Extracting Honey

Our weather has been great for making honey. I’ve gotten quite a few questions about how I get the honey out of the hive.

It starts by removing boxes from the hive in which the frames of honey have cells that are capped, or sealed with wax, like in the photo below.

frame of capped honey

You can see holes, which are uncapped cells in the honeycomb.

I take the frames of honeycomb home and prepare them for the extractor, which is the word that honey producers use for a centrifuge. We spin the honey out of the cells. To do that, we can either scratch the cappings off, or melt, or cut them off, like this:

cutting off cappings

See the shiny wet honey revealed when the cappings are cut away?


After this step, the frames are placed in the extractor and someone hand cranks the honey out of the cells. Electric extractors are available. All extractors come in a range of capacities, holding a minimum of two frames.

I was also asked about letting the honey drain out of the cells. Honey is less than 19% water, and I think with its moisture level and maybe capillary action/width of cell, the honey would not be able to drain out by gravity alone. I could crush the comb, or scrape it with the honey, but that would be a disadvantage to the bees and to me as their beekeeper. Why? Because the bees would spend time creating replacement wax comb instead of gathering more nectar to convert into honey/winter food source. By me removing the cappings only, the bees can focus on refilling the uncapped comb and replacing the capping only, not the base and walls of the cells. I cannot imagine having the furniture in my home destroyed and having to create replacements with my own two hands, but that is what I imagine a hive to be like if I were to crush to scrape they honey out. We used to scrape, but were able to buy a used extractor and inherit another. The bees have definitely been more productive since we quit scraping.

One fun fact: Honey colors (and flavors) depend on the floral source. The comb that we harvested last week was very light in color. I put the honey from two bee yards in the jars on the right. I have them next to a Fall 2016 honey on the left for comparison:

three colors of honey

Three honeys, three colors

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A Happy Ending :: West Des Moines Bee Ordinance Update

Slightly over one year ago, my city of West Des Moines passed its beekeeping ordinance. I thought it was time for a check-in. Things are pretty much the same as before the ordinance was amended – very quiet. There has been one inquiry that I know of, and the beekeeper in question is letting me share his story here.

For background, the City examined beekeeping with respect to its zoning ordinance for approximately one year as a response to a resident who wanted bees in his backyard. I was asked to join him and help legalize beekeeping in residential zoning areas. At the time, beekeeping was allowed in properties zoned for Ag and Open Space, and these properties were very limited. Staff explored the idea with the elect and those appointed to commissions, boards, and subcommittees; beekeepers, the state apiarist, and other advocates were also at the table. Staff did a fair amount of research. They also did a media push – something along the lines of “West Des Moines might allow bees” — and received no negative feedback. It should be noted that no complaints about beekeeping had been filed before this time.

A beekeeping ordinance was passed on April 4, 2016 (minutes are here: link and the actual code is here: link)

I am a little sad that Hadrian, the man who originally asked for the amendment, had moved out of town by the time it passed. However, I am pleased and very appreciative of the support and enthusiasm of the teachers and local beekeepers who shared their time, photographs, passion, knowledge of local government procedures, stories, and information to get the ordinance changed. I am also thankful that my beginning beekeeping students were understanding when I put them with a substitute teacher so I could attend council meetings, and to staff, who knew how to get the timing right as well as initiating the amendment (because the fee could have been an obstacle if resident-initiated).

Travis, a WDM resident, waited for the ordinance to pass before having bees in his backyard, and was living his life. He worked a full-time job, and had a family and a dog. And a beehive with honey bees. He enjoyed life very much. His accommodating next door neighbor Susie didn’t want him to use the flyway barrier that the ordinance called for because she wanted bees and pollination in her yard. In fact, she joined the fun and got her own bees in 2017.

Being the responsible beekeeper that he is, in 2017, Travis had been monitoring his hive and knew that the colony would need more space in the near future or it would swarm. A swarm is a natural occurrence that happens in spring when the population, which shrank over winter, has an explosive boom. This boom causes crowding and the hive’s instinct is to split into two – one half of the bees stay in the hive and the other half leaves as a swarm. But as he was living his life, the bees didn’t consult with him before he left town – Susie called one day to say that his hive had swarmed and she didn’t know what to do.

At this point, my daughter, my family’s original beekeeper, and I got the swarm from Travis’s backyard neighbor’s lilac bush. The backyard neighbor and his neighbor were fans – the families watched us move the swarm, and chatted with us the entire time; Susie lent a helping hand and a pair of loppers. The backyard neighbor thought it might be fun to veil up and join Travis in a future hive inspection. My daughter and I successfully moved the swarm out of town.

When Travis returned home, he “supered up,” or added empty box(es) to his hive that would accommodate a growing bee population. This neighborhood, like many, has “that neighbor,” and that neighbor happened to live on the other side of Travis’s house. “That neighbor” saw this supering up from inside his house, took a photograph, sent it to the city, and asked for clarification on the ordinance – did the number of boxes in the stack each count as one hive? He wasn’t complaining, just making sure that the law was being followed. Here is the photo:

This hive is in compliance with a length of 6′ high fence, and sitting 25′ away from main structures on neighboring lots. Also note that the keeper is able to conduct every day activities around the yard with a hive present, like take things in and out of a shed, mow the lawn, etc.

The city planner, who researched and worked with everyone to draft the ordinance, called me after receiving the photo, and asked what the definition of a hive was. For the record, one stack, regardless of height, constitutes one hive. Height was a question at a commission meeting. The beekeepers were emphatic that best practices such as supering up be allowed in the name of responsible swarm prevention. Travis’s story illustrates the need for flexibility in hive height very well. (On the flip side, shortening the stack of boxes in winter increases the chances of sustainability.)

Being responsible, the beekeeper divided the colony between two sets of boxes. You can see the neighbor’s hive in the background.

Susie and Travis both had Community Compliance inspectors visit their backyards as a follow up to the inquiring neighbor. My son and I were invited to stop for a short bit, and it was honestly humorous for me to stand back and see six people, no veils in sight, standing about two foot from the hives. There was activity in and out of the hives, and no one was being harmed. There was no nuisance. There was compliance with flyway barriers and setbacks to that neighbor’s property.

This story had a happy ending. The swarm was caught and re-hived with interested onlookers. Everyone was in compliance. The residents are all enjoying their property and the bees are thriving in place.

Here is the neighbor’s hive in late June. It was installed in April 2017.

To read more about how I personally got involved in local government, read here: link

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