Starting Out: November 2009

From Bee Craft: November 2009

John Williams, Master Beekeeper

Now is the time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your bees’ labour – honey and beeswax


The reward for a summer’s work – jars of soft set and clear honey for your pantry cupboard or to sell

Indoors there is still plenty to be done. Perhaps you will have time to prepare your first batch of soft-set and clear honey from your store of crystallised honey, ready to give away as gifts. You may still have some equipment that needs to be cleaned and sterilised ready for the spring. This is a good time, too, to clean up all the bits of beeswax you gathered during the summer.


Everything in the hive is very quiet now. There is little or no pollen or nectar available outside so there is limited opportunity for foraging. Bees will still leave the hive occasionally in reasonable weather to get rid of waste products and to remove the corpses of dead bees. Some bees may fly out to gather water if it is needed to dilute stores.

Egg-laying practically ceases and the population continues to fall. The long-lived winter bees have replaced the harder worked summer bees. Food consumption is at a minimum as there is little if any brood rearing and practically no work to be done. The winter cluster will be broken only during warm spells.


The honey bee is cold blooded so its body adopts the ambient temperature of its environment, except that when the bee is stationary it can raise its body temperature by muscular action of the wing muscles (shivering). It can also keep its body temperature up as it flies, so the bee can fly outside the hive when the temperature is below freezing.

If the bee stands still when the temperature falls below 8 °C, it will die. The individual bee cannot control its body temperature but the colony can regulate the temperature inside the cluster.

As the outside temperature falls below 18 °C, the bees begin to cluster to form a ball of bees. The cluster forms around the queen and any brood still in the colony. Part of the cluster will be in contact with the food stores. As the outside temperature drops, the cluster contracts and, below about 14 °C, it is fully formed. It has a compact outer shell of quiet, still bees and an inner core where the bees can move about. The shell is made up of a few layers of bees with their heads facing into the core; the abdomens are on the outside where the stings are ready to protect the core if necessary.

The shell provides a good layer of insulation to reduce the heat loss from the bees. Some of the bees in the middle of the cluster eat honey to produce heat.

The loss of heat from the cluster can be controlled by the expansion or contraction of the cluster. The temperature in the brood area is maintained at 34-35 °C. The larvae also produce heat as they consume food. During broodless periods the temperature inside the cluster is between 20 °C and 30 °C so that the temperature on the outside layer is kept above 8 °C throughout the cold periods. This reduces the likelihood of bees on the outside of the cluster dying from cold.


With one hive and perhaps starting with a swarm or nucleus at the end of May, the harvest may be 5-20 kg depending on the summer weather. This quantity can be transferred straight into honey jars and given away as gifts to friends and neighbours and all may be consumed within a few weeks.

If you are in your second year with two or three hives and more skill in beekeeping, your honey harvest could be anything up to 60 kg in a good summer.

Clear honey in jars gradually changes its appearance as the honey begins to granulate. If it is stored where the temperature fluctuates, set honey sometimes develops a frosted appearance on the sides of the jar. This is not as attractive as the beautiful golden honey when it was first run into the jars. Of course, the honey is still fine arid good to eat but some people think that it is spoilt. You can avoid this by storing the honey in bulk and only producing enough honey in jars to last for a month or so.

Some honeys set in such a way as to give a gritty feel in the mouth when eaten. Others, such as oil seed rape (OSR) honey, granulate with a very fine grain producing a very smooth feel in the mouth. I have found that most people prefer the smooth texture.

You can store honey in 15 kg food-grade plastic buckets with air-tight lids and keep it in a cool place. (The ideal temperature is less than 10 °C). One bucket will give about 30 454 g (1 lb) jars at a time.

Here is the way I produce clear and soft set honey starting with a bucket of granulated honey. I strain my honey through a 200 micron bag before it is run into the storage bucket.


