I’m asked all the time about honey! People ask me how the bees make it, how much honey can a hive produce and why honey can be a different color and have different tastes.
Here’s the deal. Winnie the Poo was right…the only reason for being a bee is to make honey! Oh they do other things, but a beehive in general makes honey. It makes honey for its own existence. A hive stores honey for the present and for the future. Since bees are workers, they will store more honey than they need…lots more. This is the honey that we as beekeepers remove from the hive–the excess honey that they can spare.
After a couple of weeks of duties inside the hive, the female worker bee is recruited to begin foraging for nectar. We call her a forager. She waits until the first sign of daylight, then off she goes making many trips back and forth from the hive to the flower until it gets dark.
The nectar that she is gathering from flowers is high in water content. Nectar becomes honey once the bees bring it back to the hive and reduce the water content. When the foraging bee arrives at the hive, she often transfers her nectar load to another bee, called a house bee. A house bee is just a regular bee with household duties, but she too will one day earn her wings to gather nectar. The house bee will then transport the nectar to a cell where it will be placed so it can ripen.
Once the moisture level of nectar is reduced to 17% then it is called honey, and the bees will seal off each cell with a cap of wax. This is how we know the honey is complete and ready for harvest…the bees seal it off.
How do they reduce the moisture of the nectar? They fan their wings over the comb to dry out the moisture from the nectar. How do they know when it reaches 17%? I have no clue. I suppose they have a quality control bee that has the sole job of taste sampling the honey.
What makes honey different colors and gives it a different taste? The nectar source. Spring honey is light in color and taste because our nectar source in the Spring is from flowers that produce light nectar, such as clover and locust trees. However, in the summer and early fall, our nectar source is darker and more robust in flavor as it comes from aster, golden rod and other summer and fall flowers.
An expensive and more difficult honey to produce is Tupelo honey, from the Tupelo tree, mainly found in Florida. There are many types of honey, from every nectar source you can image. This provides many different types of honey with different tastes and a different color. Not only is there liquid honey, but there is also comb honey-honey that is sold still sealed in the beeswax comb.
Okay, so how does a beekeeper get honey from the hive into the bottle? Good question. Here’s the simple way we do it. First, when the honey is ready, we head out to our bee yards to essentially steal all the extra honey the bees have made. This is another lesson all by itself and we will cover this later! Once we have the honey is a secure location (away from bees), we are ready to uncap the honey and then, in my case, I use a wonderfully electric honey extractor I purchased from Dadant. They make some of the very best extractors…and all of you will be able to make use of this extractor. Jay and I had a very bad experience with a cheap unit we purchased that made use of an electric drill. We threw honey all over us and the garage. Many folks get out of the bee business because of honey extracting issues. The secret is like many other things we try…having the RIGHT tools.
To fill jars, we open up a value on the holding tank and the honey runs through micron filters. Normally I only run it through one 400 micron filter. Sometimes I use 200 micron filters.
Then, the honey is bottled after being filtered.
We never heat our honey. Honey never spoils and is the only food that has an indefinite shelf life. Most honey will become hard, known as crystallizing. This is normal and does not mean the honey is bad. It means it simply crystallized. This can be remedied simply by leaving a jar in warm water for a while. Honey has been discovered in the ancient pyramids…and yes…it was still good.