18 May 2012

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

1 comment:

The Unusual Farmchick said...

A BIG thank you for sharing this method. My husband & I followed your "witch hat" method this morn. It was 40 F degrees just as the sun began to rise which helped keep any upset activity down to a minimum. I will be linking to this page through a blog post this week, to share the source of the method we will practicing from now on during harvesting. Thanks again for sharing.