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Honey Removal, Processing, and Packing

By B. F. DETROY
Agricultural engineer, Science and Education Administration, Bee Management and Entomology Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis. 53706.

BEEKEEPING IN THE UNITED STATES
AGRICULTURE HANDBOOK NUMBER 335
Revised October 1980
Pages 92 – 102

Honey is at its peak quality when properly cured and sealed in the comb by the honey bee. When it is converted from this state by humans to suit their particular needs, deterioration begins. The extent of deterioration depends on the processing methods used between the time the honey is extracted from the comb and its use by the consumer. It is the responsibility of the industry to provide a top quality product to the consumer if acceptance is to be expected.

Since most honey harvested is extracted from the combs in an extracting plant, the beekeeper should equip this plant so that the operations can be done in the most efficient manner possible to provide a high-quality product for market.

Honey House

The extracting plant is generally located in a honey house. The honey house is the center of activities for beekeepers, represents a goodly portion of their investment, and may contribute greatly to the overall efficiency of their entire operation.

The honey house may contain various other facilities in addition to the extracting plant, such as storage space for hive equipment and honey, workshops, office space, and possibly a packing or salesroom or both. The building should be designed for the work to be done in it and be properly equipped. Efficient arrangement, cleanliness, and ample space are of prime consideration in planning the honey house.

Types of Honey Houses

Honey houses may be one- or two-story structures. The one-story structure probably is the most common and is used by both large and small beekeepers. The building construction is simple, and the choice of a building site is not limited by terrain. Honey handling cannot be readily adapted to gravity flow, but proper use of honey pumps can overcome this disadvantage. Small beekeepers may use this type of building to particular advantage. Since all equipment can be compactly arranged on one level, it is easier to closely regulate all operations.

Two-story structures may have both floors above ground or may have one floor above ground and a full basement. If both floors are above ground, it is necessary to provide a ramp to the second floor so that it is accessible to trucks or to install elevators to move equipment and material from one floor to the other. A hillside building site will provide access to both floors without ramps and both floors are at least partially above ground (fig. 1). The main advantage of the two-story building is that the supers of honey can be unloaded at the upper level where the extracting plant is located. Extracted honey can then flow by gravity to storage or further processing on the lower flow.

FIGURE 1.-Apiculture laboratory and honey house at University of Wisconsin. Note that lower floor is partly below ground and entrances are at both floor levels.

Space Requirements

Careful planning before building a honey house may save costly additions later. The operations necessary in extracting honey and the sequence in which they are performed should be considered in detail for filling the needs of the beekeeper. Ample space should be provided for all extracting and processing equipment. The equipment chosen should be expected to operate at near-rated capacity and be compactly arranged so that the material flows smoothly from operation to operation with a minimum of movement by the operators from area to area.

Storage space for full honey supers should be figured on the basis of the maximum number anticipated in the honey house at anyone time. Uniform stack height of full supers should be used throughout the operation for efficient handling. Warm storage areas for full honey supers aid in the extracting operation. An area for storage of liquid extracted honey also must be provided. Required space should be figured on the basis of the type of bulk containers used and the height they are to be stacked.

Other areas to be included in the building will vary in type and size according to individual beekeepers and the operations they desire to perform. They may include a room for rendering cappings, space for shop facilities, equipment-assembling area, truck storage, small packing plant, salesroom, and office space.

Special Features

Regardless of type or size, the building should be bee-tight and provide a means of unloading filled honey supers in a closed-in area. A sunken driveway or raised platform to permit loading or unloading with the truck bed at floor level will prove to be a great labor and time saver.

The floors, walls, and ceiling should be made of materials that can be easily cleaned and maintained. Walls and ceilings should be a light color and of a material or paint that can be washed often. Floors should be of concrete where possible. If hardwood floors are necessary, they should be covered with ceramic tile. Any floor used must withstand heavy loads and be free of vibration. A smooth surface with ample drain facilities will make cleaning easier.

