Monday, October 19, 2015

Processing Beeswax

There seems to be as many ways to process wax as there are beekeepers. Some people like to use a crockpot or a double boiler or a regular or pot, some use solar melters, still others melt wax on the hob. Some people melt wax indoors but cover every surface with paper or a dropcloth. Others insist on performing this messy process outdoors. Whatever method you choose, there are really only a few basic steps.
  1. Melt wax.
  2. Strain wax.
  3. Cool wax.
  4. Scrape garbage off wax.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you are happy with the end product.
One of these days, I'd like to make a solar wax melter. However, for now, I still use my good old range to process wax. Here are some photos to show what I do.

Step 1: Melt the wax.

I have a cheap pot that I bought at Walmart (believe it or not, it was cheaper to get one there than at a thrift store in my fancy little town!) that is specifically for melting wax. Do not use anything for rendering wax that you ever plan to use again for any other purpose. Wax is a pain to clean!!! Anyway, I add about 1-2 inches of water to this pot.

Add about 1- 2 inches of water to pot

Like many folks, I used to rinse my wax first. I don't anymore because I think the honey pretty much dissolves in the water, so that's work saved for me. I simply dump my wax into the pot and turn on the heat.

Stay close to the pot, though, because wax is flammable, and if it boils over, you're going to have a huge problem. Actually, I don't let the wax get to a rolling boil either. I think I read somewhere that it shouldn't get hotter than 155 deg F (don't quote me!), but I've never stuck a thermometer in mine.

Add wax to the pot

I like to stir the wax up every now and then because I find that the bottom and sides of the pot melt nicely where the wax is closest to the heat. However, the top tends to melt and cool immediately. Stirring (with my dedicated "wax spoon", of course) seems to help keep the temperature even throughout.

Let the wax melt completely. Stir it up a little now and then to help it melt.

Step 2: Strain the wax.

When all the wax has melted, I strain it into a container. You can use a bucket, a pan, a milk carton with the top cut off... Just choose something that won't melt or burn when all that hot wax goes into it.

At this point, I use a metal sieve because I just want to get rid of most of the bee parts and cocoon pieces. The sieve is fine enough to hold back most of the gunk, but the holes are big enough that the wax doesn't stop them up and hold up the process too much at this point.

Later, when I repeat this entire process, I'll use something finer to strain the wax, like a pantyhose, coffee filter, paper towel, juice strainer, or piece of butter muslin. Butter muslin, aka grade 90 cheesecloth, is much more closely woven than the normal grade 50 or grade 60 cheesecloth you get at the store. You can use regular cheesecloth, too, but you might have to fold it over a few times.

Strain the wax. This photo shows two sieves, but just one is fine.
You can also use cheesecloth, a nylon stocking, or a paper towel.
BTW, that gunk in the strainer (see image above) is covered in beeswax. If you have a fireplace or like to go camping, you can use chunks of the sludgey leftovers to help get your fire going. If you use a natural material like paper or cotton to strain your wax, you can throw that into the fireplace, too. It's highly flammable.

Also, just wanted to note that the bucket in the photo is too big for the amount of wax I was processing, but the bucket was already messy with wax from a previous use. What I've found is that if the container the wax cools in is too big, the underside of the wax gets kind of pebbly. My guess is that it cools too quickly because the heat is dispersed too fast. A smaller container, I think, holds the heat in better so that the wax doesn't break up into pebbles.

Step 3: Let the wax cool.

Wax is a lipid, so as it cools, it floats to the surface and separates from the water. It's really important to let it sit undisturbed until it's completely cool so that you don't get weird little pockets of air or icky water inside the wax. It's nice if you can melt your wax in the evening because by the next morning, it's nice and cool.

If your container is transparent, it's neat to watch the wax separate and harden.

Step 4: Scrape the garbage off your wax.

After the wax has cooled into a nice little disc, I remove it from my bucket. Some nasty water is at the bottom, and some gunk is on the underside of my wax disc.

