A new beekeeper preparing for his first harvest asked me about handling the honey. He wanted to know how to tell if the moisture in the honey was correct and how to adjust it if it is too high. When the honey bees collect nectar from flowers, it is mostly water with a weak concentration of sugars. The bees start the conversion of nectar to honey as they carry it back to their hive inside their honey gut where it is mixed with enzymes. Once the nectar is deposited in the hive, worker bees continue its conversion to honey by continuously mixing it with enzymes. To concentrate the honey, the bees blow bubbles in the honey and stretch its surface area with their mouthparts. They evaporate the moisture from the honey by fanning their wings across its surface. They dry the honey until its moisture content reaches 18 percent. At this point, the bees cover the cells containing the now “ripe” honey with freshly secreted beeswax.
I told the new beekeeper that ripe honey can be harvested and stored indefinitely. However, if honey is harvested too soon, it will have excessive moisture; and it may ferment. The safest way to prevent this is to wait until the frames of honey are at least 70 percent capped with beeswax before harvesting. At this point, the honey should contain the proper moisture for bottling or storing. Beekeepers typically measure the moisture content of honey using an optical device called a refractometer. I also explained to the new beekeeper that honey readily takes on or gives up moisture depending upon the environmental conditions. This occurs even with beeswax-capped honey in the frames before it is extracted. Beeswax is porous. In the honey house, honey can be further dried, as the bees do it, by blowing dry air across the honey’s surface. In today’s picture, bees fan their wings to dry and cool the exterior of the hive while others inside fan to evaporate honey.