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Beekeeping in a Nutshell Number 5 



Visitors to the National Honey Show in London cannot fail to be impressed by Class 1 - Open To The World. Twenty-four jars of clean, clear, matched honeys in a stack, sparkling under the spotlights, Even the smallest local show will have entries to be admired whether comb, liquid, granulated or soft set.

To layman or expert, the difference between prize-winners and a dull uncared-for honey is obvious. There is no secret bee, however, that will make this difference; no sophisticated equipment is essential; no subtropical microclimate exists in your neighbour's garden that makes his honey better or taster than yours. The keys to good honey processing are care, hygiene and understanding.



In an ideal world, supers would be removed, taken to the honey house, and processing started. In practice, there may be some delays in the process. If honey is to be left in supers for any length of time, there are several dangers to consider. The dangers to honey stored in supers are robbing, by insects or mice, damage by wax moth, and fermentation.

Supers may be stacked in a garage or outhouse, or a room indoors, providing it is clean, dry and protected from excessive heat. Beware - odours from paint, chemicals and even cooking will taint stored honey.

Stand a stock of supers in an upturned roof, and put a roof on top. Flat boards will do, but even a slight warp will admit bees and wasps, which will show great persistence, and clean out full supers. If the loss of honey is not a problem, the potential nuisance to family and neighbours could be. lt is also unfair to expose other people's bees to the possibility, even if remote, of spreading American foul brood by robbing. If the supers are uneven, with cracks, creaking joints or missing knots, it may help to use parcel tape to seal between the supers. The odd piece of wax or foam rubber in the right place can save a lot of trouble.

Ants also take advantage of free honey, getting through the smallest spaces. Earwigs sometimes squeeze in and take up residence in cells.

While doing little damage to the stores, the odd half earwig in the honey does nothing to inspire confidence.

In an occupied hive, wax moths are kept down by bees. Although wax moths prefer the nutrition of the pupal skins and debris of brood comb, super combs will also be attacked. lt is unlikely that supers will be left long enough before extracting for much damage to take place, but vigilance is needed. The normal defences against wax moth are out of the question. P.D.B. will ruin honey for human consumption.

Physically and chemically, honey can change in prolonged storage. Crudely, honey is a solution of sugars and other compounds in water. The first factor in a honey's quality is the water content. (Honey with more than 21 % water content, apart from heather or clover, where 23% is admissible, is not fit for sale, except for industrial use. 18% or even 17% represents a much higher quality).

Honey is hygroscopic, i.e. exposed to the air it will attract moisture from the atmosphere. In a very dry, warm atmosphere, the honey will lose water, and the quality will improve. In the conditions prevailing in Britain the honey is much more likely to absorb water from the air. Increased water content gives firstly a poorer honey, and secondly and more importantly, a much increased possibility of fermentation. Signs to watch for are watery honey running from open cells, bubbly honey, and honey weeping through cappings. One or two cells like this in a super will not ruin the lot. If there is any appreciable amount it is a waste of time extracting it for human consumption, The bees will readily take it back as a feed, with no ill-effects.


Whether one super is being handled, or five thousand, the requirements of a honey room are the same. Above all is hygiene. Floors and surfaces should be washable and toilet and washing facilities available. Hot and cold running water are not imperative, but very helpful. Where honey is extracted only for consumption by family & friends and not sold, the odd bee wing or lump of wax is not a disaster, whereas honey for sale, if unsatisfactory in any way, can theoretically bring a visit from a Trading Standards officer to scrutinise every part of the operation. If keeping bees and wasps out is difficult, it may be worth considering a night shift, with supers being opened as foragers cease flying. After working through the night, all honey can be packed away, supers sealed and equipment washed before enough bees discover the feast.

