Honey Processing & Honey Packaging Tips
Learning how to bottle honey is a sweet job for every new beekeeper. It’s one beekeeping chore that we always love doing. The beekeeper and the bees have worked hard all season. Our next step is honey processing. It’s time to get that honey packaged and ready to use or sell.
For many beekeepers the honey harvest comes during the second year of beekeeping. This makes it a very special occasion.
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 Production is A Major Goal for Many Beekeepers
During Spring and Early Summer, our honey bees collect nectar from various blooming plants. Honey bees make honey to use for food during the cold Winter months.
Honey stores well for long periods of time (unlike watery nectar) – a perfect food for bees. Usually bees collect nectar from many different types of flowers at one time. This honey will be a “poly-floral” honey known as Wildflower.
Of course, Wildflower honey is not made solely from the tiny flowers we see blooming here and there. Your Wildflower honey may contain nectar from trees too: maple, holly wild cherry, poplar etc.
When bees collect nectar from one primary nectar source a “mono-floral” honey is produced. You will hear the names of various specialty honey types: orange blossom, tupelo, fireweed, clover, sourwood and more.
Sourwood honey is only produced at higher elevations in Appalachia. I have a few Sourwood trees on my property. In a good season, I produce a bit of this special honey.
The variety of honey that you are processing and packaging depends on the floral sources in your region.
Honey Bees Can Produce A Lot of Honey
Honey bees are hard workers. In fact, they work without ceasing to fill their hives while the supply of nectar is abundant.
They usually produce more honey than they will need to survive the winter months. True to the saying, Busy As A Bee, the honey bees continue to work as long as nectar is available and temperatures allow flight.
After the bees have worked so hard, the beekeeper wants to bottle the honey without loosing any of it’s “natural goodness”. This is where proper honey processing comes into play.
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.
How much honey you are able to harvest and bottle from each hive will vary. No matter where you live, only harvest excess honey.
The amount of honey that any hive will produce varies greatly from one region to another. Some areas of the United States produce a large honey crop while others have a more modest amount. Remember, beekeeping is farming.
Excess honey is the amount of honey a beekeeper can remove without endangering the winter food supply needed by the bees. I do not rob the honey bees of their winter food stores.
Yearly Honey Processing Totals Vary
Not 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.
Things go wrong sometimes. Your colony may swarm just before the nectar flow leaving behind a smaller number of workers.
Or, a colony may experience a problem with their queen bee resulting in a weak hive.
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 packaging. Not every year is a big crop year.
Step 1: Remove Honey From The Hive
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.
Meanwhile, the honey bees don’t want to give up what they have worked so hard to make. Can you blame them?
No Bee Smoker is Needed
I always keep my bee smoker (and fuel) close by. But, the honey harvest is one time that a smoker is not needed. 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. Smoke causes bees to move away but they also fill up their stomach with honey on the way out – not what we want.
Let’s briefly look at a couple of techniques to use in the beeyard. Please visit my other honey harvesting posts to learn more about this process.
Harvesting Honey With Fume Board
The best way to harvest honey boxes is by the use of a fume board. A fume board is a wooden frame with a metal top. An absorbent soft felt material covers the inside. (It looks very similar to a telescoping top.)
Several products are available for application to the fume board. Some are foul smelling but you can find nice ones too! I use a non-toxic mixture of oils and herbal extracts like Honey B Gone.
Once you have removed the available honey crop, get it to a safe inside location – otherwise, the bees will take it back!
What is a Honey House?
A honey house is a special dedicated room for honey processing and honey packaging. Does everyone need a honey house? No of course not but you do need a clean place.
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.
You may decide to use your garage or kitchen for honey processing. This practice is fine for home use.
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. The beekeeper should check the honey house rules and regulations pertaining to their area .
Maybe you can 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 honey processing and packaging – 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.
Do not be afraid to ask questions when choosing a honey supplier. Of course, at the end of the day you will have to depend on the integrity of the beekeeper.
Step 2: Extracting Honey Process
Uncapping The Honey Harvest
Most honey boxes(supers) contain 9-10 frames of honey. When the honey is ripe, the bees cap each cell with a wax cover to protect the precious product.
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 leftover wax. My goal is always to minimize waste and each hive product has a use.
If you live in an area of very high humidity, you may want to use a honey refractometer to ensure the honey is under 18.6% water content. Honey processing should not begin with honey that is not ready.
After uncapping, the honey extractor will spin causing the liquid honey to be expelled from the honeycomb. The fresh wildflower honey will flow out of the honey gate and drop through a coarse strainer into the bucket below.
This process repeats for each box of honey. It is normal for me 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.
Step 3: Bulk Honey Storage
Once your honey has dripped into a clean food grade bucket. A tight fitting lid placed on the full bucket of honey prevents 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.
The beauty of wildflower honey is the great variety of color and taste from one bucket to the next. This is an experience that is missed by a large scale beekeeper who mixes the whole crop together.
Yes, the blending does provide a more consistent product for the consumer. However, I delight in seeing light colored honey in one bucket and maybe dark amber color in the next.
Take pride in producing true artisan honey that is full of delicate flavors and individuality.
After extraction or honey processing by either method, the honey should be allowed to sit for a few days. This allows air bubbles to float to the top.
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. That’s okay. Just skim it off.
Small Scale Honey Packaging
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.
Most small scale beekeepers bottle from a gated bucket. This is a plastic bucket with a spout or “honey gate” on it. These allow for easy filling of our small honey packages.
Glass jars and plastic bears litter the honey bottling table as I bottle from my stainless steel tank. A label declaring the product weight and source is affixed to each container.
Bottling honey is a peaceful task. The end product is removed from the bee yard so you have no fear of stings. However, never forget that many bees have worked hard to produce this bounty.
This is why it is very important to be concerned about who bottles the honey you buy and their method of honey processing.
You are in for a great experience. Use a proper method for storing honey and it will be good to the last drop.
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