The gunk just gets scraped off. A quick rinse to lift some of the crud out of the inevitable dimples on the underside of the wax doesn't hurt either. The water goes into my garden or compost. :-)

Scraping off the gunk.
The wax "pebbles" in this snap show that the container the wax cooled in was too large.

Step 5: Repeat Steps 1-4 until satisfied.

I continue repeating all the previous steps until I'm satisfied with the purity of my wax. The one change I do make is to Step 2. When repeating this process, I use a much finer filter than the metal strainer. As I mentioned before, pantyhose, coffee filter, paper towel, or butter muslin will all work. Usually, I only have to repeat this process once or twice.

I like this nylon juice strainer I found at my local Ace Hardware because
 it fits tightly over the metal strainer.

Cleaning Up

Ok, not technically a step in processing wax, but a very important task -- especially if one is using the wife's kitchen.

If some hot wax drips onto a surface where it shouldn't be, try to clean it up immediately. As it hardens, it becomes harder to remove.

To clean my strainers, I run boiling water through them. If wax falls on some fabric, iron the fabric between sheets of paper. The heat of the iron will melt the wax while the paper absorbs it.

Weiman's Wax Away is one of my favorite products for dissolving wax off of things. To be clear, I'm not getting paid to recommend it, but I've been using this product for over a decade to wipe wax off of tables, counters, and candlesticks. It's awesome!

My bottle has a blue label.
Weiman seems to have updated their packaging.

Using Your Wax

Once your wax is nice and clean, you end up with a lovely golden block that smells oh-so-heavenly!!! You just have to pick a project from all the unlimited possibilities for using it -- lotion, lip balm, polish, candles, crayons... the sky is the limit!

Well, that's how I process my wax anyway. But you know what they say -- Ask 5 beekeepers and get 6 answers. So what's your favorite method?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Four Simple Steps to Healthier Bees

Watched this excellent talk by Michael Bush this morning. His four steps to healthier bees boil down to:
  1. No treatments
  2. Breeding local survivors
  3. Natural food
  4. Natural comb
Before this talk even began, I was already on the same page with him, but watched anyway because Michael is a terrific fountain of beekeeping knowledge and always teaches me something new.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Honey Press

Correction: I wrote that the newer presses from Woodland Fruit & Wine Press Company will have a stainless pressing plate. According to the company rep, the newer presses have a stainless steel drip tray and basket, but the pressing plate will still be enamelled metal. I apologize for that misunderstanding.

I've done crush & strain harvesting in the past, but the amount of honey that doesn't drain off of the comb has always been a disappointment. This year, I did a bunch of research on honey presses like this one and on the kind used for heather honey (which has to be pressed because it's thixotropic). I actually found a couple of European presses made specifically for honey, but they were more than I wanted to spend. (The cheapest one, with shipping, was about $500. Industrial ones were in the thousands of dollars.) However, I did find some promising fruit presses and requested one for my birthday. My generous DH gave it to me a full month early, though, so that we could use it for this year's honey harvest. :-D

My birthday gift! Thank you, dear!

About the Press
I really wanted a 14L press, but at the time of ordering, nobody (not Amazon, not eBay, nobody) seemed to have one in stock. Plenty of smaller ones were available, but not the larger size I wanted. It was explained to me that this has been a very good apple year, so larger presses just flew off the shelves.

Instead, I ended up buying a 9L one from Woodland Fruit and Wine Press Company. I chose that one because I liked that the container for holding fruit/comb had a bottom with holes punched into it. Woodland's press just looked sturdier than other presses (btw, it is indeed very sturdy), many of which seemed to a bottomless cage for holding fruit. I also liked that the basket and catch plate were made of stainless steel. The press plate that pushes on the fruit is enameled metal, but the salesperson indicated that once they get rid of all the old models (like mine), the new models will have a stainless steel press plate as well. Last but not least, I found their videos helpful, and their salesperson was super nice taking a lot of time answering my questions and providing loads of useful info. My press arrived about 2 days (whee!!!) after I ordered it, so we broke it in immediately by making cider with some apples we had just picked. Sweet! (BTW, I'm not getting paid by Woodland. I just appreciate excellent customer service.)

