Washed comb mead

Washing honey comb does not only tickle my frugal homesteading fancy, it is also rather interesting from a historic point of view. While in our modern times honey in comb built up on frames can be easily and cleanly removed, sometimes there are situations when that is not the case, and while the wax can be melted and cleaned, the honey is often seen as a loss. Maybe only one side of a frame is soiled but you don’t want that in your centrifugal extractor. Or part of the honey solidified within the comb during winter, or in storage, and the extractor won’t be able to sling it out. What homesteaders can do, and medieval beekeepers, is to wash the comb to harvest the very last drop of sugary goodness.

In history bees were kept in hives without an internal frame system. This meant that the combs were free hanging and to harvest the honey, the combs would have to be processed as well. What makes the modern extractor so useful is that by uncapping the comb cells, only the cell lids are cut off, whereby the honey can be slung out, or extracted, through centrifugal force, and the empty combed frame can be given back to be bees to refill. As bees need to use resources to make wax to build comb – bees consume up to eight pounds of honey to make one pound of wax – giving back empty comb helps to make even more honey, for us to share!

But when the extractor can not be used, either because you want to only collect sections of a frame (to exclude brood, or soiled comb), or the honey crystallized and won’t budge, then the old and trusted historic method of washing comb can be used to make a honey solution, perfect for fermenting into mead.

Following is a step by step photo journal of a washed comb must I made recently:

I started with a super of frames full of honey. Unfortunately, these were frames from a hive which had not make it through winter. This was supposed to be their winter stash and since the bees had not use it, the winter temperatures caused most of the liquid honey to crystallize. There were also small patches of wax moths and one frame of mice damage. Any areas with insect remains were scraped off and the comb on the frame with mice damage was discarded. My preference is to harvest honey only once a year, in the fall – to emulate the bio-diversity of flower species and thus more intricate taste of honey as would be expected from the less cultivated (and less mono-culture) medieval times. Therefore the honey from my hives tends to be quite dark; darker than standard spring or wildflower honey, or even fall honey.

The honey-liquid in the open cells is already starting to ferment by itself (as the bubbles on the surface give away!). I had packed up the two supers of my ex-hive in heavy plastic in early spring, and immediately noticed upon unwrapping last week something ferment-y was going on.

When the frame is uncapped (the lids of the cells are cut off with a large bread-like knife) it becomes clear which part is crystallized (left) and which is liquid honey (right). Once uncapped, the liquid honey will run away on it’s own, and in medieval times this honey (from removed but not crushed comb) was regarded as the best quality and called ‘life’ or ‘virgin’ honey.

The cappings are collected in a capping tub. This tub has a floor grate to collect any extra honey stuck to the cappings which will slowly drip off and collect at the bottom. I choose to wash this pile of cappings instead of only melting it into wax, and was rewarded with nearly 4 gallons of must. As these cappings are the best quality wax in a hive, while they might be an easy way to get honey must for a period washed comb mead, you might have to promise the beekeeper you’ll return his wax remnants promptly!

The frames in the extractor, busily spinning around…
The extracted honey sounds like rain on the outside of the stainless steel drum.

A piece of comb showing the difference in extraction of crystallized honey (left) and liquid honey (right). The cells of the liquid honey now stand empty, while clearly visible sugar crystals still remain in the cells on the left.

I also scraped off the comb from the frames as I do not currently have bees and wanted to clean out the supers completely to prevent mice and wax moths in storage. If I still had bees I would only scrape off the crystallized sections and return the rest, or use a large enough tub with warm water at the bottom to soak the whole frames to dissolve the sugars and return the combed frames intact.

Warm water was added to the pile of scraped comb (sterilize the bucket before adding the scraped comb, and either sterilize your arm, or scrub with hot water and soap). I use my fingers to break up clumps of wax to make check water is able to get to all the undissolved sugars (this method is detailed in several medieval beekeeping manuals).

As my primary interest is in emulating historic recipes I like working with scraped comb, as that is most similar to free formed whole comb. I find that washed honey has a slight flavor from the comb, a delicate spiciness, I associate with wax, propolis and pollen. Honey boiled with comb has a much stronger flavor profile, and often makes one think of spiced honey wine. I think this added flavor is why in history ‘life’ or first grade honey was so well regarded, as it did not have any contact with wax during collection (processing) and would only taste of the honey itself. In a way this makes me think of maple syrup, where grade A is the most valuable. Not because it has the most taste – quite the opposite! It was most valuable because it had the least flavor and thereby would not make everything it was used to sweeten in taste like maple syrup.

When all sugars are dissolved (the empty wax rises to the top) I scoop out the wax and squeeze the honey liquors out. Some medieval texts feel the liquor from squeezing makes for crude honey must (which could come from more contact with the wax and impart more of the wax/pollen flavor), some find it appropriately frugal, and others use it separately, as a lesser grade must. As indicated before, comb imparts a flavor to the honey and this effect was apparently well known, and not always appreciated, in history. As it is my intent to use the comb flavor I squeezed my wax to maximize my must yield.

Well squeezed wax ball. Later these will be melted, filtered and molded into wax bricks.

The dissolved honey liquor was too strong for a traditional fermentation, as indicated by the floating egg. If the egg floats sideways in a honey must the sugar concentration or density is too high for fermentation with Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It would work for fermentation with osmophilic yeasts, as those prefer sugar concentrations over 15%. But, since I had boiled the must to impart the comb flavors (and sterilize, as some of the frames had been invaded by critters during winter) the endemic osmophilic yeast had been killed off, therefore a less than 15% sugar concentration would be needed for a traditional wine/beer yeast.

A perfect sugar density reading from a fresh egg. This would make a semi dry to sweet mead.

The cleaned off frames in a super box ‘mobbed’ by wild neighborhood bees. I put out the scraped, and the discarded – this particular frame was of great interest to the bees as it had mouse poop on honey filled comb – I could not use it, but they sure did! It will take them a couple days to empty out the two supers and then everything can go back in storage. Maybe next year I’ll find a swarm…


To read more about historic washing of comb and the egg float test, please download a copy of my paper Of Hony, Making Mediaeval Mead at Academia.edu: