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A sweet treat: From the humble honey bee to your dining table

Features | Published:

THE cascade of long flower stems in the afternoon breeze was proof that the bees had done their work. Fruit was setting on the sweet chestnut trees and the main nectar flow had ended; time to bring in the honey harvest.

Ever wonder how the local honey on your toast came from the honey bee to your table? It is not just the bees that work hard, as beekeeping is physically demanding and time consuming, something that novices to the craft soon learn.

At this time of year physical demands are at their height and the hours are long as the harvest is gathered in. It can appear a complicated process to the non-beekeeper, so I will do my best to keep the description simple.

The first thing the beekeeper has to undertake at season’s end is to check whether the cells in the honey combs are all being sealed off by the bees, indicating that the honey has a water content lower than 21 per cent. If it does not have a lower water content, there is a strong possibility that it will ferment and spoil when extracted. The next task is to put clearing boards on the hives to drive the bees down into the brood chamber. This is done by clipping one-way valves, known as porter escapes, into the crown boards that top the boxes, as these will act as clearing boards. Next, the queen excluder that allows the bees to move up into the honey box – but prevents the larger queen from doing so – is removed and replaced with the crown board. The now open upper box is then covered with a sheet of plastic and sealed with tape. The temperature increases inside the box, driving the bees down through the one-way valves into the brood box below. Over a 24-hour period, all the bees are cleared from the box and, late in the day, it can be removed for extraction.

That is the theory. In reality the bees are very defensive of their gold, so you have to be calm, gentle and above all quick. And still there are numerous things that can go wrong.

For example: if the one-way valves are damaged in some way so the bees are not cleared down, gaps around the box edges allow the bees access to the honey, which they can rapidly remove. Or the plastic sheet might not be fitted correctly, again allowing the bees access – so preparation is key.

Depending on the type of hive used, the ideal end of season total weight of a honey box should be anywhere between 35 and 45 pounds and in a good year each hive, well managed, can contain two or three of these boxes. There was a time when as well as holding down full-time jobs, we ran 80 hives, but thankfully now we are retired we have cut down to 22 so as to keep our hand in.

When removing the harvest there are things you should do and things you should not. You should be gentle when removing the boxes to avoid vibration, as that will set off a defence attack. The honey boxes should be placed in a bee-free space as soon as possible, as bees have an incredible sense of smell and if left in the open the boxes of honey can be emptied of honey in less than an hour. Once the boxes are removed the one thing you do not do is remove the porter escapes from the covers, unless, that is, you want to become a victim in a scene from The Swarm. It is important to extract the honey in a warm room as soon as possible, as once away from the heat of the hive it begins to thicken, making it difficult to remove. The process of removing or extracting starts by slicing away the wax capping the bees place over the full cells in the frames and then placing these frames into a centrifuge to be spun and the honey tapped off into plastic buckets.

The honey is then poured through a fine strainer into settlement tanks and left in a warm environment to drive off excess moisture and for any wax and loose pollens to float to the top. After a few days the wax scum that forms is skimmed off the top and the honey decanted into food-grade tubs and stored till needed for bottling.

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To do this, a tub of warmed honey is poured into a smaller version of a settlement tank; a jar is placed on a set of scales under the tap, then filled and labelled.

The boxes and spun frames are frozen to kill off any wax moth grubs and once thawed out again they are wrapped in newspaper and industrial cling film before being stored in a cool dry store ready for the next season. This is just one part of the season’s work needed to bring honey to your table, so if you have ever questioned the cost of local honey you will now have some idea of what is involved at harvest time.

This season will produce an average honey harvest, though the quality and taste will always be of the finest because of the diverse range of trees and plants the bees collect nectar from. Those of you who suffer from hay fever may benefit from eating honey from your local area. Take a spoonful each day from February into the autumn, as the pollens contained in the honey may help desensitize any allergic reaction. Whether you like your honey liquid or creamed, you can be sure that it is pure, natural gold.

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