This is it, the moment you have been working toward all year long. Mites, bears, stings, sticky hands, and hours of sweating in your bee suit--all of these challenges will seem trivial as you grasp the handle of the extractor, give it a good spin and watch your first batch of honey begin to flow from the spout. How sweet it is indeed.
Of course, there are a lot of steps to take before you get to that magical moment. The process really started months ago, after your hive emerged from the winter and you fed them some sugar syrup (or real honey if you saved some from last year) to keep them happy until the plants start blooming and there is a good source of nectar and pollen for them to feed on. When that happens, off come the feeders and on go the supers.
A super is basically any box of frames that goes on top of the permanent hive bodies for the sole purpose of collecting excess honey. The sizes available are deep, medium or shallow. Since a deep body with ten frames full of capped honey weighs about 90 pounds, medium or shallow bodies are a much more common choice. Some beekeepers include a thin plastic insert between the permanent hive bodies and the super called a queen excluder. The excluder has a bunch of holes that allow workers up into the supers but are too small for the queen to pass through. This keeps the honey supers from becoming brood chambers. Many beekeepers think they are more of a hindrance than a help and refer to them as 'honey excluders'.
A few months later, about now in my part of the US (northeast), it is time to take those supers off and extract. When I began beekeeping I would wait until early September, but have since discovered that the bees will eat that supered honey in the dog days of August. Harvesting in late July results in bigger yields and it keeps the bees busy throughout August, and a busy bee is a happy bee. But before you pull the supers off, you have to get rid of the bees that are in it. There are a few ways to do this. The method I use involves an escape board. This is an insert placed between the hive bodies and the supers, much like the excluder. It has sort of a one-way maze on it, so once the bees crawl down from the super through the hive bodies to the entrance of the hive, they cannot get back in. When it is installed twenty-four hours in advance of removing the super it is very effective.
Once the supers are removed, put them on a piece of plywood and cover them with a damp towel. This ensures no bees will sneak in while you are re-assembling the hive. Then, take them to your extraction location. Hopefully this is far away from your bees, in a well-sealed building. There are a million stories about how beekeepers have tried to extract in a shed with holes in the walls or in a basement with a window open. These stories do not end well as it takes bees very little time to find the supers and report back to the rest of the hive, and soon the room is thick with foragers and the extraction is over before it started. The importance of having a sealed room cannot be stressed enough.
The tools for extraction are an uncapping knife, an extractor, and some food-safe buckets. The uncapping knife is a long thin blade that cuts off the wax caps that seal the honey in the comb. It is dipped in hot water to make it slice though the wax easily, or you can purchase one that plugs in and stays heated. These work amazingly well. The extractor is basically a hand-cranked centrifuge. It is a tub with racks inside that hold the frames and a spout on the bottom for the honey to flow out of. After each frame is uncapped, it is placed in the rack, and when all of the racks are full, you crank like hell. Then you flip the frames around and repeat. Then you repeat again, and once more for good measure. The honey flies out of the comb, hits the sides, and oozes to the bottom, which is tilted towards the spout.
Beneath the spout sits a bottling bucket, usually a five-gallon food-safe pail which also has a spout on it. If you want crystal clear honey a sieve can be placed in the bucket opening to filter out the bits of comb and whatnot that would otherwise end up in the final product. If you are lucky, you will need another five-gallon bucket after the first one fills up.
It is good practice to let the honey settle for a few days, to let air bubbles dissipate. Then it is time to get bottling. One pound jars, two pound jars, mason jars, bear-shaped plastic containers--use whatever you want. Store it in a dark place and it will keep forever. Literally. Honey found in Egyptian tombs was still edible thousands of years later. So tuck away enough for yourself, give some away as gifts to your patient and understanding neighbors, and sell some of the surplus to offset the costs incurred. And don't forget to design a cool label--everyone loves a nice label.
(Images: Richard Popovic)