The thickness (or viscosity) of liquid honey changes with temperature - the higher the temperature, the "runnier the honey becomes. In a cold honey room, honey will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to remove in an extractor. As the temperature increases, the honey becomes easier to handle. As a rule of thumb, the temperature should be as high as the operators can reasonably stand, anywhere between 21 OC and 350C (70oF and 950F.) Not only do the frames empty rapidly but setting or "ripening" is more,thorough, Air escapes easily with less froth, and heavier particles drop quickly. The honey room layout should be planned so that there is a rational easy flow from one task to the next. Lifting and moving of supers and frames should be minimised.

Honey and wax will inevitably reach every corner of the room, floor, door handles, taps - anything touched by foot or hand will get sticky. Throughout the processing, keep handy one bucket of warm soapy water for washing surfaces - a repeated quick wipe will keep the mess under control - plus another container with water for washing hands and utensils. Wax is removable with a sharp piece of wood - more easily later, when the room is cooler.


At the onset, the beginner faces a confusing array of hives, frames and even bees, let alone extracting equipment. For the beekeeper with one hive, it is not essential to splash out on elaborate equipment - it is perfectly practical to enjoy the honey crop using basic kitchen tools. Before a super is put on the hive in the Spring, the decision has to be made how to harvest the honey. Options are: -

a. Cut comb honey.
b. Section honey.
c. Extracted honey.


This is comb honey which is cut out of the frame and packed, commonly in 8oz and 12oz pieces. lt is eaten with the wax comb, and is one of the best ways to present honey, as aromas and flavour are unimpaired by extracting and heating. Granulated honey in comb is not very attractive to most customers. Where oil seed rape is expected, cut comb or section honey is better avoided,

This method is attractive to the beginner who has not access to an extractor, as minimal extra equipment is needed. Super frames to be used for cut comb honey are fitted with "thin super' or "extra thin" foundation. Usually a whole sheet is used per frame; less frequently a 25 to 50 mm deep full-width starter strip may be used. The type of frames used and spacing are not critical, bearing in mind the depth of the containers used for packing. Very widely spaced frames may produce comb which is too thick for the lid to fit on the container. Commonly obtainable cut comb containers can comfortably hold a comb about 40 mm thick Where Modified National hives are fitted with castellated runners at 9 frames per super, or WBC at 8 frames per super, theoretically the comb should fit, but any irregularity in drawing the combs will mean the lid will not sit properly.

Before cutting, the frame should be examined to decide which side of the comb has the better appearance. The frame is then laid on a clean tray, and the whole comb cut out with a sharp knife. Cutting to fit the container is not automatic, as only the best parts of the comb can be used, The hollow parts at the edge should be avoided, and uncapped cells kept to a minimum. A good British Standard frame will yield five 8oz portions, and a Langstroth frame possibly six 8oz portions. Cutting can be done either with a sharp kitchen knife, a cheese wire, or a stainless steel comb cutter. Use of the comb cutter is more easily demonstrated then described. A straight vertical push takes the cutter to the midrib; then a gentle circular rocking movement will cut through the midrib, with another vertical push to finish the job. With the exception of heather honey, all portions of cut comb should stand on a grid to let the honey drain from the outside cut cells. A piece of comb honey swimming in its container in liquid honey is poor presentation. Because heather honey is a gel it can be packaged straight away. Comb honey may be stored, either in the frame before cutting or after packaging, providing it is examined regularly for signs of deterioration. Damage may be caused by wax moth (i.e. white caterpillars, cocoons, web, tunnels, droppings), braula ( rambling tunnels just beneath the cappings like crazy-paving markings), fermentation or granulation. The ideal storage is in a deep freeze, in sealed polythene bags, where comb will keep indefinitely. A development of cut comb production is chunk honey, where a piece of cut comb is put in a jar and surrounded with a clear runny honey, producing what can be an extremely attractive presentation. Details of this method can be found in reference books.


It is the mark of the bee craftsman to produce sections, the finest and traditional way of presenting honey. The tricks and quirks of this method demand more attention than this booklet In brief, the beekeeper has a choice of square timber or plastic sections, or round sections. The end result to be aimed for is a well-filled section, with clean white cappings. Good sections command high prices -and deservedly so.


