Tag Archives: honey

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.

 

Faded glory

Honey has a long shelf life if prepared and stored properly. By long shelf life I don’t mean weeks or months. I mean years. And lots of them. Ceramic pots of honey have been found in Egyptian pyramids and are apparently still edible, though it’s notable that there’s never any direct quotation on what the flavour is like. Honey has also been discovered in Georgia that date back about 5,500 years, though again there’s no comment on the flavour. At the time of writing (autumn 2016) my honey carries a ‘best before’ date of December 2018 which I reckon is reasonably safe. From January next this will be December 2019.

Faded glory ...

Faded glory …

Whether those ancient honeys tasted good or bad, there can be relatively few foodstuffs that remain even identifiable over hundreds, let along thousands, of years. This longevity is due to a combination of the low water content and high acidity of honey, which makes it an extreme environment for the micro-organisms that usually spoil food. In addition to this, enzymes added during nectar processing by the bees increase the hydrogen peroxide content. Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is also anti-microbial, and is one of there reasons that honey can be used for wound dressings. Notwithstanding all of this natural protection, honey deserves being properly looked after to ensure it can be enjoyed at its best.

Long term storage

Spring honey crop

Spring honey crop …

I store extracted honey in food-grade 30lb buckets with airtight lids in a cool environment (an unheated entrance hall with a flagstoned floor). I measure the water content using a refractometer when I extract and write this on the lid of the bucket, generally using the honey with the highest water content first (though this also depends upon demand for particular honey types). The apiary and date of extraction are also recorded.

I bottle in batches, one or two buckets at a time. This is a convenient amount in terms of sales, space in the warming cabinet and minimising problems with frosting. It’s also just about my limit for repetitive manual work and restricts the amount of heavy jarred honey that needs to be stored. Finally, labelling 60 or more jars is also a pretty tedious experience, though I do like the appearance of serried rows of identically labelled jars ready to go off to the shop.

Faded glory

Jarred honey needs to be stored somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight. I use the same cool entrance hallway I use for buckets of honey. The out of direct sunlight instruction is really to avoid subjecting the honey to fluctuating temperatures. Inevitably, one or two jars are kept on the shelf to attract sales or as gifts for visitors.

I recently noticed that the thermal printed labels (Dymo) I use fade quite badly when exposed to sunlight. The ½lb round at the top of this page has been on my office shelf since January, exposed to full sun (or as much full sun as we get in Fife). Next to it is a ¾lb square that has been recently labelled. The fading of the label on the left is very obvious. Therefore, if you use thermal printers to prepare simple DIY labels this is an additional reason to keep your jarred honey in dark, cool conditions … or give it away/sell it faster  😉


These jars are from C. Wynne Jones, as are the clear anti-tamper labels which are a big improvement on the fiddly thin Dymo transparent tape I was previously using.

 

‘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.

 

Simple honey labels – DIY

Honey hunter ...

Honey hunter …

What sort of honey labels do you use? Of course, if you keep it all for yourself or just give it to friends and family that question could be Do you label your honey? However, if you sell it via a third party or direct there are regulations that govern the labelling of honey for sale to consumers. I’m not going to attempt to decipher these rules or provide guidance on what is legal and what is not – it’s a minefield and involves Packaged Goods Regulations, Weights and Measures Act, Food Labelling Regulations and, last but by no means least, the Honey Regulations. It differs whether you’re selling direct or via a third party and the rules probably differ in England and Scotland. Phew! You are advised to talk to your local Trading Standards people who will advise you.

Commercial label

Commercial label

The beekeeping suppliers offer a wide range of pre-printed and customisable labels. Before moving to Scotland I used colour, high gloss, ‘easy-peel’ removable labels. Although they looked attractive I was never sure they actually contributed significantly to sales. The investment in labels discouraged me from from changing from 1lb ’rounds’ to 12oz hex jars (where the profit margins are higher 😉 … How many farm shops, garden centres and similar places now sell 1lb jars?) and I had no flexibility in making smaller batches for particular honey types. Having now moved and got a few buckets of Scottish honey from the summer I needed to make some new labels. Since the majority of my sales initially are going to be direct and local I wanted a simple label that didn’t obscure too much of the jar, was easy to read, straightforward to customise and – ideally – inexpensive and easy to produce at home. I’ve also always liked the rather stylish designs like the Honey Hunter labels at the top of the page (though these probably aren’t legal for 3rd party sales in the UK) and thought DIY label-printing might be an inexpensive way to try and achieve something similar.

