An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
One of the challenges that beekeepers in small- to medium-size operations experience during extracting is the separation of wax from honey.
All beekeepers are faced with this problem one way or another, no matter how big their operation. Some honey is always attached to the cappings and can be lost in the processing of the wax. If we can eliminate this loss, we produce more honey and therefore a greater profit. Business is all about eliminating losses, whether in production or time.
When starting off as a hobbyist, it’s fairly easy to use a nylon stocking (a one-use filter), and then advance to stainless steel mesh filters that fit into 20-litre pails. These work well for small amounts. When the honey is cool, this process can be assisted by using a hair dryer or a hot air gun briefly waved over the honey to warm it up a little, so that it flows faster through the filter(s). Leave the filters to drain and place any wax residue into a top feeder on a hive for the bees to clean out. The bees retrieve the honey and you are left with nice dry flakes of wax that can be melted in a water bath, with no loss of honey. Filters are quick and easy to clean with cold water.
As one’s operation increases in size, one tends to graduate to several or a line of ‘sock’ filters. Honey flows into the first and as wax builds up on the inner surface, it gradually blocks the filter so the honey flows into the next. (These filters work better if the honey is warmed through a heat exchanger.) When honey starts flowing into the last filter, it’s time to rub the surface of the first filter to dislodge the fine flakes of wax away from the mesh. Then squeeze the bag to remove the honey. Work the wax inside the filter to the bottom so it becomes an effective filter again, and so on down the line.
Unfortunately, this takes time and can slow processing but is a fairly cheap option, although sticky. Filters are left to drain overnight and the residue can be put on a hive to clean up, but most prefer to put it in a hot top (explained below) to recover the wax and honey. Putting wax from a number of colonies into hives to clean up becomes a risk if there is AFB in the area. We use Nybolt 400-micron bags taped at the seams to give greater strength (purchased 20 years ago and still in use). Connect the filter to a Hansen plug-in pipe connection unit with a screw- type stainless steel radiator hose clip.
To process the wax, make a simple hot top, which consists of an insulated cabinet with 500-watt bathroom heat lamps over the top of a fine food-grade mesh or netting that sits on top of a small frame. Cappings are placed on top and as the cappings are heated, the honey and finally the wax flows away from the wax/propolis/pupal silk residue—known as slum gum. If the honey runs away out of the cabinet into a pail, the heat does not compromise its quality.
Another option is to install a large tank and allow time for the wax cappings to rise to the surface. Pump off from the bottom and stop pumping as soon as you see tiny wax particles coming through the pipe. The disadvantage is you still have to clean out the tank and process the wax in some way to remove the last of the honey. But this method saves time as it is done at the end of a week’s processing.
Australians tend to use a hot top melter, which sits in the top of their settling tank and uses steam or hot water to melt the wax floating on the surface of the honey coming out of the uncapper. The melted wax is floated off into moulds.
The drawback is that this process heats the honey in the top of the tank to a high temperature (63°C), which can cause the HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural) level to rise, slightly darkening the honey. However, this doesn’t seem to be a problem in Australia as they rely on a high throughput to stop any deterioration of the honey. The little bit that does get heated doesn’t seem to worry them as most of their honey is sold as runny honey.
The cost of this process is having a unit big enough to produce enough continuous steam or hot water to melt the wax. Time is saved in that it’s a continuous process done during extraction. At the end of the day, the sump tank is left to cool and any surface wax, once solidified, is skimmed off. Swienty manufactures an electric cappings wax melter for mid-range beekeepers: go to http://www.swienty.com
At the top of the range are machines that continuously remove the honey and wax using centrifugal force. Cook & Beals Ltd (http://www.cooknbeals.com) introduced a large cappings spinner many years ago and now similar units are produced by a number of manufacturers, as well as two manufactured here in New Zealand.
Another type and more compact model was produced by Ross Ward, dubbed the ‘hummer’ (now superseded by a horizontal model), which works well but requires a constant flow of honey and wax through them. Like all machinery, you soon find out how it works best after a few spills. I still use a filter when first starting up the unit as there’s always a bit of wax in the machine following a dump and clean. After about 60 kg of honey, the filter is bypassed until a dump is initiated at the end of the day. The drawback for me is the time spent cleaning the unit between extractions. I haven’t quite mastered the injection of a pail of warm honey to restart the machine without stripping it.
In my system, the honey is pumped from a tank below the extractor through a small heat exchange at the back of the stainless drums (which heat the honey to 4°C) into the top of the hummer. Wax drops into the bin at the base (assisted with a fine spray of water). Honey flows out the bottom into a stainless steel tank and is then pumped up to the filters. For small runs, I leave the honey in the drums to settle overnight (to allow any dross to rise to the surface), then pump it into a stirring tank before it is drummed.
Another type of unit uses an Archimedes’ screw. Honey and cappings wax are gradually pushed along a filtering tube by a slowly rotating screw. Honey runs off while the wax is gradually pushed to the end, where it is compressed to remove the last bit of honey and the wax is extruded out the end in a dry state. Tiny wax particles can get through the filtering screen, but these are separated out using a large filter bag that is changed daily. The unit is easy to clean with a high-pressure wash.
I first saw one of these in action at Kintail Honey’s plant in Takapau, Hawke’s Bay. I was very impressed but it was too big for our small processing room and required three- phase power. However, there are now single- phase models available that easily cope with 140 boxes a day and cost a lot less than a cappings spinner.
Broken lugs during extraction can be a pain. Some beekeepers hammer a nail in place so that the frames can proceed through the plant. Like all filters and pumps, if a nail or plastic frame lug goes through the unit, they can damage the filter screen. The safest option is not to process any frame with a broken lug, or else watch them carefully as they go through. These machines are fairly compact and take a lot of hassle out of the extracting process.
This still leaves the dry wax to process, which is bagged in muslin and put into a water bath (Norm Finlay makes a tidy unit). After 12 hours the bags are weighted down and the wax floated off into moulds. The bags are lifted and allowed to drain and the residue in the bags is composted into the garden.
Before altering a plant or planning a new one, look at all the manufacturers’ websites around the world. Some have floor plans to assist you in your planning: check out www.cowenmfg.com.
Also, visit a number of honey houses around New Zealand so you have a good idea of what you need and then firm up on your plan. Most commercial beekeepers have been through this process and are happy to assist.
Make up and prepare gear for replacement or increase. Check hives after storms. Check to see that your mite treatments have worked. Those beekeepers in the first three years of acute phase of varroa mites can expect your bees to collect honey during the winter from dying feral hives. But there is a downside if this happens, as without additional treatments, your hives could also be lost to mite re-invasion.