Even though it isn't the larger model, 9L isn't as small as I thought it would be. It accommodates about 3 or 4 of my combs, maybe even more if I really shove them in there. More importantly, it works pretty well for what I wanted it to do, which is basically squeezing more honey out of the comb. Actually, 9L turned out to be a good size for me because it takes quite a lot of torque getting honey out of that last bit of comb.

Press container filled with 3 combs

The Downside
Overall I'm glad I got this tool, but there are a couple of features that are less than ideal for harvesting honey:
  • The catch pan is too shallow. It's fine for juice which runs out of the pan quite quickly. However, honey is thick and goopy, so you have to stop pressing fairly regularly to make sure that the pan doesn't overflow.
  • The pour spout on the catch pan is too narrow. Again, because of honey's viscosity, it really needs a wider spout so that it can flow out. We overcame this obstacle, though, by propping the back legs of the press on blocks, thereby tilting the spout forward and using gravity to help things along. A curved spatula also encouraged honey out of the pan.
  • The fruit/comb container & catch plate keep sliding around. When we pressed apples, the container stayed put. However, when pressing honey, it kept trying to slide around on us, blocking the catch pan's pour spout. Twisting the press would also cause the catch plate to twist, especially when twisting hard at the end. To get around these issues, one person had to hold the container & catch plate in place (not an easy job) while another turned the press. 
  • Difficult to remove pressed wax. Ironically, one of the reasons I chose this press -- the sturdy bottom of the fruit/honey container -- made it harder to harvest honey. The honey & wax practically glue the container to the press, which makes it very difficult to back the press plate up when done pressing. BTW, honey glues everything together, so when you back the pressing plate up, someone has to push down on the catch plate and the container so they don't come out, too.

    Unless you use some sort of barrier between 1) the comb and bottom of the container and 2) the comb and press plate, good luck trying to remove the pressed wax. You have to pry it off. I tried pressing 3 different ways. Once with the comb in the container (no strainers or anything). Impossible to remove. Twice with different types of barriers. (More on those barriers in a minute.) It was much easier to remove the wax, but the wax didn't come out nearly as dry.

    Also, when the press plate is all the way at its top position, there are some catches that allow you to release the crossbeam that holds the press plate and move it away from the fruit/comb container. However, there is very little clearance between the press plate and container. So unless you have some sort of barrier between the press plate and wax, the wax sticks to the press plate, and you can't move that crossbeam away from the container until you get the wax off. But it's very hard to get the wax off when it's a sold block that's bridging that gap between the press plate and comb container. 
Kids on duty guiding honey out of the catch pan.

Propping the press up lets gravity help out a bit.
Next year, I'd like to build a stand for the press, so I'll have to keep adjustable legs in mind.
The crossbeam is supposed to tilt backward like this,
but it can't when a block of wax is stuck to it.

This is what I mean about the wax sticking to the plate without some sort of divider.
Also, notice the tight clearance.

About those wax barriers... 
When we pressed the second batch of comb, I tried putting the comb in the accessory strainer bag that I bought along with the press. It definitely helped the comb release easier, but the presser plate didn't seem to press it as well. I think the top of the bag was bunching up and creating uneven areas that weren't getting any pressure from the plate.

When we pressed the third batch of comb, we placed the comb in a nylon strainer bag from Brushy Mountain. It also helped the comb release more easily, and it worked well with the presser plate, too. Another nice thing about this bag is that the very fine mesh meant we could skip the step of straining the honey after pressing. (Guess that's why it's called a strainer bag, duh me.) However, quite a bit of honey gets trapped by the bag as well, so the comb wasn't nearly as dry as when no bag was used.

