summer afternoon?

A bee got in my hair and tried to harvest the honey.

And the honey had my hair all matted.

And the bee got stuck and was buzzing loudly very close to my ear.

And so at that point I ran screaming around the lawn and Charlie thought it was a game and started jumping up and biting my ankles as I rolled around on the grass and the bee got louder and louder until I was sure it was in my ear.

And I continued to roll around on the grass and scream and Charlie continued to bite my ankles and jump on me and the bee started really freaking out because it was stuck and I couldn’t really find the bee with my hands and so I just kept yelling until, somehow, the bee freed itself and flew away as fast as it could. Then Charlie started chasing it and tried to eat it.

I just stayed splayed out on the lawn. With matted hair and a crazed look in my eyes. And battered ankles.

My dad in the meantime, took his bee suit off and proceeded with business as usual.

This is the honey extractor we used. Hard won lesson #2: Use an electric mixer if you can afford it, or invest in a high quality extractor. This one, despite our many efforts to fix it, was a complete disaster and we ended up having to harvest part of the honey by hand. Which wasn’t too bad because I got to squish a lot of honeycomb with my hands.

This is a container where the wax goes when you cut the cap off of the comb. It has a lot of honey in it which will drip through the grate and eventually, once separated from the wax can be strained and used.

This very large serrated knife is for removing the cap from the honey. You have to get a tall pot of water boiling, dip the knife in to get it hot and then slice. It makes for an easy cut.

All that glossy goodness is the honey that has been exposed.

Then this little metal comb is to scratch off any caps that the knife couldn’t get.

This is beautiful. It is the natural comb that bees make when you don’t give them any foundation to build on, just wooden frames to build between.

Bees are amazing.

     

Once the cap has been removed you drop the trays into the honey extractor.

Then you spin and centrifugal force throws all of the honey out and onto the metal walls.

Then it slowly drips to the bottom of the extractor.

This is what the comb looks like when the honey has been extracted. All empty. You’ll put it back in the hive frames and the bees will clean it up and fill it up again.

There is a screen built into the bottom of the extractor as well so any wax will be separated too.

This is the cap that we cut from the frames now separating from the honey in the red bin.

Eventually you can pour it through the screen in the extractor and give it a fine filter.

I save the wax for candle making. If you set it outside far from the house, the bees will help you clean it. They’ll get every last bit of honey from there.

Which brings me to… hard won lesson #3: Don’t keep any frames or wax next to the kitchen door. And close the kitchen door while you’re harvesting the honey. Bees are smart and they will come find their honey faster than you can get through the door.

Here is one of my favorite things we do with the honey. Can you guess?

We make comb honey!

They sell the perfect sized cutter on the interwebs…

And boxes to match!

You’ll want to save your most perfect batch for this, ones that have been completely capped and are completely full of honey.

Also, the frames that are the newest, meaning haven’t been refilled with honey, are the best because they have the lightest color. When the bees refill the frames over and over again the color of the wax gets darker and darker.

And finally the honey will go through one more fine filter through some fine mesh into a bucket with yet another pour spout.

As a fun touch, I like to add a bit of honey comb to each bottle before I add the honey so I cut up some small pieces.

And drop it in the bottles.

 

Then I fill!

Tip: For very clear honey, let it settle in the bucket for a few days before bottling it. All of the air bubbles will slowly dissolve so that it doesn’t have the cloudy look.

Once you are all bottled up you add the lids!

 

Like so. And you will likely need to get a damp, warm rag and wipe down the bottles. Honey harvesting is sticky business!

And give it your label! Make it your own.

It makes a wonderful gift too. And you can chew the wax like chewing gum. Mmmm, honey.

Fun Fact: Did you know that honey is the only food that never goes bad?

That’s my tutorial! Feel free to add your honey tips in the comments, we want to hear your wisdom.

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Comments

  1. I loved this post ! Such a lot of wonderful information. Thanks

  2. Anneliese says:

    Beautiful! My dad and I harvested our second year of honey this July and we’ve begun selling it at a local farmers market from the back of my ’55 chevy pickup. I wish more people knew how easy and rewarding beekeeping is!

