Honey in the comb
“The best way to extract honey is in the nude”, so says the beekeeping sage. It certainly can be a sticky business, but the local beekeepers fortunately did not need to take things to those lengths for their recent honey processing demonstration. A group of us assembled at the house of the gracious, but largely unsuspecting, volunteer who had offered up her large kitchen for the day.
First order of the day is cleanliness. Food hygiene and sales regulations are complicated, and ideally food producers should use purpose built premises to comply. However, for small batches for “informal” sale, a domestic kitchen is fine as long as all precautions are made not to contaminate the product. Equipment was cleaned and sterilised, overalls donned, hair tied back and covered, dogs banished – all ready. A pile of assorted boxes of honey frames were available, allowing several different techniques of honey extraction to be demonstrated.
The most fiddly, but usually the quickest is to use the extractor. There are different styles of these but the general principle is to load up the honey frames into racks inside a steel drum. The racks are then birled around inside the drum and the honey flies out the comb and settles to the bottom of the tank where there is a tap to pour out the liquid harvest. Often the extractor is powered by a small motor but in our case person power was required to turn a handle – almost as good as going to the gym.
For this to work though, the little wax caps made by the bees to seal over the honey, needs to be removed. Our most skillfull member showed beautiful technique in slicing the capping off with a sharp knife. Wax cappings are valuable as they are generally the lightest coloured and cleanest type of comb. Just as effective is to score the wax with a special pronged tool like a big sharp comb but now the wax is shredded and difficult to recover. Frames loaded, the spinning begins. Now you know how in every washing machine there is a big heavy weight that stops it from jumping round the kitchen? Well honey extractors don’t come with that. So if you have neglected to make a suitable rigid stand to bolt it to, then you need an assistant or two to lean on the drum as the handle turner shows off their speed to wheedle out the last precious drops. Exhausted by this effort the extracting crew are rewarded by the sight of the liquid gold gushing out through the tap, through the mesh filters and into the waiting container. Spun combs can be given back to the bees who will clean them up and reuse them next year saving them a lot of energy in comb building.
filtering from the extractor
Elsewhere in the kitchen a more sedate occupation is taking place. Cut comb honey is literally just that. The bees build their comb on wooden frames provided by the beekeeper. To help them get started a wax panel called “foundation” is slotted into the centre of the frames. For frames that are going to be hashed around in the extractor this foundation is thick and also reinforced with metal wire to stand up to the force of spinning. However for cut comb the foundation is thin, maybe only consists of a starter strip or is absent altogether – the bees of course are perfectly capable of making their own comb. With thin comb and no wires, it is straightforward to slice up chunks of comb. The chunks of comb need to be drained on a wire rack before packaging so that the comb is not left floating in a sticky mess.
The last technique, is the most destructive and yet somehow the most satisfying. This time the combs are cut out of the frames, mushed up in a bucket, dumped in a cloth bag and squished in a press. The joy comes from seeing the honey pour forth a little more each time the handle is turned.
Here in Peeblesshire the heather moors have been beautiful this year. Ling heather honey has a special property – it is thixotropic (google it) – this means it is gel like, and can’t be spun in a normal extractor and must be pressed instead. The folk spinning the extractor were not best pleased when this bit of science was revealed. As is often the case with our local bees they have taken an early crop (maybe sycamore or dandelion) when the weather was fine in May, eaten most of it when the weather was not fine for the rest of the summer, then topped up the combs with heather, thistle and willowherb in August. So some honey spins out, the rest remains glued to the frames. What to do? More mushing! A lower tech solution than the press is to get two stackable storage boxes, drill holes in one and line it with muslin. Then take all the mushings and assorted other bits and pieces that have proliferated in dishes around the place and squeeze them through with a heavy weight or a strong arm.
Happy with the seasons bounty it’s time to tidy up. It’s been a nice sunny day and the host’s bees have been out flying. In fact looking out the kitchen window we can see an awful lot of them around one particular car. Could this be the car that already has some wet honey frames tidied away into it? Could this be the car that was only purchased the day before? Could this be the car whose new owner has not quite figured out how to work the controls and has left the windows open slightly? Oh dear – an open invitation to the bees who have taken full advantage and are flying excitedly around inside and out of the vehicle with more and more joining in the free food bonanza.
The sheepish car owner donned a bee suit, removed the free honey buffet to the far end of the garden, gingerly drove a hundred metres away and left the car windows open. The bees being far more interested in food than human transport vacated in a short time.
Tired and maybe a little sticky we were pleased with the days work. A decent harvest and as every year the thought that next year will be glorious for both bees and honey.
(PS I was that new car owner !)