Illumination and ventilation should be carefully considered in planning the building. In areas where close operator attention is required, it is highly important to provide adequate illumination, 50 to 75 foot-candles. The entire building should have adequate lighting. Windows to provide both light and ventilation should be strategically located. Fans may be installed to reduce odors and lower humidity. All windows must be screened and provided with bee escapes.

Rooms in which fires might originate, such as the furnace room or wax-rendering room, should be built. of fire-resistant material or lined with asbestos board. It may be desirable to have such facilities in another building, and if so, the buildings should be separated by at least 20 feet.

If hand trucks, motorized lifts, and fork or barrel trucks are to be used, doorways should be large enough to permit their free movement to all parts of the building.

Removing Honey Supers

Honey supers should be removed from the hive as soon as the honey is sealed. Extraction soon after removal may prevent crystallization in the comb. It often is possible to reuse the super on the colony before the flow ceases.

For the small beekeeper, the simplest way to remove bees from the honey super is to brush them off each comb. Another method of removing bees from supers is to use an inner cover with a bee escape. The escape board, as it is called, is placed between the supers and the brood nest the day before the supers are to be removed. All other openings into the supers must be closed so that the bees cannot return. This method works best in cool weather when the bees move at night from the honeycombs to the brood nest.

A recent innovation for removing bees from supers of honey is to blow them out. A large vacuum cleaner with a crevice tool attachment works satisfactorily. The larger household tank-type vacuum cleaner can be used if the dust bag is removed. A velocity of about 18,000 feet per minute is required. There are now engine-driven blowers built especially for removing bees. This method does not irritate the bees and it is effective.

Care and Storage of Supers

Supers are most easily handled if they are kept in uniform stack heights from the time the full supers are removed from the colony until the empties are returned. Stack boards or skid boards are commonly used (fig. 2). The boards are frequently fitted with a sheet metal pan or tray to catch any honey drip that may come from the stack of supers.

Skid boards placed on the truck bed receive the supers as they are removed from the colonies and moved through the entire extracting process and back into the truck with an ordinary warehouse truck (fig. 2).

FIGURE 2.-Equipment for moving supers: Top, One-man hand truck with skid board can move several at a time; bottom, power equipment handles many more supers in stacks, as well as drums of honey.

More expensive types of lift trucks are sometimes used that can handle skids containing two or four stacks of supers. Castered dollies also may be used, but these are not easily hauled to and from the yards on trucks.

Hot rooms are sometimes used for storage of filled supers before extraction, especially in regions where cool temperature or high humidity is common. If the only requirement is to keep the honey warm to facilitate extraction, the room should be kept at 75° to 100°F and have a circulating fan. Warm, dry air also may be used to remove moisture from the honey, in which case slatted skid boards should be used or the supers stacked crisscross. The air should be introduced at floor level and drawn up through the stacks. Moisture-laden air should be discharged from the room. Dehumidifiers also may be used to speed the lowering of the moisture in the honey.

Supers stored for a long time should be fumigated to prevent damage by the larvae of the wax moth.

Honey Extraction

Equipment in the extracting area should be arranged so that the material flows smoothly through the various operations with a minimum of interruption and with as little physical effort as possible.

Extracting equipment will differ in almost every honey house. Choice of equipment is dependent on the size of operation, physical properties of the honey, availability of labor supply, and the personal selection of the individual. Many beekeepers have designed and built their own equipment or remodeled commercial equipment to meet some particular need.

Uncapping Devices

To extract honey, it is first necessary to remove the capping from the comb cells. A wide range of equipment is available for uncapping combs, from unheated hand knives to elaborate mechanical machines.

A cold knife can be used to uncap warm combs or it can be heated by placing it in hot water. It is most commonly used by the hobbyist beekeeper who has only a few hives. The steam and electrically heated hand knife and hand plane are probably the most widely used uncapping devices in this country today. In a more refined version, the knife is mounted in a frame on spring steel mounts and vibrated by an electric motor. This type, referred to as the jiggler knife, may be mounted in a vertical, horizontal, or inclined position. The knife vibrates in the direction of its length.

