Category Archives: Honey

Downstairs? Upstairs?

Colony inspections usually concentrate on the brood box. This is where all the action is. This is where the queen is and where there needs to be sufficient space for the colony to expand.

Or, if times are lean, sufficient stores and pollen to survive.

In contrast, the honey supers get no more than a cursory glance. There’s little of interest going on up there until it’s time to harvest the honey for extraction.

If the supers are light there’s nothing more to do other than hope for a good nectar flow in the future. In contrast, if they’re really heavy they might be ready to remove for extraction. If the frames are all capped the honey is ready.

Usually the supers are not heavy enough (a full super weighs something like 25kg) and they often don’t even get a glance, instead being bodily lifted off and left in a pile while the brood box is inspected.

Checking supers

Nectar has a high water content which the bees evaporate off during the production of honey. If they didn’t get rid of the water the stores would ferment. Since honey is hygroscopic they then add a wax ‘cap’ to the honey-filled cell to protect their stores for the winter.

Nectar is generally stored in the supers, starting in the middle of the middle frames and moving towards the periphery. This is the warmest part of the hive and presumably the easiest to evaporate water from. Therefore, the central frames in the super are most likely to contain capped honey stores.

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

All I do when checking a heavy super is to first briefly look at the central frame to see if the stores are capped. If they are not then there’s no point in looking anywhere else in the super.

If the central frame is capped then it’s worth looking to see if the outside frames are as well. If so a clearer board can be placed below the super and you can take the honey for extraction.

Actually, there’s a bit more complexity as sometimes the honey is ready to extract, but isn’t capped. I’ll deal with that another time. The point I’m (slowly) trying to make is that supers are rarely checked in any detail … until they’re full.

It’s therefore interesting what turns up when you do remove them for extraction.

Pollen and stores-free area

With a strong colony, the bottom super i.e. the one immediately above the queen excluder, often has no honey stored in a semi-circular area immediately above the brood nest. Sometimes the edge of this clear area, adjacent to the honey, contains a band of stored pollen.

This clear area indicates that the colony need more space. The workers are keeping it clear for the queen to lay, but the queen excluder prevents her from accessing it. Sometimes you can get the bees to backfill this area by switching the super with one higher in the stack.

“Billy no mates” brood

It’s not unusual to find a very few scattered capped pupae in a stack of supers. These are almost invariably drone pupae, irrespective of whether the drawn super comb is on worker or drone foundation. In ~24 supers I extracted last weekend I saw three or four.

Billy no-mates ...

Billy no-mates …

I’ve always assumed that these were due to laying worker activity. There are always a few laying workers in a colony, but their numbers are suppressed by a pheromone produced by unsealed brood. Laying workers can be a significant problem in queenless and broodless colonies.

Since workers are unmated, the eggs that laying workers produce are unfertilised and so develop as drones 1.

There may be other explanations for these singleton pupae e.g. workers moving eggs up from the brood box. However, this doesn’t explain why they are almost always drones 2.

Clustered brood

Sometimes you’ll find a super packed with brood in all stages … wall to wall eggs, open and sealed brood. This happens when the queen has somehow sneaked above the queen excluder.

When this has happened to me I usually put it down to a lack of attentiveness in checking the underside of the queen excluder when opening the box. If the queen was on the underside and the QE is leant against the hive stand she can easily wander round to the other side, thereby giving her access to the supers.

Spot the queen

While checking supers for extraction last month I found one box – the lowest super of a stack of three – contained two or three frames with small amounts of clustered brood 3.

Another example of inattentiveness? Possibly, but there were some oddities about this colony.

Eggs and sealed brood ...

Eggs and sealed brood …

Firstly, there was no open brood … just eggs and sealed brood. I uncapped a few cells and the pupae were all just at the purple eyed stage. This is day 15 for workers and day 16 for drones. Since eggs hatch after 3 days this means that there had been a gap of at least 12 days when the queen wasn’t laying.

Half-sisters of the same age ...

Half-sisters of the same age …

Secondly, there was both worker and drone sealed brood present, but it was on separate frames. There was no drone brood in worker cells, which have characteristically domed caps 4.

Finally, I checked the brood box. There was plenty of brood in all stages – eggs, larvae and sealed pupae – in a busy hive. However, I didn’t see the queen (who was nominally marked and clipped) but by this time I was in a bit of a rush.

