CLEANING & MARKETING HONEY
by Matthew Allan NDB
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.
ESSENTIALS FOR ALL HONEY HANDLING
HONEY IN THE SUPER
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. It 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. It 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.
HONEY HANDLING ROOM
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°C and 35°C (70°F and 95°F.) 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,
Cleaning honey on a small scale is done by letting it drain by gravity through one or more stainers which may be fabric, plastic, tin-plate or stainless steel to remove wax, propolis
lumps, bits of bees, packed pollen and any other debris. Straining is not intended to remove individual pollen grains which should be regarded as an integral part of the honey.
If the honey being extracted is truly liquid with no granulation and it suits the beekeeper, the best time to strain is immediately following extraction. It is possible to remove the worst of the debris from the honey by hanging a strainer from the tap of the extractor. The capacity of these strainers is very small, so the beekeeper must be careful as any blockage means wasted honey and sticky feet.
A more certain alternative is to let the honey run from the extractor into a 10-litre or 5-litre bucket which, when full, can be lifted and tipped through a strainer into a tank at a convenient height for bottling.
A common combination is a 70 lb polythene tank, fitted with a tailored strainer bag, or a double slide strainer, in which the first screen removes the larger debris, and the second removes the very fine particles. The approximate mesh size of these is half a millimetre, which is fine enough, given proper settling, for final bottling for sale.
As colonies and yields increase, the use of proper ripeners becomes attractive. These come in a range from 50 kg to 1 tonne, in stainless steel, with sloping floors to ease flow and special bottling taps. Removable strainers are supplied - a combination of coarse (1.2 mm dia) and fine (0.8 mm dia) is adequate for subsequent bottling.
If honey being extracted has even a slight amount of granulation,It becomes almost pointless attempting to strain it immediately. Even the finest crystals will gradually build up and clog strainers. The whole honey production line will come to a halt, waiting for honey to get through strainers drip by drip. Before this honey can be processed it must be warmed to re-liquefy it. Many beekeepers concentrate on extracting as a single process, sealing the unstrained honey usually in 10-litre buckets and then putting them in storage. When the honey is to be bottled, it is heated and liquefied; in this state it will run through strainers almost like water.
Honey deteriorates with heating and should only be heated when essential. Loss of flavour and aroma, darkening, and caramelisation are directly observable effects of excessive heat. Where the quality is in serious doubt, laboratory analysis of two components of the honey, H.M.F. and diastase can indicate the degree of over-heating. It is perhaps necessary to retain a sense of perspective in regard to the point at which overheating damages honey. For example, storage at over 27°C for months, or treatment above 75°C (well above wax-melting temperature) for even short periods, will certainly damage honey. Handling and processing honey by the methods described here, when used sensibly, will give the beekeeper a product to be proud of.
A variety of "warm spots" has been useful to beekeepers for generations - beside the oven, in the airing cupboard, adjacent to a radiator, even in a sunny window. The most reliable method is a honey warming cabinet made with thick insulation, with a low-powered heater inside, commonly a light bulb, but now more likely to be a special heating element with electronic control. Taking either one or two buckets, or a stack of 1 lb jars, the degranulation can be
Most honeys can be liquefied at a temperature of 43°C, but oil seed rape will stubbornly remain solid until 48° or 49°C. When liquefying full buckets, it helps to stir the bucket from time to time, to break up the solid central mass. When dealing with oil seed rape, a layer of large crystals may remain when all the rest is liquid. It is as well to pour off the liquid portion, than to persist with trying to liquefy everything. The crystals can either be tipped into the next bucket, or fed to the bees.
It is an axiom among beekeepers that every jar of honey sold should be of show standard. On the other hand, show experts will devotedly spend hours on a few jars of honey. For extremely fine filtering, an industrial monofiliment nylon cloth of tightly-controlled mesh size is available. This cloth is of welded construction, so the mesh cannot distort or enlarge, and is very tough. The 200 micron mesh (i.e. one fifth of a millimetre) will filter out anything larger than pollen grains and provide a honey of sparkling clarity. It should be noted that the slightest granulation will result in,a clogged cloth so warming may help with every batch.
USING A RIPENER TANK
Handling and care do not cease once the honey is in the tank or ripener. Honey that has just been extracted has mixed with a lot of air, flying out from the frame and hitting the barrel. Honey tipped through a strainer runs in streams and traps air bubbles. If this honey is bottled straight away, the air gradually rises out of the liquid, as a frothy scum. Although perfectly palatable, it is unsightly, and may mean that short weight has been given, where the bottling is judged by the level of the honey, and not by weighing each jar.