  1. Warm the bucket at no more than 50 °C for 1 to 2 days until the honey is completely liquid.
  2. Pour the liquid honey into a settling tank. (Use a strainer if this was not done when extracting.)
  3. Keep the settling tank in a warm room for about one day to allow the air bubbles to rise to the surface.
  4. Skim off the surface air bubbles.
  5. Run the honey into clean dry jars. Place the lids on straight away.

I find that this clear honey will stay looking good in the jar for more than a month. If you are intending to enter your honey for competitions or for extra clarity, warm the jars after bottling, in a water bath at 62 °C for no more than one hour.


Some naturally granulated honey becomes very hard and gritty. By seeding liquid honey with a fine-grained honey you can produce a soft-set honey with a consistent smooth texture.

  1. Warm the bucket at no more than 50 °C for 1-2 days until the honey is completely liquid.
  2. Pour the liquid honey into a settling tank. (Use a strainer if this was not done when extracting.)
  3. Prepare the smooth-textured seed (such as OSR honey) by warming 1-1.5 kg of this until it is the same consistency as porridge. Keep the temperature below 30 °C to make sure that the crystals do not melt and spoil the seed.
  4. Allow the liquid honey to cool to below 30 °C and then add the seed honey. Mix thoroughly but avoid adding air.
  5. Allow to settle for a day or two.
  6. Skim off the air bubbles.
  7. Run the honey into clean dry jars. Place the lids on straight away.
  8. Keep 1-1.5 kg aside as the seed for the next batch.
  9. Store the jars in a cool place (ideally 14 °C) until the honey is set.

The honey will set in three or four days at the optimum temperature of 14 °C. It will take longer at higher or lower temperatures.

Do remember that honey is a food product and must be processed and handled with the highest standards of care and hygiene. There is a lot of legislation that covers the preparation of honey and it applies even if you only want to give honey away as gifts. A series of articles From Hive to Honeypot in Bee Craft from March to July 2009 explains how the law affects beekeepers. These articles are by Andy Pedley, an Environmental Health Officer and beekeeper.


Some beekeepers simply burn used brood frames with their comb and replace them with new frames and foundation. There is little wax that can be recovered from used brood frames and immediate burning reduces the risk of disease pathogens being picked up by scavenging bees. During most winters there are usually good offers of new low-cost utility or seconds frames available from equipment suppliers.


The beeswax harvest can be around 800 g per colony in a year (Photos: John Williams)

Used frames can be recycled by being cleaned and fitting new foundation.

This may entail storing the used combs until you have all the combs you want to replace. Make sure you keep them in a bee-tight container until you are ready to do the job.

The wax combs should be removed from the frames by first removing the wedge from the top bar. The comb can then be removed in one piece using a hive tool to ease it from the bottom bar.


Steamer showing the basin of wax raised on a wooden support to allow a greater volume of water for simmering

The remaining wax and propolis should now be scraped from the frames. Give special attention to clean the grooves in the side bars and the gap between the bottom bars so that you can easily slide in the new foundation. A swan-necked frame cleaning tool, available from equipment suppliers, is a great help to clean out the grooves in the side bars.

You can make the cleaning job a bit easier if you place the used brood frame (with the comb) in a solar wax melter. Of course you have to do this in the summer time. I place the frames on

a drip screen to allow a small gap between the floor of the solar wax extractor tray and the comb. This makes it easier to remove the frames and debris after the wax has been melted out of the comb. Scraping the frames clean is now a much easier job which you can leave until this month. The 45-50 g of recovered wax per brood frame is a bonus. The debris can be added to your compost heap or burnt.

Another optional refinement is to soak the frames for about five minutes in a very hot solution of washing soda and water. The frames are much nicer to handle and all traces of wax and propolis are removed by this treatment. They can now be stored until the spring when the new foundation is fitted just before you need them.



A solar wax extractor without its double-glazed cover, mounted on a. sack barrow. It is half loaded with cappings in tights

Last month I mentioned how to save and store beeswax cappings and other bits of wax and brace comb until you have enough to melt and clean. You can expect to gather up to 800 g of wax per colony during the season, though it will probably be less in your first year. It is surprising how much debris you find when wax is melted, even from washed cappings which appear so clean.