A partial solution

Some of these apparent oddities have a straightforward explanation.

The separation of drone and worker brood is because I use a range of different frames in my supers – worker foundation, drone foundation and foundationless. They start as matched boxes, but over the years have got completely mixed up.

All the drone brood was in a super frame originally drawn from drone foundation.

That was easy 😉

However, why was there brood at all in the super if the brood box contained the laying queen?

Or should that read a laying queen?

Perhaps there was another queen in the super?

Aside from speculating about how she got there, or – if she was the original queen in the box – where the one ‘downstairs’ came from, there’s also the puzzle about why she’d taken a 12 day holiday from egg laying.

And where the hell was she now?

She’d been in the top box sometime in the last 3 days (because there were eggs present). However, although I’m reasonably good at finding queens, I searched in vain in this super (and the two above) and couldn’t find her.

Time to be pragmatic

Carefully looking through ~30 super frames takes time and I was running out of both time and patience. These three supers were ready for extraction and I still had half a dozen colonies to check.

I could continue looking and eventually find her … if she was there at all.

If she wasn’t, I’d obviously never find her.

What did I do?

I shook all the bees off the super frames – directly over the brood box5 – and took them away for extraction.

I’m a great believer in Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is probably the correct one.

I reasoned that there was probably one queen in the box. Any other explanation was going to get convoluted.

If there was only one queen she was either in the brood box or the supers.

If she was in the brood box then all was well.

If she was in the supers she’d hopefully end up in the brood box.

There was little point in using a clearer board if the queen was in the supers. Firstly, with brood present many bees would probably remain. Secondly, if the queen was present in the supers, they’d definitely not clear.

Super frames with brood ...

Super frames with brood …

And … what happened?

I got well over 60 lb of honey from the colony 🙂

There was a blue marked and clipped queen in the bottom box when I checked the colony a few days later.

She was (still) laying well.

Unsatisfactory explanation

I suspect that the queen excluder was faulty or damaged. It was a wooden-framed wire one. If the wires were prised apart during cleaning or through carelessness the queen could get up into the super.

She could also therefore return to the brood box.

The 12 day gap in laying was probably explained by the queen returning to the brood box during this period.

The two short stints when she’d been ‘upstairs’ hadn’t noticeably left gaps in the brood pattern in the brood box – she might have only nipped up for a few hours or so. There were only a few hundred cells with eggs or pupae in the super.

And the most unsatisfactory thing of all … I thoughtlessly stacked the queen excluder with five others from the same apiary and so now need to carefully inspect all of them for damage 🙁


 

Spring honey harvest

With good Spring weather the first honey extraction of the year is usually timed for early June.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

We’ve had wonderful weather in the east of Scotland this Spring. Unusually, colony build-up was in time to exploit the Spring nectar and several colonies ended up with at least three supers.

One of my two main apiaries is close to oil seed rape (OSR) fields and this was more or less finished by late May. OSR nectar has a high glucose content and readily crystallises. It’s therefore important to get the honey off before it sets rock solid in the frames 1.

Is the honey ready yet?

However, it’s also important not to remove the supers before the bees have capped off the comb, or at least reduced the water content below ~20% or there is a real risk that the honey will ferment in storage.

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

When adding new supers I always put them directly above the brood box. Therefore, in a stacked hive, the top super will be the oldest and the most likely to be capped and ready to remove. Lower down the frames may be partially capped. Usually you’ll find the frames in the middle of the box capped before the outliers.

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

During weekly inspections in late May I check the supers. If a frame is capped it’s ready. If it’s not and the nectar is dripping out when you turn the frame over then it’s definitely not ready.

You can test if uncapped frames are ready by giving them a sharp shake directly over the open super. If nectar drops are shaken out the water content is still too high. Sometimes you’ll find the majority of the frame capped with watery nectar at the very edges.

You don’t need to check every frame, or even every super. With widely spaced frames you can often clearly see they’re all capped. If you can’t you probably just need to check a central frame and one or two on the periphery.

Clearer boards

Fully capped supers usually contain relatively few bees when compared to partially or uncapped frames. Therefore, if the super is fully capped it’s usually easy enough to shake the bees off each frames, transferring the frames to a spare super for transport.