Machines that carry the combs of honey through an uncapping device and sometimes into the extractor after being fed into the machine by hand are available commercially and their use is becoming more common (fig. 3). The uncapping devices on these machines may be vibrating knives, rotating knives, flails of various kinds, or perforating rollers. A few machines have been built by individuals that uncap the frames in the super.

FIGURE 3.-Mechanical uncapping machine with uncapped frame conveyor and automatic load extractor.

Extractors

Two types of extractors are in use in this country today-the reversible basket and the radial. Both use centrifugal force to remove the honey from the comb.

Reversible-basket extractors range in size from 2 to 16 frames per load. Honey is extracted by applying centrifugal force to first one side of the comb then the other. The comb is reversed three or four times-turned 180°- during the extracting cycle. On some of the small extractors, the frames are reversed by hand with the machine stopped, whereas on others the frames are reversed by use of a brake while the machine is running. Extracting time ranges from 2 to 4 minutes at constant speed.

Radial extractors range in size from 12 to 80 frames per load. Both sides of the comb are extracted simultaneously as the combs are rotated, the centrifugal force acting radially across the face of the comb. The extracting cycle is started at 150 revolutions per minute and is gradually increased during the cycle to 300 revolutions per minute. The time required to extract a load of combs will vary from 12 to 20 minutes, depending on the temperature and density of the honey.

Special extractors have been built and used that are larger than those described and that extract the combs in the supers, special boxes, or baskets.

Automatic electric controls have been developed for both the radial and reversible-basket extractors. These controls change the revolutions per minute, reverse the baskets, and shut off the motor when the cycle is completed. Mechanical controls also are available that automatically increase the speed of the radial extractor during the extracting cycle.

Care of Cappings

Cappings and honey removed from the combs in the uncapping operation must be separated to salvage the honey and wax. Caution must be taken in recovering the honey to prevent impairing the flavor, color, and aroma. The following methods are used:

(1) Draining by gravity.-The cappings are accumulated in screened or perforated containers and allowed to drain, usually for at least 24 hours in a warm room. Stirring and breaking up the cappings facilitate draining.

(2) Centrifuging.-The cappings are placed in a specially constructed centrifugal drier or in wire baskets that fit into a radial extractor. Honey is removed from the cappings by centrifugal force as the cappings rotate.

(3) Pressing.-A basket-type perforated container is used to catch the cappings where some gravity draining takes place prior to pressing. Usually the container is placed directly under the press ram and pressure applied to squeeze the honey from the cappings.

Honey removed from the cappings by any of these methods is undamaged. Usually the remaining cappings will contain as much as 50 percent honey by weight, which may be recovered when the cappings are melted. This honey is generally damaged by overheating and should be handled separately.

(4) Flotation and melting.-The cappings’ melter is widely used to separate honey and cappings. The cappings and honey enter the melter tank near the bottom and are separated by gravity. Separation is facilitated by heat that softens the cappings and increases the fluidity of the honey. The cappings being less dense rise to the top where they are melted. The honey level is controlled by an adjustable height overflow enclosed by a baffle to prevent the entry of wax. A layer of cappings in various stages of liquefaction is maintained between the honey level and the heat source. Liquid wax accumulates at the top of the tank and is discharged into solidifying containers. Heat may be supplied by steam coils, electric heaters, heat lamps, or radiant gas heaters.

FIGURE 4.-Centrifugal separator for automatically separating cappings from honey and drying the cappings.

Various models of this type of separator are marketed. If they are properly operated, the honey obtained can be added to the remainder of the crop without damage to grade, color, or flavor.

(5) Centrifugal separator.-Recent development of a centrifugal separator (fig. 4) that automatically separates the honey and dries the cappings has greatly advanced the use of mechanical uncappers. Usually all honey and cappings from the uncapper and extractor are run through the machine. Large pieces of cappings should be broken up to assure proper feeding into the separator.

Processing

Processing the honey crop beyond the extraction stage may be done by the producer, the packer, or both. Regardless of where these operations take place, they are necessary to provide the consumer with a high-quality product. It is important, however, that the heating be controlled, since the flavor, color, and aroma of honey can be seriously impaired by excessive temperature over a given period of time.