You need to be very careful when you are melting beeswax. It is very combustible and an open flame must never be used to heat a container of water and beeswax. The mixture can suddenly foam and spill over the rim of the container and the spilled wax can easily ignite, producing a fierce fire. I know of one instance of a kitchen fire started in this way that needed the fire engine and a complete redecoration!

For small quantities of wax you have gathered in your first two or three years of beekeeping, a porringer or double saucepan will work well. Place the cappings or bits of wax to be cleaned in clean soft water (boiled rainwater) in the inside saucepan.

Most double saucepans have a rim on the inside pan, so your mixture of water and wax should not be above this rim or you will be unable to remove the cake of wax.

As soon as the wax begins to melt, turn down the heat to maintain the temperature. You should avoid boiling the mixture. When all the wax is melted, let it all cool slowly so that the larger bits of dirt sink to the bottom of the pan. When the cake of wax is cooled it will contract and can be removed from the pan.

The rim on the double saucepan means that only small amounts of wax can be processed in one go. I have not succeeded in pouring melted wax through a nylon filter. The filter clogs up with solid wax as soon as I start pouring. So here is another method for cleaning wax using kitchen utensils which filters the wax at the same time.

Place a clean empty basin inside a steamer and the washed wax, wrapped in a muslin bag (or something similar) in the top pan. Bring the water in the steamer up to the boil and keep it gently simmering. The steam in the top pan melts the wax which drips into the basin together with a small amount of condensate. Some of the condensate runs down the inside of the bottom pan into the simmering water. Be careful not to allow the steamer to run dry.

You can remove the bag when it has been reduced to a soggy lump in the bottom of the top pan. When cool, the wax cake formed on the condensate in the basin can be removed. My steamer will hold about 700 g of bits of wax and brace comb in half of the leg of a pair of tights. After about one hour on a gentle simmer, a 320 g cake of beeswax is produced.


A solar wax extractor is a useful piece of equipment for a beekeeper with a few hives. This consists of a well insulated box, ideally with a double-glazed cover, facing the sun. Inside, a metal tray delivers the melted wax through a coarse sieve into a removable metal container.

A well designed solar wax extractor and a nice sunny day can recover up to 80% of the wax in brood combs and more from cappings. It is useful if the tray is big enough to take a brood frame or two.

The solar wax extractor is placed outside in the sun from April to September and brought into a shed or covered for protection against the weather over the winter months.

Mine is mounted on an old sack barrow so I can turn it to face the sun during the day. On a good day the temperature in the box can reach 70-90 °C. Beeswax melts at 62-64 °C. One advantage of this method is that some bleaching of the wax occurs in sunlight.

You can place bits of wax directly into the extractor throughout the summer, as and when you collect it.

I found that quite early in the season the extractor became clogged with debris and the process became rather messy. For this reason I prefer to collect all the brace comb and other bits of wax and, after washing in rain water to remove all traces of honey, place them into a muslin bag or the legs of old tights. One half of a leg is long enough!

On a really nice sunny day I fill the extractor with these packages and quite clean melted wax is delivered to the tray. The debris is filtered out by the tights and some wax is also retained in the debris and cocoons in the residue.

Blocks of wax produced by any of these methods should be clean enough to be acceptable for exchange for foundation by equipment suppliers. If you wish to use the wax to enter a competition or to make candles or polish, it needs to be melted again and filtered.

The residue, known as slumgum, still contains some beeswax and this can be recovered commercially by using a steam jacketed wax press. For most beekeepers the tights and slumgum make good firelighters!


  1. Monitor natural mite drop if you did not do this in October.
  2. Plan further treatment for varroa if needed.
  3. Check that the hive and protection against predators is intact after windy weather.
  4. Check that the entrance is not blocked by snow or debris such as dead bees.
  5. Complete cleaning, sterilising and storing spare equipment.
  6. Continue to bottle and market (or eat!) your honey.
  7. Start to review your progress and plan for next season.
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