From Bee To Jar: How We Produce & Harvest Our NYC Raw Honey
Friends! Our local NYC Raw Honey is back!! To give you a peek behind-the-scenes, I wanted to tell you a little about the journey of your honey, from the bees to the jar.
Preparing for the Season
It starts the year before when we get our honey bees ready for winter. One of the biggest hurdles for beekeepers is getting a colony through the winter so we make sure to give the bees everything they need to make a strong winter nest. Colonies that come through the winter are able to start building up as early as the end of January for the spring.
As soon as the first blooms of the year appear, the bees will start their work. All of this late winter foraging will help replenish their honey stores and give them a boost to build up the population in preparation for the main nectar flow of the year. In NYC, our main nectar flow happens during the month of June and is dominated by the Linden tree blooms. This is very evident in the flavor of our honey and personally, it's one of my favorite honey varietals.
Turning Nectar Into Honey
Once the bees collect the nectar from the Linden blooms, they bring it back to the hive and pass it along to younger 'house bees' who eventually store it in the cells of the comb. In the cells, the nectar is still too wet. It has too much water in it and needs to be evaporated. Aside from concentrating and thickening the nectar, removing the water helps make honey inhospitable to bacteria and mold. This is why honey has an indefinite shelf life... nothing can grow and spoil it.
The bees fan the open honeycombs to get the water evaporated. Some beekeepers call this 'ripening'. As the nectar dips below 20% water content, that's when we start to call it honey. The bees will seal the cell with a wax cap when the honey gets down to about 17%.
When these honeycombs are filling, as the beekeeper, I have to keep tabs on them and add more boxes to the colony. During the nectar flow the bees may fill a box in a few days to a week, so weekly checks at a minimum are required.
At a certain point, usually early to mid-July, the nectar flow slows. The bees continue to ripen the remaining nectar into honey and I begin to determine what boxes and how much honey we'll take from each hive. We don't take everything because the bees need food to get through the rest of the summer and prep for fall, but we may take up to half of the honey produced. This is not a hard rule and in many cases, we take less depending on the strength of the colony and other factors.
All the honey boxes we will take are collected in early August and we spend a few days harvesting. First, you have to cut the face of the comb off. This is called the capping and we do this with a simple bread knife. There are heated knives out there that could make things a little faster, but I prefer to take extra care and not expose the honey to any heat throughout the harvest. It's a small thing and a little extra time, but it keeps the honey unchanged on its way to the jar. By the way, all those beeswax cappings add up. I will drain the honey from them, clean them, and melt them into beeswax bars that will eventually go into some other products like our beeswax wraps.
Once the frame is uncapped it goes into an extractor, which is just a large centrifuge. Our extractor holds 18 frames which is about 2 boxes worth of frames. You spin it up slowly at first and spin out a lot of the honey. As the frames get lighter, you speed up the extractor to get every drop.
The honey, as well as wax and debris, collects in the bottom of the extractor and flows through a valve called a honey gate, then into a 5-gal bucket. I used to have the honey go through a strainer on top of the bucket, but this can be a bottleneck when you're harvesting as much honey as we do these days. The solution is to just fill the bucket without straining and allow the honey to sit for several days or weeks. Naturally, the honey sinks to the bottom and the wax/debris floats to the top. You simply skim that stuff off and the honey is as clean and pure as it would have been through the strainer. This is a big reason that our honey is not available the day after we harvest.
Once the honey is clean, we can then bottle it. We use a bucket outfitted with another honey gate and fill each jar by hand. Add a label to the jar and it's ready to send to you!
Want to get your hands on one of the first jars of our 2020 harvest? Head over to our shop page and make your order today!
I hope you can appreciate, not just our process, but all the work that goes into producing any raw, high-quality honey you may use. It's a long and delicate collaboration between the honey bee and their keeper. It really gives you a new perspective on every last drop.