Dymo labelling software

Dymo labelling software …

I’ve got a Dymo LabelWriter 450 Duo. These printers use thermal printing technology so have no toner cartridges or ink. Dymo also provide an application (Mac and PC) for label design and printing (right). It’s relatively intuitive to use but has a few quirks. However, it allows embedding of pictures, barcodes, auto-incrementing numbers and supports the majority of fonts available on your system, though not all font sizes are possible for some reason. Standard format images (PNG, GIF, JPG) can be embedded, resized and rotated. There are useful formatting tools like left/right/top/bottom align, reordering front/back of overlapping objects and the ability to create templates and save label designs. There’s also the ability to create curved text though I’ve not used this. Irritatingly there’s no way to print to the very edge of the label – none of the images or text can be placed closer than about 1.5mm from the label edge and this distance is slightly greater on the left hand side of the label. Nevertheless, the Dymo Label™ software makes designing and printing labels, one at a time or dozens sequentially numbered, a doddle.

Simple honey labels

Simple honey labels …

It was straightforward to design and print labels for 8oz, 12oz and 1lb jars in small numbers, each carrying a different batch number, best before date, honey type etc. The printing is very sharp, smudge-free (even immediately after printing) and water-resistant, though the label probably isn’t. The original Dymo labels can be easily and cleanly removed from jars without leaving a residue. I used these labels in the run-up to Christmas and – although functional and perhaps a little utilitarian – received no adverse comments. Since I have apiaries in several locations I can easily run off customised labels for individual places, without significant investment or breaking the plethora of regulations that govern honey labelling. If you sell honey to guest houses or garden centres (for example) it is easy to prepare personalised labels in small quantities very economically.

Printer and label costs

Although the list price of these printers is a bit steep, the usual online  stockists often offer ~50% reductions. At the time of writing Amazon are selling the LabelWriter 450 printer and 3 assorted label rolls for about £50. Replacement Dymo thermal paper rolls are usually a bit over a tenner for 500+ labels of suitable sizes, but you can purchase compatible generic thermal paper rolls for significantly less. For example, Dymo #99012 (36mm x 89mm) are £12.75 for 2 x 260 whereas well reviewed, compatible, generic equivalents are £7.98 for 5 x 260 … or about 0.6p/printed label. However, don’t bother with the generic ‘clear’ compatible labels. Firstly, they aren’t anything like clear (!) and they also smear very badly. Remember that thermal printers use different printing technology and don’t use toner like inkjet or laser printers so there are no additional running costs 🙂

But they’re not in colour … ?

Thermal printers only print black on the label background colour, which is almost always white. For just a splash of colour you could use fluorescent marker pens, for example to highlight the banding on a ‘cartoon’ of a bee. For more extensive colour it’s relatively easy to produce labels on a suitable laser printer … the subject of a future post. For comparison, suitable Avery labels cost 3-4p per label (excluding the outlay on hardware and toner) but you need to print a minimum of a dozen (one sheet) at a time.

2015 in retrospect

The winter solstice seems like a good time to look back over the 2015 beekeeping year. With the day length about to start increasing, what went right and what went wrong? Back in March I wrote that my plans for the year were different from the usual OSR – swarming – queen rearing – summer flow – harvest – Varroa treatment – feed-’em-up and forget ’em routine as I was moving to Scotland in the middle of the season. Some of these things happened, though perhaps less than in a usual year.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Spring – better late than never

Cloak board ...

Cloake board …

The OSR yielded poorly as the spring was cold and late. I didn’t even look inside a colony until mid-April. Colonies were only getting strong as the OSR flowers went over meaning that most of it was missed. The weather was unseasonably cold, with mid-May being 2-3ºC cooler than average. Queen rearing started in the third week of May and although grafting went well, queen mating was really hit and miss, with low temperatures and lots of rain lasting through May and June. On a more positive note, I used a Cloake board for the first time and was pleased with the results (I’ll write about this sometime in 2016 after using it a bit more). I didn’t use any mini-nucs this year as I didn’t want the hassle of dealing with them mid-season when moving North. Instead, I did all of my queen mating in 2-5 frame nucs, often produced as circle splits from the cell-raising colonies. This worked well … and considering the lousy weather was probably a lot less effort than using mini-nucs which would have required constant attention and lots of feeding. Using poly-nucs I could prime them with a frame of brood and a frame of stores and adhering bees, dummy them down and leave 3 frames of foundation (or wherever possible, drawn comb) ready to be used on the other side of the dummy board. Once the queen was mated the colony would build up well and if – as often happened this season – the queen failed to get mated or was lost (drowned?) during mating flights it was easy to unite the queenless unit with a queenright one, so not wasting any resources.

