We've been busy these last few weeks harvesting pure sweet honey. The honey harvest always feels like the last leg of a marathon, when we test our endurance. The heavy honey supers (the beehive boxes full of honey) test our strength. The bees sometimes test our patience. The reward, the honey that is the culmination of summer, is pure joy!
How and why bees make honey:
We've said it before - honeybees are amazing creatures. All summer long, they visit flowers within 5 kms of their beehive, drinking up their sweet nectar, and returning it the beehive. Once at the hive, they add enzymes to convert the sugars and use the heat of the hive to evaporate the excess water (nectar is about 80% water...but honey is less than 18% water). When the honey is ripe, the bees cap the honeycomb cells with a thin layer of beeswax.
Why do bees make honey? Because they eat it and they store it for winter. Unlike other insects, honeybees don't go dormant. They stay awake inside their beehive and cluster together in a ball to keep each other warm. And they move around the hive, eating honey. To survive our long Ontario winters, honeybees need about 50kg of honey. An important job of the beekeeper is to ensure that the bees have enough honey for themselves. But for whatever reason - perhaps thousands of years of co-existence with human beekeepers - honeybees have evolved to produce 2-3 times the amount of honey that they need for winter. We can harvest the extra honey and enjoy it.
How we harvest honey:
First, we collect the frames of honey from the beehives
The rule of thumb in Ontario is to have honey supers off the beehives by the Labour Day weekend in September. 'Honey supers' is the beekeeper jargon for the top boxes on the beehive where the bees store extra honey. In the bee yard, we take the honey supers off the beehives and gently brush the bees off the honey frames. To harvest, we want the frames to be at least 75% capped with beeswax, to ensure it is ready to be harvested.
Then, we uncap the honeycomb, exposing the pure raw honey underneath
We bring the honey supers back to our 'honey house' - the facility where we extract honey. The first step is to remove the wax capping from the frames, to expose the pure honey underneath. The frames are placed to rest in an uncapping tank (a type of honey holding tank), where they hang until its their turn to go in the honey extractor. This way, any honey that drips from the frames before extraction can be collected.
Next, we spin the frames in a honey extractor
The honey extractor is a big round stainless steel tank that spins the honeycomb frames. Imagine a big salad spinner or washing machine, designed to hold the frames while they spin at high speed. The force of spinning (centrifugal force) flings the honey from the comb, against the sides of the tank, where it drips down into the holding tank below.
The advantage of this method is that it doesn't destroy the honeycomb - we can store the frames and give them back to the bees to refill the next season (saving them all that work!).
At the bottom of the tank, there is a valve that can be opened to allow the honey to pour out.
Finally, we filter and bottle the honey
We open the valve gate at the bottom of the honey extractor and allow the honey to pour out, through a light filter to remove any bits of beeswax. The honey is pumped into a holding tank where it is ready to be bottled and then, enjoyed.
And that's it! Pure raw wildflower honey ready to be enjoyed! Happy Harvest!