By leaving the honey in a tank or ripener, overnight at least, and longer if possible, the air bubbles rise to the surface, and any heavy flecks that have escaped the strainer have a chance to settle. With cold, sluggish honey, this process will be slow. The term "ripening" is inappropriate, but accepted, for the settling process.
The major components of honey are glucose and fructose (otherwise known as dextrose and laevulose) and water. Fructose is highly soluble in water; glucose is less so. With time the glucose tends to come out of solution and form solid crystals, i.e. the honey granulates. There are very few world honeys which do not granulate. The rate at which honey granulates is dependent on the proportions of glucose, fructose and water. Oil seed rape which is high in glucose granulates rapidly; whereas sweet chestnut, high in fructose, is much slower. Leaving a honey to granulate naturally may produce a good quality product, but it can be very hit or miss. Oil seed rape left to its own devices produces a very hard, unsightly grey granulation, with a gravelly texture in the mouth.
SOFT SET or CREAMED HONEY
Rather than leaving honey to granulate naturally, it is far better to control the setting.
Granulation or crystal growth in a solution starts around "nuclei". These can be any irregularity in the liquid - crystals already present, pollen grains, specks of dust or even air bubbles. The first stage in producing a soft set honey is to eliminate as many of these as possible. The bulk of the honey is warmed to thoroughly liquefy it. It is then allowed to cool, and some honey with a smooth, soft grain, which is usually referred to as the seed, is blended in. (If the bulk of the honey is still warm, the seed may be liquefied entirely, and hence useless.) The proportion of seed is not critical, Anything up to a third of the total may be seed, but even 5% will be adequate, although the time taken will be longer. The fine crystals of the seed are distributed through the honey to start the granulation process. The success of a soft set honey lies in regular, short spells of agitation. Crystals must be allowed to start growth, then be broken up and spread again through the solution. Each time more and more fine crystals are being formed. Agitation may be by a clean stick stirring round and round, a honey creamer (which is plunged up and down, taking care not to drag in air bubbles) or a stainless steel cork-screw style stirrer fitted in an electric drill at slow speed. A minute or two of agitation every hour or two is adequate. It may be a few hours, or a couple of days before the honey starts to go opaque or cloudy, and stirring gets stiffer. It is now time to bottle. (If bottling is delayed, the honey will be too viscous to bottle properly, lying in layers in the jar with trapped air bubbles, or worse still set completely in the tank.) Once bottled, the ideal temperature for storage is 14°C. The honey is full of very fine crystals which grow rapidly until granulation is complete. In this way, the size of the crystals is limited, and the crystal lattice grows so quickly that the liquid portion of the honey is distributed evenly between the crystals. This process achieves a product which is smooth in texture, an important factor when selling through a third party, and is stable, retaining its appearance over long periods.
The ambitious and hard-working beekeeper may be able to extract several different flows each year. With the assistance of pollen analysis, it would be possible to sell identified honeys such as "Sweet Chestnut", "Lime", "Clover". In most cases the only distinction made is between blossom honey, which covers every type of honey, and heather, which is from the ling (Calluna vulgaris). Even without trying to sell identified honeys, it may help to keep different batches of honey separate, so that some blending can be done at bottling time. For instance, a strong distinctive honey, such as bell heather, may be added to oil seed rape producing a honey with a stronger colour and richer flavour. It will be very much dependent on local taste and management systems.
STORING and BOTTLING
In good years the honey crop may be greater than can be sold or given away and so lead to problems of space for storage of jars. Honey will keep for many years in airtight containers such as plastic honey buckets or 14 kg laquered honey tins. The lids of plastic buckets and tins should be pressed tightly closed and sealed with adhesive tape. Alternatively a polythene bag may be placed inside the container, sealing with a freezer tie after filling with honey. Such a lining is essential in older tins with a dubious lacquer coating.
As honey is needed bulk containers may be placed in a warming cabinet for 24 to 48 hours (see Heating Honey above) and poured in to a bottling tank for blending, creaming or just running into jars.
By far the majority of the home honey crop is bottled in standard 1 lb jars and labelled with an off-the-shelf label, but a distinctive, unique presentation can make a great difference to sales. Containers that are readily available range in size from 1oz to 1kg in plastic and glass.
