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Honey Extractors: How to Choose?

Each Summer thousands of beekeepers enjoy harvesting honey from their beehives.  After managing the colonies over the last 12 months, it is very rewarding to collect a great crop.  Though not a requirement, most beekeepers will begin to consider whether or not they should purchase a honey extractor. It can be an expensive investment but one that makes beekeeping much easier.

What is a Honey Extractor?

Three large manual honey extractors image.

A honey extractor is a piece of equipment that uses centrifugal force to separate liquid honey from the comb. They are often called a honey spinner or honey centrifuge.

The most basic unit consists of a large container or drum (also called a barrel) and frame baskets (or similar structure) to hold beehive frames.

Modern machines are usually made of stainless steel.  These are less likely to rust than older types that were galvanized. A slightly conical bottom causes the honey to drain to the sides of the drum – this helps in emptying your extractor. A honey gate allows liquid to flow into a 5 gallon bucket (or similar) for storage.

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How Does a Honey Extractor Work?

After the beekeeper collects the supers with frames of ripe honey from the hive, they must be uncapped.  This part of honey extraction can be accomplished with hand held or electric tools. 

Some beekeepers just use a warm bread knife to slice off the wax cappings. However, you can purchase special tools for extracting.

Uncapped frames are placed into the extractor.  A motor or hand crank is used to apply power to the machine which spins the frames.  This is similar to a washing machine when it is on the spin cycle.

Just like a washing machine, the liquid is thrown out of the comb by the force.  It hits the side of the extractor drum and flows down into the bottom.  Most extractors have a gate at the base that can be opened or closed to allow the liquid to be put into buckets for storage.

A clear plastic lid keeps dust out of the machine. It also helps keep some of the fine honey mist or wax particles from flying out of the top during use. However, they are notoriously easy to break – mine is broken right now.

Fresh honey flows from gate on honey spinner image.

Types of Honey Extractors: Which is Best?

When a beekeeper is choosing an extractor to purchase, there are several different types to consider. One issue is size.  How big of an extractor do you need to buy? 

To a degree the size of your honey extractor can be determined by the number of hives you have in your apiary. A small 4-frame is often large enough for a hobbyist with a couple of hives.

Extractors are measured by the number of frames they hold. This means that you fill the extractor with the required number of frames and run the machine. 

Once all of the liquid is slung out, it is time to remove the empty frames of honey comb.  Therefore, the more frames you can put into the machine at a time – the faster your extraction job will go.

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All extractors work with shallow frames because this is the most common size used for honey collection.  However, most also accommodate medium frames or even a small number of deep frames.  These may require a bit of frame manipulation or extra time to complete the extraction process.

The smallest 2-frame models are okay to use. But, they will work you to death if you have more than 1 or 2 hives. Choose at least a 4 frame unit if possible.

Tangential honey centrifuge with frame baskets image.

Tangential vs Radial

Honey extractors come in two different types: Tangential and Radial.  Don’t be put off by the fancy words.  This simply means that one kind of machine slings the liquid out of both sides of the frame at the same time.  In the other type of extractor, only one side is spun out and you have to flip the frame and repeat for side two.

Tangential extractors are the most economical choice in most cases.  They hold from 4 to 9 frames (or more) at a time.  The beekeeper runs the machine to sling out honey on one side – then flips the frame over to do the other side.

They work very well but do require more time due having to repeat the process for each side of a frame.

Radial extractors have become more popular in recent years.  This is mainly due to the surge in interest in beekeeping as a hobby.  In this type of machine, the frames are placed inside similar to the spokes of a bicycle wheel.

The motion of the machine is able to clean out both sides of the honeycomb at the same time.  Though a bit more expensive than most tangential machines, a radial extractor is a big time saver.

Radial honey centrifuge with shallow frames of honey inside image.

Manual vs Electric Honey Extractors

Another major consideration in choosing an extractor is whether to go with manual or electric.  Both work well and will do the job of helping you process your harvest.

However, if your beekeeping budget allows – opt for a model with an electric motor.  A motorized honey extractor costs more but the savings in time and “elbow grease” is well worth the money.

However, if you just don’t want to invest that much and you have a lot of helpers – a manual extractor will get the job done. It just takes a bit longer and more effort on your part.

I began beekeeping with a manual honey extractor but it was capable of being converted to electric.  I planned to use it manually for a few seasons and then purchase the motor attachment.

A manual unit has a large hand crank that is used to turn the inner workings of the spinner. This nicer models has gears that help accelerate the spin.

I only had about 6 supers of honey to extract that year.  But after that first season, I ordered a motor and have never looked back.

A honey extractor is a valuable piece of beekeeping equipment that holds its value well.  If you decide after a few years that beekeeping is not your thing, you can sell your extractor.  You should have no problems selling a well-cared for machine.

DIY Honey Extractors

Beekeepers are inventive individuals and you will find instructions online for building your own spinner.  These can be very efficient but I have seen some dangerous models too.  If you choose this route, be sure to use food grade parts for any area that comes in contact with the honey. 

Benefits of Honey Extraction

Of course, there are other ways to prepare your honey crop without the use of an extractor. However, there are certainly benefits of the extraction process.

The major benefit is that the empty honeycomb (or drawn comb) can be reused by the bees. Comb can be used over and over by the bees for several years. This enables a hive to produce more honey because they do not have to rebuild all the wax comb each year.

With proper care, the modern stainless steel units can last a lifetime. They also retain a good resale value to other beginner beekeepers.

In recent years, inexpensive models have become available. They will get the job done and can be a wise choice for someone with limited funds. However, the quality is often not as good as those sold by reliable dealers and there may be no warranty.

If you are uncertain about whether or not you really need a honey extractor, ask around at local beekeeping clubs. Some have units that they rent out for a small fee to local beekeepers. Another option is finding a beekeeping friend and sharing an extractor.

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