Fall Honey Harvest
Hi! I feel like this post has been so long in the making and it’s finally hereeeee! I dreamt up the idea to document my uncle Tom’s yearly honey harvest from his bees right after he’d finished harvesting last year. I’m the only family member that really nerds out on bee discussions with him so he was all for it! I kept reminding him as we got closer and closer to the end of Summer: don’t forget I want to be there! I got super into bees when I joined the beekeeper club at the Starbucks corporate office where I work last year. We tend to two bee hives that live on the roof of our parking garage. It’s pretty fun!
I’m so excited I finally get to share this with you and I hope you find it as fun and interesting as I do. It’s also kinda nice to share something on here a little out of the norm (a recipe) and give you an inside look! Come on and I’ll show you how it all went down, from getting all up in the bee's biz (their hives!) and taking the full frames of honey out to extracting and spinning the honey (the harvest!). And bonus! Tomorrow I have a recipe coming featuring this liquid gold. It’s a good one so keep your eyes peeled.
Before we dive into the harvest process, I wanted to give a little bee 101 for those unfamiliar. And let me preface by saying right now I’m no bee expert. These are just things I’ve learned from my bee club or through my uncle. A man-made hive structure like the ones my uncle has here are made up of several stacked boxes (number and size of boxes can vary depending on the beekeeper) and each box contains frames where the bees build their comb structures. These combs are used by the bees for a few different purposes but the two main are where the queen lays her eggs and then the baby bees mature and are eventually born and the frames are also used for storing honey. It may sound a little gross that the frames can house both growing bee babies and honey but keep in mind bees are extremely orderly and clean little creatures. They NEVER allow these two activities to co-exist in the same comb simultaneously. After the brood (babies) are born and leave the comb as fully formed bees, the cleaning bees will come in and clean out the combs and they’ll either be used to lay more eggs by the queen or for storing honey! And each bee also has an assigned job. There’s only 1 queen and her sole purpose is to lay eggs and re-generate the population of the hive as a typical honey bee’s lifespan is only about 5 weeks long. So she must constantly lay more eggs to keep the hive going. The rest of the worker bees are all ladies as well. The only male bees are called drones and their sole purpose is to provide the queen with, er, specimen which she then stores and uses when laying fertilized eggs. Then the drones die, lol. They only have one job and then they’re done! So back to the worker bees. There are nurse bees that take care of the brood, undertaker bees that carry the bodies of the deceased bees away from the hives. Of course the forager bees that are responsible for retrieving pollen and nectar and bringing it back to the hive. There are many other jobs, too but this will serve as a good overview for how they operate in there. Fascinating, right?
Part 1: Separating The Frames
Harvesting is typically done around the early to mid Fall because the bees will stay inside their hive during the chilly weather until it warms back up in the Spring. This isn’t really hibernation because they aren’t sleeping in there but they won’t leave the hive. You also never want to open up a hive if the temperature is lower than the 60’s (F). And if it is a little chillier and you open the lid, you’ll often feel a little puff of hot air from them because they generate their own heat by flapping their wings if necessary. It’s very important when harvesting honey to make sure to leave enough for the bees to get through the Winter as this is their food source. You never want to take all the honey frames from a hive, unless you wanted to kill it.
The first step in the honey harvesting process for my uncle is isolating the frames full of honey. As you can see in these photos, there are bees EVERYWHERE and are very active and aggressive. They get this way towards the end of the season as they’re frantically gathering as much honey as possible before Winter. It’s nearly impossible to take a full frame of honey with them hanging on the frame. So my uncle methodically went through each box and picked out all the frames full of capped off honey since there were also empty or half-full frames mixed in throughout each box. He then put all the full frames together in the same boxes and arranged them on the top of the hives and the emptier frames on the bottom, with a separator in between. It looks similar to the lid of the hive but has a small opening in the center. It allows the bees to filter down through the hive so they’ll end up in the bottom boxes and can’t get back up into the boxes with the full frames of honey. It takes a few days for them to filter their way through the hive so I had to come back down the next weekend to shoot the second half of the harvesting process which was the spinning. When it was time for that, my uncle went and took what frames of honey he planned on harvesting, leaving the rest for the bees. He went back later and removed the separator frame so they could access the honey frames again. He has several hives so he repeated this process with each one.