However, supers like the one pictured above, are often covered in bees. The easiest way to clear these is to use a clearer board. These provide a ‘no-moving-parts-one-way-valve’ means of emptying the super of bees. The design I use has a thick lower rim, providing ample space for the bees that move down in the hive. If I’m clearing a tall stack of supers I’ll often add an empty super below the clearer rather than completely overcrowding the brood box.

Removed and inverted clearer board ...

Removed and inverted clearer board …

Add the clearer board 2 and return the following day to remove the super(s) that are now nearly empty of bees. There are almost always a few stragglers 3.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed this year that there are more stragglers if the colony is queenless. I suspect that this might influence the movement of bees in the hive. This isn’t a scientifically controlled observation … just an “I’ve noticed” 😉

Keeping the supers warm

A defining feature of a good year in beekeeping is that you run out of equipment … frames, supers, split boards, roofs etc. With the exception of roofs (because I knock them up from Correx sheets for a couple of quid each) I’ve run out of all of these this year.

And clearers 🙁

Stacked warming supers ...

Stacked warming supers …

I therefore clear a few hives at a time. However, I like to do all my honey extracting in a single day (or weekend if it’s been a good year). This is mainly because I loathe the cleaning up afterwards 🙂

I therefore keep the supers warm until I’m ready to extract. My honey warming cabinet was designed to take 2 x 15kg buckets of honey (inside) or to allow two stacks of supers to be built on top of the open box.

By ensuring no gaps and adding some insulation (bubble wrap or an old blanket) on top I can set the element at ~40°C and the honey in the stacked supers is kept nice and warm 4.

This offers two very significant advantages. OSR honey takes longer to crystallise and the honey, being warm, is much easier to extract.

If the stack of supers is 6+ high I usually rotate them top to bottom, bottom to top every few days, and try and extract from the warmest supers first. This year I cleared supers over a 7-9 day period and extracted them all together.

Mind your back

A brief word of caution … full supers are heavy. Take care lifting them.

Out of interest I weighed some full cedar and poly supers and they each weighed 17-21kg (about 37-43lb). The weight difference isn’t just the weight of the box as the supers contained different numbers of frames, so I’m not comparing like with like.

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

Beekeeping is hard work. If you extract just 10 supers, handling the boxes just five times each during the process (hive to car, car to house, house to warming cabinet to extractor and then back again) you’ll have moved about a metric tonne. You will move them more than this.

Beekeepers back is a very real problem.

And that’s before you handle individual frames during uncapping and loading the extractor. After a hundred full frames I get very sore hands doing this bit, let alone shifting all the full boxes.

Extraction

Honey extraction ...

Honey extraction …

Extracting honey is a bit of a chore.

It’s not even much fun writing about it … 😉

The first bucket or two is enjoyable 5, but the novelty wears off really fast. It’s noisy, repetitive, hot, hard work. Did I say it was repetitive?

I’ve reviewed my extractor previously. It works well and I try and look after it carefully. There’s lots of preparation and even more cleaning up afterwards.

I always run the extractor with the gate open, filtering honey directly through coarse and fine filters into 15kg buckets 6. Once a bucket is full I measure the water content with a refractometer and label the lid with the year/month, source apiary 7, the honey weight and the %age water.

Buckets get stored in a cool, stone-floored room. The honey sets and will keep more or less indefinitely until it’s needed for bottling. Where possible I use the buckets with the highest water content first.

Beer

And once I’ve completed all the cleaning up I treat myself to a well-deserved beer … 🙂


Colophon

Spring follows winter and precedes summer. However, the timing is variable and depends upon the hemisphere and whether you use meteorological or astronomical reckoning. In the US and UK it’s March, April and May using meteorological reckoning. However, there’s not much nectar collected here in the East of Scotland in March. Alternatively, using astronomical/solar reckoning Spring starts on the vernal equinox (~20th March) and ends on the summer solstice (which, conveniently, was yesterday … 😉 ).

Beekeepers might be better using a phenological or ecological estimation for the start of Spring, for example defined by the flowering of a particular range of plants.