Time spent thinking through the production-line of the bottling process will not be time squandered. The sequence could be for example (for a right-handed operator):-
a. Place clean jars to left-hand side of bottling tank. Examine each jar as it is placed out, and wipe the inside with a clean, dry, non-fluffy cloth where necessary.
b. Hold jar under bottling tap, and let well "ripened" honey flow down the side of the jar. This reduces the amount of air dragged in. Gradually close the tap as the jar fills, so that the last of the flow is controlled. There are two methods of knowing when the jar is full. Firstly by the level of the honey - i.e. a known volume. The necessary level will have to be established by weighing individually the first few jars. This level can then be reasonably judged by eye, but a regular sample must be weighed to ensure that the weight is correct. Secondly, it is possible for the jar to be sitting on scales as it fills - with balance scales, with a 1 lb weight and an empty jar in the opposite pan, the weight will be correct when the pointer reaches the vertical. With practice, this can be very accurate. An alternative is electronic scales. Some neat types are available with a "tare" function so that the weight of the jar iseliminated from the reading.
c. Full jars are passed to the right-hand side of the tank where lids are put on. Once again, a quick run round the inside of the lid with a cloth ensures that no dust specks on the lid drop off on to the surface of the honey.
d. Labels can be put on.
e. Jars are packed for storage or sale. The boxes in which the jars come can be re-used, with some reinforcing. Extra layers of card on the bottom and between the layers of jars will help prevent collapsed boxes.
Two basins of water, one for implements and surfaces, and one for hands, will be needed to cope with the occasional drip. Some beekeepers save the cost of jars by refilling those returned by customers. It is hardly necessary to point out the care essential in washing these out. It is not worth the effort to re-use lids, whether metal with wads, metal with flowed-in liners, or plastic.
Storage should be in tightly-closed, moisture-resistant containers to reduce absorption of water from the atmosphere. (Few honey containers are actually airtight, able to eliminate entirely water vapour exchanges. Jars of honey with caps and wads, even tightly closed, will get heavier over the years).
The dangers of storage are fermentation and aging.
Yeasts which can thrive in strong sugar solutions are found in all honeys. These will cause fermentation unless:-
a. the honey is pasteurised - a process beyond the easy control of the small-scale
b. the water content is less than 17%. This can be measured by a refractometer (expensive) or honey hydrometer, bearing in mind that the sample must be liquid. If a granulated honey is to be tested, it must first be warmed. Honeys of 17% - 20% may be safe, but honey over 20% water will ferment.
c. the honey is stored below 10°C. Below this temperature the yeasts cannot multiply.
Honey stored for prolonged periods gets darker in colour, its flavour and aroma alter, HMF increases and enzyme activity decreases. All of these effects increase substantially with temperature.
The best conditions for storing honey in bulk or in bottle are cool and dry.
The labelling of honey is regulated by law. Full details are given in reference books. In brief, the requirements are:-
a. "Honey" must be on the label. It may be described by locality, e.g. Dorset, Dee Valley or Devon Moorlands; or by source, e.g. Oil Seed Rape, Raspberry or Bean. These descriptions must be accurate.
b. The name and address (or an adequate means of identification and location) of the producer or packer must be shown.
c. At least the metric weight must be shown, adjacent. Regulations cover the size of the lettering.
d. A 'Best before' date or a lot number must be shown.
The above apply to bottled honey or comb honey.
Besides complying with regulations, however, the label can be a potent seller. Many a beekeeper reports increased sales by changing to a different pattern label, or better still, having a special label printed with the locality specified. For example "Great Malvern Honey" has more of an appeal than "Hereford and Worcester Honey". With name and address printed at the same time in the same colour, the result can be professional and effective. Different
labels appeal in different areas. When identical honeys are placed side by side on the shelf with different labels, one will disappear, and the other will stay; which one sells is a matter of experiment. When turnover is high enough a unique professionally designed and produced label is the best answer, even though first costs are high.
Honey is, or should be, a prestige product. Properly processed and presented, It should proclaim quality. The first jars are sold on their attractiveness; sustained and repeated sales, when the customers are coming back to the beekeeper, are the bringer of success.
When selling either individually, or to retail outlets, there is often a temptation to sell at a low price, because, after all, 400 Ib. was taken from a few hives with little effort, or there isn't
enough room in the pantry to store it all, or last year's still hasn't been sold. These excuses do not justify selling cut-price honey. Years of glut are irregular and honey will keep till the following year. Neighbours may be depending on a realistic price for their living. There has never been enough home-produced honey in Britain to satisfy demand. Five times as much honey is imported as is produced here.
Many small beekeepers are motivated by fascination in their hobby and accept reward for their labours in satisfaction, curiosity and pride. The financial returns, though a secondary consideration, are usually well-earned.
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)