Why is This Man Smiling?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Happy Honey Extractor at Work
His incredible weight loss secrets perchance? Mmmm....NO!

The wife that is Venus is rewarding me with a back rub? No again, since she's taking the picture.

The 49ers are winning? That very well could be, but again, no.

But there is a reason for this grin. I'm rich! I'm fabulously rich and wealthy! Not in money mind you, but in fresh, tasty, straight-from-the-backyard Hello Kitty Beehive, HONEY.

As for the picture above? Yes, that is me. Yes, I could stand to lose more than just a few pounds. But I am seated in front of a strange contraption known as an extractor. I had never heard of an extractor, and never had a use for an extractor until I got this crazy idea in my head some three years ago to manage a beehive.

Pure Honey is a Pretty Sight
How does one procure honey from a hive? One needs an "extractor." What is an extractor? If you combine the mental pictures of a large metal trash can and a ten-speed bike -- that's kind of what it's like. And it's the perfect way to remove large amounts of honey from honey-laden combs like the one pictured to your left in a very short period of time.

That honey capped frame, by the way, comes from the part of the beehive called the "honey super." Why do they call it a "honey super?" Why are you asking these questions? My short and sweet answer is: I have no clue why they call it that. Perhaps because it results in a lot of honey -- and such a development is just "super?"

Probably not.

Scraping Wax Capped Frames of Honey for Extraction
My hand was literally shaking with excitement, by the way, as I used a hard-wire brush to break into the white wax caps that held back a massive flow of golden-rich honey. This was a first for me. I'd never done anything like it before. But the time to procure honey from backyard hives had come and gone. It was late October. The weather had turned cold. Cold temperatures turn honey into the consistency and weight of a wet and sticky cement.

Have you ever tried pouring cement? I have. It ain't easy. It also takes a skill level that I never acquired and probably never will. This is why I don't pour wet cement anymore, unless I'm going to bury it in the form of a fence post for a grape arbor. You'll never see my shoddy cement work. It's buried. You'll only notice it when the fence falls over. Hah!

Neon Pink Hello Kitty Hive
Breaking into the Hello Kitty Hive also contained a surprise that I had not been expecting. Since the weather was cold -- I knew the colony must have clustered. I had not seen nary a bee fly in or out of the hive for about a week. This is normal activity during colder months. Bees cluster in a hive to protect the queen and keep her warm. My hope was that the bees had clustered near the bottom of the hive, which would make retrieval of the honey super that much easier.

That particular super is located at the top of the hive. My hope was I could dart in and out without the colony flying up to meet me, retrieve the super and the queen excluder and quickly make my exit.

WARNING! This box is HEAVY!
I'll never forget the rush I felt upon opening the top of that hive to look into the super for the first time since I'd placed it on top of the hive last spring. What had been nothing more than a simple box with ten empty frames had been transformed into a box containing ten white-capped frames of honey that weighed a good 50-60 lbs. It took all of my effort to lug that box off the hive and move it a good twenty feet away. So far, so good. The bees had not come up to greet the wife and I.

Removal of the queen excluder and the second hive body (which contained two year old honey) also went without a hitch. But that's when the first feelings of doubt began to wash over me. I should have seen at least one bee by now. Bees normally react with annoyance when a beekeeper disturbs the hive body. It's a natural reaction. Remember that bees are insects. They do not have individual minds or individual wills. Insects react instinctively. The first instinct of any honeybee is to protect the queen and hive. I should have at least encountered an angry buzz by now.

Frame of Wax-Capped Honey
We didn't hear a thing. That's bad news. If you don't hear bees buzzing, it means it's time to inspect the hive. This is something I hadn't done since last spring, when our very healthy and productive colony swarmed on four different occasions. Although beekeepers do their level best to keep a hive from swarming, it's part of the natural reproductive process. This is how new colonies form. If a colony swarms, it usually means you've got a champion queen inside that hive and she has produced so much new brood -- that it's time to split.

So what happened? I'm not really sure. But an inspection of the bottom hive body revealed a rather distressing sight. There was nary a bee to be found. There wasn't one single, solitary honeybee in that hive. There wasn't so much as a carcass. Short and sweet? They were gone. Why would a queen and colony leave a hive that they had packed with honey stores during the spring and summer? It's a vexing question and problem that affects commercial and hobbyist beekeepers. Successful colonies can collapse and vanish in the space of a month.

Frames Inside Extractor. Notice Honey at the Bottom?
This one vanished. But before vanishing -- they sure did leave behind a boatload of honey.

The first step in claiming this honey from the super was to warm it up. You can't extract honey that is the consistency of wet cement -- even with the powerful force of an extractor. Honey extracts easily when it is thin and pours easily. But it needs heat to reach this consistency -- and sustained heat at that.

The Bird family garage does double-duty for many things. It's not just a garage. It's a party room. It's a bar, complete with kegerator. It's a place to watch football on a flat-screen TV. It's a place for tools and garden implements AND neon signs for Red Stripe, Coors Light, Corona and the like. Short and sweet? It's not just a garage. It's a "GarageMahal."

By turning up the heat and letting the super sit in one place overnight, inside a well heated GarageMahal, the honey inside those white, wax-capped frames took on the kind of consistency that I wanted. It was soft, pliable and easy to work with. It also leaves behind a sticky mess, necessitating the use of a tarp normally reserved for paint jobs inside the house.

Three Frame Extractor With Spigot at Bottom
The extractor is a simple device that uses the force of gravity to remove honey from frames very quickly. The frames are first scraped with a wire brush to remove the wax cappings, then placed inside slots located inside the drum of the extractor. The top of the extractor is then covered, and at that point, it's muscle over matter. The operator cranks the handle at the top of the extractor, the frames inside whip round and round at high speeds, and the force of gravity sends the honey, wax and bits of pollen slinging to the sides of this modified trash can.

Here's a short, one-minute demo here.

The honey that collects at the bottom of this can drains through a spigot into anything you have available (a five gallon bucket works best) and the end result looks a lot like what is pictured above. You get a lot of honey mixed with bits of wax and pollen that also dislodged during the extraction process. Those bits wax and pollen are lighter than the honey, and will rise to the top of a bucket or one gallon container over a day or two. This makes it easier to dig out, but the honey still must be strained a second time. And even then, tiny particles of wax and pollen remain.

Extracted Honey Before Straining
My friends, I can tell you this much. There is nothing quite like honey freshly harvested from your own backyard hive. The taste is dramatically different from what is purchased in a store (many commercial honey products are mixed with corn syrup or other products). It also contains enzymes and pollens that are considered to be medicinal.

Honey that is allowed to stay in a comb stage for two years is far darker and far sweeter. I am not sure if this can be purchased commercially, I've never come across it before. It is truly something special and will make for some nice gifts during the Christmas season.

The Finished Product: Pure 100% Raw Honey
The bees inside that Hello Kitty Hive were extraordinarily productive. The extractor yielded about 60 lbs. of honey -- enough to fill a number of half gallon and one gallon jugs. I have never seen so much honey in my life and consider myself to be very fortunate indeed. While I am saddened that Sudden Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) appears to have struck again, Venus and I will start with a new swarm again next spring.

Beekeeping is like a madness. Once it strikes, it never lets go.

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