18 May 2012

Honey harvesting - the Natural way: pt 3

Third job - Separate honey from wax

The NB approach
For small jobs (one frame) you could probably get away with using a large kitchen strainer (to hold the chopped wax) and a food bowl (to catch the dripping honey) for this part. But as soon as you have a box of frames to extract, something larger is called for. Again, we take a simple, low-cost approach. There are a number of YouTube video's detailing this 'two-bucket' approach.

Buy two food grade buckets - around 20 litres in size. They cost around $8-10 each. You can use a smaller (8L) bucket on top, if you limit yourself to extraction of (for example) two Langstroth Ideals (or one full size box) at a time. This would reduce the height of the device and make it easier to store. That's the configuration you see in the pictures below - 8L on top and 20L below.

I thought about using a smaller (8L) bucket just for the honey catching (the bottom one) but realised the sieves (strainers) would take up lots space in that bucket, so I stuck with the 20L for that lower part.  You can source them new from hardware and other stores. You can also source them (used) from restaurants and food outlets. Buy two large medium mesh sieves (strainers - about $3 each at budget stores) which are close to the same diameter as the bucket but still fit inside. Don't worry about the size of the handles. Buy a 'honey gate' (a special tap for dispensing honey) from your local beekeeping supplier (about $15).
  • Cut slots in the rim of the lower (honey) bucket to allow the sieves to sit securely down inside. They need to be deep enough to allow the lid to be seated on top of the bucket.
  • Make sure each of the two sieves have their own slots and when fitted, that they sit a couple of centimetres apart, vertically. You do not want the mesh of the sieves to be touching. This is so the lower sieve can have muslin cloth seated inside and not touch the upper sieve. This second sieve and the muslin cloth are optional, but it gives a fine filtration which removes any remaining wax particles. Either that or buy fine sieves.*
  • Cut a round hole in that bottom lid, one that's slightly smaller than the base of the top bucket (and smaller than the diameter of the sieves).
  • Drill a series of 10mm holes in the base of the top bucket, so that honey will flow through and leave the bulk of the wax behind. Note that the holes should form a circle slightly smaller than the hold you cut in that lid.
  • Drill a hole in the bottom bucket (not too close to the base . . .) and fit the honey gate.
That's only a brief description rather than a 'how to build'. To learn more, please watch this video.

The two bucket system might sound like overkill - but if you are going to use it for a few years, it's worthwhile. Once you have a pile of honey and wax, separating them quickly becomes very important! Once you have the bucket system working, it's so beautifully simple. Costs around $40 (plus an hour to build) compared with a honey extractor at $500. Guess which is easier to clean and store . . .

The 'system' showing the two sieve (strainer) handles
 . . . and the 'honey gate'
Top bucket lifted to show honey dripping into sieves of bottom bucket
Forgot to take a pic when the wax/honey mix was first poured into the top bucket. But here it is the next morning - maybe 12 hours after draining started.
All that's left is some sticky wax.
After about a day and a half, I removed the top bucket and filled our collection of honey containers, new jars and old jars - that was so satisfying!!!
Bucket about 1/4 full (look carefully for the dark line inside). So these buckets would easily hold 2-3 Lang Ideals full of honey or one full sized Lang box.

Liquid gold
Most of our haul (plus some unpictured cut comb and cooking honey)
Arguably, one could leave the buckets dripping for days to get the final drops out - some people do. But honey is hygroscopic (attracts and absorbs water). If it gets above 20% water content it will start to ferment and ruin the honey - so I play it safe and get the honey into sealed containers ASAP.

