Sunday, August 8, 2010

Getting ready for the harvest

Unless my hives are discovered by a wandering bear, I'm going to have some honey to harvest this year. Black bears have been seen in the neighborhood but the most recent sighting was a few years back and even then, it was at the edge of woods. To my knowledge there has never been a sighting in the open meadow.

I was encouraged to put up an electric fence around the apiary to keep bears out and I did so but after my dog was shocked (twice) I disconnected it. It's been a few weeks and the dog seems to have returned to normal and she seems to be staying clear of it so I may reconnect it. I've seen the damage bears can inflict on an apiary so I know the gamble I'm taking. I also know the guilt of seeing the dog reluctant to walk in her own backyard. She's not exactly sure where the boundary is so she won't come near that section of the yard.

Assuming I successfully wrestle the bear issue and I do indeed have honey to harvest, how do I get it away from the bees? I've been considering this issue lately.

Harvesting Methods

There are a number of methods to separate the bees from their honey ranging from simply shaking and/or brushing the bees off a frame at a time to using a leaf blower and blowing the bees out of an entire section of the hive body(also known as a honey super or simply a super). Some methods use odors to drive the bees out. Some methods called bee escapes use one way doors that let the bees go out but not back in.

Like most everything else in life, there are pros and cons to each method. The physical methods of removing the bees by shaking, brushing or blowing while immediately effective can and do annoy the bees and irritated bees are not pleasant to be around. Bee escapes take time -- typically a couple days and require at least 2 trips to the apiary. Also, if the bees are out of the honey too long without the beekeeper harvesting it other pests can move in. Using odors to drive the bees out -- well, this method stinks (and you can use too much and drive the bees out of sections you are not harvesting or too little and not drive them out at all.)

So what method do I plan to use? I'm going to try the bee escape method first. If that works effectively I'll stick with it but I'm also not opposed to the method that stinks if I can get the right product. "Fischer's Bee Quick" is said to be very safe and effective.

Bee Quick is used with something called a fume board. You spray a little on the fabric side of the board and then place the board above the super you want to clear. The fumes drive the bees down lower into the hive without harming the bees and leave no residual traces to adversely affect the honey being harvested.

Extracting the Honey

Once I've separated the bees from the honey, the next trick is separating the honey from the comb. Early on, I decided I wanted to extract the honey from the comb while leaving the comb intact rather than simply cutting the comb into sections and packaging it, or crushing the honeycomb and straining the honey from the crushed comb.

When I put together the frames in the hive, I reinforced the beeswax foundation with crisscrossing wires to help keep the honeycomb intact when subjected to the forces of the extraction equipment (see photo).

If I were going to package cut comb honey I would have used a very thin foundation (or no foundation at all) and I would not have used wires to reinforce the honeycomb. Likewise, with the crush and strain method of extracting honey, the wires would not be used. Neither of these methods requires a major investment in equipment to implement but the downside to them is that the bees have to start from scratch when working on the next honey crop because the honeycomb is forfeited in the processing.

It was because of that big downside that I decided I was going to extract the honey from the comb while leaving most of the comb intact. The comb can then be returned to the bees to clean up and refill. And because the bees don't have to expend as much energy and resources in creating honeycomb they are able to produce more honey in less time. The big downside to this method is the cost of the specialized equipment used to get the honey out of the comb -- the extractor.

An extractor is a type of centrifuge. The frames of honeycomb are placed in the extractor after the wax cappings covering the honey filled cells have been removed. There are special heated knives (and fork-like devices called capping scratchers) used for removing the wax caps, but regular bread knives and household forks have also been used.

When the extractor is loaded the frames are then spun, slowly at first because the frames are heavy with honey and even though the honeycomb is reinforced with wire at it's core it could still break apart under the stresses. As the honey is thrown out of the comb by centrifugal force to the walls of the extractor the frames become lighter and the speed can be increased. The honey flows down the sides of the extractor to the bottom where it flows through a valve called a honey gate, into a bucket fitted with 3 filters (coarse, medium and then fine) to filter out any bits of wax and the occasional honeybee.

The honey then rests in this bottling bucket for about a day or so to allow any air introduced during the extraction process to rise to the top of the bucket. This frothy topping is then skimmed prior to bottling the sparkling, pure, raw honey. The bottling bucket is fitted with a honey gate at the bottom to facilitate the bottling process.

After the extraction process, the frames are still wet with remnants of honey. These frames are returned to the hive where the bees readily clean them up. The wax cappings removed in the extraction process can be melted down and used in the creation of candles, lip balm and other products.

The extractor I decided upon will extract 6 frames at a time. It's the Ranger model from Dadant. I picked this particular model for a couple of reasons. Dadant has an excellent reputation for building a quality extractor. Dadant has a store less than an hour away. The extractor is big enough for my immediate needs and the used equipment market seems very good should the need arise to sell it and move to a larger extractor.

So now you know my plans. I may attempt my first harvest next weekend. I'm hoping the bees will have at least 1 super of capped honey ready by then. Keep your fingers crossed.

Oh, one more thing. The website and honey label are under construction. Hopefully they'll be ready for unveiling in the next couple of weeks.

Six high! My, oh my!

The girls keep working and the hives keep growing. In my optimism at the beginning of the season (and to minimize shipping costs) I planned for the best I could hope for in hive growth for first year colonies started from packages. I figured 6 stories would be the maximum. I may have underestimated. As of Saturday I have one hive body left in my supply.

Clare is doing great. The 3rd story is fully drawn and they've started work on the 4th. I decided to add a 5th just to make things roomy after Roger Hoffman, a beekeeper a couple miles down the road wrote me last week: "Major flow just starting up so if you don't have a couple empties on, get them on top ASAP." Must be the goldenrod. Rock and roll!

Galway had quite a bit of the 5th story drawn so adding the 6th seemed prudent even though I wasn't quite ready to reduce the number of frames in the 5th from 8 to 7. I need to wait until the frames are almost completely drawn before making that adjustment. Why? It helps the bees to develop the comb the way that I want instead of letting them get creative on there own.

As for the 4th story of Galway, the one that I did reduce from 8 to 7 frames, the bees have drawn it out completely and beautifully. That extra space between the frames has been filled with comb and that comb has been filled with nectar but it is not yet ready for harvesting. The bees are still drying it out.

When it became apparent that I would be harvesting some honey this year, I began searching in earnest for extracting and bottling equipment. And I've been toying around with label designs. Of course, when you design a label these days, you need to have your website listed -- so that got me thinking about creating a website for honey sales.

It just keeps going. And I keep going with the flow.

I've made my equipment choices and reserved my website. I've set up an account with Google for use with Google Checkout so I can offer honey for sale on line. I'll be doing the same with Paypal. The label is still a work in progress but it's coming.

In my next post, which I've started, I'll detail the equipment I selected and the reasons why. But I think at this point it's important for me to say that I don't really plan on getting into the honey business as a money making venture but I do want to thoroughly explore all the various facets of this fascinating new hobby.