The Sump and Pump

Honey from the uncapping and extracting operation usually flows into a sump. The sump is a tank, usually water jacketed, that collects honey from the extracting process so that it can be delivered for further processing at a uniform rate. The sump may contain a series of baffles or screens or both for removing coarse wax particles and other foreign material. A honey pump is generally used in conjunction with the sump; however, in some systems, gravity flow can be used and the pump eliminated.

Gear pumps or vane pumps are commonly used. Where the centrifugal separator is used and it is necessary to pump large quantities of cappings, some other type of pump may be required. Pumps used in a continuous flow system should be supplied with honey in sufficient quantity to allow uninterrupted operation. To prevent introduction of air into the honey, the pump should run at low speed and the level of honey in the sump kept well above the pump intake. Automatic pump controls, either float type or electric liquid level control type, can be used to eliminate continual operator supervision.

Strainers

After the bulk of the wax has been removed from the honey by the sump tank, coarse straining, or centrifugal separators, it is necessary to remove very fine material. Settling of honey may prove satisfactory for some processors. The honey is first screened in a sump and then pumped into settling tanks at a temperature of at least 100°F. Sufficient time should be allowed to permit the required separation.

To be certain that all honey packed will meet the desired grade requirements, it is necessary to use some type of strainer. Many types and sizes are used and the straining media may be metal screen, crushed granite, silica sand, or cloth. Regardless of the material used, the mesh must be fine enough to produce the desired result. Cloth has the advantage of being easily cleaned; furthermore, since the initial cost is low, a cloth may be used only once and discarded.

Honey may be moved through the strainer by pressure (pumping) or by gravity flow. When cloth strainers are used in a pressure system (fig. 5), a pressure switch should be installed in the honey line to prevent excessive pressure that could rupture the strainer cloth.

FIGURE 5.-Cloth strainer showing containing shell, supporting framework with strainer cloth, gasket, and coverplate.

Heating the honey to 115° will greatly facilitate the straining process. This increases the fluidity of the honey without softening the wax particles appreciably. Higher temperatures will soften the wax so that it may be forced into or through the straining media.

Heating and Cooling

Heat properly applied can be a great aid in handling honey. Heat also dissolves coarse crystals and destroys yeasts, and thus prevents fermentation and retards granulation. Heat may also seriously damage the color, flavor, and aroma of honey unless particular precautions are taken. Damage may result from a small amount of heat over long periods of time as well as high temperatures for short periods of time.

Several methods of heating are used successfully. Shallow pans with inclined surfaces heated by water jackets are commonly used. As the honey flows into the pan, it should be distributed over the surface by suitable baffles. Jacketed tanks may be used for heating, in which case the honey should be slowly but continuously agitated to ensure uniform heating throughout the tank. Heat exchangers in which the honey is pumped quickly through a passage contained in hot water are used very successfully as flash heaters.

One design of heat exchanger is shown in figure 6. This exchanger consists of three concentric tubes in which the honey is pumped through a 3/16-inch-thick annular space between two layers of flowing hot water. Honey enters the exchanger at the bottom and is pumped in a direction opposite to the flow of water. These units may be connected in series to provide the desired amount of heating.

FIGURE 6.-Concentric tube heat exchangers connected in series and used for flash-heating honey. (Note strainers ahead of flash heaters.)

Precautions for cooling honey after heating are seldom practiced to a suitable degree. Immediate cooling following flash heating is essential to prevent honey damage. Equipment similar to that used for heating can be used effectively for cooling by using cold water instead of hot. Heat exchangers are particularly effective, but may cause excessive line pressure as the honey becomes more viscous upon cooling.

Storage of Honey

Honey in bulk containers, 60-pound cans, or 55-gallon drums should be stored in a dry place at as near 70°F as possible. Long periods of storage above 70° will damage the honey the same as excessive heating. Storage of unheated honey at 50° to 70° is inducive to granulation and fermentation. This also is true for honey packed in bottles and other small containers. These should be stored in shipping cases to protect them from light.

