What Should I Do?

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How To Harvest Honey Using An Extractor

A primer for those new to beekeeping
Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 8:01 PM

Once your bees have filled your hives with honey for you, how do you get it out?

This is a question that most aspiring and novice beekeepers don't know the answer to. If you're curious to learn the answer, read on...

I had my first honey harvest of the year this past weekend, and I took pictures of the major steps along the way in order to create this primer and de-mystify things.

As I tell most people who are curious about the process, prepare to be underwhelmed. If you're using an extractor, harvesting honey is straightforward and takes surprisingly little time. So the good news is: anyone with zero prior experience can easily do this.

When Is It Time To Harvest?

You'll know it's time to harvest your honey when the bees have fully filled all the frames in your honey super with honey AND capped the comb. Bees secrete a whitish wax over the comb cells when they've finished packing in the honey. It's their version of putting it in 'deep storage'.

The frame below is partially capped -- it's easy to see which cells are sealed with wax and which aren't: 

Whenever possible, you want to wait until all the comb cells on both sides of a frame are fully capped before harvesting the honey from it.

Getting Prepared

OK, so your frames are fully capped. What next?

Well, now you're ready to harvest. Your first order of business is determining which harvesting method you want to follow. The two main ones are:

  1. Using a honey extractor
  2. The crush-and-strain method

I HIGHLY recommend #1, especially for first-timers. I've done both, and the time and mess difference between the two is extreme. Also, using an extractor allows you to return much of the honey comb back into the hive intact -- whereas the crush-and-strain method destroys it, forcing your bees to have to spend valuable weeks rebuilding the entire comb before they can start stocking honey again.

For the purposes of this primer, we'll be following the harvesting process when using an extractor.

Here's what you'll need to get ready in advance:

  1. An extractor - You can rent one at your local beekeeping store or from your local bee guild. The one I rented cost me $15 for the day, plus $5 per day for any additional days I kept it. Pretty affordable and DEFINITELY worth the cost.
  2. A hot knife - This is exactly what it sounds like. It's a plug-in knife that heats up when electricity runs through it. You use it to slice off the wax cappings on the honey comb. Be very careful when handling it -- it's HOT!! A hot knife is usually included when you rent an extractor.
  3. A strainer - You can use many different types here. I purchased a plastic one this year ($8), but have used a wire mesh strainer from our kitchen drawers in years past. Some beekeepers use panty hose. Basically, you just want a clean strainer with the finest pores you can find.
  4. A bucket - This is what you'll collect your extracted honey in. I used a 5-gallon food-grade bucket.
  5. A cookie sheet - You'll use this to catch the wax cappings you slice off with the hot knife.
  6. A measuring cup - For pouring the extracted honey into smaller containers. I recommend glass over plastic.
  7. Honey jars - For final storage of your honey. Your local beekeeping or hardware store should have a number of choices of containers to choose from. I recommend glass over plastic, with nice tight lids. Popular sizes are: 3oz, 6oz, 1-pound.

To help you get a sense for how much honey you'll be dealing with, use the following estimates:

  • 3 pounds (about 1/4 of a gallon) for each fully-capped medium super frame
  • 5 pounds (a little less than 1/2 of a gallon) for each fully-capped deep super frame

It's surprising how much honey each frame will yield. And how heavy they are when full (honey weighs 12 pounds per gallon).

The Harvesting Process

Collect Your Frames

Remove your fully-capped frames from your hive(s). I recommend doing this the night before you do your extraction, and putting the frames somewhere inside (like your garage) where the bees can't smell them or get to them. Bees are amazingly good at tracking down their own honey within an acre radius of the hive.

Select Your Site

Again, I recommend doing this indoors, if possible, given bees' proclivity for finding exposed honey. A garage is an excellent location. Or anywhere where sticky spills can happen and be cleaned up without issue.

It's not that you can't do this outside, but you will have a growing crowd of bees intruding as you work. The good news is that all they want is access to the honey, so their likelihood of stinging you is quite low. But they can quickly become a nuisance, and start drowning in the honey, etc. It's just best to avoid that if you can.

Once you've picked your site, put the extractor in an area where you can easily maneuver around it. Place the bucket beneath its bottom spigot in preparation to collect the honey that will flow out. Put your strainer on top of the bucket, so that the honey will be filtered as it oozes in.

Somewhere nearby, set your cookie sheet and hot knife. You'll want it to be a short trip from the sheet to the extractor once you've sliced off the wax cappings.

Using the Hot Knife

Plug your hot knife in to get it warm. This should take less than a minute. Remember, this knife gets HOT. It will burn you quickly if it comes into contact with your skin, so exercise caution.

Here's what the hot knife looks like:

Once it's hot, you want to use its edge to gently slice off the wax cappings atop the honey comb on the frame. The process will feel a lot like cutting through butter with a warm blade.

This takes a certain amount of focus, as you don't want to cut too deeply with the knife and thereby dig out too much of the comb. Try to slice off only the top centimeter or so -- just so that the honey is exposed.

Here's an action shot:

You can see how the comb above the knife is no longer covered in wax, and the raw liquid honey is exposed.

Once you finish removing the caps on one side of your frame, do the same to the other side. Then, put your frame in the extractor.

The Extractor

The extractor is a simple spinning device that works like an autoclave. You put your frames inside, spin them around using the crankshaft handle, and centrifugal force will pull the honey out onto the inside wall of the extractor. 

The honey then oozes down the sides and drains out of a spigot at the bottom. You collect the honey as it comes out of the spigot.

