Friday, 2 August 2013

Harvesting honey the simple way - Part 1: Separating the bees from the honey

We run a low-tech beekeeping operation and don't see the need for owning lots of fancy equipment.  There are lots of ways of harvesting honey which involve varying amounts of equipment. Our method is a pretty simple one.

Our frames are unwired and start out looking like this:

Instead of using a full sheet of wax on a wired frame, we use a wax starter strip to help orient the bees in their comb building activities.  We do this for several reasons.

Firstly, this allows the bees to build comb of whatever cell size they want, rather than dictating it via a wax sheet.  We're of the opinion that bees know what they want, and far be it from us to tell them otherwise. Cell size has also been shown to be important for bees in helping them control Varroa without the use of chemicals. This is something that we in Australia have yet to deal with, but the terrible day will no doubt come when the Varroa mite reaches our shores too.

Secondly, using only a small strip of beeswax means we cut down on potential chemical contamination in the hive. Commercially available beeswax has been shown to contain many chemicals, especially in the US where it is contaminated with acaracides.  It's not the same in Australia but the wax in the sheets you buy does come from lots of different sources.  Bees, during their daily activities, visit sources where pesticides and other chemicals are present and it's possible these chemicals can end up in the wax.  So we prefer to have natural comb in our hive which provides much cleaner wax.

Thirdly, it means that when we harvest the honey we don't need an extractor to do it - we can simply cut out the comb from the frame with a knife.....but more on that process later.

Finally, it makes the whole process of constructing frames quicker, easier and cheaper.  All of which are good things in a low-tech beekeeping operation.

The first step in harvesting honey is to get  the bees to leave the box of honey.  This year we trialled a bee escape board design made by the convenor of our Natural Beekeeping group. It's one of several designs he has made and we were the first to trial it.   It consisted of a base, covered with plastic (to catch any dripping honey) and a lid that has escape holes for the bees. All of the materials used to make it can be easily purchased at places like Bunnings.

The box of honey is placed on the bee escape base and the lid is put on the top. It's important to place this close to the hive so the bees  escaping from the box can find their way home. Then you just leave them to it and over the next few hours the bees leave the box and fly back to the hive.  They do this because over time they realise they are no longer part of the hive - the absence of the queen is noted and the box cools down. This prompts them to leave and re-join the hive.

Here's a not-very-good close-up of a couple of bees leaving the box. There's one by the top hole and one at the edge of the flywire to the right of the second hole (look for the little dots on the flywire!).  They have crawled out of the box towards the light through the holes in the lid and are moving along the flywire, about to fly away. Unfortunately the photo was taken well after the major exodus of bees from the box - I should have taken more photos to better illustrate this part of the process .........but at the time I was busy doing other things.

After 3 or so hours the vast majority of bees have left the box of their own accord.  The whole process is much cleaner and easier than taking individual frames from the hive, trying to brush the bees off each frame before putting the frame in a separate container with a lid (such as a styrofoam broccoli box), and then repeating the process for each frame you plan to harvest. This usually involves a lot of bees flying around who are not so happy with you. It does mean 2 visits to the hive though - not a problem if it's in your backyard!

Once 3 or so hours have passed the honey box complete with lid and base can be taken away from it's spot beside the hive and is ready in most cases for harvesting. The few remaining bees can generally be gently brushed off the frames. However, because the primary beekeeper in the PragSust partnership is sensitive to bee stings, we do an extra step. We place the box in the shed/garage with blankets or towels covering the lid so any remaining bees inside the box can't escape. We leave it like this for a day or two before taking the whole lot, as is, inside for processing.  This leaves any bees remaining in the box in a slow and drowsy state and makes it much easier to catch them and release them outside.

We were able to report back that this bee escape lid design worked pretty well, although not quite as well as a different design of his, based on the reports we'd heard of no bees left in the box after 3 hours!  Next time we plan to trial a different technique so we'll report on that method once we've given it a go.

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