Go forth and multiply

Split board

Split board …

Beginners often find the coordination of colonies for queen rearing, and the apparent difficulty of grafting (it isn’t), a daunting prospect. When I’ve been involved in teaching queen rearing it’s clear that the relatively small scale approach I use (queenright cell raiser, grafting and – usually – mini-nucs) is often still too involved for the very small numbers of queens most beekeepers with just a couple of hives want. It was therefore interesting to raise a few queens using vertical splits, simply by dividing a strong colony vertically and letting the bees do all the work of selecting the best larvae, raising the queen and getting her mated. It has the advantage of needing almost no additional equipment and only requires a single manipulation of the hive (and even that can probably be simplified). Having documented the process this season I’ve got a few additional things I’d like to try in 2016 to make it even easier and to allow better stock selection. After that it will be incorporated into queen rearing talks and training.

Changes in Varroa treatment

The big change in Varroa treatment in the UK was the licensing of Api-Bioxal. Whether or not you consider the 50-fold or more cost of VMD-approved oxalic acid (OA) over the generic powder is justified is really a separate issue. Oxalic acid is an effective miticide and, if administered appropriately, is very well tolerated by the colony. Despite the eyewatering markup, Api-Bioxal is significantly less expensive than all other approved miticides. For the small scale beekeeper it’s probably only 20% the cost of the – often ineffective – Apistan, or either Apiguard or MAQS. Under certain circumstances – resistant mites, low temperatures or the potential for queen loss – there are compelling reasons why OA is preferable to these treatments. If we hadn’t been using OA for years the online forums would be full of beekeepers praising the aggressive pricing strategy of Chemicals Liaf s.p.a in undercutting the competition. Of course, if we hadn’t been using generic OA for years Api-Bioxal would probably be priced similarly to Apiguard 🙁

Sublimox in use

Sublimox in use …

I’ve used OA sublimation throughout 2015 and been extremely impressed with how effective it has been. Mite drops in colonies treated early in the season remained low, but increased significantly in adjacent colonies that were not treated. I treated all swarms caught or attracted to bait hives. Some were casts and there were no problems with the queen getting out and mated (though the numbers of these were small, so statistically irrelevant). Late season treatment of colonies with brood also seems to have worked well. Mite drops were low to non-existent in most colonies being monitored through late autumn. Colonies get mildly agitated during treatment with a few bees flying about under the perspex crownboard (you can see a couple in the image above … this was a busy colony) and a few more rapidly exiting the hive after the entrance block is removed. But that’s it. The colony settles within a very short time. I’ve seen no loss of brood, no obvious interruption of laying by the queen and no long-term detrimental effects. Sublimation or vaporisation of OA can – with the correct equipment – be achieved without opening the hive. I expect to use this approach almost exclusively in the future.

Moving bees

Moving colonies from the Midlands to Fife was very straightforward. Insect netting was an inexpensive alternative to building large numbers of travel screens. It’s the same stuff as Thorne’s sell for harvesting propolis so I’ve got enough now to go into large scale propolis production 😉 The colonies all settled in their temporary apiaries well and I even managed a few supers of honey during the latter part of the season.

Small hive beetle reappeared in Southern Italy shortly after the honey harvest was completed there. Che sorpresa. This was disappointing but not unexpected (and actually predicted by some epidemiologists). As I write these notes the beetle had been found in 29 Calabrian apiaries between mid-september and early December. It’s notable that there’s now a defeatist attitude by some contributors to the online forums (when not if the beetle arrives here) and – since not everyone are what they seem on the interweb – there are some playing down the likely impact of the beetles’ arrival (and hence the demand to ban imports) because they have a vested interest in selling early season queens or nucs, either shipped in or headed by imported queens. I don’t think there’s any sensible disagreement that we would be better off – from a beekeeping perspective – without the beetle, it’s just that banning imports of bees to the UK (admittedly only a partial solution) is likely to cause problems for many beekeepers, not just those with direct commercial interests. I remain convinced that, with suitable training and a little effort, UK beekeeping could be far less dependent on imports … and so less at risk from the pathogens, like small hive beetle. Or of course a host of un-tested for viruses, that are imported with them.