Most deterioration of honey during storage can be prevented by maintaining storage temperatures below 50°. Honey stored at freezer temperatures, 0° to -10°, for years cannot be distinguished from fresh extracted honey in color, flavor, or aroma.

Handling Honey

Honey is usually sold wholesale to packers in 5-gallon cans, drums, or in bulk. For many years, the 5-gallon (50-pound) can was the principal wholesale container, and small beekeepers still use it. Although single cans may be handled by hand, they are more easily handled by pallet truck. Larger quantities of honey are more easily handled in 55-gallon drums. The drums are more durable than cans and are reusable. Several industrial hand and power trucks are available for handling drums. If drums are to be stacked, a motor-driven lift truck is needed. All commercial bottlers of honey are equipped to handle both cans and drums.

Some beekeepers have built large tanks for storage of 1,000 gallons or more of honey, which is then pumped into tanks on the trucks for transfer to bottlers. Some companies use air pressure to transfer honey into and out of the truck tanks.

Producer Marketing

Producers have a choice of methods for disposing of their honey crop. They may sell their entire crop in bulk containers to a packer or dealer or they may pack apart or all of it and sell direct to retail stores or consumers or both. Producers may be members of a cooperative through which their honey is processed and sold.

Wholesale Marketing

Producers who market honey in bulk should keep in mind the market to be supplied when choosing the type of container to use. Generally, these containers will be either the 50-pound can or the 55-gallon drum. A limited quantity of honey is moved from the producer to the packing plant in tank trailers. Careful sampling is necessary when the honey is extracted. Representative samples should be taken from each tank, each yard, or each day’s run and should be carefully marked on both the sample and the containers for accurate identification.

Honey generally is sold at wholesale prices on the basis of samples, and accurate sampling will result in building confidence, understanding, and satisfaction for both producer and buyer. Producers who know exactly what they have for sale can demand and get top market prices. Packers who know exactly what they buy can readily process and blend to meet their particular standards without concern for discrepancies or variation.

Approximately 50 percent of the honey produced in the United States is marketed by the producer in bulk.

Producer-Packers

Honey producers who bottle and sell part or all of their honey crop are referred to as producer-packers. Almost half of the honey produced in the United States is marketed in this manner.

Producer-packers receive a higher price per pound for their honey; however, they may have many additional costs. Processing equipment that will yield a product meeting the desired grade standards must be used. The honey must compete with other brands of honey and other foods backed by aggressive sales and promotion programs. They have to employ a broker to move the honey into retail channels.

Many producer-packers confine their sales to salesrooms in their homes or honey houses, roadside stands, door-to-door sales, or local stores. Some have established regular sales routes to supply retailers over a wide area, and these routes are serviced at regular intervals.

Cooperative Marketing

There are several cooperative marketing organizations in the United States. These organizations may buy the member producer’s crop and process, pack, and distribute the products under the cooperative label. Other organizations may only pool and market the member’s production in bulk containers.

Generally, the cooperative may operate as follows: Member producers are furnished with bulk containers. When the crop is harvested, the honey is put into these containers and shipped or trucked to the cooperative by the producers. The honey is then graded and the producers are paid a part of the total price. The cooperative then processes, packs, and sells the honey through its sales organization. At a later date, producers are paid the remainder of their selling price.

Cooperative marketing offers many advantages, but there also are some disadvantages, just as in other types of marketing. Producers must decide which method of marketing is the most advantageous to them and market their crop accordingly.

Packing

Honey packed for market must be of high quality, neatly packaged in clean, attractive containers, and attractively labeled. Every caution should be taken in processing and packing to ensure a product of quality as near as possible to that sealed in the cell by the bee. All honey packed under a given label should be as uniform as possible to assure consumer satisfaction. An attractive, eye-catching display in a prominent location is desirable.

Most large honey packers have automatic labeling, filling, and capping equipment. Their honey is distributed and sold under their advertised brand, usually in a limited area. Few, if any, have nationwide distribution. Some have sales personnel, whereas others employ food brokers or other sales agencies to market their product. Many use warehousing facilities in areas of concentrated retail outlets.