Alternatively – and a whole lot easier to measure but much more difficult to predict – define Spring like Swedish meteorologists … “the first occasion on which the average daytime temperature exceeds zero degrees Celsius for seven consecutive days”. This means Spring will vary  with both latitude and elevation. Perfectly sensible and at the same time confusing 🙂

Tamper tantrums

DIY tamper label

DIY tamper label

I’ve discussed labelling jars of honey previously. In addition to a legally acceptable label, any honey sold via a third party should probably have a tamper-proof seal. More correctly, these should be called tamper-evident seals as they don’t stop anyone tampering with the jar. These usually take the form of an adhesive strip that connects the lid to one side of the jar, although there are other styles. Some of the shops I sell through insist on tamper-evident seals, for understandable reasons.

DIY isn’t always best

I’ve made my own tamper-evident seals using my trusty Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. This simple thermal printer has two print heads. One prints individual labels and the other prints to tape. You can purchase thin, clear adhesive Dymo tape which makes quite good tamper-evident seals. It can be printed with a website address or other information in black ink.

However, I’ve standardised on square jars with black lids and the black text on the clear Dymo label was therefore unreadable in places. In addition, the tape is quite expensive (about £11 for 7 metres), increasing the ‘packaging’ costs of my honey. Finally, the strip that must be removed from the back of the tape was infuriatingly fiddly (hence tamper tantrums), so slowing the labelling process. Perhaps I need glasses?

C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal

C. Wynne Jones clear tamper-evident seal …

Clearly better

Instead of persevering with a DIY solution I now purchase rolls of 1000 clear tamper-evident labels from C. Wynne Jones for about £27. These are easy to apply as long as you develop a system to keep fingerprints off the underside of the label. They adhere well and are very unobtrusive.

Importantly, any attempt to remove the jar lid stretches the tamper-evident label destructively, making it very obvious that the jar has been, er, tampered with.

Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals

Clear(ly) tamper-evident seals

When the jar is finally opened, the first thing that happens is the tamper-evident seal is destroyed. This isn’t too worrying since they cost less than 3p.

Finally, if you want to support a good cause and use tamper-evident seals consider purchasing them from the charity Bees for Development. These are also available from Thorne’s who developed the scheme. With these, 10p from each jar sold goes to support their work promoting sustainable beekeeping to combat poverty and to build sustainable, resilient livelihoods.”


† At this price the Dymo tape costs quite a bit more than personalised tamper-evident labels from Thorne’s. These are are available in a wide range of colours and styles.

 

Honey and hay fever

300 jars of honey

300 jars of honey

I’m conflicted. As a beekeeper I appreciate offsetting the cost of indulging my hobby from honey sales. In a good year I get much more honey than I could ever give away to friends and family. Despite making some of my own equipment, there are the costs of purchasing (yet more) boxes, miticides, extraction equipment and winter feed. There’s also an ever-growing wishlist of things that, whilst not essential, would be very welcome. Abelo’s heated honey creamer looks very nice 😉  Bottling, labelling and then selling honey – either from the door or from local shops – provides a few quid to help … a sort of self-perpetuating process in which I transfer all that summer effort by the bees into the coffers of Thorne’s and C. Wynne Jones.

However, I regularly get asked for local honey to ‘prevent the symptoms of hay fever’. Emails or phone calls go something like this:

“My son/daughter/husband/wife suffers really badly from hay fever and I read that locally produced honey could help her symptoms” … followed by a request to confirm that what they’ve read is correct and could I sell them some honey.

As a scientist I can’t do the former and so usually fail to achieve the latter. No way to run a business perhaps, but honesty is the best policy.

Achoo!

Bless you

Bless you

Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen in the air. About 20% of the population have, or will develop, hay fever. I never had it as a child, but in my 30’s developed a strong reaction to some grass pollens that still makes a fortnight or so in mid/late June pretty miserable. Hive inspections with bad hay fever are really miserable.

Symptoms are characteristic – itchy eyes, sneezing and a runny nose (where does all that stuff come from?!). Anti-histamines, either prescription or over-the-counter, help prevent the allergic reaction from occurring. Usually this is sufficient to make the symptoms bearable.

Severe hay fever symptoms, where anti-histamines or corticosteroids are insufficient, can be treated by immunotherapy. Over several months, the patient is exposed sub-cutaneously or orally, to low and increasing doses of the allergen (the compound that causes the allergy) to help develop immunity. Full desensitisation takes about three years.

Honey contains pollen

Honey contains small amounts of pollen. The presence of the pollen forms the basis for lots of tricky questions in the BBKA examinations and is a feature used by food standards to discriminate between flavoured sugar syrup and real honey.

