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When most of us think about the harvest of the bee hive, we usually think about honey and beeswax. There are however other products. Some commercial beekeepers collect pollen, propolis, royal jelly and bee venom, all of which are used in health products. But the hobby beekeepers tend to concentrate on the two principal products, honey and beeswax.
Beeswax is one of our most versatile natural products. It is used by wood turners, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, saddlers, seamstresses and furniture restorers. It is made into polish, candles, cosmetics and skin care treatments, and is used in other arts and crafts such as beeswax flower making (see picture) and encaustic painting. It is collected during routine hive examinations, usually from bits of comb which the bees have built in the wrong place, (from the beekeepers point of view), or scrapings from hive parts or the tops of frames. The pieces of wax tend to mount up through the course of a year, and when there is sufficient, it can be melted down to form convenient cakes for handling. These cakes are then melted again, and the molten wax strained to remove impurities. It is then poured into moulds to form a usable product, usually 1oz blocks or beeswax candles.
Candle making is a craft in its own right. There are several ways of producing beeswax candles, the most popular of which is by pouring the molten wax into a mould. Very attractive candles can also be made by rolling foundation, the beeswax sheet which is normally put in a frame and given to the bees as a starter for their comb. There is also the dipping process, when the wick is dipped into molten wax and allowed to set, before dipping again. This process continues until the required dimensions are achieved. Beeswax candles tend to burn longer than most, and give off a very pleasant natural aroma.
Honey is presented in various forms to suit individual tastes, but when it leaves the hive it is a runny, clear, viscous and sweet fluid, bearing the aromatic flavours of the flowers from which it has been produced. When nectar is first brought into the hive, it is a very liquid substance, containing some 80% moisture. In order to turn this into a honey which will keep, the moisture content has to be reduced to 18-20%. The bees achieve this by fanning their wings at the hive entrance and setting up a ventilation system within the hive. This flow of air will evaporate the excess moisture. When the correct moisture content has been reached and the cells are full, the bees will then seal the cells with a beeswax capping, and in this condition the honey will keep indefinitely. In handling the nectar, both within the hive and in transit to the hive, the bees add enzymes to it, and it is these enzymes that give the final product its antiseptic and health giving properties. Pure honey is often used in the treatment of open wounds and sores, and as we all know, is invaluable in the natural treatment of colds and sore throats. But it is as a natural health food that most of us know and love honey. We each have our favourite form, be it run, set, comb or chunk. But whichever form we prefer, the honey is equally pure.
The forms most commonly used is honey extracted from the combs and put into jars. To do this the beekeeper must first wait for the combs to be capped over by the bees, ensuring that the honey is 'ripe'. When the combs are removed from the hive, the cappings are then sliced off, and combs inserted into a honey extractor. This is a cylindrical machine which will spin the combs at speed, and the honey is ejected by centrifugal force. It hits the sides of the extractor and runs down, to be collected from a tap at the bottom. It is then strained, to remove any bits of extraneous wax, and then either put into 30lb plastic containers and stored for use at a later date, or run straight into honey jars for immediate use. This is known as run, runny or clear honey.
Many people however prefer their honey in set form. If left for a period after extraction, all good honey will solidify. Granules form and spread until the whole mass becomes solid. This natural process is known as granulation. Usually, granulation is allowed to take place in the 30lb storage containers, but sometimes the process takes place in the honey jars. When this occurs there is sometimes a slight contraction away from the sides of the jar, allowing the air to form a white surface on the honey. This is known as 'frosting' and although it spoils the appearance of the honey, it does not affect the quality. The look of the honey in the jar is also marred by the granulation process itself. The clear honey begins to become cloudy, then it reaches a stage where half is granulated and half is not, before finally the whole jar is solid.
For those of us who do not like our set honey in this 'spoon bending' form, there is an alternative. This is known as creamed or soft set honey. To achieve this a container of granulated honey is gently warmed until it is half melted. Care must be taken not to apply too much heat or the natural enzymes will be killed. A gentle heat over a long period will result in the desired 50% meltdown. The honey is then mashed into a creamy consistency and then put into jars, after which it will retain its soft texture and present a far more spreadable product.
Probably the most natural form of honey is comb honey. After all, this means of presentation is exactly as the bees produce it. Comb honey is usually in the form of cut comb, chunk honey or sections. Sections are square or round miniature frames, placed in the hive in special honey supers, where the bees build comb in them and fill them with honey. When they are capped, they are removed from the hive, put into presentation cases, and they are ready for use.
Cut comb, as the name suggests, is normal frames of honey comb, cut into convenient size pieces and put into plastic containers. This is probably the most popular form of comb honey, as it allows a choice of size.
The other form of comb honey is chunk honey. This is very much like cut comb, but instead of putting a piece of comb into a plastic container, it is placed into a honey jar, where it is then surrounded with run honey; the best of both worlds.
There is a great deal of folklore surrounding honey and beekeeping, and also one or two myths. It is felt by some people, for instance, that honey produced by bees which are fed sugar syrup is somehow inferior to that produced by bees which Winter on their own honey. The first point to clarify is that the bees are fed after the honey supers have been removed, so there is no risk of sugar syrup getting anywhere near the honey which we use. Secondly, the syrup which is fed to the bees for their Winter stores is made from pure granulated sugar. It is a rich sugar solution, as nectar is a rich sugar solution, and it is converted by the bees into honey in the same way. More importantly, it provides the bees with a safer Winter food. Strange though it may seem, the bees own honey, whilst being a wonderful food for us, is not always the best food for bees in Winter. It must be remembered that in the depths of Winter, the bees are unable to leave the hive to defecate. It is therefore important that their Winter diet is not too high in fibre, or dysentery will result. Many of the natural sources of honey are high in fibre, heather for instance is a honey so dense, it cannot be extracted by normal methods. Honeydew is another source where in a bad Winter, the colony can actually die from dysentery. The good beekeeper will therefore make sure that the colonies go into Winter with the best possible stores, and adequate quantities.
Another area difficult to determine is organic honey. What is organic honey? If it is perceived that it is a honey produced from natural flowers, by a natural insect, with nothing added or taken away, then the majority of English honey can be considered to be organic. If on the other hand, it is perceived to be honey produced from flowers which have not been subjected to any chemicals then this is much more difficult to determine. When a honey bee sets off on a foraging trip, she will fly up to 2 miles in search of nectar. This means she can take nectar from flowers from an area of 12 square miles. In the second perception of organic honey, this means if she takes nectar from a clover blossom in a field which has received fertilizer, the resultant honey is no longer organic.