Harvesting Liquid Gold
The fall honey harvest is the culmination of extreme effort for the bees that we are privileged to have on our farm. A single hive of bees can produce about 100 pounds of honey depending on conditions in any given year. The hive is made up of several types of bees. The following description is an over simplification of life in the hive.
The Queen lives deep in the hive and has two jobs. She is responsible for laying eggs and she produces secretions that control the social order of the beehive. The drone bee is male and its chief job is to mate with a young queen. The worker bees are all female. They are nurse maid to the “baby bees” and then move on to the job of foraging. These female worker bees live approximately six to eight weeks. The average bee will make one to two teaspoons of honey in their life. Honey is an amazing and precious gift.
Through the late spring and summer months, the bees forage for both nectar and pollen that they will process into honey. The amount of honey that can be produced will vary greatly by the available flowering crops as well as the moisture and the temperature. The bees fill up the frames that we have provided. Nine to ten frames fill a box or super, and these supers can be varied in depth. We will add supers to the hives as the bees fill the frames and cap off the honey. It is from these extra stores of honey that we “harvest” the liquid gold.
Harvesting the honey should take place on a warm day and for us is generally in August or September. We begin by gathering our supplies and suiting up. Generally you will need the following equipment:
Smoker, fuel for the smoker, lighter or matches, hive tool, bee hat and veil.
As you work with each hive you will need a place to put the supers. This will vary based on the number of hives that you manage and/or the number of honey yards. We move our supers directly from the hive to the Honey House.
Dad began bee keeping about 45 years ago when a relative passed and left two hives of bees in his yard. This relative’s wife called Dad and asked if he could remove the hives. Dad read a little and moved the bees from that yard to our farm. He got stung several times and ended up in the emergency room at the local hospital. Dad was allergic to those stings.
The bees intrigued Dad, he studied everything he could find on bees, and he also gradually got stung “on purpose” to build up a resistance to the bee sting. From that small beginning Dad built up to over 200 hives with the largest harvest being 6000 pounds of honey in a single season. Dad and Mom and my youngest sister did a stint in the Fiji Islands with the Peace Corps when he was in his 50’s. He managed the only “profit making” bee venture of that time for the Peace Corps. (More stories on that at a later date.) While they were in the Fiji Islands, my husband and I managed the bees here at the farm, and we both have been mentored by Dad.
Dad doesn’t always suit up. I like to wear a white long sleeve shirt and I do wear my bee hat with veil. I have naturally curly hair and if a bee gets caught in my hair, I can end up with a sting just because the bee can’t find a way out of the tangle. I do also like to put a strap or twine around my pant legs. There is nothing more exciting that having a bee up your pants. That almost always ends with a sting.Dad is a calm individual and the bees respond well to his temperament. We generally apply a little smoke at the front entrance of the hive, then pop the top and here we go!
Once we have the top off the hive we apply a little smoke to the top and take off the inner cover to check out the hive. We are harvesting honey but also and most importantly, we are assessing the health of the hive. We will only take “excess” honey stores. We use the hive tool to un-glue the edges of the super and pull it off to look at the super below.
As I mentioned before, we take the supers directly to the Honey House for processing after all the honey is harvested. One reason is that neighboring bees can smell the honey and start “robbing” from the super that we have just lifted off the hive. The neighboring bees can become quite frenzied. We move methodically through the hive pulling off supers and continuing to look at the health of the hive. We will locate the Queen, look at the number of brood cells, and check how much honey is in the bottom two boxes.
These bottom two supers are the main body of the hive and where most of the life activities happen. We also want to make sure that the bees have ample stores of honey to make it through the winter. Once we have checked out the hive and replaced the inner cover and cover back on the box, we will make note of any concerns and move on to the next hive.
Once all the supers (boxes of filled and capped frames) are in the Honey House, we will begin the process of extracting the honey. I do enjoy the work outside, the hum of the bees and adventure of finding the Queen, but I really love the Honey House. The building will be buzzing with the extra bees that have tagged along; the aroma of the honey is sweet and strong. We make an escape route for the bees in the Honey House so that they can make it back to their respective hives if possible. There are windows on both the South and North, and we have a fan that gives a bit of breeze in the heat of the summer afternoon. It is time to roll up one’s sleeves and the extracting begins.
We use a hot knife to cut the caps off the frames of honey and the sweet, sticky honey begins to flow. Our stainless steel extractor holds 32 frames of honey. When it is full it spins the frames, and the honey is flung out and runs down the sides of the extractor into another stainless steel trough. From there the honey is heated a bit and is fed up into the clarifier. In the clarifier the honey is strained and then is pumped into the bottling unit. The cappings are melted and the wax is used to make the base foundation for the frames. Other products such as candles can be made or the wax can be sold.
The wet empty frames that the honey is extracted from are placed outside for the bees to clean. Bees come from all over the bee yard to lick up every drop of the delicious honey and take it back to their hive. Once these frames are cleaned, they are stored for the winter and can be used again the following year.
Bees fly 50,000 miles to make a pound of honey so in that 100 pounds per hive is 5,000,000 miles of buzzing, foraging and gathering. It sounds like we should start a frequent flyer program for our bees. I wonder if Kansas bees would use their miles for a winter trip to Hawaii. Thanks for shooting the breeze. D
Post Script: If you are looking for local honey in SE Kansas, we do sell honey at the farm. You can check out our FB page Green’s Organic Farm and Apiary.