It is possible to enjoy extracted honey without recourse to a centrifugal extractor, using basic kitchen implements to cope with one or two supers. lt will be time-consuming, sticky and inefficient, but if it means that the beekeeper's family can obtain some benefit from his or her obsession, it will be worth while

Quite simply, the comb, cappings, cells, honey and all are scraped from the frame. A large table spoon or serving spoon handled carefully will allow the foundation to be left intact, while both sides are scraped reasonably dry. A hole here and there doesn't matter at all to the bees who will patch it up later, and maybe even benefit from the wax-working exercise. The honey and wax should be mashed up in a clean basin or bucket, then tipped into a jelly bag, or similar strainer and left to drain, overnight at least, but possibly even for days. The wax left in the strainer will still contain a lot of honey, which is best fed back to the bees, by diluting with warm water, and putting the mix, wax and liquid, into any
kind of feeder.

Possibly the beekeeper has been caught out by oil seed rape, and has combs of solid honey. Providing the super frames have never been used for brood-rearing, this can still be recovered, Try scraping the comb back to the midrib. If the granulation is not too hard, this can be achieved. If not, smash out the whole comb, break the comb up into a bucket, put the lid on and warm in a honey warming cabinet or controllable oven to 480C to liquefy the honey, but not the wax. Then it can be filtered as before. This sort of procedure will soon convince the beginner of the benefit of the centrifugal extractor.


The warmer honey is, the more easily it runs. lt is a great advantage to warm the honey prior to extracting. A pile of supers contains a substantial mass of honey, which will not warm up enough by simply bringing it into a warm room an hour or two before extracting. A day or two is required to do the job thoroughly. A further benefit of prewarming is that the moisture content of honey in uncapped cells can be reduced. If this is desired, supers can be piled in staggered stacks, and a fan heater directed towards them. More elaborate arrangements are, of course, possible, depending on the beekeeper's ingenuity. While some heating is frequently inevitable, the drawbacks to be borne in mind are that:-

a. heating will drive some of the volatile compounds that give each honey its unique flavour and aroma. Prolonged heating can darken and damage the honey; it is an insensitive beekeeper who will use this degree of excessive heat, but the dangers need to be understood. There are standard chemical tests to identity over-heated honey.

b. the wax softens. At 400C, uncapping will be more difficult, with cell walls dragged along by the knife; at 450C combs will soften and collapse; at 630C, wax will melt.


Each frame is lifted from the super, one lug located on a bar over a bucket or tray or tank, and the cappings removed, by one of the following:-


Several patterns are available, with either a scalloped edge or a razor edge. The knife can be used cold, or heated by standing in hot water. It is useful to have two knives and alternate them, one warming while the other is in use. It is better to work downwards, so the hand holding the top of the frame cannot be struck by the knife. The easiest frames to uncap are Manley frames, where the knife is laid hard between top and bottom bars, and a layer of honey and cappings is sliced off. Other frames are more tiring to uncap, as the wrist is guiding as well as cutting.


This is a fork with numerous steel prongs, a cheap and effective uncapper. It is dragged down the cappings like a rake, breaking and flaking the cappings. The flakes of wax do not drop off, but are mostly carried in to the extractor, and have to be filtered out later.


Like a longer version of the cappings scratcher, the tines have an offset near the handle. This allows the 'Lines to run along just under the cappings and parallel to the surface without a build-up of cappings under heel of the fork. The cappings are removed entirely, with a surprisingly small amount of honey. More care is required than with the cappings scratcher, to avoid puncture marks on palm or finger!

d: ELECTRIC KNIFE - With or without adjustable thermostat

As the amount of honey being handled increases, a heated knife becomes a useful addition to the arsenal. This may be steam heated, but is much more likely to be electric. These come in two versions - one with an on-off switch, and one with a variable thermostat. These knives are designed to uncap continuously, at a temperature and heat capacity to cope with the cooling effect of honey and liquefying wax running down the blade. Once again it is safer to cut downwards. This also reduces the cooling of the knife as the honey and wax mostly falls away from the blade. An alternative is to mount the knife in a fixed position over a tank or chute into a tank and move the frame over the knife.


