Thursday, October 4, 2012

Harvesting Honey the Old-Fashioned Way

    I was pleasantly surprised to get some late knotweed honey from my bees this year.  The knotweed grows profusely on the banks of the Pilchuck River,  only a mile away. While this is well within their foraging range, my bees usually don't cash in on the Japanese Knotweed bonanza. The knotweed bloom starts sometime in August and generally lasts through the month of September. Japanese Knotweed is a non-native invasive species that is a member of the buckwheat family. While the knotweed honey is very dark and strongly flavored, it doesn't have any of the nasty after tastes or funky flavors that characterize many of the dark honeys. I tell customers at the shop that if all I have left is buckwheat honey, I am out of honey. While I definitely prefer the lighter honeys, such as blackberry, raspberry, fireweed, or orange blossom, knotweed is my favorite dark honey.

    I usually separate my bees from their "surplus honey" by means of an escape board. I think "robbing" is such an ugly term. However, I doubt that the bees would buy into the term "surplus honey" and robbing is exactly their perception of what I'm doing. From a honeybee's perspective a hive can never have too much honey so none of it would ever be perceived as surplus. They are also not inclined to show any gratitude for all of the things I do for their benefit. There is no gratitude for the wonderful home I've provided them or the timely gifts of gallons of sugar syrup or needed assistance in their battle with parasites or disease.  Ungrateful creatures that they are, they are definitely not going to buy into any lame beekeeper "quid pro quo" arguments that a portion of their "surplus honey" should go to me.  Using an escape board is the "kinder, gentler" method that avoids the argument.

Triangular escape board or double quebec board

    The type of escape board that I use is a triangular escape board. I simply remove the honey supers full of bees, place the escape board over the brood nest portion of the hive, replace the honey supers full of bees, replace the lid and close the top entrance. Within a few days, most of the bees are now downstairs below the escape board and relatively few bees remain in the honey supers. In order for the escape boards to work more quickly, it is helpful to place an empty honey super underneath the escape board. This gives the bees more room to congregate below the escape board such that they aren't being crowded out of the honey supers. The closing of the top entrance is critical. I once unknowingly used a lid that was warped so the bees were still able to gain access after the top entrance was closed. Within 24 hours the bees had totally removed every bit of honey from that honey super.

      As I was using the escape boards this year I happened to use a box that I had inherited from my daughter Rachel when she started her sabbatical from beekeeping. This particular box of frames represented a failed attempt to get the bees to draw out their own comb from scratch without the benefit of wax foundation. The result was the equivalent of a bee funhouse. The comb went in every direction and connected all of the frames together. Since I didn't plan on the bees collecting any additional honey this season I saw no harm in using the box with the screwball comb.  Was I ever surprised when the bees put a substantial amount of knotweed honey into that box. There was no way to separate and remove the frames without cutting out the comb.  My only option was to cut out all of the comb from the frames  and harvest the honey using the old-fashioned crush and squeeze method.
One of three gallon buckets of knotweed honeycomb

    I've watched a few YouTube videos on crush and squeeze honey harvesting. It never looked like it was either easy or fun. As I pondered how to approach this task I remembered an old Christmas gift I had received from my daughter Lia. A number of years ago she gave me a cheese making kit (which I had yet failed to put into use, but was still one of my favorite gifts). Included in the kit was a simple cheese press.  It seemed perfect for squeezing honey from the pieces of honeycomb and certainly had to be easier than hand squeezing.

The honey comb is placed inside a nylon mesh bag inside the cheese press

The plastic piston is put in place to squeeze out the honey


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