How a Migratory Beekeeper Harvests and Extracts Honey from His Fields in Oregon
Bees fly up to three miles when they forage for honey, and any flower in that range is a potential food source. Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey can influence the flavors of honey produced in the spring and summer by placing the hives in areas with plants he wants the bees to nectar on. Henry also pulls frames of honey after smaller nectar flows to separate out small batches of specific wildflower honey varietals.
In Western Oregon, by far the largest nectar flow is from the wild blackberries (Rubus bifrons and Rubus vestitus) that bloom in late June and July, so the vast majority of Henry’s honey is produced in just a few short weeks of the year.
Making Honey Is Like Making Maple Syrup!
Making honey from flower nectar is a lot like making maple syrup from tree sap, except that instead of boiling away the moisture on a stove, the bees fan cells full of nectar with their wings and warm the liquid with their collective body heat to concentrate the sugars in the solution. When this process has brought the watery nectar down to just 17% moisture content, the bees cap honey-filled cells with wax for long-term storage. Honey is unique in that it never spoils unless it’s contaminated with water or other foreign matter.
When Are the Hives Ready to Be Harvested?
It’s relatively easy for a beekeeper to tell when a hive is making surplus honey. During a nectar flow, the whole apiary is permeated by a pungent, floral aroma. When Henry lifts a frame of uncured honey from the hive, it will often literally spill liquid from the cells onto his clothes and any boxes or bees underneath.
After observing these honey-making signs, Henry makes dated notes about what plants are blooming in the area at that time, and when he comes around to harvest honey a couple weeks later, he’ll reference his notes and label frames of capped honey with the primary nectar sources of the honey.
Harvesting honey is just a matter of sorting through frames in hive boxes and pulling out the ones that are primarily occupied with capped honey. Any adhering bees are shaken or brushed off, and the honey frames are transferred to an empty hive box for easier transport.
How Henry Extracts His Honey
Early in the season, Henry prefers to extract in the field instead of bringing frames back to an indoor extraction facility. That way he can return the empty frames to hives immediately after most of the honey has been spun out. If the bees still have a nectar source, they’ll clean and refill the used comb right away. Field extraction can be a really bad idea later in the season when nectar sources are scarcer and colonies are more needy. The bees can be quite persistent trying to collect any exposed honey, harassing and stinging the extractor operator in the process.
To extract honey from wax comb in frames, Henry first uncaps the cells — either by manually scratching the top wax layer and puncturing the seals of each cell with a special scratching tool, or running the frame through an electric uncapper. After uncapping, the frames go into a balanced canister that spins (manually or electrically) at a high speed, and the honey is flung out of the cells by centrifugal force onto the walls of the extractor unit. The liquid flows down to a spout at the bottom.
The honey that drains out of the spout contains a significant quantity of wax, plus some bee bits, that must be strained out before consumption. Old Blue Raw Honey is coarsely filtered, but that process does not remove pollen or some small wax particles.
Don’t Overheat the Hives!
It’s important that frames of honey be warm during extraction so the honey will flow freely from the cells. Cold or even room-temperature honey is so viscous that attempting to extract it would either take a very long time, or much of it would never come out of the cells. While warming honey makes it more easily extractable, overheating honey diminishes and alters its flavors. Old Blue Raw Honey is never heated over natural hive temperatures, about 100°F, to protect the honey’s delicate flavor profile.
This week we’re bringing you an inside look at the story of Henry Storch, a migratory beekeeper in Oregon, as written by his wife, Camille. Stay tuned for more about migratory beekeeping coming up all this week