Depending on the method of uncapping, the amount of honey mixed with the wax cappings will vary. Different methods are available for recovering the honey.
a. The simplest way, but fairly inefficient, is by uncapping into a bucket, basin or uncapping tray and then by gravity straining as described before. Typically a filter bag, tailored to a 70 Ib polythene tank, is carefully filled with cappings and allowed to drain as long as possible. The honey left with the wax can be washed out and used for making mead or fed back to the bees. 

b. By uncapping into a heated tray, the wax and honey can be separated and processed simultaneously, cutting out a lot of the sticky labour above. The stainless steel tray has an electrically heated water jacket. Honey rapidly runs down the sloping surface, while wax is held back and gradually melts. In the more basic models, honey and wax leave from the same outlet into a bucket and the wax is separated simply by floating and solidifying on top of the honey. More elaborate versions have more efficient water jackets and controls, and honey/wax separators.

Other possibilities for separating honey and wax include tanks with either radiant panels over the floating wax layer, or heating coils within the wax layer, both producing a layer of liquid wax on top of a depth of largely unheated honey. Pressing, vacuum filtering and centrifugal spinning are also available, but become relevant only when large quantities of honey are involved. When working efficiently,uncapping will take place while the extractor is running. In which case some arrangement is needed to hold the frames and catch the drops until they are transferred to the extractor. At the most elegant, this may be a carousel rack on a trolley.


The experienced beekeeper will have a good idea of the composition of the honeys in the supers. The beginner will need to learn to identify possible problems at this stage. lt is unlikely that the beginner will unwittingly have ling heather honey, but if this is the case, it will not extract in the normal manner. The aroma is unique, the colour is amber and has a jelly-like consistency.This subject will be touched upon later.

The major difficulty, which has become a feature of British Beekeeping in the last 20 years, is the presence of oilseed rape. This crop has benefited British beekeepers by providing a reliable spring crop, in some years yielding very heavily, and producing what can be a high quality honey if properly handled. Because of its rapid granulation, however, oil seed rape has had a bad press. If uncapping shows combs have started to granulate, it may be worth trying to extract, particularly if it has only started to go "mushy". Bear in mind there will be difficulty with an unbalanced load, however. If it does not spin out, the only options are to scrape it off the midrib, or break the comb out, and liquefy the honey by heating; or to feed it back to the bees either in the frame or in a feed. The question of processing oilseed rape honey is largely a question of management and preplanning.


The principle of the centrifugal extractor is that the frame is mechanically rotated, in effect throwing the honey out. A fortunate beginner will be able to borrow or hire an extractor from the local association. If intending to purchase, the choices faced are tangential or radial? Plastic or stainless steel? Manual or electric?



In a tangential machine the frames lie almost against the barrel of the drum. The outer side of the frame is the one that empties when spinning. The machine is evenly loaded and spun until perhaps half the outer side is extracted. Flecks of honey will be seen flying from the frame and striking the barrel. The frames are then turned round so that the other face of the comb is facing outwards, and
the machine spun until this side is completely empty. The frame is turned for one last time and the last of the honey removed. This routine prevents combs breaking as the full, inner side bursts through the empty outer side. Each frame has to be handled four times, i.e. load, turn, turn, unload and the machine has to be started and stopped three times.

The amount of handling and time taken are a disadvantage. On the other hand, extraction can be more thorough than in alternative machines. lt is also the most compact extractor available, consequently cheaper, and if heather honey is expected, this is the only type to cope with it.


In a radial machine, the frames sit between rings, arranged like the spokes of a wheel. Honey is extracted from both sides simultaneously, so there is no need to juggle the frames once they have been loaded. Radial machines tend to be larger then tangential machines, to ensure that frames are far enough from the centre to extract properly. For a given size, though, they can hold many more frames than a tangential, e.g. a 20-frame radial will only take 8 frames tangentially. Most radial machines can have tangential screens fitted to convert them, in order to be able to handle deep frames, or extract heather honey. In both tangential and radial extractors, it should be noted that there is no significance in the direction of rotation. Two way rotation is not necessary though some electric radial
machines have a fast reverse phase to remove a little more of the honey in the base of the cells and "dry" the combs.


