How to Extract Honey from Cappings and Crushed Comb to make Mead
All beekeepers have wax cappings and crushed honeycomb around at some stage or another. And there's usually honey in it. Making mead from crushed comb isn't common practice nowadays, because not all beekeepers have a lot of crushed comb. But lots of us do. This is how we extract honey from cappings and crushed comb to make mead.
What are Wax Cappings
Honeybees go to great lengths to ensure the honey they have stored has the correct water content, so the honey does not go mouldy. They do this by fanning their wings which creates airflow inside the hive, so that the water in the honey evaporates. When the honey is exactly right, they cap the cell with wax to create an airtight seal to keep bacteria out.
When the beekeeper sees a frame which is not fully capped off yet, like the one above, they know the honey is not yet ready.
When the beekeeper extracts honey from the hive, they cut the wax cappings off the top of the cells. Some then use a honey extractor which keeps the honeycomb in one piece. The beekeeper may then put the frame back in the hive for the bees to fill again. They are then left with the cappings which have honey on them, together with any crushed comb that broke off in the process.
Why Some Beekeepers have more Crushed Honeycomb than others
We prefer to give the bees an empty frame back after we have taken honey, rather than giving them ready made wax sheets (known as foundation) to work with. This means we are not recycling all the same wax which reduces the risk of disease, and allows the bees to build the comb as the want to. One of our hives is a top bar hive, so it doesn't have frames anyway.
Rather than removing a load of honey in one go, we take a couple of frames of honey now and again, throughout the season. We cut the comb and crush it through a filter to separate the honey from the wax, then jar the filtered, raw honey.
This means we often have small buckets of comb and wax cappings around. And because our method is fairly agricultural compared with using an extractor, the crushed comb oftens has quite a bit of honey left in it.
We feed some of the crushed comb back to the bees, but there is too much to feed it all back. So some of it we use to make mead, so none of that gorgeous honey is wasted. Then we render the beeswax from the comb, so none of that is wasted either. I then make soap, lip balm and candles with it.
What quantity of crushed comb and cappings do you need to make Mead?
From our experience, 1.5kg of crushed honeycomb and cappings usually makes honey water with a sufficient sugar content equivalent to about 1.5lbs of honey in the water. Which is enough to make 2.25 litres of Mead. If you want to make a full demijohn (4.5 litres) of mead, you would therefore need around 3kg of comb and cappings. If you use more water than we suggest below for the amount of comb you have because you want more mead, ie your ratio of water to comb is not as we suggest, your honey water may not be strong enough for the fermentation. In that instance, simply add more honey. That way you haven't wasted the honey on the comb, and you need less honey to make a full demijohn than if you'd used plain water. More about how to determine the sugar content of your honeywater below.
I choose to make 2.25 litres of Mead quite a lot, because I have half demijohns around and I like trying small batches of new flavours. It also means that, if something goes wrong, you haven't wasted a load of honey that bees have lovingly crafted.
Half demijohns aren't made anymore unfortunately, but you often find them in people's lofts (!) or at your local recycling centre. More about Glass Demijohns and Where to Find Them here.
Can I use any old Honeycomb?
I would not recommend using old black comb from a brood box where the same wax has been inside for years. We have tried to do that, it doesn't smell as nice when you prepare the cappings, the colour is awful and the results are far less predictable. We also tried doing that and then boiling the result before we used it. The mead simply didn't taste as nice.
We therefore avoid using old comb from the brood boxes and instead use the fresher comb which is pale and looks healthy.
Can I use Tap Water?
You can, but we don't. I work on the assumption that if chlorine or other things in the tap water interfere with the mead, it would be a terrible waste of honey. So we use bottled water.
Do I need to sterilise anything at this stage?
We don't attempt to sterilise until we get on to the actual mead making. We work on the assumption that the inside of the hive isn't sterile, and nothing the comb and cappings were kept in up until this point was sterile either, so there's no point. However once the honey water is prepared, we use it immediately to make mead. So as soon as we start mixing the other ingredients and putting it in a demijohn, everything we use is sterile after that.
Do I need to wash the Cappings and Comb the same day as I make the Mead?
We do. As soon as you start adding honey to comb, fermentation can begin and you risk mould too, which has happened to use when we decided to soak the comb for a few days to see how it was different. The mould started to come very quickly, and then the whole lot had to be thrown away. So try to make the same day, if you can.
Do I need a Hydrometer to do this?
Ideally, yes. The reason being that if the starting gravity of your mead is not high enough, it will not ferment well/at all and you may end up throwing the lot down the sink. In our experience,1.5kg of cappings and comb equal 1.5 litres of honey water of a sufficient SG to make mead without needing to test it. But that may be because we're rubbish at extraction so we usually leave lots of honey in the comb. Or the sugar content of the honey in your particular comb batch isn't very high. Or some other reason. So to be safe, use a hydrometer. They are inexpensive and well worth having if you are planning to make mead.
How to Make Mead from Honey Cappings and Crushed Comb
This method is the one I use when making honey water, in preparation for making 2.25 litres of mead. So at the end of this, you will have honey water which is the equivalent of 1.5 litres of water with 1.5lbs of honey dissolved into it. That is generally enough to make 2.25 litres of mead once you've added juice, raisins, fresh fruit or whatever.
If you want to make a full demijohn (4.5 litres) of mead, you can either wash more comb and cappings with more water, or add more water and honey when you come to make the mead.
Make sure you are making the mead the same day as you prepare the honey water, to reduce the risk of contamination.
You will need
- Approx 1.5 kg of wax cappings and crushed comb, avoiding too much black comb if you can (see above), in a clean, food grade bucket
- A second clean, food grade bucket
- A large straining bag, cotton pillowcase, large piece of cheesecloth or similar for separating the wax from the water
- Clothes pegs to attach the straining bag to the second bucket
- 1.5 litres of bottled water
- A pair of rubber or disposable gloves
- A hydrometer and trial jar, to measure the sugar content in your water when you've washed the wax
- A small jar of raw honey on hand (in case you are more efficient at extracting honey from your comb than we are!)
1. Pour 1 litre of water over the crushed combs and cappings in the bucket.
2. Wearing gloves, knead and squeeze the comb and cappings with your hands for about 5 minutes. You are aiming to extract as much honey from those cappings as possible.
3. Attach the straining bag, or whatever you are using, to the second bucket with pegs.
4. Pour the crushed comb, cappings and water into the straining bag over the second bucket.
5. Pour over the remaining half a litre of water, and knead it some more.
6. Remove the pegs from the bucket, draw up the straining bag and squeeze well to drain any remaining honey in the bag.
7. Put some of the honey water in the trial jar and test the starting Specific Gravity (SG). When making mead, this needs to be somewhere between1.060 and 1.120. If it is, you're finished.
If the reading isn't quite high enough, add a little of your reserved mead to the honey in the bucket and test again. Keep doing this until the SG is between 1.060 and 1.120.
Now you're ready to start sterilising your equipment to make mead!
People were making mead from beehives long before any of us were born. I hope this has taken some of the mystery out of it, and you are inspired to do it yourself. And you can now extract the beeswax from your cappings and comb, knowing none of the honey was wasted.
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