Hopefully by now you’ve had the pleasure of tasting some of our fresh, local honey made by our very own Prism bees. (If you haven’t, as you’re about to learn— we have plenty! Be sure to ask any Prism team member next time you’re around and we’ll give you a jar.) Our “Claris Honey” as we call it, gets harvested annually by Alan and a crew of other helpers, and the latest harvest took place just a few weekends ago.
We asked one of the harvesting crew members, Nicole, about the process and were fascinated by how it all works! Read on & watch the video below to learn how the honey you enjoy from Prism gets from bee to jar.
How do bees make honey?
Bees make honey by gathering nectar from flowers with their tongues and storing it in their “honey stomach” which is different than their food stomach and has a specific enzyme to help break down the nectar. They take it back to the hive and then spit it back and forth to other bees in order to reduce the moisture content. I’ve heard that each bee chews it for about 30 minutes! Then the honey is stored in a little hexagon wax cell made by the bees. It gets dried out even further by sitting in the warm hive or being fanned. Once enough moisture evaporates it becomes honey and the bees put a wax cap on the cell to keep it safe in storage!
How often and at what times of year do beekeepers harvest honey? Why this timing?
Bees make honey and store it in their hives to eat during the winter when there are no flowers available to get nectar from. Uniquely, bees will make more food (honey) than they can possibly need if given the space and right environment. This makes it possible for us humans to harvest some of their honey and still leave enough for the bees to survive on during those winter months.
How often and what times of the year a beekeeper harvests honey really depends on what climate they live in. For example, often in Louisiana you can have a summer and a fall honey harvest. The fall is mild enough to still have flowers blooming for the bees to keep foraging (gathering nectar) and making honey late into the year. Some beekeepers will choose to harvest almost all of the honey in their hives and then feed their bees sugar water throughout the winter months; others will leave enough for the bees to eat for themselves so that they do not have to be fed.
What happens if a hive’s honey is not harvested?
Honey does not have an expiration date! Supposedly they found honey in King Tut’s tomb and it was still edible! So if a hive is left with all of their honey, they will eat through the honey stores they need for the winter months and then just continue to make more of it next summer if given the space. One thing to look out for if you choose not to harvest is that, if in the spring the hive does not have more room to expand and grow, they will be more likely to swarm. This means they’ll make a new queen and the old queen will leave with 2/3 of the population to find a new home. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can decrease your honey harvest in the next year.
What are boxes, frames, hives?
A hive is a family of bees with only one queen. They work together to make honey, take care of their young, dote on their queen, and keep their little society running smoothly. A hive can live in nature in some crazy places like an old tire, under the hood of an old car, or just in the hole of a tree. Beekeepers use bee boxes made of wood to create a pleasing environment for a hive of bees to live. Usually the bottom boxes are where the queen stays, lays her eggs, and they raise the babies. Beekeepers can then stack more boxes on top for the bees to store extra honey. In each box there are frames that the bees can use to create sheets of wax with the classic honeycomb pattern. They build those cells on each frame and use them to store eggs, larvae, or food. The beekeeper can easily remove the individual frames to harvest honey.
What is the order of events in a honey harvesting/extraction process?
First the beekeeper will suit up in your bee suit (or if you’re like some of us… just a veil) and go into the hives to take out the frames that have “capped” or completed honey. You then need to “uncap” or break open that wax covering so that the honey can spill out. There are lots of fun tools that can be used to do this, or if you’re the low-tech type you can just take a potato masher and crush all of the honeycomb into a container so that all of the honey spills out.
Keepers with more hives typically have a tool called an extractor that looks like a big barrel. It gets filled with the uncapped frames and will spin them around so that all of the honey gets slung out to the side of the barrel and then drips to the bottom. There’s a valve at the bottom that can be opened to allow all of the honey to flow out into a bucket with a filter to clean out all the little bits of wax. Once all of the honey is drained into the bucket it is ready to be jarred! The honey buckets also have a valve on the bottom that can be opened and closed to pour the honey into those glass jars you know and love! (For those low-tech beekeepers, its possible to crush the honeycomb and then leave it in a bucket with a filter to drain out, it just takes a little more patience.)
What do you do with the frames and boxes after extraction? How does this affect the bees?
After extraction, you can set all of the sticky equipment and frames out for the bees to clean all of the leftover honey off of. Depending on condition, frames and boxes can often be reused in the next season. After a honey harvest, the hives will be smaller with less boxes of honey on top. This can help them survive over the winter months because they will have less space to have to keep warm and defend against pests.
How much honey does an average hive make per year?
An average hive can make around 50lbs or 4 gallons per year. (We recently harvested from several hives, however, and collected over 40 gallons of honey!)How long does the extraction process take?
Depends on how much honey you have! Also your method of extracting and tools can really impact the time it takes to extract. Usually it’s an all-day affair so we’ve found that it’s best to make a party of it and invite some friends!
How easy or difficult is it to get involved in beekeeping? How could one start?
Beekeeping does not have to be complicated and thankfully the bees are good at knowing what they’re doing even when you don’t! A good way to dip your toes into beekeeping can be to go to your local beekeeping club meetings or find an established beekeeper in the community to be your mentor. Ask them to take you out for a hive inspection so that you can learn what types of tools/equipment you’ll need and familiarize yourself with the bees.
Please let us know whenever you want some Claris Honey! We love giving it out and teaching people where it comes from and how it’s made!