The traditional material for extractors was tin-plated steel, with soldered joints. Good quality tin-plate will last for many years but when it starts to rust there is little that can be done to recoat or paint the inside of the barrel to a standard which would be approved for processing a food product. Trading Standards officers do not appreciate traces of rust or paint in honey. Although often still available second-hand, tin-plate extractors have been replaced by plastic and stainless steel barrels. When a choice is available stainless steel is more durable than plastic, does not scratch or deteriorate with ultra-violet and though more expensive will command a higher resale price should the need arise.


For two or three hives, it is usual to have a manual extractor. With more than twenty hives, manual extraction becomes very tedious and tiring. In between the choice depends on the beekeeper's pocket, stamina and outlook. Besides the saving in labour, an electric extractor reduces the time taken, as other jobs can be carried out while the extractor is running. Normally, a complete complement of frames would be uncapped while the previous load is spinning.


Frames of honey vary in weight and should be loaded evenly with the heavy and light frames spaced out load will make the machine shudder. If any granulation is in the frames, the imbalance may increase as the liquid honey is thrown out and the solid remains. While it may be remedied by re-distributing the frames, this is time-consuming. Working a manual extractor with an unbalanced load is fatiguing; on an electrically-powered one it can be dangerous.

Wherever possible, extractors should be fixed down. Bolting to the floor is ideal, especially in permanent honey-house. In most cases though, this may be impractical. One solution for a small manual extractor may be to mount it on a board which extends out to the operator's position, so his or her weight is anchoring the machine. An alternative for an electrically-powered machine only is the extractor mover. This simple, but remarkably effective device is a platform mounted on 3 castors. Any out-of-balance load is effectively eliminated by a small movement of the platform. In practice the platform describes small circles even under grossly unbalanced loads. If being used in a kitchen, it may help to lay a small piece of carpet, carpet tile or sheet of hardboard so the castors do not mark
the floor covering. If there is any small slope on the floor, one or two elastic luggage straps attached to the wall and extractor handles will stop the machine wandering downhill.

Whatever method of fixing is used, it is helpful to have the extractor high enough to let honey run directly into a bucket. The 10-litre bucket holding 30 Ib or so is the maximum amount of honey that can be conveniently moved and lifted and tipped out by hand.


This beautiful honey has a unique jelly-like nature, which becomes runny when agitated. Unless it is intended for use as comb honey, extraction for run honey must be by either a) pressing combs cut from their frames or b) "stirring" each cell before extracting centrifugally. Small scale pressing can be done economically with a set of Hand Squeezers but for any quantity over one or two supers it is worth contacting the local Beekeeping Association in traditional heather areas as a specialised heather press may well be available for hire. The most basic device for agitating individual cells is a row of needles embedded in a wooden block, which is then plunged through the comb. A heather honey roller has sprung needles which do not damage the mid-rib. More sophisticated machines are available for larger productions.


A first rinse of cold water, followed by successively warmer washes will remove honey and wax from extracting equipment. The last warm wash should not be greater than 600C to prevent wax melting and streaking surfaces. A long handled brush will be helpful, and a chamois leather or sponge attached to a stick will allow the bottom grooves to be thoroughly dried. No coating is necessary on modern materials, but a smear of liquid paraffin is recommended to protect tin-plate.


British Beekeepers Association, Advisory Leaflet No. 33, "Summary of the Laws Applying to the Sale and Supply of Honey"
Allan Calder "Oilseed Rape and Bees" ( Northern Bee Books)
Eugene E. Killion "Honey in the Comb" ( Dadant)
Harry Riches "Honey Marketing" Bee Books New and Old)
Jeff Rounce "Honey from Source to Sale & Showbench" (Northern Bee Books)

(c) Beedata www.beedata.com