While not vital to the success of your beehives, every beekeeper needs a honey refractometer. This easy to use tool measures moisture levels in honey and is critical to presenting high quality honey – year after year.
As a beekeeper, I know my bees work hard to produce a nice honey harvest. Learning how to use a refractometer helps me evaluate the readiness of the honey and protect its quality.
Understanding Honey Refractometers
Luckily for some of us, we don’t really need to understand how refractometers work to use them. But, the process is rather interesting.
The principles of refractometry is a technique of measuring how light bends as it passes through a substance.
In reference to beekeeping, a honey refractometer is a specialized device designed to gauge the moisture content in honey (how much water).
It is a rather simple device using a prism, light source and a scale to give beekeepers an accurate reading of the water or moisture content of honey. This helps them ensure they are providing a high quality product.
Several different types of honey refractometers are available in various styles, accuracy levels and price ranges.
Prepare for Testing
As with many scientific results, your test will only be as accurate as the person doing the test. In addition to your honey refractometer, you will need:
- a clean spatula or spoon to collect the sample
- a clean container to hold the sample
Both the utensils used and the refractometer should be clean and dry!
Because of the variability between the different types of honey, it is good to take a few samples from different places in the container.
These can all be added together in the clean container for testing (mixed together – similar to taking a soil test for your garden).
Be sure to check your device to ensure that any residue from previous testing is removed. Cleaning the refractometer is typically done using distilled water and a soft, lint-free cloth.
How to Use a Honey Refractometer
A honey refractometer is easy to use and provides important information about the status of your crop. Any time you have doubts, it is time to test the moisture levels. Begin at room temperature.
- Pull up the clear flat panel on top of the glass prism
- Add a couple of drops of honey on the glass surface – avoid bubbles – don’t put too much honey
- Close the flat panel against the glass and wiggle slightly to spread honey out
- Hold refractometer toward a bright light – look through the eyepiece
- Look for the sharp line between the blue and white field – this is your reading
After use, be sure to clean your refractometer. Use a damp lint free cloth to clean both panels of the unit. Store your tool in the box to protect the prism and other delicate parts.
While there is no universally agreed standard, most beekeepers want the moisture content of honey be between 16-18% – certainly never above 19%. Once the water levels rise about this number, yeast multiplication increases greatly.
Calibrating Your Refractometer
When your refractometer arrives, it is a good idea to calibrate it before using it for the first time. After that, recalibration once a season helps insure it is working properly. This could be a part of your spring beekeeping chores.
A small screw on the unit is used to adjust calibration and it can easily get bumped in shipping. Most new units come with a special reference solution to use for calibration. Follow the instructions that come with your model.
For instance, if the solution that comes with your unit is supposed to have a Brix reading of 20% – you turn the screw until you get that reading.
Using Olive Oil to Calibrate
If you are lacking special solution for calibration, you can use extra virgin olive oil. It will have a Brix reading of about 71.5 – which is 27% water.
Life the clear panel on the top of the unit, clean the flat glass surface with a lint free cloth. Be careful, don’t scratch it – this is your prism.
Add a couple of drops of your calibration solution to the flat glass – avoid air bubbles. Gently press down the clear panel causing the solution to spread out.
Hold the refractometer towards a bright light, adjust the angle if needed -look through the eyepiece. You may have to adjust your eyepiece if the view is fuzzy.
Look for a blue and white field with a sharp line where the two colors meet. This is your Brix reading in degrees – i.e. 27%.
If the reading is not very close to that of your calibration solution, you must adjust your refractometer.
The calibration screw is on the handle and often has a cover. Pop off the cover and use a small screwdriver to adjust the sharp line to the proper measurement for your solution.
Once your unit is reading the olive oil correctly, we know it should be ready use. Remember, you only have to do this process once in a while. It does not require adjustment before every use.
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Choosing a Honey Refractometer
When shopping for a honey refractometer, there is no need to spend hundreds of dollars. There are plenty of models available for under $50 – many for under $30.
For the everyday beekeeper, these will work just fine. Mine cost under $25 at the time and has been working great for over 8 years.
If you want to pay the price for an expensive digital one, that’s great. However, the lower cost models get the job done just as well.
Yes, you can use a general-purpose device but a honey refractometer is highly recommended. These refractometers have scales calibrated to measure moisture levels accurately in honey, providing more reliable results.
Periodic calibration of your honey refractometer is important for accurate results. It is a good idea to perform this maintenance several times during the season – or even better – before each use.
Honey refractometers can also be used to assess the sugar content in nectar but they are primarily used for honey.
The Brix of honey can be from about 70 to 88 (solids). But honey refractometers measure the water in honey – not solids.
As a Master Beekeeper, I understand the need for beekeepers to have the tools to ensure the quality of their honey products. By providing reliable measurements of moisture levels, honey refractometers help us make good decisions about harvesting, processing, and storing honey.