The sun is out, the flowers are blooming, and the bees have spent the last few months collecting nectar to make honey. Soon it is time to reap the sweet fruits of their labour. But depending on the type of operation, the journey that your honey will take from the bees to your table can be a little different.
Traditional harvesting is the most common method and is employed by small to medium sized operations. Frames are collected from the hives, and the outer layer of wax that covers each of the cells is scraped off by hand with an uncapping fork or heated uncapping knife. The frames are then placed in an extractor, which is a large drum that spins at a fast speed. As the centrifuge spins, the liquid honey is forced from the cells to the outer walls of the extractor and collects at the bottom. For small operations, the extractor is powered manually with a hand crank, though more often it is motorised. Once extracted from the comb, the honey is strained to any remove wax and debris.
There are then several options. The honey is either bottled and marketed as raw honey, sent to a commercial distributer for further processing and packing, or it is filtered further and pasteurised to be bottled in house. Pasteurization involves heating the honey between 60°c to 70°c. This process removes the microorganisms responsible for spoilage and reduces moisture content to a suitable level to avoid fermentation. It is believed that it can also negatively affect the honeys nutritional value.
The processes for commercial wholesale operations are fundamentally the same as smaller operations, however they are made more efficient by production lines and happen on a much larger scale. Firstly the honey frames are moved to boxes for transportation. They are then brought to a processing facility and initially stored in a Hot Room. The Hot Room is kept at around 37°c to 40°c to help the honey move through the processing machines. Once ready for extraction, boxes are moved onto conveyer belts, which transport the boxes to the extractor machine. The extractor machine removes frames from the boxes and assembles them along a production line. Each frame then goes through the process of uncapping, where vibrating, heated blades pass over the exterior of the frame to remove the outer layer of wax. Honey and wax then freely drips from the frames and collects in a large tank. This mixture is then pumped along a heat exchanger. This heats the honey and wax before it flows into the separator. The separator is a large spinning drum that forces the honey to the outer wall and collects the wax in the centre. Following this, the honey is collected in 44-gallon drums and moved to a storage warehouse where it is graded and labelled. Wholesalers trade in bulk honey and will sell the drums as they are. At this stage the honey is still raw, it will be either sold as is or pasteurised further and bottled.
Direct from the hive
One of the most significant innovations to happen in beekeeping in the last years has been the Flow Hive. The Flow hive enables honey to be collected directly from the hive. These set ups are great for people just getting into beekeeping, as they remove the difficulty and mess associated with processing honey. Rather than the wax combs found in a traditional hive, Flow hives rely upon plastic combs. Just like a normal hive, bees deposit honey into the frame cells of the comb. When the cells are full, the frame can be split by tuning a key. This releases the honey from the cell and lets it flow down to a spigot where it can be jarred.