Traditional Honey Harvest
Beekeeping (or apiculture) has been an ancient tradition that dates back to 9,000 years ago, as Neolithic farmers from North Africa probably started bee domestication in pottery vessels1. Apiculture is traditionally practiced in the Northwest region of Spain, where my family comes from and where I have been learning the basics of beekeeping since I was small. Beekeeping is a respected activity, bees are well-cared and honey is the yearly awaited treasure.
And speaking of traditions, I also have a post about the traditional way of making soap that you can find clicking here.
My grandfather has been taking care of his beehives for 20 years, an activity that he learnt from his brother. He now owns 10 beehives of European honey bees (Apis mellifera), collecting an average of 70 kg of honey twice a year, in June and September.
Traditionally, the beehives were made with cork and the bees were left free to make their own wax combs. Nowadays, “Langstroth hives” are commonly used, which are formed by two stacked boxes containing vertically hung honeycombs. The combs are premade with a thin layer of wax, over which the bees sculpt the hexagonal wax cells, facilitating the honey extraction. In these cells, the bees contain their larvae and stores of polen and honey. The queen lives in a special cell (see the picture below) and it is taken care by the worker bees, who feed her with royal jelly, a combination of polen, honey and water.
What is honey?
Honey is made from the nectar of flowers, and processed until it looses water, acquires some bioactive compounds and the pH lowers to 3-4, becoming a concentrated food source for the bees. The nectar is collected by female worker bees, and transported in a honey sac (a part of the gut). Once in the nest, the bee regurgitates the nectar and passes it through her mouth to another bee. This process repeats several times, adding proteins (enzymes) from the bees to the nectar, and evaporating water. The liquid is finally placed in comb cells, and continues to evaporate water due to the high temperature in the nest (~35ºC). Once the honey is ripe the cells are closed with a thin layer of wax, protecting the honey to be consumed by the bees during the winter months2.
The importance of bees in nature
Nectar is usually found in the calix of flowers, surrounded by the pollen-covered anthers. When bees visit flowers to collect the sweet nectar, they touch the anthers and get covered by pollen, which they transport to other flowers in the search for more nectar3. This way, bees transport the pollen from flower to flower and pollinate them, allowing fruits and biodiversity in ecosystems to thrive.
The honey harvest
In the summer months, the bees have already collected their stores of honey and it is time to harvest. But don’t worry, they are not deplenished from food for the winter. Not all the honey is harvested and additional food is given for them in the form of a sweet liquid.
To harvest honey, the number 1 step to take is protect yourself. When you handle beehives, bees will want to protect it, so they become aggressive and usually sting. The beekeepers need to wear a special suit to protect them from bee stings. Furthermore, the bees are soothed with smoke, in this case made from dried cow dung.
Sometimes it is necessary to add some medicine strips in winter to protect the bees against diseases such as Varroa. In that case, the strips are removed. Then, we proceed to extract the combs from the top hive, gently removing the bees with a branch of common broom (Cystius scoparius). The combs from the bottom hive are not taken, to leave the bees food stores for the cold months.
Finally, a mouse guard is placed at the entrance of the hive, to avoid the access of animals that could destroy the hive during winter.
The extraction of honey
Honey is stored in cells and sealed with a layer of wax, called “operculum”. In order to extract the honey, the operculum must be removed with the help of knives. After that, the combs are placed in a centrifuge extractor, which helps the honey to get out of the cells. The extracted honey is then passed through a sieve to remove wax and other impurities.
The equipment used and the empty combs with traces of honey are then left outside to let the bees eat the honey and get them cleaned.
The honey is then stored in barrels, where it needs to rest for at least two weeks, to let other impurities float to the top. These impurities are called “seal” and are then removed, leaving a crystal clear honey ready to be stored in jars.
The final product is a thick and dark honey, that dues its color to the flowers of the forest, predominantly in this region heather and chestnut.
 Roffet-Salque, M., et al. (2016). Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers. Nature, 534(7607), S17-S18. doi:10.1038/nature18451
 Bradbear, N. (2009). Bees and their roles in forest livelihoods. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Obtained from: http://www.fao.org/3/i0842e/i0842e00.htm
 Bartolini Crespi, A. (1993). Cría rentable de las abejas: manual completo para el apicultor moderno. Barcelona: Vecchi