Honeydew has been beekeepin’ all his life, but Glacier County Honey Co. is just over three years old, as we incorporated it together shortly before our marriage.  In the years since, each month has brought a few more folks dropping by World Headquarters.  If we’re extracting honey, and the visitors don’t resemble ax murderers, we always offer a tour, as we’ve found that most people are curious about how stuff works — we certainly are.

So, for all of you that haven’t yet dropped by World Headquarters, here’s a little virtual tour to tide you over until the 2nd Annual Fill Your Own Bucket Day  — Saturday, August 10, 2013 — when we would love for you to come by, tour the extracting plant, and taste the real thing!  After all, it’s hard for your taste buds to appreciate the freshest and best honey you’ve never tasted through a computer screen.

This is the Warm Room.  In the summertime, when Honeydew and Keith return at the end of the day, they unload all the honey supers — boxes filled with frames of honey — that they’ve harvested into the room, where it waits in the 90-100F heat — about the same temperature as the hive — to be extracted.  Each morning, and all day long, I come into the Warm Room with a hand truck and grab a stack of 7 honey supers that Neil and I will extract.

I bring them into the Extracting Room, and load the stack onto the Super Elevator, the machine pictured in the left portion of this photo.  As I empty each box of its frames, and move it aside, this machine keep the boxes coming up, so that my back hurts a little less at the end of each day.  Honey is heavy stuff!

The job that I do is referred to at Glacier County Honey Co. as “the Loader” position – I am the one who loads the frames onto the conveyor belt, and decides whether or not they need to go through the uncapping machine.  In addition, I do a little work with my hive tool to clean up the frames and boxes, so that they’re easier for Honeydew and Keith to work with, out in the field.

Above is a picture of a full honey super — you can see the tops of each of the 9 frames, and the fact that the bees have been extra industrious and built more honeycomb on top of the frames for even more honey storage!  Good work bees, but that extra comb will create a heck of a mess over time, and make the frames not fit very well in the boxes — so part of my job is to take my hive tool and scrape this extra wax/honey off of the frames and the insides of the boxes.

All clean!

Once the loader has the frames cleaned up, it’s time to make an important decision: does this particular frame of honey need to go through the uncapping machine?  The bees secrete flakes of beeswax from glands on their backs, and we’ve read that it takes about 850,000 flakes to make half of a pound.  Wow.  Anyway, the ladies take the wax and create the beautiful hexagonal comb.  They tilt each hexagon slightly upwards, so the honey doesn’t run out.  When they’ve got the comb filled with honey, they secrete more wax and “cap” the comb off.

Above is a mostly-capped frame of honey.

The uncapping machine is essentially a set of bicycle chains that take the top layer of wax cappings off of each frame that so that the honey can flow freely and be extracted into drums and bottles.  Here goes:

So, here’s the frame after it’s been through the uncapping machine:

You can see that all of the cappings have been removed, along with some the honeycomb, and that the frame is dripping with honey and wax.

However, the frames don’t need to go through the machine if they haven’t been capped and/or if the comb hasn’t been fully drawn yet by the bees.

Other times, there is so little capping on a frame that it makes more sense to uncap the frame by hand:

In this instance, the frame doesn’t need to go through the uncapping machine  and hand scratching — which protects the depth of the otherwise uncapped comb from the uncapping machine’s chains — is sufficient.  After I hand scratch these cappings, I’ll throw the frame over the top of the uncapping machine, where it will probably hit Neil, because I have very poor aim.

At any rate, whether the frames are thrown over the uncapping machine, or sent through the uncapping machine, the frames of honey travel down the conveyor belt, where they are greeted by Neil, who loads them into one of our two spinners — each holds about 120 frames of honey, loaded vertically.  When they’re filled with frames, Neil turns the spinners on, and they start spinning, gradually increasing in speed and literally whirling the honey out of the honeycomb.

Neil’s position is referred to around here as “the Extractor,” since he’s the guy loading the spinning extractors, but he’s also in charge of pretty much everything else in the Extracting Room, since the Loader’s job is to send as many frames through/over the uncapping machine as fast as possible.  While the Loader is loading, the Extractor is also keeping an eye on the equipment, tinkering with the pumps, cleaning out the wax spinner, moving full pallets of supers out into the storage bay, etc.

Neil, standing in between the 2 spinners, and behind the uncapping machine/conveyor belt.

When the spinners are done, it’s time to unload the empty frames, putting them back into the honey super boxes.  If it’s early in the season, we’ll put them right back out into the field for the bees to again fill with honey; if it’s late in the season, we’ll stack them on pallets and store them in Warehouse #1, until the next year.

Meanwhile, the honey and wax slurry has drained out of the spinners and into our stainless steel sump, where it is sucked up by a big pump and pushed into a flash heater installed on the wall.  Inside the heater are copper pipes — the kind you might use for a plumbing project — filled with heated vegetable oil.  The honey and wax tumble over the pipes and are warmed to about 100F.  We’re pretty picky about the settings on this heater — to sell raw honey, like we do, you need to keep temperatures as low as possible.  The bees keep their hives around 100F, so this temperature is acceptable.

Now that the honey and wax are again warm, and easy to work with, the heat exchange dumps them into the wax separator – Honeydew and I are not entirely certain how this piece of equipment works, but we can’t do what we do without it, and we love it dearly!

Somehow, as the honey and wax slurry is spinning in this machine, the wax, dirt, dead bees, and other detritus dumps out of the bottom, and the clean honey goes over a baffle and into another stainless steel sump, where it is then pumped into one of our 1,000 gallon tanks, to be barreled and shipped, or into the bottling machine, to be bottled for your enjoyment!

And that’s how the honey gets from the frame to your table.  Hope y’all enjoyed the tour!

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.