  3. I see a few things that could help. One is what is called a queen excluder that goes between the brood nest boxes and the honey collection boxes (in commercial beekeeper parlance those are called supers). This prevents the queen from getting up into the supers and laying eggs, but also takes a little longer for the bees to start storing honey in the supers. You don’t want to use a queen excluder for your comb honey supers. When bees start drawing out comb they are doing so to put honey in there, so the excluder isn’t needed. Another thing to help remove the remaining bees from the honey supers is a blower (leaf blowers work fine). Just set the super on end in front of the hive, bottom bars facing you, and blow the bees back at the front of the hive. To prevent the mess of dripping honey everywhere, you can use an extra cover to put the honey supers on to collect the drippings and a two wheel hand cart to move the heavy supers around. You can also remove full supers of honey while they are still collecting honey, the bees usually leave the honey you are taking off alone when they are busy making more.

    Glad to hear you didn’t get stung in the ear. A sting anywhere on the head or face is painful and swells greatly. The word picture of your bee in the hair encounter gave me a laugh. It is also pretty funny when one gets up your pants leg. It creates a very unusual dance step which doesn’t keep time to any kind of music.

    For the comb honey cutting, my dad uses the cutter to just set the pattern and then uses a knife to cut through since some times the combs crush and crack around the edges with the cutter. Sorry for the long post, your honey looks great and you had a wonderful experience harvesting it.

    • We actually took our queen excluder out because it was making the bees swarm! But I agree that they are totally great in separating honey from eggs.

      • There is an argument against queen excluders for this reason. The bees do cram all they can into the comb below the excluder, but I would say they don’t frequently result in swarming from what I have seen. Swarming is not the most predictable of bee society behaviors though.

        • Yea, we took ours out and it seemed to improve the swarming situation… oh the mystery of the bees. That’s why it is so fun.

  4. I love this post too! I have been pestering my oldest to raise honey bees with me for honey. You are right bees are amazing! Just watch bees and tell me there isn’t a God! Undeniably miraculous!

  5. Excellent post Georgia…bees are such interesting creatures and so cool to watch! I must confess that I too had a laugh picturing you rolling around on the lawn with a bee stuck in your hair….snicker……I’m glad you didn’t get stung though….many years ago I got stung on the eyelid and I can tell you, it was no fun!

  6. Kayla E. V. says:

    So what can you exactly do with a box of honey comb?! It looks so pretty! I love honey. I use it on almost everything! This looks like such rewarding fun! I would like to pursue beekeeping sometime in my future.

    • I like to cut off a square of it and serve it with a cheese plate. I also just chew on it like chewing gum and then either spit out the wax or swallow it. Mmm, honeycomb.

  7. Sheldon Diehl says:

    Thank you for the detailed post. I love honey. I make my own wine and would like to make meade. Which means I need alot of honey. I have peach trees ,rasberries,blueberries, and grape vines. How far away do I have to place bee hives from the fruit. In addition, where would I find information as well as supplies. Hope to hear from you.

  8. Well written. My thanks for posting that. I’ll definitely check to this site to find out more and tell my friends about this website.

  9. Jane Leonard says:

    Loved your story. Made me smile. I have a question for you, which is how i came to find your story. we watched a Chopped episode on the food channel that featured a chef who was a vegan. He second guessed himself in the dessert round when honey was the mystery ingredients. I always thought of honey as a product that was safely harvested and helped bees. If you don’t harvest the honey, what actually happens to it. I eat honey on a daily basis and hope that doing so doesn’t disturb any natural process or kill the bees prematurely.
    If you get this a know the answer please share!

    You have an awesome dad!

    • Every worker bee dies in 30 days, regardless of whether we eat their honey or not. I’ve never really understood why vegans are opposed to honey, perhaps because they feel it disrupts the bees lives when you harvest the honey, but that just demonstrates a lack of understanding in how the process works. Unless you are harvesting honey from the wild, which is very hard to do, honey is coming from bee keepers like my dad. If he didn’t harvest their honey, and add new frames, they would swarm because the bees would run out of room. So eat honey, lots of it!

  10. lisa mcgriff says:

    That was a very interesting post. We live in extreme South Alabama and I have just starting eating honey for allergy purposes. We found a local bee farmer and wow that honey is off the charts good!

  11. Matts Army Mom says:

    Does your family sell any of this wonderful honey? Would love to buy some if they do. Please email me