While there are many ways to harvest honey, the way we do it isn't the easiest or the fastest, but we think our method honors the bees the best way we know how. With each hive at peak population of 70,000-80,000 bees right now, we want to minimize upsetting these huge colonies.
First, we weigh the hives by tipping them onto a scale and using some physics, calculate their actual weight. Once we've determined how many boxes of honey they will need to last through the winter and early spring, we then know how many boxes of surplus honey each hive has to give.
Could we take all the honey, giving us an extra 100-150 lbs per hive? Sure. But we don't. We've found an 84% success rate overwintering our bees here in Wisconsin over the past 4 years. We know how medicinal honey is for us, so we know it's better for the bees to eat their own honey rather than high fructose corn syrup or sugar water.
To move the bees out of those boxes for ease of transport and to keep the bees inside their hives (and out of the honey house), we lift off all the surplus boxes, deemed honey supers, put on a one-way maze called an escape board, and put all those honey supers back onto the Hive. This sounds easy enough, until you think about the logistics for the largest hives: moving 6-70 lb boxes of honey from the top of a 8 foot tall hive, to the ground, to back on top of the hive. Luckily, we've been training all summer for this and we have strong friends, so this process, while tiring, tends to go smoothly.
We return in 24 hours, thank the bees for sharing their honey, and gratefully pack the surplus honey supers onto a trailer and take them to the honey house, aka where we will extract.
How do we get the honey out of the frames?
We're glad you asked. The bees have capped all the honey comb with a thin layer of wax to keep the honey covered and protected. So the first step is carefully removing that wax seal with an uncapping machine. In here, sharp oscillating blades run along the frame to slice off the wax cappings, exposing the cells filled with honey.
Next we load these heavy (and slippery!) frames of honey into a giant stainless steel centrifuge, trying not to drop any frames lest we damage the delicate wax comb. The centrifuge spins the honey out of the cells and into a tank, where the honey pours through a coarse filter to remove large chunks of wax.
We then return the boxes (supers) of empty frames to the bees for them to lap up the leftover honey before putting the supers into storage for the winter.
Harvesting this liquid gold is the end of our beekeeping year, and it's a bittersweet day for us. When we reflect on how each honey bee will bring in 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime, we have enormous respect and appreciation for all the hard work the approximately 3 million (yes, million) honey bees it took to make ~1,500 lbs of honey this year.
Let's honor the bees with a toast. Raise a glass with us and say cheers to the bees!