They say that a worker bee, in her lifetime, makes between 1/12th and 1/8th of a teaspoon of honey. I think about this often when I am extracting and bottling the litres upon litres of honey that our bees have made. I think about each bee’s selfless bravery, the magnificent productivity she derives from her tiny share of borrowed energy, and the part she plays in the greater sum of parts that is her hive.
The honey harvest at EquiFlora is preceded by a year of preparation. Following the previous year’s harvest we leave around 60kg of sealed comb honey on each and every hive.
These are the hives’ winter food stores and together the bees put great effort in to keeping the being, that is the hive, alive over the freeze and dearth of winter.
Sucrose, a dissacharide (two molecule sugar) is digested by bee enzymes, by bee spit enzymes really, in to two monossacharides (one molecule sugars), fructose and glucose. The bees regurgitate the nectar along with the bee spit and its enzymes in to the comb cells when they return to the hive. They then actively evaporate the watery digested nectar in to thick honey. Once it’s evaporated they seal it tight with a wax cap for storage.
All of this happens, this effort, this energy expenditure, this risk, this sacrifice, before our harvest starts.
Ours starts with the preparation of our equipment. Everything for the harvest is washed and dried. The honey buckets, the cappings buckets, the picking forks, the filters, the extractor.
The first step of processing the harvest is to remove the wax cappings. We do this with an uncapping fork though there are many other ways of doing it. We work across the front and back of each comb gently peeling off the wax cappings which fall in to the cappings bucket. The cappings are left to drip off their honey which is collected and added to the harvest. The cappings too will be saved and processed in to bees wax blocks later.
Once the comb has been completely picked, it is slotted in to the honey extractor. A honey extractor is a large centrifuge that spins the honey out of the the comb. Our’s is electric and holds six super frames at a time. We continue picking comb until all 6 slots in the extractor are full.
Then begins the extractions. The extractor is started, at a slow revolution speed first and then gradually increased up to the maximum speed. The honey is flung from the cells and collects at the bottom of the extractor where is drains through a honey gate in to a collection bucket. It passes through a coarse filter as it flows in to the bucket, the purpose of which is to trap any large chunks of wax that flew from the comb during extraction. These chunks of wax are collected and added to the cappings bucket for processing later.
When the honey has been completely spun from the comb, the empty frames are returned to the super and the supers, with comb intact, are placed back on the hives where the bees will clean them up and refill them with stores.
Most of the honey frames are beautifully smooth and even with every cell filled with honey and capped. Uncapping them is rhythmic and fun. Some however are poorly laid out with ridges and troughs of comb. These are tremendously difficult to pick. I forgot to snap a photo of one this year but will add one from next year’s harvest.
Some of the honey frames have an arc of dark comb in the centre surrounded by lighter comb around it. These frames were used earlier in the year by the bees as brood (baby bee) frames. The cells that housed the brood were stained dark. After the brood hatched and left the cells the bees cleaned them up and refilled them with honey leaving the dark brood shadow behind.
Some of the honey frames have some uncapped cells. These are filled with nectar that has not yet been adequately evaporated to the specific gravity of honey. It still has a higher water content than cured honey. A small fraction of nectar in a honey harvest is just fine but too much and the specific gravity of the entire harvest will be too low putting the honey at high risk of fermentation.
Once the 5 gallon honey bucket is full, the honey is emptied through a medium filter in to a second bucket. This filter is meant to pull out any larger chunks of pollen, propolis, or other debris. This is the final filtering step in our honey processing. We do not fine filter our honey so it retains the microscopic grains of pollen and propolis that are thought to be what make raw honey so nutritious and special.
This microscopic debris however, promotes honey crystallization. Crystallized honey is perfectly fine but the gritty texture of it bothers some people. It can be easily returned to a clear liquid state by very gently warming the jar of honey in a water bath. The temperature of the water bath should be no more than 100F to prevent pasteurizing and damaging the natural proteins and enzymes in the raw honey.
From here the honey is emptied directly in to the sterilized jars. It is never heated. It is left as raw and untouched as it was in the hive.
When I am harvesting honey, I think about the effort and time that went in to making it. I think about each tree, each plant, each flower providing for the bees, depending on the bees. I think of each bee flying through a viciously dangerous world, foraging for nectar, carrying it back to the hive. I think about her bravery. I think about the more than 50,000 bees it took just to produce their 60kg of winter storage honey that I will never see. I think about the tens of thousands more that it took to make the excess honey I am stealing from them.
It is the middle of September in our part of the world and the flowers that produced this honey are long since gone. The fruit crops from those bee pollinated flowers are long since harvested. The bees that harvested the nectar for this honey are long since dead, their summer life span being roughly 6 weeks if they are lucky. The tree leaves here are starting to turn colours, the first precious molecules of chlorophyll are being pulled back by the tree in preparation for winter hibernation. In a few more weeks the leaves will fall around their tree’s base, to be composted back to the tree’s roots for next years harvest.
And we are left holding a jar of clear raw honey. A record of our year. A distillate of the sun and of the earth. A fingerprint from our plum tree, wild clover, blackberry and countless other springtime flowers. A symbol of hard work, perseverance, cooperation, and sacrifice. A reminder of the magic and impermanence of all life.