And on a brighter note …

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The new development in the latter part of the year was the setting up of a bee shed to house a few colonies for research. This is now more or less completed and the bees installed. It will be interesting to see how the colonies come through the winter and build up in spring. The apiary has colonies headed by sister queens both in and outside the bee shed so I’ll be able to make some very unscientific comparisons of performance. The only problem I’ve so far encountered with the shed was during the winter mite treatment by oxalic acid vaporisation. In the open apiary the small amount of vapour that escapes the sealed hive drifts away on the breeze. In the shed it builds up into a dense acidic hazy smoke that forced me to make a rapid exit. I was wearing all-encompassing goggles and a safety mask so suffered no ill effects but I’ll need an alternative strategy for the future.

Due to work commitments, house, office and lab moves, things were a lot quieter on the DIY front this year. The Correx roofs have been excellent – the oldest were built over a year ago and are looking as good (or as bad, depending on your viewpoint) as they did then. They’ve doubled up as trays to carry dripping supers back from the apiary and I’ll be making more to cover stacks of stored equipment in the future. Correx offcuts were pressed into service as floors on bait hives, all of which were successful.

With well-fed colonies, low mite counts, secure apiaries and lots of plans for 2016 it’s time to make another batch of honey fudge, to nervously (it’s got hints of an industrial cleaning solution) try a glass of mead and to finish labelling jarred honey for friends and family.

Happy Christmas

Lomond Hills and OSR

Lomond Hills and OSR

Making soft set honey

Soft set honey was often called creamed honey before that description was effectively outlawed – at least for labelling purposes – under the trade descriptions act because it ‘contains no cream‘. It’s the stuff that’s spoonable and spreadable, it feels like velvet on the tongue because the crystals are so fine (hence creamy) and it remains looking good for a long time. The long shelf life more than compensates for the (relatively small) effort required to produce it … you don’t have to sell it or give it away quickly before granulation takes over and the appearance is spoiled. Winter is a good time to prepare soft set honey as it requires low temperatures.

Granulation

Granulated honey label

Granulated honey label

All honey granulates. At least, all honey that hasn’t been subjected to the sorts of heating and filtration used by commercial packers to produce a uniform and sometime bland product with a very long shelf life. The rate at which honey granulates is related to its composition. Honey with a relatively high glucose to fructose ratio – such as oil seed rape – granulates faster. Granulation is also influenced by temperature and particulates (e.g. pollen) that acts as a ‘seed’ for granulation. My honey carries a label indicating that granulation is a completely natural process and is a sign of high quality honey.

Soft set honey

Soft set honey is honey in which the granulation has been controlled. A small amount (~10%) of honey with a soft, fine grain, is used as a ‘seed’ for liquid honey. As the latter granulates it takes on the consistency of the seed honey. The principle is straightforward and an industrial process was patented by Elton Dyce in the 1930’s. However, this requires rapid heating and cooling of bulk honey, something most beekeepers are unable to achieve. There are some good descriptions online about making soft set honey, including a useful video by ‘BeekeeperDevon’ on YouTube. There are also a lot of conflicting methods published and some that are, frankly, either nonsense or wrong.

This is how I do it … followed by some details on a few of the critical bits.

  1. Extracted honey should be left to completely crystallise in honey buckets. This might take several weeks. The honey, particularly if it’s OSR, is likely to be spoonbendingly hard. In the following description I’m assuming the honey has only been (at least) coarse filtered on extraction, so will almost inevitably still contain bits of wax and the odd leg or antenna.
  2. Melt a full bucket of crystallised honey completely. For a 30lb bucket I find this takes about 24-36 hours at 50ºC in my honey warming cabinet. Stir it once or twice during this period if you get the chance – this speeds up the process. Honey should not be kept at elevated temperatures for extended periods to avoid the build up of HMF.
  3. Filter the honey into a clean food-grade bucket. I use the double stainless strainer and nylon straining cloth from Thorne’s.
  4. Cool the filtered honey to 35ºC in the honey warming cabinet. At the same time, warm the seed stock (see comments below) to 35ºC in bucket with a tap. By keeping the temperature below about 40ºC the all-important fine crystal structure of the seed stock will not be destroyed.
  5. Add the filtered bulk honey to the seed stock. Mix gently but very thoroughly. The intention is to completely disperse the fine seed stock crystals throughout the mixed honey. You can use a stainless steel corkscrew and drill, or a honey creamer. Of the two I prefer the latter. Try and avoid incorporating air during the mixing (hence ‘gently’) to avoid frosting in the final product.
  6. Cool the honey to less than 14ºC, mixing every 12 hours or so. It’s easy to achieve this temperature in winter in an unheated outhouse, pantry or conservatory. In the summer you can do this by adding a succession of freezer blocks to the warming cabinet (but it’s hard work). The honey will get increasingly hard to mix and will – within a week or less (and possibly within a couple of days) – set. This is soft set honey.
  7. Re-warm the bucket of honey to 35ºC and bottle it. See comments below.

