How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor

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“We lost almost an entire crop to rapeseed one year,” said Patrice. We were talking about the really thick honey that Emily and I had been unable to spin out in an extractor. “There is most likely rapeseed in the honey.” Patrice had seen rapeseed growing in the area local to the apiary, she thought it was probably spread around by birds who ate the seeds and left their droppings elsewhere.

Three years ago on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, Emily and I took six frames of honey off the same hive and got in a cab to my dad’s house to extract it straightaway. The honey wouldn’t spin out and instead we made cut comb honey in mini jars.

mini-comb-pot

The following spring we visited the Chelsea Physic Garden’s honey tasting session and brought a pot of honey for expert honey taster and beekeeper Peter James. He took one spoonful and gave us a definitive answer, “Rapeseed”.

Could our thick honey be from rapeseed flowers? It has some of the same qualities being too viscous to extract by spinning the comb, a light golden colour and a mild floral flavour with a slight tangy aftertaste. However, rapeseed honey granulates very quickly, sometimes setting in the honeycomb even when still on the hive, and our honey, like that of three years ago, is a smooth gel-like liquid that hasn’t granulated. Rapeseed honey is also said to be gritty with a cabbagey or peppery aftertaste, which doesn’t fit the description of our honey either.

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Fields of oilseed rape in Herefordshire by Jonathan Billinger via CC BY-SA 2.0

There are other types of forage that can produce viscous honey, but none of these have quite the right characteristics to fit the pieces of the puzzle. For example, hawthorn honey can be thick and difficult to extract, and granulates very slowly over time, but it also tends to be darker in colour and richer in flavour than our honey.

I’ve considered another option, though it doesn’t bear much thinking about. Bees can move honey from the brood box into the supers if they want to make more room in the nest. We stopped feeding our bees sugar syrup a week or so before the supers went on the hive, and the bees started to draw out and fill the supers quickly after. Was there some sugar syrup in the honey we had harvested and could that have made it more difficult to extract? I later discussed this possibility with Emily and she thought this wasn’t likely either.

honey

The only way to know for sure what is in our honey is to send it off to be tested, which is what I plan to do. The answer may surprise us and be either none of the above or all of the above. We’ll have to wait and see.

Still, there was the job of extracting honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor used for years and generously gifted by retired beekeeper Professor Robert Allen – thank you Bob. This is how I have done it.

Honey processing began in my small kitchen after work one evening. I quickly de-capped the frames in the supers using a hot knife. The wax cappings were caught neatly in a bucket to be used at a later date.

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That done, I hung the frames in a plastic container about the same size as a super and with plenty of room for the honey to drip into the bottom.

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John put the container on the work surface above the washing machine/tumble dryer, which is frequently used because I’m a clean freak. Here, the frames of honey have hung for three weeks, slowly dripping in the warmth of the kitchen with the subtle vibrations of the washer–dryer underneath.

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I’ve encouraged the honey to dribble out using a small (sterilised) metal key to stir each cell, working across every frame as diligently as a bee.

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Yes, I actually stirred every cell on the comb. I now have some idea of what it means to work as hard as a bee!

It may sound slightly mad, but the good thing about this method is that I’ve not crushed and strained the honeycomb to get the honey out; though it has left about a quarter of the honey in the comb, it has also left the comb intact. This means I can return wet supers to the hive for the bees to lick out the remaining honey and to repair the honeycomb with insect precision. We may not get as much honey as we thought, but we will still get plenty between us and I don’t begrudge giving some back to our hardworking bees. The drawn comb on the frames will also give Melissa’s colony a head start for next year.

When John dropped me off at the apiary this afternoon there was a small crowd of people talking about honey and wax. (We’re all bonkers.) Everyone has lots of plans of what they are going to do with their harvest. It has been a good summer for beekeeping and autumn will bring honey shows, cooking with honey, and recipes for wax cosmetics, polishes and candles.

After having a cup of tea we suited up to inspect the hives. Emily inspected Pepper’s hive without a smoker, although being allergic to stings I prefer to get the smoker going in case it’s needed, and I find Pepper’s bees quite feisty. The situation was good in this hive with a colony of healthy bees and brood, building up enough stores for winter.

Another visitor to the apiary turned up to watch the inspections.

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I’m told this is the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) by Mark Patterson of London Beekeepers. The lookalike hornet fly was very curious about us. He, or she, was perhaps a little too friendly, flying after Jonesy to say hello and making him stumble backwards in surprise. The extraordinary looking insect stayed around for a while, then flew off to find something more interesting somewhere else.

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Friendly hornet mimic hoverfly retreats to Emily’s glove after one of Pepper’s workers had headbutted her off the hive.