To quickly and conveniently extract the final remaining useful honey from the wax, I do the following:
  • Put the sticky wax in a heat-proof bowl or container.
  • Place it in the oven set at 70-80 deg C until it all melts.
  • Let it slowly cool in the oven.
  • The wax and honey separate.
  • You crack a hole in the wax and the warm honey pours out.
  • Place this honey in a separate container and use (I suggest) for cooking since the heat treatment damages it somewhat and is less good for eating raw. Please do not feed heated honey to bees - it can kill them. Please read up on HMF if you are interested to learn why.
Wax cooled and hardened - make a hole and the honey flows from underneath. I used a small sieve to filter into a 'cooking honey' jar.
Underneath the wax was a layer of propolis - a surprising amount! Has a nutty sort of smell.
Propolis scraped off the wax.
Wax now ready for final rendering (purification) process.
 * You do not have to use two sieves. What you do here mostly depends on how you want to filter your honey. If you don't mind some tiny wax particles in your honey, buy one sieve with a medium mesh. If you want smaller wax particles, buy one sieve with a fine mesh. If you want reasonably fine filtered honey, use muslin cloth as a final filter. Using muslin probably means using two sieves since you want to stop the larger wax chunks blocking the cloth. Experiment and decide for yourself!

Back to part 2.


Honey harvesting - the Natural way: pt 2

Second job - get the honey out of the combs

Once the bees and the honey are separated, it's time to extract the honey from the comb. I decided to do this at night, inside the house - less bees around to get interested. Honey harvesting a great job to share with friends. Damien (a fellow beek) came around to help me out.

I decided to take the simple 'crush and strain' - or more accurately in my case 'cut and strain' - method. This is simple, cheap, arguably less effort and supposedly leads to better honey. I wrote here on the conventional way of using a centrifugal extractor and why it's not 'Natural'.

Crush and strain is simple - you:
  • cut the comb out of the frames;
  • place it into a large tray;
  • crush or cut it up;
  • pour the mess of comb and honey into a strainer to separate them;
  • wait a day or so to let the comb drip-dry and allow the honey settle (ripen). The air and tiny wax particles rise to the top;
  • pour the honey into containers.
Before we removed the frames, we cleaned off the excessive propolis.

The Ideal which was full of uncapped nectar/honey - later returned to the bees Lots of propolis where the top bar cloth (Warre roof) had been glued down by the bees.
Scraping the propolis off the top bars
Propolis - it has a nice spicy sort of smell
 We checked the frames for capped honey content. One box was not ready for harvest, as you can see from the pictures.
A frame from the unharvestable box. Some capped honey. the rest is probably close to ready for capping, but is likely to contain more than 20% water and be liable to fermentation.
A frame from the other box, which was chock full of honey. Here showing a tear from a bridging comb.
We cleaned up the frames in the laundry and one by one took the frames into the kitchen for cutting up. Doing it one at a time helped stop things getting too messy. Once honey starts flowing it's all over the hands!

Frame and large tray
Damien cutting the comb from the frame
We stand the frame in a large stainless steel tray and cut around the edges, cut across the middle of the comb and let it drop into the tray. If we want 'cut-comb' (where the comb and honey remain intact, are stored in containers and are eaten raw) we do this carefully and gently, so the comb is not damaged. We do this first off before the tray gets messed up.

Comb and honey carefully removed to be placed in containers 'as is'
Once the frame is empty and the excess wax removed, we take a small, sharp knife and make fine, close slices in one direction across the full face of the comb - the idea being to cut through each cell. Then we do the same in the other direction (at 90 degrees to the first cuts). By the time you've finished, it's falling apart. I flip over what remains and do the same on the back side and the comb then disintegrates. Pick through the mess and chop up any remaining chunks.

First cut one way
Then the other way
Flip over, so the same and it falls apart.
In this particular tray I would chop up the comb from two frames at a time. Then pour it into the top bucket to start straining while I do another two frames and so on. It's just easier to pour while the tray is not too full or heavy. Some folks use a larger tray (such as a plastic storage container tub) which gives larger capacity. Here I'm trying to stick to what we might find in an everyday kitchen.


Honey harvesting - the Natural way: pt 1

On 15 April, I decided to harvest honey from my Langstroth before the cool weather set in. I think I timed it right, it was the last of the really warm spells (in Melbourne, at least!).