Here Tom is lifting the lid of the hive very gingerly to see what’s going on in there. You never want to be too aggressive or make sudden movements as the bees may sense it’s a threat and sting you. My uncle is fully suited here but they can still get you in any exposed places. I was fully suited while shooting and they kept landing on my mask with their little stingers out and poking through the netting like 2 inches from my face! Not gonna lie, I was a little freaked out, lol.
Tom’s using the smoker to puff little bits of smoke on the bees. This doesn’t hurt them in any way. It calms them down and makes them a little more manageable to work around for a small period of time. The smoke blocks their pheromones which they use to communicate stress or alarms to each other, i.e. there’s an intruder all up in the hood! It’s usually only necessary to use smoke when working with them if you sense they’re aggressive and may sting you, otherwise they usually don’t bother you.
Here Tom’s using what’s called a hive tool, which is a long flat piece of metal with a few notches on either side. It’s used to pry apart boxes and easily remove frames.
This is actually when my uncle realized he put the lid for the hive in the center there instead of the separator lol. He had to take the hive apart again to switch them. In his defense, they do look almost identical.
When putting boxes back together, you want to be very careful to kill as few bees as possible in the process. Not only to preserve their little lives but also if you accidentally kill one, the other bees will know because of those pheromones we talked about earlier and they’ll attack whatever is responsible for the death (you!).
Tom’s inspecting each frame for honey or brood and placing the empty ones back that are not ready to harvest.
This here is a very full frame of honey. The bees have capped and sealed it off with more wax to keep it in place and preserve it.
Part 2: Spinning + Harvesting
My uncle doesn’t have the equipment to harvest honey but luckily he’s made friends with a very accomplished beekeeper and honey purveyor nearby to him. He’s a sweet and reserved elderly man named Lowell. He has over 200 hives all over the countryside where my aunt and uncle live and he harvests a huge amount of honey each year. I arrived early to my aunt and uncle’s house and we loaded up the truck with the full honey frames and headed over to Lowell’s, along with Tom’s dog, Abby. She’s seriously the sweetest and is such a good girl. My uncle warned me it would be tight quarters when we got to Lowell’s because he does the whole process in a small trailer. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by “trailer” so I didn’t think much of it. When we pulled up Lowell’s driveway, I spotted a tiny camper shrouded in tarps I later learned helped keep the warmth in. It was so tiny inside, and all three of us managed to cram in, but barely. It’s actually a miracle I was able to get as many photos here as I did under the circumstances. It was also about 85 degrees inside due to several heaters and heat lamps. The warmer environment makes it much easier to coax the honey from the frames. Good thing I was wearing a thermal long sleeve shirt, down vest, and beanie. NOT.
Since my uncle has several hives, there were actually a few different varieties of honey gathered. One hive mostly foraged from blackberry bushes, resulting in a lighter honey like the one above. Another hive produced a much darker honey, mostly foraged from knotweed (below). To me the most interesting thing is that the hives are only a few feet from each other but each colony of bees seeks out their own type of plants they forage from, often producing entirely different honey!
The frames of honey are all capped off with a thin layer of wax. The bees do this to keep the honey in place as well as preserve and protect it. To remove the wax, you take the hot knife which is quite literally a flat knife with a heating element inside and gently glide it along the surface of the frame. You want to try to get the blade right in between the layer of wax and honey so as not to waste any honey, or very little.
Once all the wax on the surface has been removed, you take a scraper tool, which looks like a spiky comb and use it to scrape up the exposed honey in an upward motion. This loosens up any free bits of wax left behind and ensures the honey will fly out of the combs easily when spun. All the leftover wax scrapings are then left over a large grate to drain overnight to gather even more honey. My uncle told me Lowell was able to extract almost another entire gallon of honey from these scraps! Amazing, right?!
