Old Blue Honey Extraction at Honey Tree Apiaries

August 12, 2013 · 13 comments

honeycomb // Wayward Spark

It’s honey harvest time around these parts. In the Oregon Coast Range where Henry (doing business under the name Old Blue) has his remote apiaries, the nectar flow has pretty much dried up to a trickle even though there’s still plenty of pollen to be had. Henry is now working on preparing hives for the long winter by equalizing colonies, requeening if necessary, and beginning to feed syrup and pollen substitute. Most other commercial beekeepers are treating for mites right now, but Henry has chosen to manage his hives without standard miticide applications for the third season in a row. ¬†Without pesticides, there is more at stake, but Henry feels that natural mite loads put selection pressure on his colonies, and the resulting survivors express resistant traits reflected in the wild bee population.

This year, Henry worked hard to increase his number of hives by splitting stronger colonies, grafting queens, doing removals, and catching swarms, so honey production was not his primary focus. He also planned on leaving 60-70 pounds of honey in each full-size hive, more than the recommended 40-60 pounds, which should translate to a stronger colony buildup in the spring of 2014.

Because he can’t move colonies that are more than two boxes deep and because a strong colony doesn’t need more than two boxes of space to overwinter, he’s been splitting, equalizing, and consolidating hives and pulling excess honey from his largest 20 or so colonies that are each three to five boxes deep. Most of the hives that he planned on taking honey out of yielded 60-80 pounds each, but he also pulled a few frames of honey from hives that started the season as three-frame splits but increased better than he had expected.

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We don’t yet have our own extraction equipment, but we were fortunate enough to have the privilege of using our friend Ethan of Honey Tree Apiaries state-licensed facility. Ethan is a great guy, and he sells his honey at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market every Saturday. You should go buy something from him if you get the chance. Ethan does not, however, rent out his place to anyone else for extraction. We just got in because Henry spent several very late nights helping him by hauling bees in and out of various pollinations and honey yards.

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The night before we planned to extract, Henry brought the full boxes of honey down to Ethan’s place and moved them into the hot room adjacent to the extraction room to ensure that the honey would flow freely from the comb when spun in the extractor.

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

There are various ways to uncap comb and release honey from the wax-sealed cells. One of two methods we used was called “scratching”. We employed a special uncapping scratcher to rake over the comb, puncturing the cells.

comb scratcher // Wayward Spark

drone cells in honeycomb // Wayward Spark

Scratching is very controlled but somewhat slow and labor intensive. In the frames above, there was capped drone brood present in the middle of the honey-filled comb, and Henry was able to simply scratch around the brood so that it wouldn’t be extracted along with the honey.

flail uncapper // Wayward Spark

flail uncapper // Wayward Spark

Ethan also has a flail uncapper that uncaps a whole frame in a matter of seconds. Ideally, an uncapper will simply remove or destroy the thin layer of wax on the outside of a frame, leaving the drawn comb intact to be used again after honey extraction. Flail uncappers work best on older, more durable comb, but as we discovered, they have a tendency to annihilate newer, still delicate comb.

uncapped honeycomb // Wayward Spark

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

After going through the flail uncapper, frames often had small patches of still-capped comb that needed hand scratching.

After uncapping, frames got loaded into a Dadant 20-frame radial extractor. With an extractor this large, it was important that the frames be inserted into the canister in a balanced order so that, like a washing machine, the centrifuge wouldn’t be thrown off balance while spinning.

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

Henry started the extractor out at a slow speed and ran it for five to ten minutes and then cranked it up to a higher speed for another five to ten minutes until there was very little honey being flung from the frames onto the sides of the canister.

While one batch was spinning, the next batch was being uncapped, so there wasn’t not a whole lot of down time in the process.

I took a little Instagram video of the whole process that you can see here (though it leaves something to be desired cinamatographily).

empty honeycomb after extraction // Wayward Spark

These slightly disheveled frames, empty of their honey, will be added back to hives soon. Bees will clean up and reuse these cells without expending a lot of energy and resources on creating wax for brand new foundation.