This is probably where the ‘honey prevents hay fever” stories originate. It’s this small amount of pollen that is supposed to stimulate the immune system of hay fever sufferers. A sort of DIY desensitisation course using toast or porridge to help deliver the allergen. Tasty 😉

All this seems pretty logical and straightforward. Honey contains pollen. Low doses of pollen are used to stimulate immunity that, in turn, stops hay fever from developing. Local honey prevents hay fever … I must get this printed on my labels to boost sales further.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good theory

Unfortunately, there are a couple of irritating facts that scupper this nice little theory. The first is  a sort of error of omission, the second is the absence of evidence supporting the theory (or, more accurately, the evidence that the theory is wrong).

Honey certainly contains pollen. At least, real honey doesMelissopalynologists – those who study the pollen in honey – can identify the genus of plants that the bees have been visiting and so may be able to deduce the geographic origin of the honey.

The key part of that last sentence is “that the bees have been visiting”. The vast majority of pollens in honey are from the flowers and trees that they visit to gather nectar. These pollens are usually large and sticky so they adhere to the passing bee and are then transferred to another plant when the bee moves on.

What’s missing are any significant quantities of pollens from wind-pollinated plants such as grasses. Studies have shown that almost all pollens that cause allergies such as hay fever are from these wind-pollinated species. It’s logical that these pollens are largely absent … since the flowers, grasses and trees that produce them are anemophilous (wind-pollinated) they don’t need to generate nectar to attract bees, so the bees don’t visit. So there’s little or none of this type of pollen in honey.

No bees legs ...

No bees legs …

Testing, testing …

So that’s the error of omission. What about scientific support, or otherwise, for the theory that local honey prevents hay fever? After all, this must be an easy (and tasty) experiment to do. Feed a group of people honey and compare their hay fever symptoms with a group fed synthetic honey (or perhaps imported pseudo-honey sold from a supermarket near you).

Researchers in Connecticut did this experiment in 2002. They published their results in a snappily-titled paper “Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis” published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Rhinoconjunctivitis, or perhaps more correctly, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, is the symptoms of hay fever – the itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose. Three groups of a dozen hay fever sufferers, pre-screened for reactivity to common wind-borne allergens, were randomly assigned to receive local ‘raw‘ honey, filtered non-local honey and honey-flavoured syrup (the placebo group). They took one tablespoon of honey, or substitute, a day and recorded their hay fever symptoms. The abstract of the paper neatly summarises the results:

Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.

… leading the authors to conclude that:

This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.

Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence

So, this study does not confirm (prove) that honey prevents hay fever. What about the opposite? Can we use it as evidence that honey does not prevent hay fever symptoms?

1934 Loch Ness haox

1934 Loch Ness hoax

Tricky … as the skeptic James Randi asserted, you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. However, in the absence of convincing evidence that it does exist, I can be reasonably sure that Nessie is a 6th Century tale, embellished in the 19th Century and blatantly exploited by the 21st Century tourist industry.

Of course, lake monsters are ‘found’ worldwide, which isn’t evidence that any of them actually exist 😉

We’re getting into the messy intersection of science and philosophy here. I think it’s sufficient to say that there’s no scientific evidence that honey prevents hay fever. The Connecticut experiment was a properly controlled random study. To my mind (as a scientist) this is much more compelling evidence than any amount of anecdotal stories to the contrary.

An abbreviated version of which is what I tell potential customers who want me to confirm that buying my local honey will help alleviate their hay fever symptoms. Essentially, it won’t.

Sure, they might not get hay fever after eating my honey, but that’s almost certainly a coincidence. It’s a coincidence I’m happy to live with, but not one I’m happy to promote as a reason to buy my local honey.

Why buy local honey?

I don’t think it’s necessary to cite dubious medical benefits when encouraging people to buy local honey.

Why claim something that’s probably not true?