Now comes the spinning! I apologize I did not get a better, full photo of the spinner but remember I was in the tiniest little trailer with no room to move and there were two full-sized men in there, too! So I didn’t have much space to get anything other than a close-up of anything. But basically the spinner is a large drum with a large metal basket inside that spins. The frames of honey that have been prepared by removing the wax are placed inside vertically. Then the lid gets closed and it gets turned on and the honey is literally spun out of the frames using centrifugal motion and then pours out of the spout at the bottom. It takes a few minutes before any honey comes out and the anticipation of waiting for the first drops to come out were unbearable! But it eventually started flowing and it’s truly incredible to watch. When we spun the second batch which was the darker honey, Lowell handed me a spoon and was like “wanna taste it”? Uh, yes please! The three of us huddled around the bucket and each dipped our spoons into the warm, unfiltered honey and took a taste. No words. Except maybe heaven. It was seriously unlike any honey I’ve ever tasted. It was so rich and flavorful, it tasted almost like molasses. It had almost a smoky flavor. The dark stuff is now my favorite.
The last step before it gets bottled up is to filter it. This is mostly just filtering out any stray bits of wax. The honey is poured over another 5 gallon bucket fitted with fine mesh and slowly filters through the strainer. Then all that’s left to do is bottle it up and dole it out to family members and loved ones and hoard some away for a rainy day.
Liquid gold, baby.
can you beelieve it? | Other Fun Facts about bees
Here are a few other interesting tidbits about bees I’ve learned from my uncle or my beekeeping club at work.
Never stand directly in front of a hive’s entrance. You’re not only blocking the flight path of the forager bees coming back with pollen or leaving to go get more, but they view this as a threat and may think you’re a large animal trying to harm them. Always stand on either side.
Never wear black or dark colored clothing around a hive, especially if working on one. They perceive this as a threat as well (such as a big ole bear!) and will be more aggressive. This is why beekeeper suits are white!
Honey bees can fly in a radius of up to 5 miles away from their hive to gather pollen! That’s a long way’s from home!
Honey bees have little pockets on the sides of their bodies near their hind legs specifically designed to tuck pollen into for taking it back to the hive.
The queen is the sole source of regeneration of a hive population so she is essential to the hive’s survival. If the queen dies, the hive will naturally select a new queen. In some cases they occasionally won’t and you can try to introduce one into the hive but they have to slowly get used to her pheromones or they may attack and kill her. We went through this with one of our hives at work.
A few thoughts I want to leave you with: making honey is very, very hard work. I mean the bees’ work, not ours. They literally work themselves to death foraging for pollen and nectar and bringing it back to their homes to transform it into honey to feed their queen and their brood (babies). So remember this and respect it when consuming it. Just like we should all respect and appreciate an animal’s life when we consume meat, likewise with honey. Harvesting honey, I saw first-hand, is also incredibly hard, labor-intensive work. It was so eye-opening and I will forever appreciate and remember this with every drop of honey I consume. Harvesting honey by hand in small batches like this is also truly a labor of love. It was so inspiring to watch my uncle and Lowell working so carefully and methodically at a messy, difficult task because they enjoy it. Few things in life are as enjoyable as watching someone do something they love, just because they love it.
Unfortunately, the honey industry is also very corrupt. I watched a documentary series recently on Netflix called Rotten (highly recommend!) and one episode featuring honey explained how the honey industry, especially internationally, is very corrupt. Often, honey being imported from overseas into the US, especially honey coming from Asia, isn’t even true honey. It’s been cut with cheaper, more industrialized forms of liquid sweeteners such as rice and other grain syrups. And it’s not very easily detectable, either so chances are if you’re buying a generic honey at the grocery store, you have no idea if you’re buying true honey or not, unless it states it’s produced in the US. This is a huge bummer. A great takeaway from this, though: BUY LOCAL. You probably don’t have an uncle who keeps his own bees, but you probably have a farmer’s market nearby. Or even a co-op or larger grocery chain that carries local honey. Buy it! You’ll be supporting your local community and farmers but you’ll also have peace of mind knowing what you’re buying is 100% real-deal honey. And consuming local honey on a regular basis can also help reduce your seasonal allergies, too! One of my favorite honeys produced in the US is Bee Local Honey by Jacobsen Salt Co.
I really hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed putting it together and documenting it! Do you have any experience keeping bees or harvesting honey? I’d love to hear!