Unfortunately there were also wasps flying around the hives, and when I opened Melissa’s hive to find lots of dead bees inside Emily wondered if a wasp had got in and a battle had ensued. Aside from this, all was well here and Emily spotted the queen. The brood nest is getting smaller as the bees prepare for their winter cluster, and I counted about five brood frames (in addition to some uncapped super frames I was returning) for their winter stores.

How much honey does a hive need for winter? Sources vary between 35-60lbs and one frame is about 5lbs of honey. The amount of stores needed also depends on the size of the colony, how active they are during winter, and how fast they eat. I was counting the frames of stores while going through the hives and it looks like they’ll have plenty for winter.

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Spot the black bee in the centre of the frame? Emily thought she might be a robber bee, because robber bees are often blackened from having their hairs nipped off.

I inspected Chili’s hive next and the situation was much the same with a declining brood nest and a build up of stores. We watched our pink-spotted queen climb across a frame looking for cells to lay a few more eggs before winter arrives.

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Emily inspected Chamomile’s hive which has a large brood nest and quite a lot of stores. Chamomile appears to have mellowed in her second year and she is an excellent layer, though there are signs of disease in the hive. I do hope they survive the winter.

We are now halfway through the Apiguard treatment, and put a second tray on each hive. The bees are clearing the Apiguard with varying degrees of success. Melissa’s bees cleared the entire tray, while Chili’s bees have been less hygienic removing only half the treatment.

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There was a high number of varroa mites on all the varroa boards, worrying but also a good sign that the Apiguard is working. All the colonies at the apiary have thrived this year, and with larger and more active colonies it’s to be expected that varroa numbers would also rise.

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Another spot the … beautiful bright orange pollen amid the nasty red varroa mites on the varroa board.

That done, we cleared up our equipment and said goodbye to the bees as the light began to get dusky. Reflections of a good year’s beekeeping were comforting, despite knowing that we’ll soon say farewell to the bees for their winter slumber.

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36 thoughts on “How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor

  1. It’s a good thing hobby beekeepers don’t keep track of the hours they spend or they’d never eat their honey – they’d store it in a safe. You probably top the lot with your honey extraction technique!

    • Mmm, you’re right. I think about half an hour per frame wiggling that little key, although about half an hour was spent on a frame when Emily and I tried the smash-and-sieve method previously. Either way it’s a shame the honey didn’t spin out in the extractor as easily in my first year, but I’ve learned a lot more about honey! If I were doing beekeeping for a living, think we’d be in Wales next to a heather field and pulling out beautiful ready-to-go cut comb frames 😉 (dreams of a hobbyist beekeeper)

  2. Wonderful Emma you have shown as much care and attention over the honey as you and Emily give to your bees. That’s true dedication. Next time (lets hope there is no next time) if you had a way of suspending the frames upside down the honey should drip out faster. I would love to know what your bees have been foraging on and look forward to the results.

    • Of course! The angle of the honeycomb means it will drip faster upside down and I can think of a way to do this, mmm. Thanks Tom, the honey deserved dedication considering what it took our bees to make it. Jonesy is also interested in what his bees are foraging so we might do a joint test.

      Read on some forums that beekeepers who extract in August sometimes have this same problem and that it’s better to extract earlier in the year, so may try that too next year with a few frames and see if it makes a difference.

      • Rather than upside down could you orient the frames broadside down? You could only do one side and fewer frames at a time but if the honey comes out faster the total time may be shorter. This is pure speculation.

        We are amazed by the determination needed to work each individual cell with a hex key.

      • Great minds think alike… I tried that too and it helped some.

        A hex key – that’s what it was? I inherited it in the kitchen drawer when John moved in and just thought this fits the honeycomb nicely. I got some quizzical looks for my use of it.

        Rather wish I’d known about the handheld pin device (see comments above) as that looks very helpful! 🙂

      • It looks like a hex key. A length of metal with hexagonal cross section and a ninety-degree bend somewhere along it to make a shorter leg and a longer leg? Any household that assembles flatpack furniture will accumulate a few.

        Did the vibration of the washer/drier seem to help much? We have gotten ketchup to flow readily and suddenly by rapid thumping of the side of the bottle with a finger but could not say how critical the frequency of the thumps is. We were imagining some sort of thumper for the frames. A small motor with eccentric flywheel? Rheostat to govern the rotational speed?

    • Thanks Emily. Mark Patterson and a friend of mine Chris Phillips identified this pretty fly with some interesting information about her. I wonder why she was so interested in us and it was funny how she landed on Pepper’s hive only to be shoved off by a worker.

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  4. There are “bed-of-nails” honey loosening devices for thixotropic honey.

