Bottling Honey: How to Process Your Honey

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Oh that first honey crop, oh heck – even the 20th crop is a time of great excitement in the life of a beekeeper. The bees have done their job – now it’s your turn. Honey processing or bottling is all about the journey your crop makes from the hive to the jar. Jarring up honey produced by your very own bees is a true labor of love. Of course, there are some important steps to take to protect your harvest. Having everything you need ready makes the job much easier.

Honey bottled up in glass jars.

Most people keep bees for the purpose of harvesting honey. It is one of the first “big wins” for many enthusiasts. Nothing will ever taste better than your own bottle of honey.

Honey Processing for Backyard Beekeepers

Beekeeping involves some hard work- it is not always easy. But, bringing in the crop of honey -especially the first one- is pure joy – especially for beginner beekeepers.

For many beekeepers, their first 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.

Raw honey being bottled in a clear jar image.

Keeping Your Honey Raw

How much processing your honey is exposed to will depend in part on how large your beekeeping operation is. The term processing often brings to mind the largest packers – or huge bee farm businesses.

Very large commercial companies must go through a more rigorous process of filtering and/or heating. This is so that their jars of product can look nice on the shelf for months and months without crystallizing.

If you are a small scale beekeeper, you can do things a bit differently and keep your product in a more raw state.

With or Without an Extractor

You may choose to use the extraction process to separate honey and comb. Then, the frames of drawn comb can be reused by the bees. And, cleaned beeswax cappings are awesome for many craft projects.

Beekeepers with only 1 or 2 hives may use a small honey extractor or share one with friends. The fresh honey flows out of the gate at the bottom of the extract and drops through a coarse strainer into a bucket.  

Raw honey pouring into a 5 gallon bucket image.

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Some beekeepers do not have an extractor or choose to not use one. The comb is cut from the frames and 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 processing 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.

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What Kind of Honey do You Have?

During Spring and Early Summer, our bees collect nectar from various blooming plants. Bees make honey from the plant nectar and store it for Winter food.

Usually bees collect nectar from many different types of flowers in the same time period. This will be a “poly-floral” honey known as Wildflower. This is why the color of honey can vary so much from year to year.

This does not mean it is made from the nectar of little wild flowers bees love. Rather, this is a term used in beekeeping to describe honey made from many different nectar sources – Wildflower Honey.

Bee Tight Processing Area

A honey house is a special dedicated room for processing and bottling honey. Does everyone need one? No, of course not-but you do need a clean place that bees can not get into.

Most beekeepers prepare a special room in a building near their home that is not used for other family activities. A small portable wooden building works well.

Beekeeper Charlotte inside her honey house ready to begin bottling honey image.

If you do not plan to sell products, you may decide to use your garage or kitchen. However, processing and bottling 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 processing rules and regulations pertaining to your area .

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 products, 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.

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.

Bottles of honey in little bears in a basket image.

Bulk Honey Storage Before Bottling

Use food grade buckets to capture the liquid dripping from your extractor or honey filter bag of comb. Be sure to use a tight fitting lid on the buckets.

Honey will absorb moisture from humid air. If the water content in honey rises too high – it will ferment and spoil. These full buckets are heavy and weigh around 65 pounds each. 

Because honey does not go bad or spoil, it is stored until needed. I use a marker to note on each bucket the month and year of the harvest.

Bottling Honey at Home

Many beekeepers are anxious to jar up their crop soon after extracting. And, you should be excited to see those lovely golden jars.

Quality Control During Bottling

It goes without saying that cleanliness is important during this process. Your utensils, jars and your hands should be washed clean and dried.

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 for others.

Settle Before Bottling for Fewer Air Bubbles

Even if you plan to bottle right away, let it sit in a warm location for a few days. Allowing your buckets (or bottling tank) 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. They will come to the top in a day or two.

Don’t be alarmed if you see some foam on the top of honey in a bucket. It is only small pieces of beeswax – etc. Just skim it off.

bottling honey from gated bucket.

Using a Gated Bucket

Let’s face it, most of us do not want to have to dip honey out of a 5 gallon bucket-for home use. We enjoy having it in a more manageable size.

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 jars.

And, if you plan to sell honey, smaller jars make nicer gifts and mean more profit for the beekeeper.

You may decide to prepare a few jars with pieces of comb (chunk honey) and pour liquid over it. These should bring a higher honey price due to the comb inside.

Another technique I have often used is to pour up 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 and you can decrystallize glass honey jars easily if needed. They are also not as heavy to move around as a full 5 gallon bucket.

Crystals naturally form in most types of honey so don’t panic – you can fix crystallized honey. If you have a lot of jars and want to store in them long term, you can always build a honey warming cabinet too!

Don’t Forget to Label Your Jars

Be sure to affix a legal label to your jars. Check with the department of agriculture in your state to determine the rules for labeling honey.

Your jars deserve the respect of a nice label. It does not have to be a fancy label – though you can purchase designer labels if you wish. Labels are important to help anyone who receives it to remember where it came from!

FAQs

How long should extracted honey sit before bottling?

In a warm location, the general rule of thumb is to allow extracted honey to sit 24-48 hours before bottling to decrease air bubbles etc.

How much honey will a beehive product?

In many regions, a colony will produce an average of 60# of excess honey. This weight almost fills a 5-gallon size pail. The amount that any hive will produce varies greatly from one region to another. 

Do you have to heat honey before bottling?

No, heat is not necessary before bottling honey. However, if your bottling area is cold – gently warming the honey will help it flow faster.

Do I need to sterilize mason jars before bottling honey?

Most mason jars come food ready with no need to sterilize. But, always make sure your jars are clean.

Can you bottle honey right away?

Yes, you can bottle honey straight from the extractor. However, if will have many more air bubbles etc in the finished jar.

Final Thoughts

Honey processing and bottling is the final step in bringing in a great harvest – it is cause for celebration. Bottling is a peaceful task. It is the culmination of a season’s work for the beekeeper and 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 crop. And not every hive will produce honey every year.

The sad fact is that some years you wont have to worry about honey processing. Not every year is a big crop year.