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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Harvesting and handling honey

All the Apis species produce honey, as do stingless bees.  The harvesting method selected by honey hunters or beekeepers will vary depending on the location of the bee nest or type of hive in use.  Honey inside sealed honey comb is of perfect quality - regardless of whether the bees are nesting wild or in a hive, and regardless of the type of hive. Whatever, method of keeping bees or honey hunting is used, it is also possible to harvest a crop of top quality honey suitable for sale into distant domestic or international markets. Practical experience shows that the quality of the honey harvest does not depend on the type of hive, but on the care taken at harvesting, the cleanliness of the equipment and the methods used for extracting honey and storage.

One of the most important factors to consider when harvesting and handling honey intended for the retail market, is the water content - which must be sufficiently low. Ideally the water content should be below 18%.  Most buyers will not accept honey with a water content greater than 20%, and in Europe for example, this is the legal maximum for almost all honeys. Honey with a high water content will ferment and will not keep.  Water content can easily be measured using a refractometer or hydrometer.  The article in our recommended readign list suggests some local methods are also described that help to establish water content.

To ensure honey has a low water content, it is important for beekeepers to recognise when the honey is 'ripe' as they harvest combs from the hive.  Only honey that is sealed is certain to be of sufficiently low water content for it to be considered of the highest quality. The beekeeper must be able to recognise the difference between honey and brood and only harvest ripe honey.  If brood or unripe honey is also harvested, it must be kept separate from ripe honey to maintain quality.  This is one of the most significant practical lessons for a new honey producer to learn. If honey is not intended for the retail market and will be used within a short period of time or for purposes such as making beer, low water content is not so important.

Honey from stingless bees has its own distinctive chemical profile which includes a higher water level than honey from honey bees.

Harvesting does not need sophisticated techniques or equipment but beekeepers must be careful and methodical when harvesting and handling honey. To ensure the quality of honey is maintained beekeepers, and those handling honey, are advised to develop simple monitoring systems which identify the most likely contamination risks (hazards) and identify what steps can be taken to avoid them.

Possible risks to honey quality include:

  • dropping pieces of comb on the floor, then picking them up and  adding them to the harvest bucket
  • lack of personal hygiene (poor hand washing)
  • use of unsuitable containers that have not been properly cleaned (even storing honey in containers previously used for other food stuffs, such as cooking oil, can damage the quality of the honey)
  • storing honey in poorly sealed containers in dusty or smelly environments

The process of analysing and dealing with possible hazards is called Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP).  Having a HACCP plan is compulsory for commercial honey producers in developed countries.

Honey is, after all, a delicious food and an important medicine so must not be contaminated with dirt, smoke, chemicals or bacteria. In its natural state honey is entirely pure and cannot support bacterial growth. The beekeepers must make sure that the methods used to harvest and store it do not affect the purity of the product. This is what consumers are willing to pay their hard earned money for. 


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