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

Honey extraction is a very messy, very sticky activity. Bits of wax fly everywhere, and the floor gets coated in a slippery film. Having a lot of stainless steel and concrete floors makes clean up a lot faster and easier.

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

A spout at the bottom of the extractor releases unfiltered raw honey as well as waxy bits into four-gallon food-grade buckets. In this extraction session, we got various shades of honey resulting from various different nectar sources.

extracting hone // Wayward Spark

Over time, the wax and other bee debris will float to the surface of the honey, and that top layer can be scooped out and melted down with the rest of the wax remnants.

uncapper drippings // Wayward Spark

Underneath the uncapper, there was a plastic tub with a screen filter on top that caught all the drippy uncappings with a considerable amount of honey mixed in.

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Ethan has another nice centrifuge-type machine that can be loaded with the uncappings, and after spinning for 24 hours, it will separate out the honey from the wax. We just took our uncappings home in a bucket and will try to separate it by warming it up and letting the wax rise to the top in a big plug. We’ll keep that sub-par honey for our own home use.

extracting honey // Wayward Spark

There are screens and double doors on all the entrances to Ethan’s honey processing room. This time of year, hundreds of bees hover around the main door, actively trying to find a way into the facility to rob some sweet honey. One thing that really helps keep the bee mob out of the way is a fan in one of the screened windows. The fan blows honey scented air out on the back side of the building, drawing bees to that area and away from the front door. Try as they might, the bees can’t get in the window, and the room stays relatively bee-free.

After two extraction sessions, we now have about 100 gallons of honey that still needs additional filtering and bottling. A hundred gallons is a lot but not a LOT. Henry will give a significant portion of those stores away as “yard rent” (minimal compensation for a landowner’s permission to keep big batches of bees on his or her rural property), and we’ll gift some to friends and family. The rest we’ll sell. Henry’s going to have a box of pint jars full of honey in the back of his truck to sell to any interested horseshoeing clients, but we’re also working on developing other retail and wholesale opportunities. Eventually, we’d like to have an online shop, but we’re not quite there yet. In the meantime, my friend Halley is designing some nice labels for our jars (because we’re graphic-design-ily challenged), and we’ll be bottling honey soon.

Working at Honey Tree Apiaries is not a long-term solution for our honey extraction needs. Next year with more full-sized hives, Henry’s bees will hopefully produce a whole lot more honey, and we’ll need to get at least some of our own equipment and be more serious about sales. Henry’s been dreaming up plans for a mobile extraction facility housed in some kind of trailer with on-board water and a bicycle-powered extractor. (How groovy would that be?) I fantasize about something like the Provenance Farm mobile chicken butchering outfit only smaller. Whatever it ends up looking like, it will definitely be hoseable with plenty of stainless steel and not a lot of clutter. Ideally, we’d like to see a couple more extraction operations in action before investing in our own equipment.

I’ll be sure to let you know if/when Old Blue honey goes up for sale online. Until then, you should seek out a local honey producer in your area and get some of the sweet stuff for yourself.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

mae August 12, 2013 at 7:11 pm

The bit about the miticide is interesting… in theory it should definitely cull the weaker bees and create a stronger hive, so I wonder why other beekeepers choose to treat for them? Or is it treating just another “big-farm” practice that is easier/cheaper but not necessarily healthier/better?

It’s exciting that you’re setting up to sell your honey on a larger scale. Will that require a lot of food processing/handling certification? And (last question, I swear) does Henry separate and differentiate honeys from different areas/nectar sources? Or is it similar enough that buyers just get what they get? I started buying only local honey last year and there’s a huge taste difference in the taste of coastal honey (mainly wildflower nectar according to the market guy) vs. inland MA/VT honey (commercial crops) here.

