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Extracting Honey, Part I
Extracting Honey, Part I
By: James E. Tew

Handling full supers and uncapping frames

November 01, 2007


The picture in my mind

As with so many other things, before I start any project I envision a perfect world where everything goes smoothly. Honey extracting is no exception. Even though most of us already know what is involved in processing honey, when someone gives me a jar of their honey crop, it seems so safe…so clean…so easy. It never is. Someone worked very hard to get the sweet reward in that nice jar just to simply hand it to me.

If you don’t know already, know this – even when everything works well, honey processing is a sticky, tricky, messy job. Try as you might, liquid honey strings and drips. That single drop seems to stick to everything. When each of us processes our crop, our realistic goal should be to keep the mess to a minimum; make the task as enjoyable as possible; and keep spills and overruns to a minimum. Thank heavens honey is water soluble.

An amazing array of choices

For many years, beekeepers have had a good selection of well made honey processing equipment from which to choose. I have visited vendors at meetings and have perused the web in preparation for this article, and am amazed at the range and extent of processing equipment available. While that is a very good thing, it does make equipment selection more complex.

Nothing is standardized

There is no standard extracting system that fits all beekeepers. Every one of you is different and keeps varying numbers of hives in areas with varying honey crop potentials. You process your crops with eclectic pieces of processing equipment that you got from here and there. Though every supplier advertises a complete extracting 'system,' few of you purchase a complete system at once.

When to add equipment and what equipment to add is a common question. Maybe you’ve got your Dad’s old extractor, but you need a better filter. Maybe you have a functional extracting line, but the sump is not heated, if you even have a sump. Is it time for you to add a honey pump? Maybe you have a good extractor but it sits on a wobbly stand. Your extracting line – no matter how large or how small – is unique to you and can always stand some improvement.

The basic pieces of honey

processing equipment

From the smallest to the largest extracting line, every system has, at its core, some basic pieces of equipment. This equipment varies from very simple to very complex

First things first – the unprocessed crop

Before you can remove and extract honey, a surplus crop must be stored by your bees. Keeping bees healthy and productive is a constant challenge and a subject that requires multiple articles. Second, once the bees have produced the crop, it must be removed which is another subject that could be addressed in multiple articles. But having skipped by these necessary tasks, one way or the other, you have full honey supers off and they are awaiting processing. What equipment do you need, or, more appropriately, what equipment do you want to get the job done?

Drip boards

Honey supers awaiting extraction seep or leak honey onto the floor. Not only is it sticky but after washing it away, the remaining honey residue ferments and gives the work area a sweet, fermented smell. Drip boards, which are always homemade, are nothing more than a plywood board the same size as the super (16 ¼' x 19') with a wooden rim usually about 1 ½' wide and ¾' deep on the upper edges. It is very handy to have wooden spacers underneath on each end of the board to allow the use of a hand truck for repositioning stacks of supers. Drip boards catch the leaking honey and confine the potential mess to the rimmed board. In a pinch, close the hand-hole in an inner cover and use this modified board as a bottom drip board. Drip boards can also be used on top of the super stack to keep out dust and wandering bees. Some beekeepers put casters or wheels on them so they can move piles of supers by pushing them.

After using drip boards, a common inclination is put them in the bee yard for the bees to 'clean up.' We’ve all done it, but I have stopped and I recommend that you do, too. It causes robbing, is a potential source of disease spread, and is extra work for you. Plus, the amount of honey is small. Hose them off and put them away.

Hand trucks

I’ve written previous articles on hand trucks. They are indispensable in the honey house. Get one that is heavy duty with hard rubber tires. Pneumatic tires can flatten at all the wrong times and they tend to 'float and sway' under a heavy load.

Super lift

Through the years devices for lifting supers to a comfortable height have been both homemade and commercially manufactured. Essentially some kind of crank mechanism is used to periodically lift the super stack to a convenient height so stooping is reduced. If you only have a few supers, don’t even think about using one. As your super numbers grow and extracting turns into a process taking several days, you might think about improvising one. There are no standard plans. The Walter T. Kelley Company carries a heavy duty super lifter that is electrically operated.

Room heat

Beekeepers frequently bring in honey after the weather has cooled or has even gotten outright cold. Cold honey is thick as cement and is nearly impossible to extract. Commercial operations will frequently have 'hot' rooms where the temperature is kept in the 80s or low 90s. Designs for super heaters have come and gone. I don’t know of any design that is presently available right now; however, if you try to improvise something, it is important for you to heat the honey supers slowly and only with low heat. If higher heat is applied over a short time, the combs nearest the heater will become softened and sag or even drop their honey load. Even a drip board won’t help you with that mess.

How long is too long?

Once the honey is removed and is sitting in your extracting area waiting to be processed, how long can it wait? I know that we all have the best intentions, but schedules change. Certainly, extracting within a few days is the best way to go, but I have known of honey supers waiting for months before being processed (no – they weren’t mine). The honey crop is reasonably stable if just sitting in comb, but several risks exist. It would be much better if the absolute minimum amount of pollen was present. No pollen at all would be great. Wax moths need protein to complete a life cycle. Without pollen, larvae don’t grow to maturity, but small larvae will bore holes that let honey 'weep.' That surface honey will ferment. In small hive beetle areas, the same is true. Boring larvae will make a slimy mess, but pollen must be present for the beetle to reach maturity. Roaches are big fans of stored honey. There is no good reason for letting supered honey wait a long time before being processed, but if it happens, all may – or may not – be lost. At the very best, extract the honey and feed it back to the bees.

