Many species of bees collect nectar which they convert into honey and store as a food source. However, only bees that live together in large colonies store appreciable quantities of honey. These are bees of the genus Apis and some of the Meliponinae (stingless bees). Bees make honey mainly from the nectar of flowers, but they also use other plant saps and honeydew. As a bee sucks the liquid up through its proboscis and into its honey sac, it adds a small amount of enzymes, and some of the water in the nectar is evaporated.
The enzymes convert sugars in the nectar into different types of sugars; honeys always contain a wide range of sugars that vary according to the nectar source. The bees then place the liquid nectar into cells in the honeycomb. The temperature inside the hive is usually around 35°C and, together with ventilation caused by bees fanning their wings, this temperature causes further evaporation of water from the nectar. When the water content is less than 20%, the bees seal the cell with a wax capping. The honey is now ‘ripe’ and will not ferment.
Honey consists of a mixture of sugars, mostly glucose and fructose. In addition to water (usually 17-20%) it also contains very small amounts of other substances, including minerals, vitamins, proteins and amino acids. A minor, but important component of most types of honey is pollen. These components contribute to the different flavors that honey can have, and make honey a nutritious food that has a high demand in many regions of the world.
The simplest processing is to remove the honeycomb from frame hives, top-bar hives or traditional hives and sell or consume it as “cut-comb” honey. When producing this from frame hives it is necessary to use a wax foundation that does not contain strengthening wires and is thinner than that normally used in wired frames.
The process involves collecting pieces of sealed and undamaged honeycomb, cutting them into uniform sized pieces and packaging them carefully in bags or cartons to avoid damaging the honeycomb. Because the honeycomb is unopened, it is readily seen to be pure, and it has a finer flavor than honey that is exposed to air or processed further. Cut-comb honey can therefore have a high local demand and fetch a higher price than processed honey.
However, the honeycomb is easily damaged by handling and transport, which makes distribution for retail sale more difficult. It requires protection by packaging materials that will absorb shocks or vibration (e.g. cushioning plastics such as ‘bubble-wrap’ and/or corrugated cardboard cartons) and packs should be carried carefully and not stacked, thrown or dropped to avoid damage to the honeycombs.
This is honey that is processed to a minimal extent and is usually sold locally. It is prepared by removing the wax cappings of the honeycomb using a long sharp knife that has been heated by standing it in warm water. (unsealed combs containing unripe honey should not be used). The honeycombs are then broken into pieces and the honey is strained to remove wax and other debris. A fairly coarse strainer is used at first to remove large particles, and the honey is then strained through successively finer strainers such as cotton or muslin cloths. The clear honey is collected in a clean, dry container.
When most of the honey has drained (often over many hours depending on the temperature) the combs are squeezed inside a cloth bag to remove as much of the remaining honey as possible. The wax is collected and formed into a block by melting it gently in a warm waterbath or solar wax extractor. This beeswax byproduct often has a high value as a wax polish or for candle-making. The strained honey can either be dispensed from the collection pan into customers’ own containers or packed into glass jars or plastic bags for sale.
The wax cappings are removed from the honeycombs as for strained honey. At larger scales of production, electrically heated honey knives or planes may be used.
When extracting honey from top-bar frames, the frame is placed over a dish, and the thin layer of wax capping is cut from the bottom to the top of the frame and allowed to fall into the dish below. The frame is then turned and the capping on the other side is removed. Honey that is stuck to the wax cappings is strained using cloth bags as above.
The frame is then placed in a honey extractor. Honey extractors can be manually or electrically operated, depending on the scale of production, and can be either tangential or radial type machines. They extract the honey by spinning the frames at high speed. In a tangential machine, the frames lie against the barrel of a drum and the outer side of the frame empties when the drum is spinning.
The frames are then turned so that the other face of the honeycomb faces outwards, and the machine spun until this side is empty. This prevents the inner part from bursting through the empty outer combs and so prevents the combs from breaking. Although each frame has to be handled four times to load, turn and unload them, more complete extraction can be achieved and this design is more compact and cheaper than radial types. In a radial machine, the frames sit between rings, arranged like the spokes of a wheel and honey is extracted from both sides simultaneously.