What does it really take to make honey?

February 10, 2020

What does it really take to make honey?

Is it as simple as taking it from the hives and putting it in a jar? Not quite! We recently chatted with our honey farmers Michael and Mick Hanson from F.A.B. Farm near Mt Tamborine to find out what it really takes to get delicious, pure honey on our tables.

FAB-Farm

F.A.B. Farm is a small property at Wongawallan, about half way up Mt Tamborine. Caela and Mick have long had a passion for real, chemical-free food and love being able to grow their own. Their move to small scale farming was prompted by a workplace incident that meant Mick needed a change in a career.

Starting out with just one bee hive, the couple grew their operation to 30 hives pretty quickly. As space was a challenge, they drew up land lease agreements with other land owners whereby they could place some hives on their land – a win-win for all really as the bees serve such a valuable role in the production of crops.

But the challenges in making honey production a viable business have been many, the most significant of which has been severe drought followed by the most catastrophic bush fires Australia has ever seen. These conditions lead to an 85% drop in honey production at F.A.B Farm, with many other beekeeper’s experiencing similar declines.

This aside, even under good weather conditions the process is slow and time consuming – here’s a snapshot direct from the farmers on what it takes to get that beautiful honey from farm to table...

“We often find ourselves having lengthy conversations with our customers about the cost of honey and honey production in order to help them understand the process of being a beekeeper and the costs involved with running a small scale beekeeping operation like ours.

It's always interesting to see reactions when we explain in detail what is required to not only manage bee hives but also the time and effort it takes to harvest, filter, bottle, label and transport honey ready to be sold.  We believe there is a misconception that it's an easy type of produce farming and that is why it is important to share our knowledge to better educate people. 

It's easy to say raw honey from the farmer is expensive but if you compare it to your expensive brands in the supermarket, we are either the same or cheaper.  It is also worth remembering that the below process is our part without all the effort our amazing bees put in to actually make the honey for us! 

It takes 12 honeybees their entire lifetime of 40 days to jointly produce 1 teaspoon of honey...it really is liquid gold!

Please note the below information is based on a normal/good year without the effects of drought and bush fires.

Each season we may need to move our hives to different sites to make sure the bees have enough nectar and pollen to make excess amounts of honey that we can harvest.  When we say excess we mean amounts of honey beyond what the bees need to keep themselves alive and healthy.

In a normal Autumn /Winter, we have 4 sites where our bees spend their days.  Three of these are between 1.5-2 hour drive each way.  On average we need to drive out to check the hives every 6 weeks.  This is a standard procedure as there are pests and diseases which an affect our bees as well as weather conditions. We try not to harvest much honey during this period as the bees need every bit of honey to survive the cold.  Most of the honey we sell in this time of the year was harvested late Summer.

In a normal Spring/Summer season we have 5 sites at varying distances of 30min to 1.5 hours away.  It is essential in this season to check our hives every 2-3 weeks as this is the main honey production time and hives are prone to swarming.

On each visit an extensive check of the hive health, bee breeding and honey production is done which can take 4-6 hours depending on the size of each hive.  So, we are comfortable in saying that with travel time, this is one full day of work for each hive site.

Once we have identified there is honey to extract at any sites, we then need to go back out prepare the hives and bees ready for removal of the honey boxes.  Preparing the hives will take a full day for each hive site.  We usually sleep on site or return the next day to take the honey boxes back to our property for honey extraction. 

It doesn't matter how much honey we have to extract, the process is the same.  As a rule of thumb, we won't extract honey under 100kg because the time needed doesn't justify the expenses involved.  The last honey extraction we did was for 150kg of raw honey and it took the two of us 8 hours for stages 1-4 below including a full clean up.

Once the boxes come back to our property we have to:

  1. decap (this is where you scratch the honeycomb that the bees have sealed the honeycomb with so that we can access the honey) each frame (each honey box has 10 frames)
  2. put the frames in a spinner and spin them in two different directions for 4-5 mins each way
  3. sieve the honey to remove debris and clean the honey up, this pours straight from the spinner into a 25litre container
  4. pour the sieved honey into a 300litre storage drum and leave it to rest for a minimum of 24 hours

Once the extracting has been completed we move on to preparing for sale.

We make all our own wax cloths and labels here on the farm, so when we know the size of an order we will prepare them in advance.  As an example, for an order of 100 x 1kg jars of honey it can take half a day to cut and wax the cloths and a further 1-2 hours to print, cut and hole punch all the labels.

Bottling and labeling can then take the two of us half a day as we are small and can't justify the cost of a bottling machine.  After this, we transport it to our customer.  Unfortunately, honey is a difficult product to have shipped by courier and many companies will not take it as it can leave a terrible mess if any packaging gets damaged.  As we choose to supply locally only, we transport all our honey ourselves which also gives us the knowledge and satisfaction that our product has arrived in the same state we packaged it.

This year, it hasn’t been easy to keep honey on the sales shelf.  Our bees have only made small amounts of excess honey since Spring and we won’t put our bees at risk of starvation or poor health just to fulfil an order.  We are now coming to the end of our main honey flow season and, after getting some rain, the bees are at last starting to act like they should have done 5-6 months ago.  It will take easily 4-6 weeks for plants and trees to start producing what the bees need taking us into the colder months when we prefer to avoid taking honey from the hives.

We are grateful to be able to share what it is like as a small-scale honey producer. “ 

So next time you see cheap honey, ask yourself – is it really honey? And if it is, has the beekeeper received a fair price for the time and effort involved? Probably not.

Recent investigations, as shown in the media, into Australia honey found that almost 20% of the Australian-branded honey sampled was fake!

It was mixed with cheap fillers like rice syrup to improve the manufacturer’s profit margin. This is really bad news for consumers as blended honey has been known to contain antibiotics, toxins, irradiated pollen or even alkaloids. Avoid it all costs!

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-03/almost-20-per-cent-australian-honey-found-not-pure/10327988

For Caela and Mick honey production over the last 3 years has not proven viable during these difficult times (of drought and bushfire) and they have made the hard decision to sell the last of their honey and their surviving hives (sadly some were lost). They will be temporarily shutting the farm gate, on 1st May, to travel around the country helping on farms and in communities. 

“We can’t give money but we can give our time and helping hands to those in need whilst we have the opportunity to gain experience from other Australian farmers,” said Caela and Mick. We wish them all the best on their adventure.

We’re lucky enough to have the last of their beautiful honey for our customers. Be quick if you want some as it’ll all be gone soon. You can find it in our store here. 

 




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