extracting honey from a top-bar hive
For backyard bee-keepers like us, the honey extraction process is really simple. Working with one or two combs at a time makes for a quick afternoon activity with no need for specialized equipment. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a little finesse (which we had very little of the first time we tried it, but had a touch of the next time).
With top-bar hives, each comb is drawn by the bees from scratch on a triangular bar that hangs across the hive. There are no plastic or wire foundations in wooden frames that you would see in a conventional Langstroth hive, so we don’t need honey extractor equipment that uses centrifugal force to spin the honey out of the cells. We can cut the whole comb – wax and all – off of the top bar and allow gravity to draw the honey out of the comb. The empty bar goes back into the hive and the bees rebuild the comb from scratch.
Rebuilding the comb each time we harvest is more work for the bees, but from a hobby beekeeper perspective this isn’t such a bad thing:
- It keeps the bees busy which is important for keeping their propensity to swarm down by giving them a bit more space to work in every so often
- It allows for the replacement of potentially older comb which can help keep disease in check
When we’re ready to harvest a comb, we pull one of the top bars from the hive and make sure that it is at least 80% capped. I mentioned in an earlier post about honey and its water content and that the bees know when its just right and cap the cells. When forager bees bring back nectar from flowers, it is transferred over to a worker bee in the hive and placed into the honeycomb cells. Nectar is to honey like sap is to maple syrup – there is a transformation that it undergoes before it is ready to harvest.
If you were to pull nectar out of the hive too early, the water content would be too high and the nectar/honey would eventually ferment and go bad. The bees reduce the water content from the nectar in the combs by fanning it with their wings and evapourating the water. Once the water content is around ~18%, the bees cap the cell. Honey with the right water content will never go bad (you know that crystallized, crusty honey that is in the back of your cupboard – it’s still good! Just put it in a bowl of hot water and allow the crystals to melt back into liquid honey!). If you make sure that you harvest only combs that have at least 80% capped honey, the water content will be appropriate for storage.
We have two pails that we got from an ice cream shop that was giving away old buckets for free. They are the same size, so they nest inside each other well and have about a 2 inch gap between the bottom of one and the other. We drilled a handful of small holes in the top one and kept one of the lids around to seal the whole steup.
We cut the comb off of the bar with a knife and mash the honeycomb up with a wooden spoon so that all of the capped honeycomb cells are broken open and the honey can drip out. The small holes allow the honey to flow into the bottom bucket and keep the wax in the top. It’s not a perfect filter and we’ll get a tiny amount of wax particles or other sediment, but for the most part, the honey we collect is perfectly clear. It’s a slow process, especially if our kitchen isn’t nice and warm, but after a couple of days, about 90% of the honey has come out of the wax.
Honey is a raw food and we’re hesitant to use a lot of heat to get the remainder out of the wax, but we have used a hair dryer on low to gently warm the honey/wax mash and help the last little bit to separate. A little bit of heat and a lot of patience and eventually we have a very small amount of sticky wax left in the bucket.
We pour and scrape all of the honey into jars and scoop all of the leftover wax into a bowl of water. We wash the wax and let it dry, then melt it down into little bricks to use later (candles or lip balms or who knows!?). We’ve heard that you can even keep the water that was used to wash the wax and the little bit of honey content can be fermented into mead (a honey-based wine). Something to try next time…
Our honey will have come from the nectar of plants all around the innercity and river valley in Calgary. It’s an extremely light-coloured honey with a tinge of green. Kudos to our bees who have done all of the work, it’s some of the best honey we’ve ever tasted! It still surprises us how clean and pure it looks right out of the comb! Even the wax is a beautiful, buttery yellow and smells great.
The bees need about 60 – 100 lbs of honey to eat over the winter, so after our first and second harvesting experiences this year (about 3 full combs of honey which gave us about 3.5 litres of honey) we’ll most likely leave the rest to the bees unless they are absolutely bursting at the seams and we have a couple weeks of guaranteed good weather before the cold sets in.