Far better to claim the things that are true, some of which are also clearly demonstrable:

  • It’s local, from the hedges and fields within 3 miles of the apiary. It wasn’t imported by the tonne from a location or locations unknown.
  • It’s a very high quality product – clearly to claim this you need to ensure it looks wonderful and that there are no legs or antennae lurking in the jar.
  • It hasn’t been excessively heated before jarring – all the goodness is still present, including pollen, just not the sort of pollen that will prevent hay fever.
  • The honey hasn’t been micro-filtered, pasteurised or tampered with in any way.
  • It varies during the season as the forage changes – a jar of spring OSR honey is very different  in flavour from a jar of mid-summer floral (hedgerow) honey. It’s a wonderful edible snapshot of the changing seasons.
  • Buying it supports a local cottage industry.
  • It tastes fantastic – clearly demonstrable.

The ‘taste test’ is usually the deciding factor. A couple of tester jars – clearly labelled – a limitless supply of plastic coffee stirrers and a discard pot will allow customers ample opportunity to ‘try before they buy’.

Which they surely will … 🙂


∑ Honesty is the best policy is an idiom dating back to the late 16th Century when Sir Edwin Sandys, a founder of the Virginia Company and one of the first settlers in America, stated “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie”.

A corruption of the saying by Mark Twain “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”. 

† Jean Emberlin (2009). “Grass, tree, and weed pollen”. In Kay et al. The Scientific Basis of Allergy. Allergy and Allergic Diseases. 1:942-962. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781444300925

‡ This isn’t xenophobia. The UK is a net importer of honey. 95% of the honey eaten in the UK is imported – 50% of the 34,000 tonnes imported in 2012 came from China. Most honey on the supermarket shelves contains some rather vague term like Produce of EU and non-EU countries. You don’t know where it came from, and probably nor does the supermarket. There have been bans on imported honey due to it being not honey (just doctored corn syrup), or being contaminated with antibiotics.

Pick a weight, any weight

Little and large

Little and large

I sell the majority of my honey in 8 or 12 oz (227 or 340 g) square glass jars. They are easier to fill than hex jars and look distinctive on the shelf. These, together with 16 oz (454 g) jars, are the ‘conventional’ weights in which honey is usually sold.

Honey tubs

However, the regulations allow the sale of honey in any weight. The polypropylene, airtight “Lock and Lock“-type containers have a silicone seal and are ideal for packaging and selling larger quantities of honey. The 1.4 litre container (above left) takes almost four pounds of honey when filled – perfect for those that like lots of honey on their porridge, or for storing the ‘seed’ for preparing the next batch of soft set honey.

Four pounds of honey is, conveniently, about the upper limit for making a gallon of mead; if you regularly sell honey to mead makers a tub like this is both easier to empty (with less waste) than jars and reusable.

These containers are sometimes available in Poundland. It’s worth shopping around as the increased packaging costs will otherwise have to be taken into account in the sale price.

 

Honey warming cabinet element

Ecostat 100 kit

Ecostat 100 kit

I recently spent an enjoyable evening giving a talk to the Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers Association. In questions after the talk I was asked where to buy the Ecostat heating element used in my honey warming cabinet. It’s not always listed on the website of the suggested supplier, Patrick Pinker (but is as I write this).

These incubator elements are usually purchased be people rearing chickens or gamebirds. An alternative supplier listing Ecostat kits in 50 and 100 eggs sizes is Strangford Incubators in Northern Ireland. You will almost certainly need the 100 egg size to generate enough heat to melt OSR honey properly.

Shop around before you purchase as there can be quite a variation in prices … £64 vs £93 (including P&P) for the two suppliers listed here  😯

‘Raw’ honey

Is this raw honey?

How many times have your been asked that?

Not for sale ...

Not for sale …

Define ‘raw’

Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines ‘raw’ as meaning: 1. said of meat, vegetables, etc: not cooked. 2. not processed, purified or refined. … and then wanders off into definitions of ‘raw’ silk, weather and wounds, though no mention of raw honey.  Clearly honey is both a foodstuff and ‘not cooked’, though if it’s heated excessively it has to be sold as ‘Bakers honey’.

However, is it processed, purified or refined? I operate my extractor with the gate open. I run the honey through a coarse filter (~2 mm) directly into 30 lb. buckets. This removes the worst of the lumps that really shouldn’t be in honey … big pellets of pollen, scraps of brace comb and bits of bees. I really don’t want any of these on my toast in the mornings, and I don’t want them floating on the – inevitable – scum when the jar is opened as I would really like to attract repeat customers. I store the 30 lb. buckets until I’m ready to jar the honey, re-filtering it through a fine mesh and removing the scum before bottling. The end product looks great and has a good shelf life.

