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How to Extract Honey from a Beehive

Many beekeepers manage hives with a goal of producing their own honey.  One or two healthy colonies of bees in a good location can make enough excess honey to feed a family all year.  After investing up to a year to build strong colonies, harvest day approaches.  Now, it is time to learn how to extract honey from a beehive.

Extraction of Honey

Honey bees have a remarkable system of survival.  They collect nectar from blooming plants and convert it into honey.  This perfect food for bees stores for a long time without spoiling. 

Extracting honey into a filter bucket image.

Being such industrious creatures, bees continue to make honey as long as they find nectar sources and have room to store it.

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This is why beekeepers can take the excess crop for themselves.  A conscientious beekeeper always leaves the bees enough food for their Winter stores.  Taking all the honey is not cool.

You also want to make sure the moisture content of the honey is low enough to prevent fermentation. Generally, capped honey is fine but it is not a bad idea to have a honey refractometer to check the water content in honey.

How Long do I Have to Wait to Harvest Honey

There are many misconceptions about how bees make honey and the frequency of the crop.  Many new beekeepers are dismayed to learn that they may have to wait until the next season to harvest

What? You have to take care of these bees a whole year before you can expect a jar of golden delight? Yes, in most cases that is true. 

A brand new colony needs to build a home and prepare for Winter.  Unless you live in a very warm climate with year-round nectar sources, next year is the most likely harvest time for you.

Frames of honey bees are making for Winter food image.

Honey Extraction Methods

Some folks enjoy eating honey in the comb.  But most people want to have jars of liquid to store and use for recipes etc. 

There are two basic methods of separating honey from comb – often called extracting.

  • Crush and Strain – technically no extractor
  • Use a Honey Extractor

Crush and Strain No Extractor Needed

Technically, the crush and strain method is not extraction.  However, it is often talked about in the same conversation so lets cover it now. 

For beekeepers who do not have an honey extractor, or prefer not to use one, crush and strain is the way to go. 

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Crushed honey comb dripping honey from a filter bag image.

Sheets of honey filled comb are cut from the frames and placed into a large tub or bucket. Then, using a potato masher, your hands or other implement-the comb is crushed. 

The purpose of this is to break open the thousands of individual cells filled with honey.  The material is then usually placed in a filter bag and hung up in a warm “bee safe” location with a bucket underneath.  This allows liquid to drip out of the wax.

Once all the liquid is removed from the beeswax comb, it can be stored in an airtight container.  The beeswax can be cleaned and used for many fun projects.

This method is as old as time itself and quite effective.  However, it is a slow process and requires room to leave the bag hanging for several days safe from bees and other insects.

It also represents more hard work for the bees next season. They have to rebuild all the comb needed for the frames.

What is a Honey Extractor

A honey extractor is a machine that holds frames of uncapped honey in a barrel-like container.  Using an electric motor or hand crank, the frames spin around causing the liquid to be spun out of their wax cells.

Beekeepers who have done a good job of assembling their hive frames should be able to extract with not problems. 

Tangential extractors require the beekeeper to sling honey out of one side of the frame at a time.  You must manually flip the frames to do the other side. 

Radial extractors hold the frames in a way that slings honey out of both sides at the same time. These often cost a bit more but are well worth the expensive if you have more than 2 hives.

There are many different types of extractors.  The market has a glut of cheap-quality ones but these may work fine for a small-scale beekeeper. 

Extractors are not cheap in price but good quality ones last for years and have decent resell value.

How to Uncap Honey Frames

One of the great advances in modern beekeeping was the hive with removable frames.  When your honey supers are full, it is time to go out and collect your honey crop from the hive.

With the full supers safe inside a bee free room, it is time to proceed. Gather your needed materials – these will vary a bit depending on your equipment

Using cappings scratcher to remove honey cappings from frame image.

The most common ways to uncap is to use:

  • Regular knife – often heated in a bowl of hot water and then wiped dry
  • A hot knife – electric for beekeeper use
  • Cappings scratcher – looks like a big metal fork with a large plastic handle

There are several more gadgets you can buy to uncap honey.  However, it doesn’t really matter what you use. 

Equipment Needed to Extract Honey

Time needed: 4 hours.

Extracting honey from a beehive using a honey spinner or extractor.

  1. Uncapping Honey Frames

    The first step in extracting honey is uncapping.  When honey is ripe, bees cap each cell with a clean wax cap.  This helps keep the honey clean and protected. 