The seed stock

You need about 10% by weight of a suitable seed stock to make soft set honey. You can use more or less, it’s not critical. Much less than 5% and it won’t be enough to ensure even crystallisation, or will take a very long time to finally crystallise. More than 10% is unnecessary and you’d be better saving it for another batch of soft set honey. If you’ve not got a seed stock of a suitable consistency (by which I mean of the consistency you want your final soft set honey to have) you can make, borrow or buy some.

Pestle and mortar

Pestle and mortar …

To make your seed stock grind hard set crystallised honey using a pestle and mortar until it has a wonderful, even consistency. It will start as hard unyielding lumps and end up with the consistency of thick toothpaste. This is hard work but you might only need to do it once, so do it well. You can borrow your seed stock from a neighbouring beekeeper who has something suitable, returning the same amount after you’ve prepared your own soft set honey. Finally, you could even buy your seed stock from a supermarket. If you insist on buying the starter, at least steer clear of the “mix of EU and non-EU” honeys (why don’t they just state “sourced from goodness knows where”?)  which could have just about anything in them. You are aiming to produce a top quality product. The type of honey you use as your seed stock is immaterial; it will only comprise a small amount of the final product, the consistency is what matters.

Bottling soft set honey

At 35ºC the prepared soft set honey will barely flow through the honey tap. However, with a little effort, and a long handled spoon to gently stir it, the thixotropic honey can usually be made to flow sufficiently to get it into jars. Again, to avoid frosting try not to mix air into the honey; hold the jar just under the honey tap with the bucket slightly inclined.

Miscellaneous notes

Spatula spoon

Spatula spoon

Keep about 3lb of your first batch of soft set honey – I use these useful sealable plastic containers – to use as the seed for your next bucket. This might be the following week or the following year – I’ve just used up the last of my 2014-prepared seed stock. If you’re preparing batch after batch of soft set honey on a weekly basis you can simply leave the seed stock in the bottom of the bucket with a tap. I’ve found silicone spatula spoons really useful for mixing honey, for getting the last few ounces out of the honey bucket and for quickly removing all the honey from the last three 1lb jars after you realise you’ve just bottled the seed stock for the next batch 😉

 

Future promise

Winter-sown OSR

Winter-sown OSR …

With the days getting shorter, the weather worsening and the bees hunkering down until the spring there’s little to do in the apiary. The warm weather, weekly inspections, swarm collection and queen rearing are months away … and it feels like it 🙁  However, things are already happening in the fields that hint at the season to come. The winter-sown oil seed rape (OSR) has been through for at least a month and is now 4-6″ tall. There’s a field just outside the village with acres of the stuff and it will be good to watch it develop into a sea of yellow next spring.

I have a few colonies well within range of this field, as do at least a couple of other beekeepers. Using a Google Maps Area Tool I measured the field at about 17 hectares. Although primarily self-pollinated there’s evidence that the yield and quality (i.e. the percentage that germinates) of OSR seed or its oil content, are all increased if honeybees are present at a density of about 2 colonies per hectare. So, ample to go round for the colonies I’m aware of in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, if colonies are located close to the OSR field boundaries, honeybees forage for a considerable distance across the field – certainly hundreds of metres. This is in contrast to wild pollinators – like solitary bees and bumble bees – which tend to decline in density away from the field margins (see also this recent paper which reports the same thing; PDF). Whilst this is a compelling argument for wide, species-rich field margins and smaller fields, the reality of modern farming is unfortunately very different. However, the benefits of honeybees (and for honeybees) mean that it might be worth having a chat with the farmer and moving a few colonies onto the field.

OSR honey isn’t to everyones taste and it certainly involves more work for the beekeeper. It must be extracted soon after the supers are collected or it crystallises in the comb. In addition, unless it’s converted into soft-set or ‘creamed’ honey it will inevitably set rock-hard in the jar, resulting in many bent teaspoons. On a more positive note, the availability of large amounts of pollen and nectar relatively early in the season helps colonies build up strongly. With good weather it’s an ideal time to replace comb, getting the bees to use the OSR nectar to build brand new comb – perhaps on foundationless frames – free of diseases for the season ahead. A great way to start the year.

And finally, a reminder of what’s to come …

Early May 2015 OSR ...

Early May 2015 OSR …