August sees the end of the summer flowers and nectar flows, and with any luck the honey supers will be filled, however there can be a noticeable change in colony temperament. The bees become tetchy for a week or so at this time, defending their stores of honey vigorously. Unless there are obvious problems that need immediate attention, the colonies are best left alone. Its also a good time to prepare for harvesting, checking the condition of clearing boards, equipment for transportation, extraction and storage. Towards the end of August the bees should have returned to a more manageable temperament. Colony strength should be checked in late Autumn, if there are still drones around late September / early October suspect that there is a failing queen and that you may need to 'unite' a couple of colonies to ensure winter survival.
Late Autumn drones often signals weak queens that will not be vigorous enough to start laying in the early spring, resulting in the colony losing heart and dying out before the season starts. Time also to check late made nuc colonies, they may not have built up sufficiently to over winter and will also die out before April, these are very common causes of winter losses. In these circumstances it is advisable to 'unite' weaker colonies together to boost numbers and moral. The best method is by placing one brood box on top of another with only a sheet of newspaper between them (no queen excluder). Make a few small holes in the paper to give them a start, they will slowly chew through mixing with the other bees as they go, and the queens will sort themselves out, the strongest surviving. After a couple of days you can reduce the two boxes down to one with the best resources of both. Give the united colony a feed with syrup to boost the queens laying.
To harvest or not to harvest, that is the question? This is a decision the beekeeper has to make, to take the crop of honey the bees have gathered essentially to sustain them through the winter, and if it is taken off then the colony will quickly starve once they have used up the stores around the brood nest. If the decision is to harvest the crop then it follows that in the absence of surplus honey stores the beekeeper will need to artificially feed the colony through the winter, ensuring that they have suitable replacement food, and that they can access it. The alternative is to leave the honey on and let the bees survive the winter on the fruits of their own labour. Many beekeepers consider that the latter ensures a colony in better overall condition in the spring having fed of honey which contains more diverse nutrition than fondant or candy. To harvest or not at this time is a matter of personal choice but the best answer may be somewhere in the middle. Whatever the decision, the important thing to remember at this time is that the hive will be at its strongest, full of adult bees that need fed come rain or shine.
Before you can harvest honey from a super it must first be cleared of bees. As previously mentioned the colony will be ill-tempered for a couple of weeks when the last of the nectar flows end. Wait until they are in better fettle, this also gives them time to ripen the stored nectar into honey and to seal it over.
Use a clearer board to allow the worker bees to escape into the hive and prevent them from returning into the super. There are various devices and designs for this, Porter Escapes, Rhombus Board, Forest Board, Canadian Cones, Circular Escapes, Curtain Escapes, are all good. The general rule is to put the clearer board under the super in the evening, ensuring that it is the correct way up. Leave it in place until the following evening when you will be able to remove the super which can be anything up to 30lbs or more in weight. Plan this carefully and use safe lifting techniques to avoid back injury. Leave the clearer board in place until you have taken the super out of the apiary, or covered it top and bottom with screens, as any flying bees will quickly discover it and begin to rob it.
An alternative to heavy lifting is to only remove a few full frames at a time, you'll need a few super frames at hand with drawn comb or fresh foundation as replacements. This can be done without the need for clearing as the bees can simply be shaken off the frames.
If you are lucky enough to have two or three supers of honey on a hive you can clear them all in the one go by inserting the clearer board under the lower most super, but be aware of the weights involved, it could be as much as 100lbs (45kgs). In this instance it is advantageous to have an extra pair of hands to help.
Honey naturally crystallises over time, remove filled and capped honey supers or frames promptly if you intend to harvest as it becomes difficult to extract and impossible to filter once it has started to set.
Getting the honey out of the supers and separating it from the wax is a relatively straight forward process that can be carried out at home in the kitchen, or in an outhouse, garage or hut as long as they are clean and hygienic. The main methods for extraction are by pressing, spinning, or crushing. It is advantageous to decide beforehand what method you intend to use for extraction. If you intend to spin then wired foundation is preferable and allows re-use of the empty frame of comb, while the crushing and pressing methods are best carried out with un-wired foundation. The equipment required varies from simple hand powered to expensive electric powered depending on how many supers are to be processed. However for the hobby beekeeper with just a few hives there is no need for investing in expensive equipment, there are low budget cost effective solutions always available.
Whatever method you chose, it is best to warm the supers beforehand to lower the viscosity of the honey allowing it to run easier and quicker. There are purpose made warming cabinets and various home made arrangements to achieve this. A simple arrangement of a light bulb mounted in an old brood box, with a piece of metal protecting the bulb from drips, with supers stacked on top with a crown board made of thick polystyrene. The whole assembly should be covered with old blankets and left to gently heat over a couple of days and is sufficient to achieve a temperature of around 26℃. Care should be taken never to overheat honey as this will change the composition of it and render the vitamins, antioxidants, probiotics, amino acids, minerals, and enzymes useless, and will also change it to a darker colour.
Thixotropic honey such as Heather or Oil Seed Rape require agitation to bring them out of the solid state. OSR honey is best harvested and extracted quickly when it is still in it's liquid state in the comb. Heather honey can be pressed out using a honey press which physically squeezes the the honey comb releasing the honey. The honeycomb must first be cut out of the frames before pressing, un-wired foundation is best for this type of extraction. The honey should be filtered before jarring, and may need re-warming first. Avoid over filtering your honey as this will remove some of the beneficial components such as fine pollen grains. The remaining wax can be heated in a pot and poured into a plastic container to cool. The molten wax will float on top of any honey residue and can easily be washed off when cool. Any honey residue can be slightly watered down and fed back to your bees with a contact feeder.
Spinning honey out using a centrifugal extractor is a popular way of extracting honey. The centrifuge is basically a drum made from stainless steel or plastic with a turning assembly inside which can hold frames while it is turned by hand or electric motor. This process requires the frames of honey being un-capped before hand to allow the honey to come freely out of the comb under centrifugal force. Use a sharp knife or purpose designed tool to cut the wax capping away from the comb, trying to avoid wastage. It is best to use wired foundation when you intend to use the spinning process, as un-wired foundation can collapse during spinning. The spun frames can be re-used at least once after extraction depending on condition. Honey extracted this way is relatively free of debris and needs just a little filtering before jarring.
For the beekeepers with only one or two hives this method is probably the most convenient requiring the least equipment, and can cater easily for just a couple of supers of honey. The process is simple, pre-heat the frames as previously described, cut the honeycomb from the frames into a bowl and crush it down with a potato masher, then put the mash in a honey filter or muslin to drain slowly over night into a sterile honey bucket. This process is best done in a warm room to help keep the honey viscosity down. The drained honey is normally ready to jar but can be re-filtered if necessary. The left over wax can easily be melted down by heating in a pot then pouring into a plastic container to cool. The molten wax will float on top of residue honey. When cooled it can be removed and washed clean of honey residue ready to trade in for fresh foundation or be turned in to a range of wax products. The residue honey which may contain some impurities can be slightly watered down and fed back to your bees with a contact feeder.