How many of you have grabbed a bottle of honey from the grocery store shelf without giving a thought about what it took to fill that bear shaped squeeze bottle? We just finished our 2021 honey harvest. Doug and I worked really hard to harvest the honey, but we didn’t work as hard as our bees did to make the honey. Read on if you want to learn how flower blossom nectar makes becomes the honey that you enjoy on your biscuits.
Everything starts with blooms. Beginning in early spring, honey bees travel to blooming flower to forage for nectar, which is the sugary liquid inside the flower. The bees use their tongues, known as a proboscis, to suck out nectar and store it in their crop, which beekeepers refer to as a honey stomach. In the process of sucking up the nectar, the bees get covered with pollen that will pollinate other flowers. The foraging bees return to the hive with a full honey stomach and then transfer the nectar to another worker bee in the hive. The worker bee then begins the process of transforming nectar into honey. She keeps working small amounts of the nectar with her mandibles exposing the nectar to air so water evaporates and the sugar solution is concentrated. During this process the honey is also exposed to enzymes that break down nectar sugars into the simple sugars that make up honey.
The bees store their honey inside the cells of the honeycomb. Honey only has about 20% water. Flower nectar has about 60% water, so the bees have to further concentrate the honey once it is placed inside the comb. The bees do this by beating their wings to fan the honey. The moving air evaporate excess water. The bees place a wax cap over the cell when the honey is dry. The sealed honey stays there until a bee eats it or a human takes it.
The first step of the honey harvesting process is to remove the wax capping. This can be done with an electrically heated knife, or it can be done manually with a comb. I like the comb because if you are careful you can remove almost all of the wax cappings without losing any of the honey. This task is tedious and requires patience. Removing the wax cappings is my job in the honey extraction process.
After the wax caps are removed, the frames are transferred into the honey extractor. The extractor holds three frames and works like a centrifuge. Doug turns the crank to spin the frames. Centrifugal force causes the honey to spin out of the comb, hit the walls of the extractor, and drip to the bottom. The honey is collected from the extractor, filtered to remove comb and bee parts, and then bottled. Doug had the genius idea to take a space heater and aim it at the body of the extractor. Honey is less viscous when it is warm, so the honey was easier to drain and filter with a warm extractor body.
This year we filled one hundred 8 oz bears, which equates to a little over six gallons of honey. That yield is not too bad for backyard beekeepers. Certainly other beekeepers are better at managing their bees to maximize honey output. We are still relatively new at beekeeping and are happy with what we achieved this year.
Honey extraction is a very sticky business. Cleaning the equipment before and after takes as much time as actually extracting the honey from the honeycomb. Nevertheless, the whole process is incredibly gratifying. Every married couple has different things they like to do together. Some like to go to concerts or take exotic vacations. Doug and I happen to enjoy bottling honey. Some women like to shop in jewelry stores. I like to shop at Tractor Supply. In the words of Miranda Lambert, “It Takes All Kinds of Kinds.” Doug and I are the beekeeping kind.