I still plan to continue using some sort of divider because the lost honey is worth the lost pain of trying to release the wax. Also, I feel like even with the bags, I still saved more honey than I would have just by crushing & straining. However, next time, I may try something simpler (i.e., less absorbent/less likely to hold honey in), like a little bit of cheese cloth or butter muslin placed under and on top of the comb.

This comb was pressed without a bag around it. It's quite dry.
Sorry this isn't a great photo. This comb was pressed inside the Brushy Mountain strainer bag.
A lot of honey left on the outside of the wax, but the inside is pretty dry like wax in the previous photo.

Comparison with crush & strain
Even with its PITA features, I prefer the press to crush & strain. For people who love tables like I do, here is a quick comparison of methods.

Crush & Strain
Fruit/Honey Press
Ease There is nothing easier than crush & strain. All you need are the most basic tools. I know someone who crushes comb with his top bars.

The only thing I've found to be burdensome is not having a container big enough to strain all my comb at once (i.e., a bucket-sized strainer). All I have is some filters that fit on top of my honey bucket, which don't really hold all of my comb very well.
While not hard work, you definitely get a workout in your arms and back turning the press and trying to keep that blasted container & catchpan still. Admittedly, I'm a wimp, but I was a little sore the next day.

It's really fun, though, to see all of the honey come gushing out. The entertainment value of that alone is totally worth the burn in my arms.
Time Crushing honey takes only a few minutes. However, it takes several days to let it strain, and you have to remember to stir it up periodically to move honey around so that it can drop out of the strainer.

Also, when honey is uncapped, it absorbs moisture, so if it sits in the bucket too long, it can spoil (or pick up enough moisture that it spoils later). If you live in a humid environment like me, you might even have to run a dehumidifier while it strains, which means checking on the drip pan for that, too.
A press requires a definite time committment. You can't walk away like you do when crushing & straining. We started pressing 10 combs about 3:00 in the afternoon, and we finished around 9:00 pm.

Of course, that's not a real time estimate since I was distracted by things like people stopping over, making snacks & food, cleaning floors and knobs, etc. Plus, I had kids helping, which always adds a considerable amount of time to any task. But even if I subtract a couple of hours for distractions and "helpers," it was still a big chunk of my day.

On the other hand, when you're done pressing, it only takes a couple of minutes to strain the honey (unless you press it in a straining bag), and you're done. There's no waiting for days afterward. (You might wait overnight for any foam to rise, but the honey doesn't have to sit around for days on end.)
Efficiency I guess it depends on how one measures efficiency. For me, it's measured in terms of how dry the comb is after the honey has been harvested. I feel like there is always too much honey left over with this method. The comb is pretty dry when it comes out of the press, much drier than it ends up using the crush & strain method.

(See my notes above though about the downside of this press and using a wax barrier.)
Clean-up Crushing honey, doesn't make too much of a mess, I think, if you crush it in a bucket and pour that directly into a strainer.

Except for the fact that you have a bucket of honey sitting around for days after crushing, the clean-up is pretty easy, too.
Even though I put towels down under the press, it was still a messy business. (Note to self, next time, put down a tarp or something that covers the entire floor.)

I tried to stay on top of things by periodically wiping everything down -- the press, the floor, cabinet handles, door knobs, etc., but there was oh-so-much sticky everywhere anyway. (This situation was not helped by my kindergartner waving spoons full of honey in the air. If you don't have a 5-year old, you may have a tidier experience than I did.)

However, cleaning up the press isn't so hard. The container went into the dishwasher, and I washed the catch plate by hand. The rest of the press went outside for a hose-down followed by some thorough wiping.

Have you ever used a press for harvesting honey? What are your tips or thoughts?

And the Winner is....

It's the big day, folks. Time to pick a winner for the giveaway. (Drum roll)

And the winner is... Don M.! Don, I've already sent you an email. Please, respond within 48 hours to claim your prize. Congrats!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Honey! Honey! Honey!

