Honey for the house

We had a late spring. Our main flow hasn’t quite started. In another week, the bees will be gathering ten pounds of clover and alfalfa honey each day here in Calgary. There’s a nice flight today but five days ago, the high temperature was just 14 °C (57 °F).

We have two colonies in our backyard, installed as packages on April 27. Each hive was given 6 frames of drawn comb but everything else had to be drawn from foundation this spring. Turning foundation into comb slows bees down quite a lot, but each still drew out 14 deep frames in the past two months. Even though the weather was cool this spring and the colonies started as packages, they did well and even stored some miscellaneous spring honey.

We wanted some fresh honey for the house. So my son Daniel and I took two frames out of a second-storey brood chamber. The combs were freshly drawn this spring and have never housed brood, so the honey was quite nice, though more amber and more flavourful than I’m used to.

Here are our two backyard hives:

And this is what the honey combs looked like inside the hive:

There are a couple of reasons that you might pull one or two frames of honey from a hive. Besides collecting a few pounds of honey, it’s a way to sample some off-season honey, the sort you don’t get most of the year. Here in Alberta, our summer honey is graded ‘water-white’ and has a very, very mild flavour. For everyday use, I prefer it over medicinal honeys which are usually dark and sometimes taste earthy, murky, swampy, grubby, or resemble Buckley’s cough syrup. However, I sometimes delight in the earthy (a quarter-teaspoon at a time) and I’m always curious to taste an unusual honey flavour. Well, that’s the sort of honey that bees make from wildflowers in the spring here.

You rarely find such atypical honey in the marketplace in Calgary. Most beekeepers in western Canada leave spring honey for the bees. This is usually a good idea because we have a June gap – a dearth after the crocus, willow, and dandelion have finished but before the clovers have started blooming. However, what if your bees have plenty for themselves, but you’d like to have a little fresh, off-season honey? Say, honey from just a single frame or two? Do you set up an extractor and settling tank for five pounds of honey? You don’t have to. The rest of this blog post shows what we did here at our house, a little over a week ago.

We removed the hive cover and pulled a couple deep frames from the upper brood chamber. We avoided pollen and brood and withdrew frames that started this April as foundation.

Both frames looked like this a few weeks ago. Note that this is a solid one-piece frame. The ‘sheet of foundation’ is all plastic with a veneer of wax coating

Here’s the same frame as above, less than two months later. We brought it into our kitchen where we placed it on a shallow baking tray.

With a large serving spoon, we simply scraped the frame down to its plastic core. Everything we removed is pure beeswax and honey. The plastic core does not break or scratch off, just the honey comb gets scooped.  Also note that you don’t ever need to touch the honey. In fact, since it’s food, in our house, it’s forbidden to touch the honey during preparation.

Next stop, a honey bucket where the wax and honey are gently stirred, breaking up larger wax pieces.

Now we heat up the honey/wax mix. This melts the wax and brings it up to the top.  Here’s something really important. After you heat the honey/wax slurry, you must cool the mix very quickly. Our honey (in the picture below) is really hot (about 145 °F), but only for five minutes. Then we immersed it in ice-cold water. If you do this right (and work quickly) you will not burn the honey. However, if you give it heat (even low heat) for a long time (an hour or two) then it will taste like caramel popcorn without the popcorn. Do this step correctly and the wax and bees’ knees float to the top where they can be skimmed off.

If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the ice-water tub with the small (1-kg) container of honey/wax inside. Let it chill for an hour, replacing ice if needed. Atop the honey, a layer of wax forms. We are skimming off wax in the next picture. This is great wax, the kind you can use to make candles.

Here’s the wax. It weighed 140 grams (5 ounces).

Under the wax is gorgeous clean honey.  Although it’s not filtered, there is nothing visible floating in it except microscopic grains of pollen. (And air bubbles. We tested this honey with a refractometer and found it is only 14.2% moisture. That’s very thick honey. So thick that little air bubbles stay trapped, floating in the honey for days or weeks. The air was accidentally added by us when we stirred the honey and wax to homogenize it while heating.)

We ended up with about 3 kilos (7 pounds) which will last the four of us a week or two. (By the way, we harvested 140 grams of wax and 3000 grams of honey, roughly a 22-to-1 ratio. Extracting normally yields 60 times as much honey as beeswax.)

From beginning to end, this took an hour (not counting cooling time for the warm honey). That’s a ridiculous amount of time for a commercial beekeeper who used to extract a thousand pounds an hour, but that’s not the point. We had fun (you know the old saying, “The family that processes honey together stays together.”). We didn’t need an extractor, although for the main harvest in August, we will use one. An extractor is faster for anything over ten pounds – and the combs aren’t destroyed so the bees can use them again next year instead of drawing foundation again.

We ended up with delicious but unusual honey. It tastes like anise, or licorice, but I have no idea why. What was the dominant flower for this little treat? I’m so curious that I may send a sample for pollen analysis. If I do, I’ll let you know the suspected floral source.

Finally, after skimming off the wax, we filled several jars, including these:

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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4 Responses to Honey for the house

  1. Wow, great colour for both honey and wax, Ron! I recall Dad getting a nice bit of Dandelion one spring… It’s flavour and bouquet were both amazing! Milkweed, Sweet White Clover, Trefoil, White Dutch… have already started. Burdock is almost out. It’s been such a strange year here… ):
    Please do let us know what you find out, if you send it off?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ray says:

    Things are very different between the Canadian and UK beekeeping but your description of your ‘medicinal’ honey’s particularly made me laugh, Thanks Ron.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Trish says:

    Thanks for that tip!! My first ever honey was full of chunks of comb which I loved but it was hard to get comb free bits to put on my toast.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Emily Scott says:

    Interesting method -not one I’ve seen done before. How did you heat the honey Ron?


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