No, not by machine alone. The beekeeper himself barehanded shoos away the swarming bees to carry off the honey-laden combs.
A man-made beehive, which will house a colony of fifteen thousand to sixty thousand bees, is constructed of stacks of wooden boxes, measuring twenty inches by sixteen and one quarter inches each. The uppermost boxes, called supers, will hold the surplus honey the hive produces, the harvest designated by the beekeeper for human consumption.
Each box contains six or eight hanging frames, which hold sheets of pitted wax called comb foundation. During spring and early summer, worker bees in the hive construct wax honeycombs on the foundation using fat secreted from their glands. The comb cells are then filled with honey, which hive bees produce from flower nectar.
By mid-July, after the clover and alfalfa have bloomed, the hives become so full of honey that a typical super weighs about sixty pounds. Then the bees start capping over the comb cells with wax.
How can the beekeeper get at the honey? First, he must get the bees to leave their combs. He wears a hat and veil to protect his face from stings during this procedure, but he usually doesn’t wear gloves or other protective gear. The experienced beekeeper is accustomed to being stung, and in fact his body is resistant to swelling. Quite often he can avoid being stung at all. He knows which time of day to go about the business, sunny hours are better than chill and shadowy periods.
On rainy, windy days, he can count on getting stung. Judging from the weather, then, and what the bees have had for forage, he can predict the mood of the swarms. Even if they’re not irritable, he takes precautions to keep them calm. With a smoker, a bellows mounted on a little wood-burning stove the size of a large bean can, he settles down the hive with long puffs of smoke.
Then he brushes the bees off the frames or allows them to pass through a one-way “bee escape” into the brood nest in the lower boxes of the hive. Some beekeepers use repellents to get the bees moving; some use forced air to blow them off the combs.
Now the beekeeper takes the supers to the extracting house, or another indoor spot away from potential robber bees. With a long, sharp, heated uncapping knife he shaves off the wax cap-pings. This is the best and lightest beeswax, which, after the honey drips off of it, can be sold for candle making. He suspends two to four frames inside a piece of equipment called a honey extractor: a centrifuge the size of a wide trash barrel.
Large honey producers use bigger extractors that can accommodate several dozen frames. The extractor spins the frames inside it, it’s rather like a washing machine on spin cycle. Centrifugal force sends the honey flying out from the combs and onto the sides of the tank; the liquid runs down and out a spout. The beekeeper collects it in a storage tank and strains it. Before being bottled, the honey is usually pasteurized by heating it.
How long does this whole process take? It depends on equipment and the size of the apiary, but usually a beekeeper allots about a day to pry the hives apart and get the supers inside. After that he can spread the extraction chores over a few days. How much honey can be harvested?
A commercial beekeeper, with the best agricultural land and the best floral sources for his bees, needs to extract about a hundred pounds of honey from each colony per year. A hobbyist can usually be satisfied with sixty pounds.
After extracting the honey, the beekeeper stores the supers for next spring or, if he is hoping for a second harvest, he stacks the boxes on the hives again. When the bees are allowed back in, they begin repairing any damage the centrifuge did to their honeycombs.