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Henry August 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm

I basically started out NOT treating my bees and saw it as a challenge to keep bees without miticides, antibiotics, etc. Many large operations don’t raise their own queens and can’t afford to lose a high percentage of their colonies, so treating is the only option to keep the maximum number of pollination/honey producing units alive. If you don’t propagate the genetics that are produced under selection pressure then there is no reason not to treat your colonies. Also beekeepers in areas within 5 miles of commercial colonies don’t really have anything to gain from raising queens from untreated colonies, as queens will mate with drones from treated colonies within that distance. I have the benefit of VERY isolated mating yards with lots of feral drones that allow me to decide what crosses I want to make. Bees would probably be better off long-term if we back off on treatments, but the short term consequences would be pretty disasterous to the food supply. Looking into the future I will probably have to treat(with compounds that are listed for organic production) in order to provide high quality almond pollination units, but I plan on continuing to select breeder queens from multiple years of non-treatment and maintain my isolated feral mating yards.

Oregon passed a Farm-Direct law in 2012 that allows us to sell honey direct to consumers without a lot of extra certification/hassle.

As far as apiary location/nectar flow goes we were able to separate some of the yards, and I did do about 30 gallons of spring flow(Chittum/Maple/Meadowfoam) The plan is to be able to pull early honey and distinct flows with the mobile extraction trailer next year.

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Molly August 12, 2013 at 10:45 pm

I live in Eugene, travel to Corvallis frequently, and would absolutely LOVE to have some of your honey for my family. We already have some from a local bee-keeper, but as a lover of all things honey, one can never have too much! Will there be a date when you sell at the farmer’s market there?

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Eleanor August 13, 2013 at 1:53 am

I never realized how labor intensive this process is! Reading this post justified to me the cost of small batch local honey and shows how much TLC goes into it. Thank you for sharing!

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Sweet Harvest Moon August 13, 2013 at 6:41 am

Such an interesting post! Thank you for sharing :)

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Ann August 13, 2013 at 11:45 am

Hi Camille,
On a different subject…I made peakles back in early july. The first couple weeks they were a little funky and salty and I wasn’t quite sure. However I’ve had them at room temperature for a month now and they’ve gotten really good. It took a while for the garlic and oregano to infuse the peas and I give them a little rinse before eating to tone down the salt. They remind me of garlic stuffed green olives. So thanks for inspiring my first foray into live fermentation!

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JB August 14, 2013 at 6:39 am

Loved this post. I’m a former beekeeper….2 years into “retirement”…..and this made me want to haul out my hives again. Do miss the bee activity but am able to get local honey from others in the area. Thanks sharing this

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Heather August 14, 2013 at 8:10 am

Love the learning I got out of this post! Let me know if you decide to sell honey on the side before getting it online. We’ve met once or twice at the PPS (hi! I made curried cauliflower pickles …) but my partner lives down in Lebanon so I am often down there and in Corvallis in addition to Pdx. I’m going through honey like a crazy person this summer doing a bunch of canning and jams. In fact, I have ten pounds of apricot seconds sitting in my freezer as I type awaiting a similar jam frenzy that you’ve already gone through. *sigh*

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Monica August 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Thank you so much for taking the time to share all this information! From someone who dreams of living in my own bee-loud glade someday, your posts on beekeeping are just fantastic — informative and inspiring.

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abby August 16, 2013 at 12:27 am

I had no idea so much honey was produced in a single hive. And though, as you said, it might not be a LOT – wow, 100 gallons is a heck of a lot of honey. I really enjoyed getting a sense of this process. Thanks for sharing, you guys.

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abby August 16, 2013 at 12:29 am

So how big is a full size hive?

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Henry August 16, 2013 at 9:59 am

The largest colonies were five deeps during the main nectar flow with a couple frames of brood in the fourth box. Each deep box is 9 5/8 tall so that puts the height of the colony at about 4 feet tall. My focus this year has been producing colonies that are two deeps for almond pollination, this unit is also considered a full size hive going into the winter.

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Rachel September 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

I was helping my dad harvest his honey this weekend. We had a very strong hive like what you were describing. As we got down to the supers that were closest to the bottom two that are left through the winter, the bees got very aggressive. I got stung several times and my dad too. What do you do when the bees get mad while you have the hive open?

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