Much honey is sold in bulk for industrial consumption, such as for the baking industry, restaurant trade, honey candies, and honey butter. Many other industries use honey in varying quantities.

Liquid Honey

Liquid honey is packed in glass, tin, plastic, and paper containers. Glass is the most popular and is used in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Plastic containers in various shapes are becoming more and more popular. The 12-ounce plastic container makes a very satisfactory table dispenser. Special glass and plastic containers are used effectively in novelty and gift packs and are popular on the retail market.

Bottled honey should be free of air bubbles or any foreign particles and the containers must be spotlessly clean. Honey bottled by floral source should be clearly labeled as such to ensure customer satisfaction.

Honey selected for bottling should be from floral sources that granulate slowly. Proper heating in the processing and bottling operation also will help retard granulation. Commercial packing plants put much of the honey prepared for the liquid honey trade through a pressure-filter process. Any bottled honey in a sales display that shows signs of granulation should be replaced immediately.

Granulated or Creamed Honey

The popularity of granulated or creamed honey is increasing in the United States. This honey is presently available in many retail food stores. It is packed in various paper, plastic, and glass containers. The desired consistency of creamed honey is soft and smooth to allow easy spreading at room temperature.

Honey used for this purpose should be from a floral source that granulates rapidly into a product of soft, smooth, fine, creamy consistency. Honeys that granulate slowly may be used by adding about 10 percent of finely ground crystallized honey. To encourage granulation, the honey should be refrigerated immediately after the fine honey crystals have been added to prevent any air bubbles rising to the surface. After rapid cooling, the honey should be stored at 55° to 57°F and that temperature maintained until the honey is completely crystallized. Cool storage is desirable.

Creamed honey will remain firm at room temperature, but will break down if subjected to high temperature or high humidity. Once it has softened or partially liquefied, recooling will not make it firm again.

Comb Honey

Comb honey is marketed in the form of section comb, cut-comb, and chunk. All forms require special care and handling, and when properly prepared they have excellent consumer appeal.

Section comb honey is produced in a special super. When removed, the sections are carefully scraped with a suitable instrument to remove the propolis. The sections are then sorted, graded, and placed in window cartons or wrapped in cellophane. Some packers seal the sections in clear plastic bags before placing them in window cartons. Sections that do not meet the required grade standards should not be marketed.

Cut-comb honey is produced in shallow supers on foundation similar to that used for sections but in frames instead of sections. The comb honey is cut from the frames into the desired size for marketing. Sizes of cut-comb honey vary from a 2-ounce individual serving to large pieces weighing nearly a pound. The cut edges of the comb must be drained or dried in a special centrifugal drier, so that no liquid honey remains. The pieces are either wrapped in cellophane or heat sealed in polyethylene bags and packaged in containers of various styles.

One of the most attractive and appealing packs of honey is the chunk honey pack. It consists of a chunk of comb honey in a glass container surrounded with liquid honey.

When packing chunk honey, the pieces of well-drained cut-comb are placed in the container, usually glass jars. The containers then are filled with liquid honey that has been heated to retard granulation. The liquid honey should be run down the inside of the container to prevent introduction of air bubbles and should be at a temperature of 120°F. The containers should be capped and laid on their sides immediately after filling to prevent damage to the comb because of its buoyancy.

Special widemouthed jars are used for packing chunk honey. The chunk should be as wide as possible and still slip readily into the jar, and the length should extend from the top to the bottom of the container.

Probably the greatest deterrent to packing chunk honey is the tendency of the liquid honey to granulate.

References

GROUT, R. A., ed.
1975. THE HIVE AND THE HONEY BEE. Revised. 739 p. Dadant & Sons, Hamilton, Ill.

OWENS, C. D. and B. F. DETROY.
1965. SELECTING AND OPERATING BEEKEEPING EQUIPMENT. 24 p. U.S. Department of  Agriculture, Farmers’ Bulletin 220.

TOWNSEND, G. F.
1961. PREPARATION OF HONEY FOR MARKET. 24 p., Ontario Department of Agriculture Publication 544.