Spills and overflows – they happen

There is no good place within this article to discuss the accidental spill or overflow, but you will have one sooner or later. I have an extractor in my storage facility that is bent out-of-round having fallen off its base while in operation. But for whatever reason, you someday will suddenly find honey all over the floor. Make no mistake; it is a mess – a big sticky mess. Use two sheets of heavy cardboard or plastic and, as best you can, pick the honey up and put it back into a bucket. You can probably get 90% of it, but the remaining 10% will seem like 200%.

Clean the floor thoroughly and even then I suspect that within a few days, you will notice a faint fermented honey smell. If the floor was just the regular, dirty floor – no pesticides or chemicals – the honey can be fed back to bees for their use next Spring. Honey is remarkably resilient and stable and does not readily support bacterial growth once it’s back in a container or in comb. (Even so, the thoughts of eating honey taken from the floor are repulsive. At least the bees can get some use from it.) The Walter T. Kelley Company advertises an alarm that attaches to a tank to alert the beekeeper when it’s full.

Uncapping the honey combs

The simple knife

Now that the first step – getting the full supers positioned – is accomplished, you are ready for uncapping. The simplest procedure is to use a kitchen knife. If that is your plan it will go a long way toward making you hate honey processing. Only the very smallest amount of honey can be readily uncapped using such a simple technique. Beekeepers of yore used two heavy knives. Before beginning both knives were heated in hot water, then one knife was used while the other reheated. As the knife in use cooled it was replaced with the reheated knife. This was somewhat of an improvement, but not much. If you absolutely must use this procedure, use two serrated-edged knives.

Hot knives and cappings scratchers

Aside from hot water early hot knives were steam heated. Now hot knives are commonly heated with electricity. This is very nearly an essential tool – even if you run a mechanized uncapper. Uncapping nice, white comb is one thing while sawing through dark, thick comb is something else altogether. A hot knife is invaluable.

While they are invaluable, they are also hot as blazes. A small adjustment screw on some electric models allows you some clumsy control over the heat level. Other more expensive units have dedicated temperature controls incorporated into the electrical supply cord. Be forewarned – you touch yourself with the hot knife – dripping with hot honey – and you will move quickly.

A cappings scratcher is a simple pronged tool for opening extraneous cells that get missed by the hot knife (or any other mechanical uncapper). They are cheap and useful. In fact, but not in reality, one could completely uncap combs with a cappings scratcher, but it would be very slow and all the cappings fragments would quickly clog the strainer.

Other uncapping devices

For many years, the simple hot knife – supported by the incidental use of the cappings scratcher – was the bee industry standard. In recent years, that has changed and is continuing to change. New uncapping devices are available.

Uncapping planes

These gadgets are heated and work somewhat like a device that slices cheese. I’ve not used one a lot so I can’t speak to their practicality. If you have experience with one and have formed an opinion, let me hear from you.

The Hackler Honey Punch

The honey punch is another uncapping tool that is new to me. Working somewhat like a paint roller, it is rolled across the comb surface and punctures the cappings with small holes. In the extractor, centrifugal force pushes the honey through the holes. It comes in different sizes and, on paper, would seem simple to use. If you have experience with one and have formed an opinion, let me hear from you.

Vibrating knives and flails

Many years ago, inventive beekeeping designers devised machinery that mimicked the sawing mowing with hot knives that beekeepers used when employing hand-held hot knives. Various models ranging from simple countertop vibrating knives to commercial level machines costing thousands of dollars are available. The machines made by Cowan have been favorites for many years. The horizontal chain flail machines made by Dakota Gunness or the vertical chain flail uncappers made by Maxant are examples of latter day ideas. Certainly there are others.

Part II next month

Next month, I will continue at the comb uncapping stage and review uncapping tanks, extractors, pumps, sumps, and settling tanks. I will include some comments on what to do with that vintage A.I. Root extractor you picked up at an estate auction. That classic, old processing equipment just about cannot be worn out.

For your edification, I used some of the information on the following web pages:

Betterbee Inc., 8 Meader Road, Greenwich NY 12834. 800.632.3379. Fax & info: 518-692-9802. www.betterbee.com

Brushy Mountain Bee Farm., Rt 1 Box 135, Moraview Falls NC 28654. 800.233.7929. www.beeequipment.com

Cowan Manufacturing (formerly Parowan Honey Co.), P.O. Box 3205, Parowan UT 84761. 800.257.2894. www.cowanmfg.com

Dadant And Sons, Inc., 51 south 2nd St., Hamilton IL 62341. 800.637.7468. Fax: 217.847.3660. www.dadant.com

Hackler Honey Punch www.plastools.com/honey_punch.htm

Walter T. Kelley Co. 807 West Main Street, Clarkson KY 42726-0240. 270.242.2012 or 800.233.2899. Fax: 270.242.4801. www.kelleybees.com.

Mann Lake Ltd., 501 S 1st St., Hackensack MN 56452-2001. 800.233.6663 (USA and Canada). Fax: 218.675.6156. www.mannlakeltd.com

Maxant Industries, Inc., P.O. Box 454, 28 Harvard Rd., Ayer MA 01432. 978.772.0576. Fax: 978.772.6365. www.maxantindustries.com

Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Ohio State University, Wooster, OH 44691, 330.263.3684; Tew.1@osu.edu; www.beelab.osu.edu; www2.oardc.ohio-state.edu/beelab/

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