Preparing honey

Whisper it … Christmas is fast approaching.

It may seem premature to be discussing this at the end of November, but there are some things that require a bit of preparation.

I presume you’ve already made the Christmas cake? 1

I sell more honey in the few weeks before Christmas than almost any other time of the year … and I also jar a lot as gifts for family and friends.

Jarring 2 honey is one of those topics that hardly gets a mention on these pages, yet is one of the few ‘real’ beekeeping activities we can do in depths of winter.

Although I’ve written a few posts about jarring honey in the past, they’re scattered around the place and are several years old, so it seemed timely to revisit the subject again.

Quality and quantity

Let’s deal with these in reverse order so you appreciate the scale of things.

The average number of colonies managed by UK beekeepers was about 5. There are about 45 to 50 thousand beekeepers managing a quarter of a million colonies, with a few tens of thousands over that number managed by a small number of bee farmers 3.

BBKA surveys report the average honey production per hive varies from ~8-31 lb per year 4. Let’s assume, as I’ve done previously, that the ‘average’ hive produces 25 lb, so the ‘average’ beekeeper generates 125 lb of honey a season.

However, these averages probably obscure the real distribution of hives and honey. The majority of BBKA survey respondents run only 1-2 colonies, with others running ten or more. The real distribution of hives therefore resembles a U shaped curve.

More experienced beekeepers, running more colonies successfully, will produce disproportionately more honey. Annual averages of 50 – 75 lb of honey per colony are readily achievable with good management and good forage. Honey production is more likely to resemble a J shaped curve.

I’m a small scale beekeeper with 10-12 (honey) production colonies and the same number again for work, queen rearing etc., most of which usually produce little honey.

In a good year I produce enough honey to make jarring and labelling a bit dull and repetitive, but not enough to justify anything more automated than my trusty and long-suffering radial extractor.

No fancy uncapping machine, no automated honey creamer, no computer controlled bottling line and no bottle labeller.

In my dreams perhaps … but in reality just about everything is done manually.

Whether it’s 10 lb or 1000 lb anything I discuss below could be done using the same manual methods, and with the same overall goal.

And that goal is to produce a really top quality honey – in appearance and flavour – that makes an attractive gift or a desirable purchase.

Extracting

In Fife there are two honey harvests. Spring, which is predominantly (though not exclusively) oilseed rape (OSR), and summer which is much more variable. Some years we get an excellent crop from the lime, in other years it’s the more usual Heinz Honey containing 57 varieties of hedgerow and field nectars.

Heinz Honey

My production colonies are in two main apiaries and I extract each separately. That way, distinctive nectars that predominate in particular areas remain separate.

If customers want identical honey, jar after jar after jar, they can buy any amount of the stuff – often at absurdly cheap prices – in the supermarket.

Conversely, if they want a unique, high quality product they buy locally produced honey and expect variation depending upon the apiary and the season.

I run the extractor with the gate open, through coarse and fine filters, directly into buckets for storage. Warming the supers over the honey warming cabinet makes extraction and simultaneous filtering much easier.

I almost never get single crop honey and don’t harvest mid-season.

If you look at different frames it’s not unusual to have dark honey stored in one and lighter honey elsewhere, or as two distinct areas within the same frame. I know I’m missing the opportunity to produce some wonderfully distinct honeys, but pressure of work, queen rearing and a visceral loathing for cleaning the extractor restricts me to two harvest per season.

~90 kg of honey from my home apiary

Wherever possible entire supers are extracted into single 30 lb plastic buckets. Each is weighed, and the water content measured using a refractometer. Both numbers are written on the bucket lid and in my notes (an Excel spreadsheet). This becomes relevant when preparing honey for jarring.

Storage and crystallisation

Honey is stored in a cool location (~12-15°C), sealed tightly to avoid absorbing water from the environment.

High-glucose early season OSR honey crystallises rapidly. It usually sets rock hard well within a month of extraction.

Summer honey is much more variable and often takes many months to fully crystallise. I’ve just checked a few buckets that were extracted in early August and all are still liquid. However, if you looked carefully 5 you would almost certainly find micro-crystals already present.