We're in the honey! We're in the honey! 
We've got a lot of what it takes to get along!

This is the tune (in Ginger Rogers' voice -- along with her completely creepy costume) that is running through my head today.

I've been impatiently waiting all summer for my honey to get to the 80% capped stage for awhile now. After what seems like an eternity, they were finally ready to harvest last week. Plus, the weather was nice, too, so I ordered a refractometer that someone had recommended and timed my harvest to coincide with my new toy's arrival.

I didn't necessarily look for combs that were 100% full.
This one is only partially full, but at least 80% of the cells that have nectar are capped.

I did a bit of shuffling of honey combs between hives in order to take the most fully capped bars. In the end, I got 10 bars -- 8 of which came from Hippolyte, a first year package and the meanest bees I've ever met!

A nice heavy bar of honey

With the exception, of Austeja, who hasn't recovered from her swarm yet, the bees look to be in good shape heading into winter. I haven't decided what to do with Austeja, though. She's got some brood, but almost no bees and only 2 bars of capped honey. My choices at this point are:
  1. Let her ride and see what happens, though I think winter will kill her, if I do.
  2. Take just the uncapped bars, which are pretty dehydrated, leave the capped honey, and hang some fondant.
  3. Take all the honey now and let her bees beg their way into the other hives.
I'm leaning toward 1 or 2 because I feel that where there's life, there's hope. If her bees go to the other hives, that just adds more mouths to feed at a time when they can't really find much. Also, she's been very swarmy all year, so I wouldn't be too chuffed if she didn't make it.

Doesn't that look delish???!!!

Sorry there aren't photos of the honey collecting process itself. I was working alone and wearing gloves. But basically, after brushing the bees off the comb, I put it into an empty nuc and covered it with a towel. Unfortunately, one of the combs (actually two combs) from Hippolyte were a really challenge because they were completely crossed. No matter how many bees I brushed, more bees kept pouring out from between the combs. Ultimately, I had to take the comb with the bees up to the house. By that time most of them had decided they weren't in Kansas anymore and had ventured out from between the comb. One more brushing of all the combs finally did the trick.

The crossed combs from Hippolyte

Another issue I didn't completely think through was how heavy the comb would be once the nuc was full. My nuc was completely full of bars, and even though only 10 of them were full of honey, I almost couldn't lift it. Fortunately, my kid's bike caught my eye, and I used that to roll the nuc uphill to the house.

The nuc I used to collect the bars. You can see my son's bike there. 
Speaking of rolling, for quite a while, a question that's been rolling around in my mind is "How much does a really full bar of honey from my hives weigh?" I cut three bars into a bucket, being careful to tare the weight for the bucket, and found that a good sized bar seems to average between about 4 to 4.5 lbs for me. However, the first bar was a really, really good bar, and the cut comb weighed 5lbs 7oz! The crossed comb bar from Hippolyte also weighed about 9 lbs.

Honey from one comb -- 4 cups, or about a liter for you metric people.

This info is useful because I finally know how many bars I need to leave for winter. 50 lbs is the number I shoot for because Lazutin recommends that in his book. (He's outside of Moscow, Zone 4. I'm in Zone 5, so I figure if that works for him, it should be more than ample for me.)  However, I haven't been sure exactly how many bars provided 50 lbs. I've been aiming for 15 bars because that's what Christy Hemenway in Maine recommends. I know her combs are smaller than mine, and her winter is worse, so again, 15 seemed like a good hedge. However, I now know that for my hives, I've been overestimating quite a bit. At 4.5 lbs per bar, 50 lbs works out to about 11 bars. In any case, I still plan to leave about 13 bars per hive since this winter is supposed to be terrible. I'd rather under-harvest than over-harvest.

Everyone gets a turn pressing honey.

Tasting honey. (BTW, my daughter came up with this "teenager outfit" on her own using some seamless headwraps.)

