Sunday, September 4, 2011

Honey Harvest 9/4/2011

Back in January and February of this year, I took a class on beekeeping through the ISU Extension Service. I've always wanted to do it and after meeting a beekeeper in Hawaii last year, I was dead set on starting a couple of hives. After finishing the class, I ordered two 4-pound packages of bees, and all the equipment and gear to get set up with two hives. In April, itl arrived and Greg and I put it all together and installed the bees. All summer I've been monitoring them and watching them build comb, forage for nectar and pollen, raise baby bees, and make honey. Because this was the first year, I wasn't sure there was going to be enough honey for me to take any and still leave enough for them to survive through the winter. Turns out, they were pretty busy this summer, and apparently had no problem collecting plenty of nectar. Last week I checked on them and decided Labor Day weekend would be Harvest Day. I ordered a small honey extractor, five-gallon buckets, plastic jars, filter screens, and gathered up some odds and ends from around the house to use as tools (bread knife, stainless steel pot, metal colander, clean towels).

Saturday morning, Greg and I washed all of the equipment and set up a work table on saw horses in the garage, after cleaning the place up as much as possible. Then, I suited up in my bee suit, gathered up my smoker, hive tools, and other equipment, and Greg and I headed out to the hives. The plan was for me to pull the boxes off, sweep the bees off with the brush, and put the boxes into the Jeep. Greg's job was to get it all on film.

Before we headed out there, I made a small wooden frame, about the size of the perimeter of a hive box, out of scrap wood. I stretched a black dish towel over this frame. This was my home made fume board. I had ordered this stuff called Bee Robber which comes in a bottle, wrapped in a plastic bag, then stuffed inside a larger plastic container. It Stinks!!! The triple packaging is to prevent any of it getting on anything you intend to keep. This fume board frame dealie was going straight into the trash as soon as I was done with it. I drizzled a few drops of this stuff onto the black fabric. The way it is supposed to work is the stuff starts to smell as the sun heats up that black fabric. You put the frame on top of the hive box and leave it for a minute or so, and it is supposed to drive the bees down into the hive and out of the box you are intending to harvest. Well, since it was only about 70 degrees when we went out there, I don't think it ever heated up enough to really have an effect, or maybe I didn't use enough of it or whatever, but after several minutes, it had had no effect on the bees.

After putting the fume board aside, I took off the top two boxes and set them aside since neither contained completely filled frames of capped honey. The third box was mostly full but there were a few frames that were not capped, indicating the honey was not yet dry enough to be harvested. Instead of harvesting full boxes, I ended up taking about six frames out of the fullest box on each hive, and just putting the frames in the back of the jeep. I reassembled the hives, gathered up all of my tools, and we headed back to the house. Pretty painless. No stings, and no mess in the Jeep. The bees will continue making honey until probably mid October. The goldenrod and ragweed are about to really start blooming so the honey they store from now on will be darker and have a more rustic or molasses like taste. I'll let them keep it for the winter, and I'll probably put the feeders back on in a couple of weeks to make sure they make enough food and get it stored before it gets cold.

Once we got back to the house, we carried the frames into the garage and set them in an extra hive box. With both of us working, we used the serrated bread knife to shave off the cappings, which fell into the metal colander that was suspended over a stainless steel pot. Then two frames at a time went into the extractor. This extractor is essentially a plastic drum with a contraption that sits on a bearing in the bottom of the drum. It holds two frames at a time. You hand crank it to spin it as fast as possible, and the uncapped honey that is still left in the frames, gets thrown out of the combs and up against the inside walls of the extractor. It then runs down and collects in the bottom of the plastic drum, and there is a gate valve at the bottom that allows you to drain the honey out of the drum.

I had ordered three filter screens, a 600 micron, a 400 micron, and a 200 micron. They nest inside each other and fit on top of a five gallon bucket. The extractor was on top of the work table with the valve extended over the edge. With the valve closed we spun/extracted about a half dozen frames, then stopped, opened the valve and allowed the honey and some of the wax comb to run down through the screens and into the five-gallon bucket that was sitting on a small stool directly under the valve. Once we had processed six frames, we shut the valve and did the other six. We tilted the extractor forward and propped it up on some scrap wood so it could drain completely. We also poured the honey that had collected in the stainless steel pot during the uncapping step, into the filter screens. All in all, I think we have about three gallons of honey and a big pile of very clean beeswax to play around making candles or lip balm or whatever. I'll need to compress the wax to squeeze any remaining honey out of it and then melt it down in a coffee can or something into a block and then save it until I'm ready to use it for something.

After several hours, the filters were finally empty and all of the honey was collected in the five gallon bucket, which also has a gate valve. I had ordered two cases of 12 ounce plastic bottles and nutrition labels for them from the beekeeping supplier, Mann Lake, out of Minnesota. Since Greg and I had plans to have dinner down at Honey Creek Resort on Lake Rathbun, we decided to take a bottle of honey to Pat Koffman, the chef there. Pat's a good friend of ours and is always interested in what's going on the vineyard, what we're growing in our garden, and so forth. At some point I hope to be growing herbs and vegetables for the restaurant, probably once I have a high-tunnel greenhouse and can grow veggies from March through December. Anyway, I wanted him to have some of the honey so we washed and dried one of the bottles and filled it with the honey from the five-gallon bucket. Ideally, the honey should set for a few days so any trapped air bubbles can float to the surface of the bucket and be skimmed off, but since we were headed down there for dinner, I figured it'd be okay. Turns out, it was almost crystal clear, hardly any bubbles at all, and a beautiful golden color. I had made some cute tags for the bottles so I tied one on it and it was ready to go. The restaurant was packed to the gills but we caught up with Pat and I handed it off. Can't wait to hear what he thinks about it. We'll wait a day or so to bottle the rest of the it.