All good quality honey will eventually crystallise. Tiny impurities – which are different from contaminants – such as pollen grains, act as nuclei onto which the sugars attach. These tiny crystals sink through the viscous honey to the bottom of the bucket.

Over time the honey at the bottom of an undisturbed bucket can be cloudy or gauzy in appearance with diffuse crystals. For the optimal appearance of the final bottled product these will need to be removed.

Clear summer honey

Clear summer honey is warmed and fine filtered again before jarring. I usually filter it through a nylon straining cloth. If you don’t do this then there’s a good chance it will crystallise relatively quickly in the jar.

Clear and not so clear honey

This spoils the appearance (and texture) but has no effect on the flavour.

It will still sell, but it will look less appealing, particularly to customers who are used to the homogenous unwavering bland sameness of supermarket honey.

Soft set honey

Well prepared soft set or creamed honey is a premium product. The fact that it can be prepared from large quantities of predominantly OSR honey is a bonus.

Honey warming cabinet. The Apiarist

Honey warming cabinet …

Many customers automatically choose clear honey. There’s certainly a greater demand for it. However, it’s worth always having a tester jar of soft set available. Disposable plastic coffee stirrers are an efficient way of sampling the tester and avoid the coarseness on the tongue of wooden stirrers.

A surprising number who try soft set honey, buy soft set honey … and then return for repeat business 🙂

The key points when preparing soft set honey are:

  • Have a suitable soft set ‘seed’ prepared. You can use shop bought for this, or grind a crystallised honey in a pestle and mortar 6. You need ~10% by weight of the seed.
  • Warm the set bucket of OSR honey sufficiently to melt the crystals. The honey should be clear and, when tested, leave no grittiness on the tongue. Mix periodically to aid heat transfer. I do this in my honey warming cabinet, but a water bath is much more efficient.
  • Cool the OSR honey to ~36°C and warm the seed honey to the same temperature. Do not melt the seed … you’re dependent upon the crystal structure of the seed to create the final product.
  • Add the seed to the melted OSR and mix thoroughly.
  • Allow the mixed honey to gradually cool to ~12-14°C, with regular stirring (at least twice a day). You can do this with a spoon, but as the honey crystallises and thickens it becomes very hard work. An electric drill and corkscrew or spiral mixer works well 7. This mixing may take several days.
  • Warm the honey to ~36°C and jar it 8.
  • Keep some of the seed for the next batch. If you’re jarring more in the next week or two, just leave 2-3 lb in the bucket. If longer, I store it in clip-seal containers.

Small batches

Honey keeps for years if stored in buckets at a cool temperature.

I tend to bottle honey in relatively small batches. This allows me to be certain the honey will look its very best for the short time it sits on the shelf.

This applies whatever the location of the shelf – by you door, if selling directly to the public, or in an artisan cafe or food store if selling via a third party.

Or even if the shelf is in your cupboard before you give it away to friends or relatives.

Preparing one or two buckets at a time for jarring makes sense. It’s a manageable number of jars (no more than 120 x 227g, or a smaller number of 340g or 454g jars) so I don’t die of boredom when subsequently labelling them. That number also fits into the dishwasher and on the worktop without too much of a problem.

Ready for delivery

I use the stored buckets in order of decreasing water content. Whether this makes a difference I’m unsure as all of my stored honey is below the 20% cutoff when measured. Interestingly, some seasons produce honey with consistently low water content. Spring 2018 was ~2% lower than this season averaged across 10-15 buckets.

Bottling it

I wash jars prior to using them and only use brand new jars. When jarring honey I dry and heat the jars in a 50°C oven so that, by the time they’re under the honey tap, they’re still warm.

Honey bucket tipper

The actual process of bottling honey is made much easier with my honey bucket tipper. I built this several years ago and it’s been used for thousands of jars in the intervening period. Amazingly, for something I built, I got it almost perfect from the start 9. I’ve changed the size of a couple of the wedges to tip the bucket, but that’s about all.