    Here’s an inexpensive handheld one:
    http://www.abelo.co.uk/shop/heather-honey-loosener-plastic/

    Here’s a professional version:
    http://www.bouteljeproducts.co.nz/cms/page.php?view=Boutelje%20Semi%20Automatic%20Honey%20Loosener

    Here’s some detailed photos and explanation:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20060705151819/http://www.algonet.se/~beeman/biodling/ljung/ling-2.htm

    Heather honey is apparently the worst-case scenario for this problem.

    • I’m buying one of these – thanks! I’d heard that professional beekeepers used pin devices to extract viscous honey but thought these were only available commercially. The handheld device looks great – thanks!

      I wondered with heather honey whether it’s best to use foundationless frames and produce cut comb? Of course, lots more work for the bees building completely new foundation.

      • You can use “thin surplus”, which is foundation intended for making comb honey.
        I suggest this approach, as a box of “foundationless” frames has a 100% chance of turning into a mess of cross-comb, and “strips” are little help.

        But the management of a hive for optimal comb honey production is tricky – one wants to “crowd the bees” to get them up into the comb honey supers, but one is doing this in early spring, and one wants to give them lots of room for brood. Most beekeepers will combine the frames of brood into one deep (or two mediums) and take away one box of frames that contain no brood to accomplish this. Richard Taylor wrote a eleventy-seven books on the subject, and they are all good.

        If you’d rather not use ANY foundation, check out the “Hogg Cassettes”, which are plastic boxes without lids in which the bees draw comb. Ross Rounds require thin surplus, and are another way to have comb honey with minimal mess and waste. (I use Ross Rounds, but I am very hardcore old-skool.) Herman Danenhower (www.hermanshoneycomb.com) is a great resource on comb honey prodiction – so much so he now makes the Hogg Cassettes. He also has the advantage of being alive to answer questions, Richard Taylor died years ago.

      • Hi Jim, sorry just seen your comment. Thanks for the good advice, it will be really useful when I come to try foundationless frames methods (when we’re living in Wales next to a field of heather ;).

        Given that Richard Taylor wrote so many books about it though, I’ve a feeling like everything else in beekeeping this is not going to be straightforward!

        I’d heard of the Hogg Cassettes and had though of using those as it sounds great just to pull these boxes ready-to-use out of the hive, but will keep in mind Ross Rounds too.

      • “I’ve a feeling like everything else in beekeeping this is not going to be straightforward!”

        It is clear from my many years of beekeeping that if something >> is << "straightforward", it is certain to be utterly wrong. Pooh said it best – "One can never tell with bees."

  5. In my experience any amount of OSR honey would have either set rock solid or at least set to a white paste. I had a few frames this Spring that were not ready for extraction so left them in the hives to be finished off. Of course I forgot about them and during my August extraction, the OSR parts were set as white paste. I’m interested to hear the results of your analysis as my only guess would be Heather!

    • I’ve wondered about heather although heard this is usually a darker colour honey and a richer flavour, whereas our is very pale and mild in taste? Someone else has suggested cabbages, we’ll have to wait and see!

  6. Harvest! That just looks yummy. Overhearing your phrase “…this afternoon there was a small crowd of people talking about honey and wax” on a bus might sound slightly strange in isolation… RH

    • I met an Ealing beekeeper on the tube to work one morning and we immediately said oh how are your bees, what’s been happening with your queen, how many drones have you got… It wasn’t till she got off that I noticed everyone staring strangely.

  7. What a lovely read. You certainly have been very busy. Stirring all those cells with your little Allen key must have taken an age. How did you know that you didn’t miss any. I’ll be interested to hear the outcome of the test results when you get them, tho’ Isure they’ll be good. Thanks for the beautiful photos too, they really do capture all the hard work that you have put in as well as being pleasing to the eye.

    • An Allen key! Everyone is far more practical than me 🙂

      It has been a test of endurance though nothing compared to the endurance of a bee. Honey bottling starts soon, I don’t think we’ll get as much as we thought from two supers as I noticed decapping the frames not all were completely covered in comb, but there will be enough to give family and friends a taste.

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  10. Thank you for the post!
    I’m wondering which type of plastic container do you have? I’m trying to find one which is the same size as a super so frames can hang.

    • Hi Natalia, sorry I’ve only just seen your comment after spending some time offline. The plastic container was a simple storage tub I bought from a homestore. It was luckily the same size as a national super frame, although I didn’t plan that when I bought it so worked out well!

  11. I’ve only just noticed your blog but I hope you didn’t sell the honey you painstakingly obtained from the crystalised comb as it looked like you were using a potentially harmful plastic container i.e. not a food grade plastic as even these are thought to release chemicals that are not good for us. If you did sell the honey I hope I am wrong about the container.

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