Here is a series of posts on how it was done, the end to end process. There are many possible variations on these methods, but I find this works for me.

Before we start . .  .
(I think) it is important, at this point, to step back for a moment and consider how we will harvest our honey.

The conventional approach is to use a centrifugal honey extractor. Even non-beekeepers think that is 'how it is always done'. If you question that wisdom, the response is usually that 'it is so much faster'. That may be true if you are a professional honey producer, but probably not if you have one or two hives in your garden.

The important point here, from a Natural Beekeeping (NB) perspective, is that once you decide to use an extractor (bought, hired or loaned) then you lock yourself into a whole way of keeping bees which involves more work, money, equipment, complexity and (in our view) less bee-friendly hives. All this and more for the aims of 'more honey' and 'easier harvesting'. I wrote more on this topic here.

The alternative is the low tech/low cost/simple (NB) approach. You have a decision to make and each method takes you down a different and important beekeeping track. If you are already a top bar beekeeper, you have limited choices anyway.

Here we illustrate the more Natural approach.

First job - take the honey from the bees

Here's how the hive looked at the start - two Ideal supers, which I planned to remove for harvest. I'm using Ideals for their lower weight and for their flexibility in management.

Before - Warre'd Lang with Kenyan
Some history - the lower ideal had been filled a few months before and I popped another empty one on top once it was full. I'd normally prefer to put the empty super under the full one to encourage to the bees to 'adopt' the space and start building comb. But as it was well attached to the brood boxes and I didn't want to risk excessive comb breakage and spills of honey, I settled for 'top-supering'.

From above, the top super looked to be full of capped honey, I later found it it was only capped at the tops of the frames and the rest of the comb was near full of nectar - probably close to being capped, but I didn't want to mix that in with the capped honey, so I later returned the top Ideal to the bees as extra winter stores. You can't extract and store nectar or mix it with mature honey in case it causes fermentation. I believe 20% is the maximum amount of nectar advised in a harvest.

Once the (Warre) roof was off, I used a little smoke to encourage the bees to move down and out. I don't believe in using a lot of smoke - it disturbs the bees and it can taint the honey with smokey smells and that's the last thing you want!

The supers with their temp base and lid with two 'witches hat' cones for exits
I'm reminded by Andrew (see below) that at this point (before removing a box for harvesting), we should remove one or two frames from the centre of the box and inspect for brood cells. Very occasionally the queen will lay some brood in a patch up in the honey supers. If that's the case, the bees will not willingly leave the comb using this or any clearing method. Neither would we want to kill brood or have it in the harvest.

You could return the frames, close up the hive and leave the brood for upto three weeks (depending on its maturity) and then harvest once it has emerged. Or, if you have a number of honey supers on the hive and wanted to harvest that day, you could swap the frames (containing brood cells) with frames of capped honey from a another super. That way you have at least one box full of capped honey to harvest and the brood returned to the hive.

Of course, 'queen excluders' were invented to prevent the inconvenient appearance of brood in pristine honey supers. In NB we do not use them as they are an additional, avoidable, imposition on the bees which we (and they) can live without.

Once the boxes were removed from the hive, the next job was to get the bees out (clearing the box). Rather than manually intervene with brushes and smoke, I took the no-stress approach pioneered local by our group convenor, Andrew Janiak. This is to:
  1. place a plastic covered base under the boxes (the plastic catches any honey dripping from broken comb) - in this case I used a spare Lang lid covered with a cut-up shopping bag;
  2. then place a top on the boxes with some 'witches hats' built in. I made mine from a simple timber frame with a plywood cover - I cut two holes in the plywood and placed flywire cones in the holes. Assembly and attachment of the cones was a bit tricky - but not too hard. I don't have three hands, so used a staple to hold the shape while I attached them to the wood (with more staples and tape).
The idea is to allow the bees to get out of the removed boxes (including the larger drones) and discourage them from re-entry. With the floor and lid in place, the supers are sealed against robbers etc. The bees perhaps sense a lack of queen scent very soon after removal and they start pouring out of the exists. I place the supers close to the hive entrance so the bees can easily return to their home. They do not try to get back into the cone exits once they are out.

