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Bottling Honey from Your Hives
Honey processing and bottling honey is all about the journey your honey makes from the hive to the jar. Beekeeping involves some hard work even though the time of the honey harvest is a joy. Bottling honey produced by your very own bees is a true labor of love. Having everything you need ready makes the job of honey processing much easier.
For many beekeepers the honey harvest comes during the second year of beekeeping. During the first season, a new colony has much work to do to prepare for Winter. Year two is for production.
A good honey crop is one of the first “big wins” for a new beekeeper. And nothing will ever taste better than your own bottle of honey.
Honey Processing – Know Your Product
During Spring and Early Summer, our honey bees collect nectar from various blooming plants. Bees make honey from the plant nectar to use for food during the cold Winter months.
Usually bees collect nectar from many different types of flowers at one time. This honey will be a “poly-floral” honey known as Wildflower.
Wildflower honey is made from many nectar sources. This is why the color of honey can vary so much from year to year. Weather conditions affect the amount of nectar produced by the different plants.
Whether you are keeping the honey for yourself or planning to sell some of the harvest. It is important to know what you are selling.
How Much Honey Will A Beehive Produce?
In upstate South Carolina, a honey bee colony will produce an average of 60# of excess wildflower honey. This weight of honey almost fills a 5-gallon size pail.
The amount of honey that any hive will produce varies greatly from one region to another. No matter where you live, only harvest the excess honey not needed by the bees.
No matter how good of a beekeeper you are, you will have unproductive years. Every beekeeper can experience a year when there is no honey crop. And not every hive will produce honey every year.
And its not just the bees that you have to consider, weather plays a major role in honey production. Too much or too little rain, high winds and late freezes affect nectar availability.
The sad fact is that some years you wont have to worry about honey processing. Not every year is a big crop year. So, bottling honey will not be a big chore each year.
Keeping Your Honey Raw
How much processing is done to your honey will depend in part on how large your beekeeping operation is.
Very large commercial honey companies must go through a more rigorous process of filtering the honey. This is so that jars of honey can look nice on the shelf for months and months.
If you are a small scale beekeeper, you can do things a bit differently and have your honey in a more raw state. There is no need for ultra-filtration or heating the honey.
Harvesting Your Honey Crop
Imagine a full box of honey weighing 35-50 pounds filled with thousands of stinging insects. We want to remove the surplus honey without harming the bees or the honey.
The honey bees don’t want to give up what they have worked so hard to make. Can you blame them?
A wise beekeeper does not use smoke to drive bees from the honey boxes. Using smoke during harvest frustrates the bees and can damage your honey.
There are several different techniques to use in the bee yard to collect honey. Please visit my other honey harvesting posts to learn more details about this process.
What is a Honey House?
A honey house is a special dedicated room for processing and bottling honey. Does everyone need a honey house? No, of course not but you do need a clean place that bees can not get into.
Once you have removed the available honey crop, get it to a safe inside location – otherwise, the bees will take it back!
Most beekeepers prepare a “honey house” in a building near their home that is not used for other family activities. A small portable wooden building works well.
If you do not plan to sell honey you may decide to use your garage or kitchen for honey processing.
However, honey processing in the home provides a chance of contamination from other food items. And, oh my goodness, it is messy. Very messy !
A word of caution, It is illegal to process honey for sale in a private home in some states. Check the honey processing rules and regulations pertaining to your area .
If you have a lot of honey to harvest and bottle, ask for help. Invite friends or neighbors over so they can learn how to bottle honey.
It teaches an appreciation for all the hard work that is involved. And the extra helpers come in handy.
Check Local Honey Packing Regulations
Before we go any farther into the operation of packaging or bottling honey- let’s get clear on the legal stuff. If you are selling honey, you will be subject to stricter regulations.
Yes, even if you are selling a small amount to the neighborhood market. Check your state and local laws before going down this path.
My small honey house is actually a separate building inspected and approved by the state of South Carolina. Each state has different laws regarding the bottling of honey that is intended for sale to the public.
Do you care where and how your beekeeper chooses to bottle honey ? You should care a great deal.
Honey is a food product . I care very much about the cleanliness of any area that is bottling something I will purchase to consume.
