I find that beekeeping is rewarding on so many levels - and one of the more tangible rewards is honey! Thanks to the warm weather and plentiful rain, the bees in our 18-hive apiary have been filling up our honey supers almost as fast as we can put them on! Here I will be talking about the first part of harvesting honey from the hives.
A few months ago we started adding honey supers to our strongest hives. As the spring dandelions and maple trees bloom, the bees start to make their way out of the hive in search of nectar. Later in the summer, our bees primarily forage on alfalfa and wildflowers. Now it's time to see if the empty frames have been filled with honey! After smoking the bottom of the hive to calm the bees, we remove the outer and inner covers, and check each frame one by one. We are looking to see if most of the cells in the frames have been filled with honey and capped with a beeswax cover. Our rule of thumb is that at least 90 percent of the cells should be capped. If they aren't, we put the covers back on, and give the girls some more time to finish making the honey. This ensures that the bees have had time to "ripen" the honey - removing enough water from the nectar that it will not ferment when stored. If it does look as though most of the cells in the frames are filled and capped, we are ready to move on to the next step.
Step two is removing the bees from the frames of capped honey. This takes a little work, because those bees would much rather keep their honey! There are several ways to remove the honey supers. Some beekeepers pull out the frames one at a time, brush off the bees, and put the frames into an empty, covered box. Other beekeepers use a "fume board" - applying an approved chemical to a felt pad that drives the bees out of the honey super. I prefer a third method - the escape board. It takes a little more time, but I feel that it is less stressful for the bees. An escape board is a thick board that is like a one way maze - bees can go down through the board pretty easily, but due to the "maze" on the underside of it, can't find there way back up. To put it on we just lift up the honey super, put the escape board on top of the hive, and put the honey super back on top with the covers in place. Then, we just walk away and leave them alone for a few days!
When we return a few days later, most, if not all of the bees, should have moved out of the top super and down into the hive. We give them a few puffs of smoke to calm them down, remove the super, brush off the few remaining bees, and bring the supers back to the honey house - in our case, our kitchen!
If we will not be extracting the honey immediately, we need to store the honey very carefully. The honey supers get stacked in a single stack on a surface that will not be ruined if any honey leaks out, and that pests cannot get into. We have a rubber mat that works well for this. The heavy boxes sink into the mat so nothing can get in, and the mat is easy to hose off when we are finished. We also make sure the top is secure. An inner cover with the center hole covered with a screen does the trick!
However, we always plan on extracting the honey as soon as possible. Common hive pests such as small hive beetles and wax moths can stow away in equipment. Without worker bees to keep them in check, these pests can potentially ruin the frames of honey. While we have never experienced this, we have heard of it happening to other beekeepers. If you think you will not be able to extract for a long time, it would be better to leave the honey on a strong hive where the worker bees can keep these pests at bay!