Harvesting & Packing Honey
By Clarence Collison, PhD
Harvesting Honey– Care should be taken in removing the honey crop to be sure that adequate stores are left for the bees in case of a fall crop failure. It is a good rule to always leave a super full of honey with the bees at all times. Removal of fully capped supers before the honey flow has ceased, is less likely to initiate the bees robbing instinct. Intense robbing may occur if you wait to remove all of the supers after the flow is over. Also removal of the spring and summer honey crop just before the start of the fall goldenrod/aster, will allow you to keep the honeys separated by flavor. Usually summer honeys are lighter and milder in flavor compared to the darker, richer flavored fall honeys. Fall honeys often crystallize very rapidly, which could create several problems at extraction time, if you wait to remove the entire crop at once. The fall honey crop should not be removed until after a killing frost. Frames should be at least ¾ capped before they are removed. However, try and keep the number of partially capped frames to a minimum, otherwise you will have problems with high moisture honey. Even though the honey is capped or sealed, it still can absorb moisture if stored under damp conditions.
Several different techniques can be used to remove the supers from the colonies depending on the size of your operation. Do not try to smoke the bees out of a super as this may affect the flavor of the honey. When a beekeeper has only a few combs or supers of honey to remove, shaking and brushing the bees from the combs may be the most practical method. To do this, open the lid and smoke the bees as usual. Remove one frame at a time and give it several quick jars between the fingers and base of the thumb to remove most of the bees. The remaining bees should be brushed off the comb with a brush or clump of grass and placed in covered supers.
Using bee escapes requires two trips to the apiary, one to put on the escapes and the other to remove the honey. The escapes are usually left on the colonies for two or three days to give the bees enough time to vacate the supers. To work effectively, cool night temperatures are necessary to draw the bees down. If the supers are not bee tight, the honey above the escape boards will be robbed out by other colonies. If the humidity is high when the escapes are on the colonies, there is a possibility of honey picking up some moisture. When a small amount of brood is present in the supers, many bees remain on the brood and must be shaken or brushed off.
Bee escapes work very well if used in combination with queen excluders. The excluder prevents the queen from laying in the honey supers and when it is time to remove the honey, the bee escape is substituted for the excluder. The easiest time to remove supers of honey which have been cleared of bees with a bee escape is in the early morning before the bees are flying.
There are several chemical repellents that can be used for removing honey (Honey Robber®, Fischer’s Bee Quick®, Honey-B-Gone, BeeDun). Sprinkle a few drops of the chemical on a fume board, which is made by stretching a heavy piece of cloth over a frame, the size of the hive body outer dimensions. The top is covered with a piece of sheet metal to reinforce it and often painted black to better absorb the heat from the sun. The fume board is placed over the full supers and the fumes drive the bees downward. A few puffs of smoke, before placing the fume board on will start the bees downward so they are less inclined of becoming confused. The board should remain on the super only long enough to get the bees out, usually two to three minutes. Benzaldehyde ( oil of almond) based products work best at temperatures of 65 to 80º F and is especially efficient on cool, cloudy days. Products containing butyric anhydride works better from 75 to 88º F.
Supers can be removed in less time and more economically using a high volume, low pressure air supply. There are several commercial units available. Advantages of bee blowers include: 1) combs do not have to be removed from the supers and 2) they will completely remove bees from supers on cold, cloudy days when chemical repellents are not effective. The one real disadvantage is cost of the unit.
Packing Honey– Honey is packed and sold in several different forms: liquid extracted honey, section comb honey, cut-comb honey, chunk honey and finely crystallized or creamed honey. Both chunk honey and finely crystallized honey require special handling procedures by the beekeeper in order to produce them.
The crystallization or granulation of honey is related to honey composition and storage conditions. Some honeys never crystallize while others do so within a few days of extraction, or even in the comb. When honey is allowed to granulate naturally, the sugar crystals are not very palatable as they are coarse and gritty in texture, thus reducing the commercial value of the product. However, by speeding up the granulation process in addition to seeding the liquid honey with finely crystallized honey, creamed honey can be produced having small crystals of uniform size. If done under proper conditions, the creamed honey spreads like butter at room temperature and has a smooth texture.
Since the granulation of honey always increases the possibility of fermentation, it is necessary to heat the honey to 145º F to kill the yeasts that are responsible for fermentation. The totally liquefied honey should then be strained through 2 to 3 thicknesses of nylon to remove all wax particles and other bits of debris upon which crystals could form. The honey should be rapidly cooled to about 80º F, then seeded with about 10% finely crystallized honey. This is known as seed because these fine crystals will cause other crystals to develop. The seed should be warmed slightly and lumps broken without incorporating air. Forcing the seed through a screen or using a hand-operated food and meat grinder will produce the necessary soft creamy mass. Stir the seed carefully into the honey which has been heated, strained, and cooled, so that the lumps of seed are all broken without incorporating air bubbles. Place the containers in a temperature between 54º and 60º F (57º F is ideal) and the honey will be smoothly crystallized within one week or so. If the creamed honey is too hard for table use, it should be placed at room temperature until it becomes softer. This technique will allow you to prepare small quantities of creamed honey for competition and local sale.
Chunk honey is normally produced in shallow frame supers with thin surplus foundation in the frames. The foundation is held at the top of the frames with a wooden wedge or melted beeswax. The comb is cut from the frame into enough chunks to fill a jar. Place the chunks on a screen and let them drain in a warm room for several hours before you place them in the jar. Empty spaces in the jar around the comb are filled with liquid honey which has been heated to 140º F and allowed to cool before it is poured over the comb. Heating the liquid honey delays crystallization for several weeks. Types of honey which crystallize quickly are not well suited for chunk honey production.