How to Extract Honey
Most honey boxes(supers) contain 9-10 frames of honey. Once the boxes are safely in the honey house, we remove the wax capping from each cell of honeycomb with a knife or cappings scratcher.
Later, these wax cappings are cleaned and melted. Many lovely wax items can be created from the cleaned beeswax cappings.
After uncapping, frames of honey are placed inside a machine called an extractor. The extractor will spin causing the liquid honey to be expelled from the honeycomb.
Beekeepers with only 1 or 2 hives may use a small honey extractor or share one with friends.
The fresh honey will flow out of the honey gate and drop through a coarse strainer into the bucket below. The strainer removes any large pieces of wax. This process repeats for each box of honey.
This process takes time. It is normal to spend many hours in the honey extraction process. If a beekeeper has only a couple of hives, he may not require an extractor.
Honey Processing Without A Extractor
Some beekeepers do not have an extractor or choose to not use one. That’s okay. You do not have to buy an extractor.
Use a knife to cut the honeycomb from the wooden frames into a large pan. The comb is then crushed.
This breaks open the wax cells and allows the liquid to drip through a piece of cheesecloth or other straining material.
This is a proper method of honey process that has been used for thousands of years. It does not require expensive equipment but it does take longer and requires a warm room to allow the honey to drain from the comb.
You will have more excess wax to use for project such as candles, etc – but your bees have to build out new comb for next year.
Bulk Honey Storage Before Bottling
Use food grade buckets to capture the honey dripping from your extractor or filter bag of comb. A tight fitting lid placed on the full bucket of honey to prevent moisture absorption.
Honey will absorb moisture from humid air. You must keep it tightly covered and you may choose a special easy to remove lid.
Buckets of honey are heavy and weigh around 65 pounds each. Because raw honey does not spoil, the honey is stored until it is needed. I marked each bucket with the month and year of the harvest.
Quality Control During Bottling
It goes without saying that cleanliness is important during honey processing. Your utensils, jars and your hands should be washed clean and dried.
Letting water get into your honey can result in fermentation. I’m sure you do not want to spoil your honey crop.
Remember, you are working with a food product. Take care to keep things clean. Tie back your hair or wear a net.
And yea, if you want to lick your fingers while bottling – I won’t tell on you if the bottle is for yourself. But, remember to be extra hygienic when jarring honey for others.
Bottling Honey-Process Honey at Home
Many beekeepers are anxious to jar up their honey crop soon after extracting. And you should be excited to see those lovely bottle of honey.
Allow Honey to Settle Before Bottling
Even if you plan to bottle the honey right away, let it sit in a warm location for a few days. Allowing your honey to settle for 24-48 hours results in fewer air bubbles in the jar.
It is normal to see some bubbles inside a freshly bottled jar of honey. They will come to the top in a day or two.
Don’t be alarmed if you see some foam on top of the honey in the bucket. It is only small pieces of wax – etc. Just skim it off. If you find yourself needing to pour the honey into another bucket before bottling, let it set again.
Using a Gated Bucket to Bottle Honey
Let’s face it, most of us do not want to have to dip honey out of a 5 gallon bucket. We enjoy having our honey in a more manageable size.
And if you plan to sell honey, smaller jars may nicer gifts and mean more profit for the beekeeper.
Another technique I have often used is to pour the honey up into quart jars from the gated bucket. Then, I later pour some of those into smaller containers for gifts or to sell.
Quart jars are easy to work with if the honey crystallizes. They are also not as heavy to move around as a full 5 gallon bucket.
If you have a lot of jars and want to store your honey long term, you can always build a honey warming cabinet too!
Don’t Forget to Label Your Honey Jars
Be sure to affix a legal honey label to your honey jars. Check with the department of agriculture in your state to determine the rules for labeling honey.
Your jars of honey deserve the respect of a nice label. It does not have to be a fancy label – though you can purchase designer honey labels if you wish.
Labels are important to help anyone who receives your honey remember where it came from!
Final Thoughts on Honey Processing – Bottling Honey
Bottling honey is a peaceful task. The end product is removed from the bee yard so you have no fear of stings. It is the culmination of a season’s work for the beekeeper and the bees.
However, never forget that many bees have worked hard to produce this bounty. Use a proper method for storing honey and it will be good to the last drop.
Honey processing and bottling is the final step in bringing in a great honey harvest – it is cause for celebration.