Since ‘purified’ means to remove contaminants I suspect the pedantic would consider the honey is no longer raw.

Raw honey on labels

Honey labelled for sale must carry one of the following reserved words that describe the product … Honey, Blossom Honey, Nectar Honey, Honeydew Honey, Comb Honey, Chunk Honey, Cut Comb in Honey, Drained Honey, Extracted Honey, Pressed Honey, Filtered Honey and Baker’s Honey. If the predominant nectar source is known the reserved word can be prefixed with the source e.g. heather honey.

It’s notable that raw, organic, unfiltered or unheated aren’t reserved words and yet are regularly found on honey labels, sometimes immediately preceding the word ‘honey’.

The taste test

The jar at the top of the page is coarse filtered ‘raw’ honey run straight from the extractor into the bottle. It’s slightly cloudy and has bubbles and a sort of swirly, almost birefringent, appearance when you hold it against the light. It will almost certainly crystallise unevenly and unpredictably. It might have an antenna lurking in its murky depths.

It tastes absolutely delicious.

But then so is honey that’s been allowed to settle in the buckets, gently warmed in a honey warming cabinet, filtered through a fine mesh filter, allowed to settle again, skimmed (to remove the bubbles that rise to the surface) and then carefully bottled in pre-warmed jars. This is still ‘raw’ – as in uncooked – honey but it’s also certainly a more refined product. It’s beautifully clear, it looks great on the shop shelves or the breakfast table, it sells well and it attracts a premium price. Like all pure honey that hasn’t been heated to very high temperatures or filtered excessively it will eventually crystallise, but it has a long shelf life and will remain attractive for the duration.

No bee legs or antennae ...

No bee legs or antennae …

It might be interesting to conduct a blind taste test of a jar of ‘raw’ honey with one refined just enough – as described above – to look really good and sell well. It might also be interesting to auction an unlabelled jar of each and see which is more attractive to the customer … or see whether customers who find bee legs in the jar make repeat orders 😉


Going by the number of visitors who come to this site having searched for a ‘honey warming cabinet‘ I suspect that the ‘raw’ honey sold by most beekeepers is at least partially refined. As an aside that last link also takes you to details of the cabinet sold by Abelo’s, which looks lovely (a lot more aesthetically pleasing than my DIY effort), but costs an eye-watering £599 and doesn’t enable you to pre-warm supers before extraction. A missed opportunity.

 

Extractor cleaning

Spring honey crop

Spring honey crop …

A honey extractor is one of the most expensive individual pieces of equipment a beekeeper is likely buy . If you’re lucky, your association might own one or more extractors and make them available to borrow or hire. However you get hold of one, after use they need to be thoroughly cleaned before storing (or returning) them.

Don’t, whatever you do, follow the advice on some websites or beekeeping forums (fora?) and leave the extractor outside “for the bees to clean”. This is a very bad idea. The feeding frenzy that results is a perfect way to spread disease.

Patience, cold water, more patience and a hairdryer

The used extractor will have quite a bit of residual honey adhering to the sidewalls and floor. You can scrape this out using a flexible silicone spatula but it’s a messy process and almost guaranteed to cover you from wrist to oxter in honey. It’s far easier to:

  • close the honey gate securely
  • tip the extractor up at a steep angle so the honey runs towards the gate
  • turn the heating up in the room and leave it overnight

The following morning the majority of the honey will have drained down towards the honey gate, this can then be bottled for home consumption or used for mead or marmalade making. It’s not unusual to get a pound or more of honey like this … it’ll be a bit frothy and might be less well-filtered but it will still be delicious.

Testing ...

Testing …

To wash out the residual honey, wax and propolis from the extractor:

  • level the extractor
  • close the honey gate securely
  • fill it completely with cold or cool water and leave overnight
  • empty out the water, rinse well with more cool/cold water
  • mop up the dregs with clean kitchen towel
  • dry with a hairdryer set on ‘low’

Avoid using hot water as it melts any residual wax and makes it a lot harder to clean. The easiest way to complete this wash is to stand the extractor in the garden late in the evening (after the bees stop flying), fill it from the hosepipe and then empty it early the following morning. Almost all of the honey residues will have dissolved. The extractor can then be wiped out and dried with a hairdryer … I simply hang one inside the extractor for half an hour, set on the lowest heat setting and repositioning it periodically to get into all the corners. The stainless steel drum of the extractor warms very quickly, transmitting the heat throughout the extractor.


