Ann Chilcott explains how the beekeeper prepares honey for market.

Honey is stored by the bees in waxen cells on sheets of wax foundation held in place by wooden frames. These frames are smaller than those containing eggs, brood, larvae, honey and pollen which are known as brood frames. The honey frame is called a super and sits above the brood box on a slatted metal sheet called a queen excluder which prevents the queen getting upstairs to lay eggs among the honey stores.

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Disassembled hive showing Queen excluder. Photo by Carrie Bates

The bees cap the honey cells with wax to prevent honey from fermenting. The beekeeper knows that honey is ready for harvesting when they see a beautifully capped frame like the one shown in the photograph.

Honey.

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Honey for extraction. Photo by Linton Chilcott

Honey is a low risk food because it contains protective ingredients such as; natural organic acids, hydrogen peroxide and a high sugar content making it a hostile environment for bacteria. However, great care must be taken in processing any food product and we have strict rules in this country around honey which protect the consumer, the producer and the wider market. It is not the intention of this article to provide a “how to” manual, and anyone wishing to process honey should refer to The Honey (England) Regulations 2015/The Honey Regulations (Scotland) 2015 for further guidance.

Honey is hygroscopic which means that it attracts water and thus can ferment when the water content is above 20 per cent. Heather honey has different properties and must not have a water content above 23 per cent. The beekeeper can check water content using a nifty gadget called a refractometer. The customer can also ensure that honey is secured in an airtight lidded jar rather than a fancy pot with spoon in situ which allows air and moisture to spoil the honey over a while.

While honey is still in the hive, the use of chemicals that might taint and affect honey are a consideration and each beekeeper is responsible for making a risk assessment and ensuring that the product will be safe. Food safety around apiaries and honey in the hive is under the auspices of the Primary Industry which is the same for any other type of farming. Government Bee Inspectors may visit anytime to inspect the medicine records for each hive which is a good thing as it helps to maintain high standards. But once honey is harvested it comes under the radar of Environmental Health. Honey can be processed in a kitchen by any hobbyist but they must register the premises with their Local Authority Environmental Health Department as soon as they process honey on more than five days, whether consecutive or not, in a period of five consecutive weeks. After that period certain conditions such as having impervious washable walls, floors, and ceilings become mandatory.

If you are the only person to eat the honey produced in your apiary then you can strain it through your socks and store it in your wellies if you want. But, as soon as you sell honey, or even give it to a friend, you must follow guidelines and adopt best practice measures to protect all the consumers.

Have you ever wondered how honey is harvested without annoying the bees? For a start the beekeeper should never remove honey unless the bees have plenty stored away for their own use. Boards with a hole and a special one-way travel system called a Porter bee escape can be placed under the super. At night the bees go downstairs to bed in the brood box passing through this little gate from which they cannot return. In the morning the beekeeper removes the super to the extracting room. My bees don’t mind if I brush them gently off the super frames and I usually do that when harvesting honey.

Supers containing honey must never be placed on the ground as there is a risk of picking up bacteria and disease including fungal spores. Clostridium botulinum is responsible for botulism and is the reason why children under 12 months should not be fed honey. Although the C. botulinum spores survive in honey they cannot multiply and germinate, but young children, especially those under six months old, have immature immune systems and can become very ill if infected. Babies receiving honey on pacifiers are most at risk.

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Cut Comb. Photo by Alan Riach

Depending on customer demand, the beekeeper might sell a whole comb or cut it up and present it in containers, or the honey may be extracted, strained and bottled.

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Uncapping honey. Photo by Alan Riach

When honey is extracted the frame is first uncapped. There are several ways of doing this but using a hot knife is a popular method. The frame is then placed in a basket inside a large revolving drum which holds several frames and sends honey spurting out by centrifugal action when the handle is turned. It is a very satisfying sound to hear the honey hitting the sides of the drum and to see the golden sweetness running through the taps. Great care needs to be taken not to get carried away by the moment and take your eye off the job. Many a distracted beekeeper has returned from answering the phone to find precious liquid gold running out over the floor. Ensuring that the taps are securely shut when leaving the room is essential.

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Honey being strained through a double strainer. Author photo

The honey is strained to remove debris such as a bee parts but not finely enough to remove much pollen. After settling for a day or so to allow any bubbles to rise to the surface and any froth to be removed, the honey is run through the tap in the settling tank and bottled.

When the honey has been run into jars and labelled it is stored in a dark cool place around ten˚C. Honey that is to be sold as runny honey must be flash-heated to around 54˚C so that it remains runny for around six months. Unheated honey will, like all honey, granulate after a few months. There is nothing wrong with granulated honey but for an attractive shop display with runny honey this should not happen. To avoid complaints and being asked to replace granulated honey, the beekeeper should only processes honey in small batches which will sell quickly. Honey will store well in airtight buckets at low temperatures for a long time.

There are regulations around labelling honey that may surprise you. There are reserved descriptions that must be used as laid out in the regulations mentioned earlier. For example, “Blossom Honey” may be used but “Raw Honey” is not a legal description. Neither is “Lemon Honey” for when something is added to honey it stops being honey.

There are many more considerations around preparing honey but I hope that I have piqued your interest with this overview of the process from hive to table.

Article from Smallholder Magazine, June issue, 2019