Harvesting my backyard honey (and your chance to get a jar)

Earlier this summer, I harvested honey from my backyard beehive. I follow the Backwards Beekeepers’ no-treatment school of bee husbandry — I don’t do anything other than set up a box and fill it with bees. No mite treatment, no queen excluder, no frequent checking on the bees. I open the lid once a year, pull out a few honey-loaded frames, replace them with empty frames, and close up the lid for next year.

I started the day by preparing frames to replace the ones I'd be taking from the hive. You can buy frames that have sheets of molded wax hexagons on them, which gives the bees a head start in making comb, but the size of the hexagons might not be suited to the size of your bees. These artificial hexagons could be the main cause bee mites, the scourge of bees and beekeepers (Do a Google image search on bee mites if you want to be grossed out.)

Instead of using the hexagon sheets, we used starter strips cut from a cardboard box. My daughter Jane and I melted some of the beeswax from our last harvest and used a paintbrush to coat the strips. Then we stuck the strips into the slots on the wood frames. The bees will use these starter strips as the foundation for their comb. It takes the bees longer to make comb this way, but bees are hard workers and don’t complain. (Some people don't even bother with the wax, saying that bare cardboard strips are adequate.)

Next, it was time to get my gear in order.

  1. Hive tool, which looks like a crowbar and is useful for popping off lids and frames that are glued down by propolis, which is a glue-like substance bees use to stick things together.
  2. Smoker, which is a can filled with pieces of crumbled up newspaper. You light the newspaper and then squeeze the bellows to pump smoke into the beehive. For some reason, it makes the bees drowsy. As my beekeeping mentor, Kirk Andersen explained to me, the smoke makes the bees think the hive is on fire, so they start eating honey before it goes to waste. The full-bellied bees then get sleepy. “It’s like Thanksgiving,” Kirk explained. “Who wants to fight after a turkey dinner?” (My crazy uncle, for one.)
  3. 5-gallon plastic bucket to put the honey-loaded frames in.
  4. a brush to swipe the bees off the honeycomb I collected

  5. Beekeeper's outfit. Whenever I put it on, everyone in my family laughs at me. The joke never gets old!

I walked over to the hive and got to work. First, I lit the newspaper in the can and waited for the flame to spread, then closed the lid. It’s a lot harder to do things wearing thick rubber gloves, so I broke a few matches before succeeding. I pried open the lid of the hive with the hive tool. The buzz of the agitated bees was loud, as it always is. I can never help breaking out in a sweat when I open the lid and see thousands of buzzing, frantic bees. I know I’m safe in my bee outfit (I’ve only been stung once, when the mesh of my mask was against my cheek) but my primal get-the-hell-out-of-here circuitry always kicks in and it takes about 60 seconds for it to go away. After that, I’m as comfortable around the bees as I am around my cats.

I gave the hive a dose of smoke and waited a bit for it to take effect. Most of the bees calmed down, but a sizable number stayed angry (like my crazy uncle) and dive bombed my face in an attempt to sting me. I was too focused on my mission of getting the honey to pay much attention to the tiny kamikazes. I pried away four of the 24 frames in the hive and placed them in the bucket. They were heavy with honey. I slipped the prepared frames with the starter strips into the empty slots, bid my bees farewell till next year, and put the lid on top.

As I walked away from the hive, a sizable cloud of bees followed me. This is normal. I brushed off the bees from the frames as best I could, but by this time the frames had collapsed and a lot of bees were trapped in the oozing honey. I spent an hour or so picking trapped bees from the honey. Most of them died. I hate that part.

Once I had gotten all the bees out of the bucket, I brought it into the house, along with a paint scraper lashed to a broom handle. My daughters and a friend took turns chopping the honey comb into mush. Before it got too mushy, I pulled a few thumb size pieces of honey-filled comb from the bucket and passed them around. God, it tasted good.

I poured the mush into a bucket that had a nylon paint straining bag in it and holes drilled in the bottom. This bucket sat on top of another five-gallon bucket whose job was to collect the strained honey. We left the buckets to do their thing for the rest of the day and went to my sister-in-law’s house for a barbecue.

By the time we got back, the honey had dripped off the crushed comb into the lower bucket. I transferred it into glass jars. The total harvest was nearly a gallon (I took the photo after having given some away). Interestingly, the honey this year is darker than the previous harvest (the smaller jar is from the previous harvest). I’m not sure why that is. The taste is similar though — delicious.

Would you like a small jar of my honey? I’ll send one to a follower of Boing Boing’s twitter feed. Follow here. I’ll choose a follower at random next week!