Almost always I can process the full bucket of honey, leaving only one final (incomplete) jar with the remnants of the bubbly scum from the surface of the honey.

The dregs

These are the jars I use for honey to go with my porridge 🙂

It’s worth noting that you can remove excess bubbly scum from a bucket by overlaying it with a sheet of clingfilm, then swiftly and carefully removing the clingfilm. Take care to avoid drips. It requires some deft handwork, but is remarkably effective in leaving just jarrable honey in the bucket.

Settling in, or out

Inevitably the process of jarring honey can introduce bubbles. Even if you take care to run the honey down the pre-warmed side of the jar you can end up with very obvious bubbles in clear honey.

And invisible bubbles in the opaque soft set honey.

These bubbles reduce the attractiveness of the finished product.

I therefore add lids to the jars and return the honey to my honey warming cabinet set at ~35°C for a few hours. The bubbles rise to the top and … pfffft … disappear, leaving the honey bubble free and crystal clear.

Settling out

Except for soft set honey of course. This is full of tiny crystals which produce that magic “melt on the tongue” sensation. However, I think that this final settling period helps minimise frosting in soft set honey.

After a few hours in the warming cabinet the jars are removed, allowed to cool to room temperature and labelled, ready for sale or gifting.

Labelling

The honey labelling regulations are a minefield. I’m pretty confident my labels meet the requirements but – before you ask – will not provide advice on whether yours do 😉 Mine carry a unique batch number, the country of origin, a best before date (two years after the date of jarring), the relevant contact details and the weight of the metric jar contents in a font that is both the right size and properly visible.

Honey label

All my labels are home printed on a Dymo LabelWriter. I’ve got nothing to hide and want the customer to see the honey, rather than some gaudy label covering most of the jar. This works for me, but might not suit you or your customers. I’ve certainly not had any complaints, either from shops, or customers who buy from the door as gifts for their friends or family, and plenty of people return time and again for more.

I always add an anti-tamper label connecting the lid to the jar. Even purchased in rolls of 1000 at a time these are the most expensive of the three labels – front (with weight and origin), anti-tamper and rear (batch number, best before date and QR code). DIY labels cost less than 8p/jar in total.

It should go without saying that the outside of the jar should not be spoiled with sticky fingermarks! If you use black lids, as I do, it’s worth wiping them before attaching a clear anti-tamper seal to avoid fingerprints being preserved forever under the label.

Provenance

The batch number is a unique five character code that allows me to determine the jar weight, bucket (weight and water content), apiary and season/year. If there was a problem with a particular batch 10 this would help recover any sold through a shop. The information is vaguely interesting to me; for example, looking back over the records it shows the inexorable rise in popularity of the 227 g jar as the proportion of these used increases year on year.

However, particularly in times of social distancing and when selling through a third party, this information on the provenance of the honey can be of interest to customers.

How many times did you sell a jar ‘at the door’ and get into a long conversation about whether the long avenue of limes north of the village produced nectar this year? Or whether the bees from my apiary could have pollinated the apple trees in the customers orchard?

Remember … many of the people who purchase local honey, or indeed any honey not carrying the dreaded Produce of EU and non-EU countries warning label, care about the origins of their food or the gifts they are making.

I’ve therefore been exploring linking the batch number to an online information page for the honey. By scanning a QR code on the jar 11 the customer can tell where and when the honey was produced. They can read about the area the bees forage in, the types of forage available and even the pollen types present in the honey. New Zealand beekeepers selling specialist manuka honey have been doing this sort of thing for a few years. My system is not ready for ‘prime time’ yet, but all the coding is done to get the information in and out of the backend database. Some customers already use it.

Even if the customer has no interest whatsoever, I still need to record the batch number, so it’s an example of added value to what I hope is perceived as a premium product.


