Exam Notes 6: Honey Harvesting and Handling

HoneyJars_20110928When is it time to harvest? Each beekeeper has his personal approach.

The one rule to honey harvesting is: harvest and bottle ONLY cured honey, which by definition is 18% or less water by content.

This can be measured with a refractometer. The rule of thumb in the field is: only process frames of honey that are 90% or more capped over honey. Anything with more open cells can be put back on the hive in the hope the bees will finish filling and capping the cells.

If your honey has a water content over 18%, it can ferment, which ruins the honey. Also note that honey is hygroscopic, if left uncovered it absorbs moisture from the air. In a humid atmosphere, it will rapidly absorb water post harvest, even through the cappings, and be ruined. So process right away or freeze…or make into mead!

Some harvest as the frames are capped out, giving the bees empty comb to fill. Rinse and repeat for a max honey harvest! You can process immediately, or hold your honey frames in a freezer. Honey freezes well and freezing prevents crystallization.

Honey frames can be held until you have enough for a batch process, then rewarmed. Or held until a hive needs a frame of honey…maybe one of your spring hives is light and needs the food, or maybe you are making nucs, which each must have a couple of frames of stores on board.

Some harvest once the honey flow (blackberry in our area) ends. Some harvest between nectar flows, attempting to garner varietal honeys or to at least separate our their honeys into spring honey, summer honey, fall honey. As a rule, there will be very different flavour profiles, appearance and crystallization rates between the different nectar flows!

Locally, our spring honey is usually pale and citrusy with bright herbal notes (likely from maple and hawthorn). The summer honey is golden yellow, rich and buttery (likely from blackberry). The fall honey is darker, with deeper and more sultry herbal and smoky notes (likely from loosestrife and evergreen honeydews).

Once the honey flow is over, the bees may start to draw down the stored honey to eat themselves as the late summer nectar dearth sets in. Some beekeepers keep a hive sensor on at least one hive in the beeyard to track this. Once the bees begin to use their stored honey, the honey is harvested and feeding for winter begins. While it is no doubt better for the bees to eat their own honey, the beekeeper may be depending on honey sales to keep the beeyard funded!

Some beekeepers leave the honey on till the following spring, and only harvest once the spring flow begins. This works well as long as the local honey is not prone to quick crystallization. It is pretty much impossible to process honey crystallized in the comb. Crystallized honey is best fed back to the bees.

Once the honey is processed, either via crush and strain for smaller operations, or via uncapping and extracting in a larger one, you are left with sticky wax cappings. You can add a bit of water to them and feed that back to the bees in your in-hive feeder. You can spread a layer of cappings on top of the inner cover and let the bees clean them up, removing the cleaned wax cappings for melting down into beeswax blocks. You can also spread them on a large pan and let the bees rob the pan in the beeyard. But that risks disease transfer, fighting and robbing.

After straining, bottle your honey in clean, dry jars of your choice and get the lids on right away to prevent moisture absorption and fermentation.

Cut comb honey is produced by using very thin, purpose-made, sheets of wax foundation, which are put on the hive in a strong honey flow. Once drawn out, filled and capped, these frames of honey can easily be cut with a comb honey cutter:


Because honey is a food product, keep the honey line tidy and clean, and keep the processing staff tidy and clean too!

Honey will, inevitably, crystallize (great link!!). That does not mean it is bad. You can gently rewarm the honey in a warming cupboard or warm water bath, taking care not to heat it above 40C/140F. Depending on the floral nectar souce, crystallization can be slow or fast…lightning fast! So when your bees are on sources that crystallize quickly, harvest ASAP.

Commercial honeys are heated and micro-filtered to prevent crystallization on the store shelf. That is part of why commercial honeys have less interesting flavour profiles than local raw honeys (the other reason being much of the commercial crop is blended with/derived from clover and canola, mild honeys by nature). Note that canola is almost always GMO seed. Many consumers are not comfortable with GMO foods.

Honey is awesome stuff. And I feel inordinately proud of the honey my bees produce. I help the girls but they do all the work. It is a delight to give jars away, and most people are eager to get a jar of local, raw honey.

It is seductively delicious!


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