In the last couple of years, I've crushed and strained some comb using a potato masher and sieve. However, the straining process always gave me a bit of a heartache because there was so much honey that just didn't drain off the crushed comb. It seemed so wasteful. Of course, the bees got to clean the crushed comb, but I hate watching them kill each other over the scraps. Also, I wanted the honey!!! So this year, I thought I'd try a fruit press, which worked pretty well, but I'll write another post about that later.

Some more help. BTW, I've learned a useful lesson. When kids are involved, I need to cover the ENTIRE floor.

Unfortunately, the refractometer didn't come when it was expected. Apparently, Amazon 2-day shipping means it arrives in 2 days from the day the order was fulfilled. However, it can take a week to fulfill the order. Because I agonize over little things, I didn't want to bottle the honey before testing it, knowing that there was some uncapped honey mixed in. So I stored it in my honey bucket until the refractometer arrived.


Just in case the honey was too wet, I modified a trick that I picked up on FaceBook. I took a few boxes of Arm & Hammer Fridge & Freezer boxes of baking soda. Then I taped up all the edges and shook the boxes to make sure no baking soda could escape. The boxes went into a strainer that got placed that on the bucket. I covered it all with a lid and set a bucket of wheat on top of it all to keep it airtight. There was no need to worry, though. The refractometer arrived, and the moisture content tested a tiny bit under 17%. (Capped honey is about 17%-18% moisture. Bottled honey should be under 21% to ensure that it doesn't spoil.)

I didn't know how many boxes to use.
The guy used only one box, but he only had a tiny pot of honey.

Thought it was funny that the wheat bucket has the Honeyville logo on it.
That's where I want to live, though -- In Honeyville.

So here is a picture of most of my haul. There are a couple of bottles that didn't make it into the photo, and some cut comb in the fridge. Overall, though, I'm quite pleased. I just may make it to spring.

Lots of nice honey!

Here is a closeup so you can see the light coming through a bit. It's a dark amber. Just beautiful!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Friday, October 2, 2015

Honey Converter

Thinking ahead to next year, I've been considering how to bottle and sell honey since there is a long line of people wanting to buy some. So one of my considerations has been jar size. What jar size to sell (because they're all sold according to how many fluid oz they hold)? And how much honey (by weight) will that jar hold?

So I've been doing a number of calculations on my own with pen & paper (which stinks). Then I found out that in New England, if you sell honey, it has to be marked by weight using both metric and English measurement systems. Seriously? Another calculation?

Well, lucky me, I found an online converter! Now all I have to do is plug in the numbers and whee! It spits out the right answer for me.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

How to Enter a Rafflecopter Giveaway

I'm sort of new to using Rafflecopter to host a giveaway, so maybe some of you are new to using it. So anyway, I thought I'd post some instructions regarding how to enter my recent giveaway. I love hearing from you all, but I feel it would be a shame if any entries were not actually getting captured by Rafflecopter. So I put together this little "job aid" to provide step-by-step instructions for making sure your entry is counted.

How to Submit a Rafflecopter Entry

Step 1: Log into Rafflecopter. You have two choices:

  • Option 1: Select the FaceBook icon to login that way. 
  • Option 2: Select the Use Your Email button.
Because the steps for logging in through FB vs. using your email are quite varied, I'm skipping those steps. However, either way, it's very simple. Just follow the on-screen prompts to enter your information.

Select an option for logging into Rafflecopter.

Step 2: Read the entry instructions. Rafflecopter will present you with a box that tells you what you need to do. To the right of the box is an arrow that allows you to expand the instructions. Select that arrow to view the complete instructions.
Arrow for expanding instructions.

Full instructions revealed

Step 3: Mark completion of step. After you have completed the required task (in this case, added a comment), go back to the Rafflecopter widget and mark completion of the step. Depending on the task, the text on the button will change. It might say, "I commented," "I visited," "I shared," I tweeted" or something like that. However, it's always in the lower right corner.

Select that button to mark completion.

Mark task completion