Bee leaving via the cone

I left this for about 3 hours, noting that most of the exiting traffic ceased within the first hour. I strapped the 'hive' together and moved it to the house, ready for honey extraction. I opened up the box to check for bees before bringing them in for harvesting - there was one single bee with its head in a cell - I gave it a nudge and it buzzed off. This surely has to be the easiest, most stress-free way to separate bees from the honey!

The boxes removed to the house - now empty of bees (bar one)
Fwd to part 2

4 May 2012

Michael Bush on beekeeping fallacies - #1

Michael Bush is an experienced beekeeper from USA, very highly regarded in Natural Beekeeping circles.  I cannot speak highly enough about his website and I encourage all readers to visit it.

Michael published his ideas and experiences in a great book: The Practical Beekeeper, Beekeeping Naturally.

The book is great in more ways than one.  The content is great, but also the book is impressively thick.  But not be discouraged by its size - it comes from the rather large font used.  It seems to me that Michael took mercy on all those old geezers (myself including) involved in beekeeping.  Eyesight used to be a bit better few decades ago...

I very much enjoyed reading the section of the book devoted to beekeeping fallacies.  Michael's thinking aligns with my experiences and my understanding of what bees need and how they live.  I asked Michael for a permission to quote from his book, he kindly agreed.  I plan to go through the whole list of fallacies, one at a time, quoting verbatim Michael's writing and then adding comments whenever possible to add anything.  Below is the first installment, more to follow.

 Michael's Fallacy #1:  Drones are bad.

"Drones, of course, are normal.  A normal healthy hive will have a population in the spring of somewhere around 10-20% drones.  The argument for almost a century or more (really just a selling point for foundation) was that drones eat honey, use energy and don't provide anything to the hive, so controlling the drone comb and therefore the number of drones will make a hive more productive.  All the research I've heard of says that the opposite is true.  If you try to limit the number of drones, your production will decrease.  Bees have an instinctive need to make certain number of drones and fighting that is a waste of effort.  Other research I've seen says that you will end up with the same number of drones no matter what you, the beekeeper, do anyway."

The above relates to another quote from the very first page of Michael's book"

"If the question in your mind starts with 'How do I make the bees ...' then you are already thinking wrongly.  If your question is 'How can I help the bees with what they are trying to do...' you are on your way to becoming a beekeeper."

This is the jest of natural beekeeping philosophy.  Remember - bees are wild creatures, not domesticated.  They do what instinct tells them to do and this instinct has developed over millions of years.  It is worse than ridiculous to think that me, you or anyone else may know better ways than what bees' instinct dictates and may succeed in forcing bees to follow his/her line of thinking.  This simply will not happen.

Going back to drones, it is my experience that the larger the number of drones in a colony, the better they do and more honey they gather.  When I see numerous drones, I am happy - the colony is thriving and so will my honey cupboard.

Removing drone brood is a cruel practice, but it is also an idiotic one.  Bees invested honey into this brood and you want to throw it away.  If you do, the bees will again invest honey and effort in raising new drone brood anyway.  Along the way you only disrupt the hive and stress the bees.  Stressed bees get sickly - just like me and you.

Reading available literature let me realize that we actually do not know what role drones play inside the hive.  We know that bees raise them at the time of intensive brood rearing and get rid of drones around the time brood rearing significantly decreases.  It may be just a coincidence, but coincidences are rare in a hive.  Possibly drones assist in brood rearing - some beekeepers refer to drones as "brooders".  I would not be surprised to learn that they play vital role in heating the nest area.

Next time you see a drone at a hive entrance, look at him with sympathy.  He is your and your bees friend and helper.