    Before we can extract the liquid, the cap must come off. The goal is to break open or slice off the wax cappings without digging into the comb any more than you can help.

    Catch the cappings in a bucket.  They will contain a large amount of liquid if allowed to drain.  Also, cappings wax is the one of the best types of beeswax to use for candles.

    Using knife to uncap honey frame prior to extracting image.

  2. Load Uncapped Frames in Extractor

    As you uncap each frame (both sides) place it directly into the extractor.  Depending on the size of your extractor you may need 4 frames, 9 or even more for a full load. 

    If you do not balance your load, the uneven weight will cause the extractor to move.  Much like Granny’s old washing machine walking across the floor. 

    So don’t try to do a partial load in the extractor unless you position the frames evenly to distribute weight.

    Uncapped frames of honey loaded in extractor image.

  3. Place the Catch Bucket and Strainer

    Once the extractor is full of frames, you are ready to begin the process of extraction.  You will have a “honey gate” spout at the bottom of the unit.  This is where the liquid pours out of the extractor.

    Most beekeepers use a 3 or 5 gallon bucket as the storage pail, with a “bucket filter” placed inside.  No matter how hard you try to be careful, some pieces of beeswax will come out in the liquid honey.

    This strainer allows gravity to filter out the beeswax chunks etc.  Of course with the strainer in place, you can not fill the bucket to the top with honey.  Keep that in mind as you extract – have extra buckets.

    A 5 gallon bucket of honey is HEAVY!  It’s okay to fill it only partially.  As long as you have a tight fitting lid your honey will be fine and your back with thank you for it.

    Plastic bucket filter strains honey from extractor image.

  4. Start the Extractor

    Start the extractor spinning.  Go slow – this is not a race. Especially with an electric extractor the temptation is to crank that thing up. Resist the urge.

    You are more likely to have your extractor walking across the floor or even damaged if you start off at top speed.  This applies to hand crank models as well. 

    Beginning too fast can use cause weak honeycomb to be thrown out of your frames.  Start slow, gradually increase the speed. 

    Control knobs of radial honey extractor image.

  5. Increasing Speed of Extractor

    If you look closely you can see little spits of honey hitting the inside wall of the unit.  When this stops, go a bit faster. 

    How fast should you run the extractor?  This depends on your model and personal preference. I never get mine up to top speed.  When no more honey is coming out its time to stop.

    Arrows on honey spinner showing movement image.

  6. Remove Empty Comb Frames

    Remove the finished frames from the extractor.  They will be very sticky but the cells should be empty of honey.  If I missed a few in the uncapping process, I don’t worry. I just leave it for the bees.

    If you missed a large area you can put it through the extractor again but be sure to balance the weight in the machine.

    Removing wet honey frames from extractor image.

  7. Cleaning Wet Frames

    Place the frames back in super boxes.  These frames of drawn comb are valuable.  If you have a long honey season, they can be put back on the hives. 

    If not, storing honey supers with comb properly gives the bees a head start next year.

    Extracted honey supers stacked for storage image.

  8. Storing Your Honey Harvest

    After all of the honey has dripped through your bucket filter, be sure to seal the bucket with a good lid.  Honey will last forever but it absorbs moisture from the air.  Failure to seal the bucket could result in your entire bucket spoiling.

    5 gallon bucket of dark extracted honey image.

Now wasn’t that fun?  Extracting honey from a beehive is a fun family project.  However, do not try this is your open garage.  The bees can and will find you and attempt to take back their honey – can you blame them?

Not everyone has the advantage of having a separate building or “honey house” dedicated to bee projects, but extracting honey is messy.  Keep this in mind if you attempt the project in your house.

Your floor may never be free of beeswax again unless your protect it.  Also, do not wash your extraction tools, buckets, filters in your sink – talk about clogged drains!

Some beekeepers like to place the sticky honey supers outside and lets the bees clean up the last drops.  I do too though it may not be the best practice.  Having food sources too near your hives can set off hive robbing.

If you intend to let the bees clean the supers outside, place them well away from your hives.  At least 100 ft or more is better.

Enjoying the Harvest

Harvesting your first honey crop or your hundredth one is a lot of fun.  The experience of extracting honey from a beehive is the number 1 reason most people become beekeepers. Remember to always leave enough for the bees.  Your properly sealed honey will last virtually forever.  But, I hope you enjoy eating it up well before then.

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