Here's a picture of the extractor I used:

Note the bucket is placed below the spigot, ready to capture the honey. And placed on top of the bucket is the strainer, which will filter particulates from the honey before it enters the bucket. Here's a closer shot of the strainer (it's hard to tell here, but the bottom is a fine mesh):

The extractor has sleeves for your frames to fit in. Mine had three -- here's a picture showing a frame slotted in each sleeve:

Once all the sleeves have frames in them, then start cranking away. The faster you get the contraption spinning, the more honey is freed from the frames.

If you have family/friends assisting you, it helps to have them hold the extractor steady while you're cranking. My experience is that it can start rocking pretty wildly if you really get it spinning fast.

After you've spun your hardest for at least a minute, pull out a frame to confirm whether indeed the honey has been extracted from the side facing the inner wall. If not, crank some more. But if so, pull out each frame, turn it around so the other side now faces the inner wall, and repeat the spinning process until that side, too, is de-honeyed.

If you have more than three frames, remove the now-empty frames and replace with full ones. Repeat the extraction process until you've de-honeyed all your frames.

Collecting The Honey

Now it becomes a waiting game.

The honey that was flung onto the inner wall of the extractor will slowly ooze its way down to the bottom, where it collects and then eventually dribbles out of the spigot and into your awaiting strainer/bucket setup:

It will take several minutes before you see any honey exiting the spigot. Don't lose hope, it will come. And keep coming.

Once it starts, it often takes an hour or more before the flow starts to abate. You'll be surprised by how much eventually comes out. 

Your strainer will first fill up, and may look like it's not letting any honey pass through it into the bucket. Again, just wait a bit. Soon enough you'll see honey slowly oozing through the mesh.

So give things 1-2 hours to drain. If the honey has stopped flowing from the spigot, then take your bucket inside for jarring. Best to leave a bowl under the spigot, just in case some final dribbles come out (so you don't have to do extra mopping later on).

Storing Your Honey

Put your honey bucket on a clean countertop and get out your measuring cup and the glass jars. Dip the measuring cup into your bucket, pick up a jar in your other hand, and fill the jar by pouring from the measuring cup. You'll still likely spill some honey during this process, but this is the least-messy method I've found to-date:

Fill up your largest jars first (I use the 1-pounders). These should be for your own private use. After all, you've done all the work (well, the bees really did the heavy lifting, but you came in second).

Next, fill up the smaller jars if you intend to give them as gifts. The 3oz bottles are best for sharing your bounty with as many people as possible. I use the 6oz bottles for folks I owe a favor to, and other special audiences (like my mom).

You'll be surprised at how many bottles you're able to fill:

And at the same time, you'll be surprised at how fast it all goes once you start handing it out. Everybody loves the gift of natural honey, so keep some in reserve for the inevitable requests that will come your way...

Preserving The Wax

As you begin your clean-up, be sure to keep the wax cappings that you sliced off with the hot knife. They should still be lying on your cookie sheet.

Take the cookie sheet out to your beehives, and leave it somewhere near them. The bees will quickly find it and spend the next several hours licking all of the honey residue off of the sheet and wax shavings.

These light-colored wax cappings are the most prized of beeswax types. And after the bees have finished cleaning it for you, the wax will look like this and be easy for you to store for future use:

In a future post, I'll describe the process for rendering beeswax. But at this stage, just know that it's relatively easy to convert the above into a purified, usable form like this:

which can then be melted into a number of beeswax products like candles, skin balms, soaps, etc.

Clean-up

Honey is water-soluable, so have a sponge and dry rag on hand to clean up spills and wipe down your tools and surfaces. Remember that honey is naturally anti-bacterial, so there's no need to use any cleaning chemicals.

The extractor can be cleaned with a few buckets of hot water.

I run my filled jars under hot water for a few seconds after I've secured their lids, and then towel them dry.

Your de-honeyed frames should then be put back into your hives. Your bees will quickly repair the honey comb and, within a short time, start re-filling it with new honey. If there's enough time left in the season, you may even get a second harvest (I'm hoping for one in early September).

And.... that's about it. As I said at the beginning, the process is pretty straightforward. No exceptional skills required. Are you sufficiently underwhelmed yet?

If you've never kept bees, and this article makes you interested in doing so, read these tips I wrote two years ago for further inspiration.

And if you have any further questions about the harvesting process, just ask them in the Comments section below.

cheers,

~ Adam Taggart

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6 Comments

Tycer's picture
Tycer
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 26 2009
Posts: 610
Nice!

Nice write-up. Thanks. One thing - keep the cookie sheet that the bees will clean at least 100 yards away from your hives to prevent outsiders from robbing your hives.

Trun87114's picture
Trun87114
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 28 2013
Posts: 80
Very interesting...

And timely.  I've been reading quite a bit on beekeeping and hope to start next spring.  I am thinking of using a Warre hive for a more natural approach but I've heard that honey extraction is much more difficult without a frame.  Any thoughts?

jgritter's picture
jgritter
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2011
Posts: 273
Thank you

Thanks for the article.  I'm very much at the tentative beginner stage of bee keeping and this is a nice confidence builder.

John G.

gadams's picture
gadams
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 28 2009
Posts: 1
Warre hive and extraction

I have Warre hives and use the crush and strain method. I have also done extraction with conventional hives with frames. Both are messy and sticky business. Extraction is easier when doing any amount of honey. Warre's book Beekeeping for All can be found on-line here http://warre.biobees.com/index.html. It does describe cages that the Warre comb can be put into so that an extractor can be used. I made up a couple of cages but haven't tried them out.

amelero's picture
amelero
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 19 2014
Posts: 0
Question

Is it necessary to feed the bees? Or is it possible for them to forage on their own? I want to start a hive early next year. 

nigel's picture
nigel
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 15 2009
Posts: 146
Cool

Very cool, thanks.

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