Everyone knows bees, specifically honey bees, make honey. But how? And how does that honey get from the hive to the bottle? A brief summary of how the bees and beekeepers do their jobs is provided below with links for additional reading if you want to go farther.
Bees collect nectar to make honey. They start collecting nectar early in the spring when the nectar flow begins. The nectar flow begins at about the time you see maple leaf buds leafing out and dandelion blooms blooming. It is usually around late March or early April in southeastern PA. The flow continues in high volume until about the end of June in PA, but continues throughout the summer at lower volumes. Nectar flows naturally from almost all types of flower blossoms.
Bees are continuously scouting for good sources of nectar and pollen. A bee that finds a good source, communicates the location to her hive mates with a dance humans have yet to understand. Bees suck the nectar out of the flower blossom using their long, tube-like tongues. They store the nectar in their "honey stomach", a separate organ from their digestive stomach. Bees will visit anywhere from 100 to 1500 blossoms on one round trip to collect nectar before returning to the hive. They can carry about 70mg of nectar in their honey stomach which nearly doubles the bee's weight.
The bee's arrival back at the hive is somewhat ungainly. She is overloaded with all of the nectar she is carrying and not very nimble. There are also many other bees flying around the hive. The bees will setup their approach to the hive entrance at about 20 feet out from the entrance in a direct line, if they have that much space. You can safely stand in their flight path at about 10 to 15 feet from the hive and have an incredible experience as the bees buzz past you as if all of this activity is completely coordinated. Of course, it probably is, but we humans don't understand it yet.
Once she arrives in the hive, this "forager" bee, turns over her nectar to a "house" bee by allowing the house bee to suck the nectar from her. The house bee will "chew" the nectar for 30 minutes or so, which adds enzymes that break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. The house bee will then store this nectar in honeycomb in the hive.
At this point, the honey in the comb cells contains too much water. Honey bees maintain their hive at 17% humidity. Bees do not like moisture. This low humidity will gradually dehydrate the honey in the comb. The bees will cap the comb when it is full and the honey is also at 17% water. It is amazing at how consisent this process is. The bees have now completed their part in the honey making process. From here on, they will maintain the comb and a belieft they have lots of honey reserves to ensure their winter survival. They will be wrong!
The beekeeper has been helping the bees throughout this whole process. The help might not be entirely appreciated by the bees though because the "help" is the result of the beekeeper having stolen almost all of the honey the bees created the year before! Starting in mid-winter, the beekeeper has been feeding the bees a sugary syrup to sustain them until the flowers blossom and they can forage for themselves. This help would not be needed if the beekeeper left more honey behind.The beekeeper will be watching closely for the start of the nectar flow to begin adding "supers". Supers are boxes containing frames in which the bees will store their honey. In Pennsylvania, the start of the nectar flow is signaled by the initial opening of the maple leaf buds - just when the first hint of green can be seen. The bees from here on through the summer work feveriously to gather this nectar to make honey so they can survive the next winter. They also gather pollen to feed the queen and all of the bees in the hive, especially the young bees.
In late August in Pennsylvania, we will begin preparations to harvest the honey. The first thing we do is install a bee escape board that keeps the bees from getting into the supers. They can leave, but cannot come back in. The goal is to minimize the number of bees in the supers when we take them. A day or two later, we take the supers and all of the honey in them. We remove the escape boards and also treat the bees at that time for mites.
There are 3 steps to processing the honey out of the supers and into bottle from here. These steps require some specialized equipment to do efficiently, but can be done with some simple hand tools with more work and lost honey. We prefer the efficient tools.
The first step to process the honey is to get it out of the frames contained in the supers. Each frame contains honeycomb, inside of which is the honey. We need to scatch open the honeycomb. We do that using a sharp fork-like object that we use to scape the comb. The next step is to load these frames into a centrifuge. The centrifuge spins at high speed for several minutes spinning the honey out of the comb, down into the centrifuge's tank, and ultimately into a drainage tank. The end result is gooey honeycomb frames and lots of honey in the drainage tank. The frames are put outside for the bees to harvest the remaining honey for themselves. They go crazy over this! (Aren't we nice to return some?)
We now have honey in a tank, but it also contains some solids from the frames, such as wax. Some of the wax is relatively large in size and easily visible, but quite a bit is also very small and intermixed in the honey. We let the honey sit in the tank overnight. The wax is lighter than the honey and floats to the top. We then drain the tank the next day through a screen into pails from the bottom of the tank. The screen removes large chunks of wax leaving pure honey in the pail until a wax-dense honey is all that remains in the tank. We put that out for the bees to harvest too.
The end result of this process is pails of honey and beeswax. The beeswax often requires some more spinning in a centrifuge to get some more honey out of it and can then be made into a variety of products, such as candles and lip balm. The honey pails are often about 5 gallons in size, weigh about 55 pounds and are stored for later bottling.
Honey keeps indefinitely if it is kept from being exposed to the open air. Heat it just a little to warm it, then shake, if you see crystalized honey. Crystalized honey is not bad honey. The crystals liquify with just a little warmth and shaking and the honey is good as it always was.References:
|Lansing State Journal, 1997|
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