 

Footnotes

  1. With apologies to US readers who are only just getting over the excesses of Thanksgiving.
  2. Jarring or bottling? I use the terms interchangeably, but acknowledge that the glass container that you sell honey in is a ‘jar’ and the glass container you buy beer in is a ‘bottle’.
  3. Recent BBKA data reports they have a membership of ~25,000 who manage a total of ~120,000 colonies (i.e. reassuringly close to 5 each).
  4. 2014 – 2019 data.
  5. Which I didn’t … all I did was prod the side of the bucket to see if it flexed. STOP PRESS Since writing this in the first draft I’ve opened one of these buckets for jarring – sure enough, the honey was full of tiny little crystals.
  6. I recommend you do this rather than buy the seed. It’s then all your honey and it only takes a short time.
  7. If you want to do it entirely by hand you could use a honey creamer but I get better results and more consistent mixing with a corkscrew.
  8. At lower temperatures the soft set will not flow properly and jarring takes an interminably long time.
  9. As compared to many things I never get right at all.
  10. Something that’s never happened, but honey labelling regs require a batch number or some way of uniquely identifying the honey. Some use a best by date, but I often jar several honey types/jar sizes on a single afternoon, all sharing the same best by date.
  11. Simply using a mobile phone camera, so potentially even before making a purchase.

18 thoughts on “Preparing honey

  1. Kim Beresford

    I had to smile when I read that the last jar with the remnants of the bubbly scum in it gets used up in your porridge.
    I do exactly the same…. waste not want not hey.
    I don’t have any Scottish blood in me that I know of, but I have been known to wear a kilt from time to time, I love the haggis from George Cockburn & sons of Dingwall and I can recite Rabbie Burns’ address to a Haggis from memory in its entirety.
    Do you think there’s any connection here?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Kim

      I think the Scottish connection is tenuous … in my experience, many beekeepers are quite frugal. If this involves making roofs for £1.50 from ‘For Sale’ signs, or recycling frames through the wax steamer, then it makes lots of sense. If it means using half doses of miticides then it’s false economy.

      Using the dregs from the extractor just seems like common sense to me … it also means we get to test every batch jarred, all in the interests of ‘quality control’ 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Kim Beresford

        Hi David,
        Thanks for replying, I think you’re right about the Scottish connection being tenuous.
        Mind you I used to run a brewery before I retired so I know all about the need for quality control 🍻🥴

        By the way many thanks for all the great work that you do in aid of educating us …. “”the great unwashed”.
        I’m definitely not blowing smoke if I say that your blog is without doubt my favourite read which I avidly look forward to and read in its entirety the minute I spot the notification.

        May you continue spreading the knowledge and wisdom for many a year.
        All the best
        Kim Beresford

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Many thanks Kim

          Very kind words … I’d never dare refer to the very many hygienic and fragrant beekeepers as “the great unwashed”, though I’m aware that a busy weekend of inspections and queen rearing in midsummer can leave my beesuit ponging a bit 😉

          With Best Wishes
          David

          Reply
  2. Jeremy Quinlan

    Excellent as usual!
    I would have added that i liquify OSR @ 49 degrees C for 36 hours.
    Also that as all my honey is prepared as soft set, I never filter from the extractor but after warming (sometimes it then needs a preliminary skim) and then through a 200 micron filter cloth.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thank you Jeremy

      I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about the temperature used to warm the honey to melt the crystals. In my experience it can vary a bit – better to determine what works for the particular honey you produce.

      I’ve found a coarse and fine metal filter is more than sufficient for OSR honey from the extractor. Once it’s set it doesn’t need filtering agan. I use the inexpensive nylon cloth from Thorne’s … no idea what gauge the holes are, but since it’s £3 rather than £33 for their 200 micron cloth I suspect it’s a bit coarser 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Graham Elliott

    Hi David,
    Enjoyed your talk to Chichester Beekeepers recently – many thanks.
    Comment on honey labelling; I was told recently that I can’t use ‘Produce of England’. It must be ‘Produce of UK’ or ‘Produce of UK (England)’. How does Scotland get away with ‘Produce of Scotland’? or are the regulations different for the devolved administration?
    Time England sought independence me thinks!!
    Rgds

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Graham

      Scotland has its own version of The Honey (Scotland) Regulations 2015. The regulations state that the country of origin needs to be indicated and Scotland is a country. This isn’t advice, but it’s my interpretation of the printed regulations.

