Friday, October 23, 2015

Bee Reset: Honey, Mead, and Sterilizing the Hive Bodies

While our capers with shook swarming and wax rendering have been great, one other main benefit in pressing the reset button on our bees is the edible part.  We humans aren't going to catch the foulbrood, so if the bees can't eat their honey, we might as well!  We just need to extract it.  Fortunately, this post will be a lot shorter than the others.  Heck, we can even throw in the sterilization of the hive bodies for good measure, and wrap this story up!

As a reminder, here's the overall process we're working with.

We did the honey by a whatchagot version of the crush and strain method, since we were working mainly with brood frames, which meant honey around the outside, brood in the middle.  That is, we didn't want to extract whole frames, just select chunks of comb.  Our setup is two buckets; the top one has holes in the bottom.  A t-shirt goes between the buckets to strain out chunks of comb, etc., and the comb gets mashed with our hands and goes in the top bucket.  In this particular case, the bottom bucket also had holes, so the whole setup is in a cookie sheet for secondary containment.

Once the comb is crushed up, the honey will eventually drain out.  It took several days, but it's a low-tech, low-effort system!  Of course, some honey will end up stuck to the comb (probably more than if we had a centrifugal extractor).  We washed the comb through with water, to recover any residual honey for making mead.  Some of the YouTube videos we saw in the research phase of this post showed people washing their wax before extracting it and just throwing out the water--so this is similar, but we keep the water for something tasty!

The water won't be concentrated enough to make a very strong mead as-is, so we added sugar to boost the final alcohol content (hence the name quasi-mead, since this stuff isn't made purely from honey).  Also, the wine yeast need more nutrients than just the (diluted) honey and the sugar can provide, and the mead will need some tannins to keep it from tasting like vodka or cough syrup (depending on how much residual sugar there is), so we added some very strong rose petal-and-raisin-tea.  We might forego the rose petals next time, since they didn't seem to be a very good source of tannins.  Hopefully we'll have a post soon on our approach to making fermented beverages.

Our final yield was about 4.5 quarts of honey, or about 14 lbs. (There is a quart jar-and-a-half missing from this photo because Katie is part pooh bear.)  Note that if you are extracting uncapped honey (as you may be doing during a bee reset), check the refractive index of it to make sure it has a low enough moisture content that it won't ferment in the jar.  Below 20% is normally the standard, but other sources say 17-18% is a better target.  Those other sources also say that if it's a little higher moisture content than that, keeping it below 50 °F can also prevent spoilage.

Finally, sterilizing the boxes.  Some say to heat everything, especially the corners and other nooks and crannies, until the wood is a uniform deep coffee brown color.  The bacteria that causes EFB (Melissococcus plutonius, although it was originally called Bacillus pluton) is inactivated above 65 °C, which isn't enough to turn the wood brown.  But heating until the wood is a little charred is an easy visual to make sure we're in the safe zone for killing EFB (and any other diseases that might be hanging around).  Sort of like roasting a giant wooden square marshmallow, but from the inside (the paint on the outside doesn't need to change color).  By far, the easiest and fastest way to do this would be with a propane blow torch.  But if you don't like the thought of all those difficult-to-recyclable propane canisters, you can get a similar effect with a little alcohol-fired camp stove.  Definitely not the OSHA-recommended protocol, but it works!

Once all the parts the bees have touched are uniformly charred (minus the extra-resinous parts, which saw the same heat, but didn't turn color), we should be good to re-use the box.

 How do you extract your honey and sterilize your hive boxes?


  1. I feel very fortunate that I haven't had to sterilize a hive. I only hope it stays that way! I decided not to take honey this year, but leave them the two hive boxes for stores. We've had so much rain lately that there isn't much bee foraging going on. But - two more hives to be added next year! Very excited about that. I will uses the same method as you.

    1. I agree, it's probably better to be safe than sorry on leaving the honey. But if your colony doesn't make it through, keep an eye out for robber bees! It would be a shame to lose what your bees didn't use.

      Happy to hear that you're expanding your apiary already! Will you go with packages for the two new ones?