Unless you’re semi-commercial or larger in scale in which case you might have bought anything from a €1600 bottling machine to a £really?! Unimog

Square is the new hex

I managed to source some rather nice small square jars for honey recently. They have a nominal 200ml capacity which, when filled properly with honey, is 8 oz (227 g). Perhaps I should qualify “filled properly” … these have a slightly longer ‘neck’ than normal jars, so you don’t need to fill them to just under the lid. I bought them with black lids to ensure they looked distinctive on the store shelves next to the more usual ‘gold tops’. They are very easy to fill, with the slope of the jar shoulder being sufficiently steep that relatively few bubbles get trapped. In contrast, I find that small hex jars are a bit of a pain to fill as the shoulder is almost at right angles, more or less guaranteeing that an unsightly bubble or two remains after jarring. Even half pound round jars have a rather sharp angle at the shoulder and have a tendency to trap bubbles. Of course, none of these bubbles affect the flavour, but it’s always a good idea to try to make a top quality product look like a top quality product.

200ml (8oz) square jar

200ml (8oz) square jar

It’s easy to apply labels to these small square jars and I’ve printed these on the smallest thermal printer address labels (89x28mm) for my Dymo LabelWriter. Tamper-detection labels were more difficult, with any of the normal ones looking unsightly … both being too large and contrasting unpleasantly with the black lids. In the end I used 6mm transparent thermal tape onto which I printed a website URL. This sticks very firmly to the lid and glass but is difficult to see unless you look carefully. When the jar is opened the tape stretches and distorts, making any tampering pretty obvious. Unfortunately, this thermal tape is rather difficult to remove from the backing paper, so labelling large numbers of jars can get tedious.

Thermal printed tamper label

Thermal printed tamper label

But as they say “the proof of the pudding” … the jars look good to me but what’s more important is how well they sell.


This was written some time ago. The jars have sold well 🙂


NOTE – in response to the Q from Bridget below and after a bit of searching I discovered that I ordered these from eBay (seller glass_jars_from_jarsdirect). At the time of writing they’re £38 for 100 delivered. One or two of the regular honey jar suppliers also sell a 12oz (~280ml) square jar but the cost is higher still.

Two stonking cheese shops

Two stonking cheese shops ...

Two stonking cheese shops …

A brief – and complimentary – review of St. Andrews in a pull-out extract from Pete Irvine’s Scotland the Best was included with The Times last Saturday. Aside from likening St. Andrews to a posh part of West London (not very accurate in my opinion§), they include the statement:

“Where else are there not one but two stonking cheese shops, three laid-back coffee shops besides old-fashioned bakers and an ice-cream parlour?”

This sentence made me smile for a couple of reasons. The first is that my spellchecker automagically corrects stonking to stinking, perhaps not entirely inappropriate for a cheese shop. The second is that one of those ‘stonking’ cheese shops is Mellis Cheese, where they stock my honey. Mellis (@johnmellishoney) is a well-known name in commercial beekeeping and the cheese shop is run by others in the same family. I’m delighted they stock some of my local Collessie honey alongside their own products.

Janettas Gelateria

Janettas Gelateria …

I’ve no idea which of the very many coffee shops The Times considers ‘laid-back’ … with a student population of ~7,500 in a town of about 17,500 it’s no wonder the coffee shops – which number many more than three – do such a roaring trade. In the name of research I’ve tested many of the coffee shops in town but am still no wiser as to which are ‘laid-back’. Perhaps I wouldn’t recognise them even if they were? The ice-cream parlour is of course Janettas Gelateria (‘Four generations, one passion‘) … thoroughly recommended, though be prepared to queue if the sun is out (whatever the month).

Which it usually is 😉

St. Andrews pier

St. Andrews pier

This probably qualifies as a “not beekeeping” post, but with the season about to kick off there’ll be lots to discuss in the near future.


§ It’s certainly got nothing much in common with the relatively posh parts of West London I know … St. Andrews is cleaner, quieter, cobbled (at least in parts), community-spirited and considerably closer to the sea 😉 There’s also free parking.