      Delighted you enjoyed the talk at Chichester BKA recently … rational Varroa management is an important topic and too many beekeepers attempt to do it by the calendar, rather than by either what’s needed or the varying seasons. All of my winter treatments are now completed, colonies are broodless and mite levels are vanishingly low … bring on 2021!

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Archie McLellan

        There is no difference between the English and Scottish Honey Regulations on this point. The relevant section is: ‘No person may trade in honey unless the country of origin where the honey has been harvested is indicated on the label except that, if the honey originates in more than one member State or third country blah blah’.

        I’ve just asked Google, and indeed England is a country, as is Scotland (‘the UK is a state made up of the countries of…’)

        I’d go with your interpretation, David, though sadly it will not give me the chance to write Produce of Scotland on my honey.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello Archie

          Many thanks for the clarification. Reading one set of honey regulations is more than enough, reading both (and appreciating the similarities and presumably differences) is a heroic act that strongly suggests you have too much time on your hands 😉

          It always surprises me the number of jars you see on shelves that are clearly in breach of regulations. The most blatant I’ve seen recently were some hexagonal 3/4 lb jars clearly labelled 454 g. The fact that they were priced reflecting the stated weight, not the actual weight, probably explains why they were still on the shelf.

          That and the appearance … they’d separated into two distinct layers, with the bottom half of the jar full of crystals overlaid by a watery, runny honey. Not a good advert for a premium local product.

          As a scientist I suppose I should always consider the possibility that the jar size was actually misleading and the honey was just particularly dense 😉

          Cheers
          David

          PS Adding Produce of Scotland to your own jars might not increase sales in your part of the ‘state’.

          Reply
  4. Maccon Keane

    Dear David
    I really enjoy your posts and look forward to the Apiarist every week. A bit off-topic but here in the West of Ireland we get a significant crop of Ivy honey. Disliked by some – loved by me. But as you know it crystallises very rapidly and unlike OSR is a late crop so colder when harvested and often crystallised in the frame. Any thoughts on extraction / managing other than leaving it as food for the bees?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Maccon

      Assuming you can’t harvest it before it crystallises (it’s not something the bees get much of here as it’s too cold by the time it’s flowering) then I suppose your only choice is to melt it out. If there was a big market for it and you had a lot of hives you could splash £3500 on an Api Melter. These are a great way of separating wax and honey, without overheating and damaging the honey. It might be possible to work out a small-scale version for just a few frames, but I can’t think of an easy way to achieve this.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Calum Grigor

    Hi David,
    Yes my dregs are great for porridge or Greek yogurt with walnuts too. My capping wax is melted down, the wax of the top for creams and balms and the bakers honey is a great honey for mead as it is pasturised. As a couple of other beeks use my extractor (seems silly to have it sitting unused 363 days a year. I can recommed the rapido for making cream honey. Heat the honey at 30°c for 3 hours, stir, finished..
    Br
    Calum

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum

      I don’t know the “rapido” … do you have a link? The automatic honey creamers I know tend to work intermittently over several days – mix, pause, mix, pause etc. Shops here tend to initially favour clear honey and often ask to just stock that alone. I think customers consider it ‘proper’ honey. However, as I say in the post, once they try creamed honey they are usually impressed and then buy it. In many ways I prefer it. However, the way I prepare it is time consuming and I should invest in a creamer … but the prices here are high.

      I suppose it would get a lot more use than the extractor which, as you say, sits around unused for all but a few days a year.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Calum Grigor

    Hi David,
    https://youtu.be/P47DBVEnt5Y
    I would never go back to seeding.
    I let the honey set in the bucket.
    Prior to warming I scrape the top level off.
    Warm, mix, fill the jarring bucket, fill.
    I can warm in the morning and fill that afternoon, so no buckets standing around and daily stirring. Too time consuming for no additional margin
    BR
    Calum

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum

      That looks excellent, many thanks. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s clearly much faster than seeding, stirring, stirring and stirring!
      I’ll have a search for a UK distributor.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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