In an average year, an average colony of bees will reward the beekeeper with about 40-50 lbs of honey. In a good year, a good colony of bees can easily give double that. So whether you have one colony that does exceptionally well, or you have several colonies giving an average yield, sooner or later you will find that you have a to deal with a bumper harvest.

This is when new beekeepers sometimes panic and sell off their surplus honey cheaply as if it were a glut of lettuces that will not keep. But honey will keep for several years and still retain its value if it is stored correctly. In fact it is always a good idea to keep some honey in reserve because not every year is a good honey year. There have been some years when there was little or no honey crop at all.

Last month we looked at getting the honey off the hive and into the jar. Now we need to look at storing both large and small quantities safely.

Storing honey in jars New beekeepers usually bottle all their honey straight away after extraction. This is fine when you are only dealing with 50-80 lbs, but when you have more honey than that to cope with, you will need to consider streamlining your system. It is much easier to store the honey in bulk and then bottle it later when it is more convenient.

Storing large amounts of honey in jars causes several problems anyway, particularly with weight and mass. 1 lb of honey in a glass jar will weigh about 1 lb 6 oz. So every time you need to move 30 lbs of honey in jars, you will actually have to lift more than 40 lbs of honey and glass together. Plastic jars are available, but for some reason they have never become popular. Keep the jars clean by storing them in strong boxes such as those designed to transport wine bottles.

Because you may need to warm the honey jars later in a water bath, it is better not to put the labels on before you store the jars away. When required, jars can be removed from store, polished with a cloth and given a label. They will look bright and fresh instead of old and tired.

Bulk storage Bulk storage makes life much easier for the beekeeper though. Honey actually stores better in bulk than in the jar. Food grade plastic buckets with snap-on lids are ideal containers and they have replaced the tins mentioned in older text books. Plastic buckets and tubs come in many sizes but generally beekeepers find the 15 lb and 30 lb the most convenient to use. The buckets are lightweight and because they have handles they are easy to lift and move about. Be warned though, that the honey may granulate and set solid, so you must have a way of warming it to return it to a liquid state for bottling. Do not store part-filled buckets because of the risk of fermentation.

Where to store Honey is best stored in a cool place, so don't store it in the attic or the airing cupboard. A cellar, old fashioned larder or pantry is ideal. Unfortunately, most houses don't have cellars these days, but a cool and dry, mouse/rat-proof out-building will do. Freezing temperatures in winter are not a problem for honey.

What can go wrong during storage Bear in mind that food grade plastic can absorb odours so don't store the buckets near strong smelling things like petrol, creosote and weed killers as they may taint the honey. The main problem with stored honey is fermentation. This is most likely to happen if a) the honey was not ripe when extracted b) the container was not filled c) the container was not airtight d) the honey granulated unevenly.

Granulation All honey starts out as runny honey, but the various sugars in it will gradually crystallise and the honey will granulate. Beekeepers refer to this as set honey. Some honeys will set quickly whilst others will stay runny for many months. Some will make a lovely smooth buttery set; others will make coarse crystals and have a crunchy texture. It will all depend on the nectar that the bees have collected, the viscosity of the honey, how well (or not) the honey has been strained and the storage temperature.

Set honey with fine crystals should have a long life and needs no further attention. But some honey will set unevenly and will separate, with coarse crystals at the bottom and a layer of liquid on the top. This sort of honey is quite likely to ferment but it can easily be returned to the all liquid state by gentle warming.

If you wish, you can then change the texture by stirring in some honey of a softer consistency and allowing the honey to granulate again. This process is called seeding and the result will be a soft-set honey.

Fermentation Honey will contain wild yeasts which occur naturally in the environment. They cannot be filtered out of the honey, but they should remain dormant if the honey is stored in a cool place and has a water content of 20% or less.

The higher the water content of the honey, the more likely it is to ferment. In warm conditions some of the yeasts will be able to multiply. They will break down the sugars in the honey producing alcohol, acetic acid and carbon dioxide. This produces an unpleasant smell and taste, characteristic of fermentation, which spoils the honey.

Fermented honey should not be fed back to the bees. It can be heated to kill the yeasts but this will darken it and spoil the flavour. However, it will still be suitable for baking.

Making set honey go runny again Granulated honey in jars can be warmed in a water bath in a very low oven until clear. Loosen the lids slightly first. You can also liquefy the odd jar of honey by using a microwave oven on the lowest power, but it is easy to overheat it and this will spoil the flavour.

Honey stored in a lidded bucket will probably set into a solid block and it needs to be returned to the runny state again in order to pour it into jars. Honey in buckets can to be warmed in an insulated box. This can be anything from a converted tea-chest with a 40W light bulb to a purpose made thermostatically controlled warming cabinet. It may take 2-3 days before it all returns to a liquid consistency suitable for bottling.

Checking the water content There is a useful gadget called a refractometer which enables you to measure the percentage of water in the honey. Refractometers are quite expensive but many beekeeping groups have a communal one available.

If you have extracted in batches, check the water content of each batch and make a note of it. Use the honey with the highest water content first as this will have the shortest shelf life.

How long does honey last?

Honey has a very long life although the flavour will deteriorate over time. It is reported that some was found in a tomb in ancient Egypt which was still recognisable as honey even though it was over 3000 years old. However the Trading Standards Department is unlikely to accept September 5006 as a suitable Best Before date.