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A small-scale beekeeper shares the full process of how to extract honey from the honeycomb. Includes a description of how to safely remove bees from the frames, uncap the honeycomb, spin honey, and bottle honey in jars.
Honey is a delicious but often misunderstood food. Many of us know that honeybees make it but how do beekeepers harvest honey and how exactly do you extract honey from honeycomb? In this piece, you’ll learn how I harvest raw honey from my two colonies of honeybees, Bluebell and Primrose, and what’s involved. The full process, equipment, and an explanation of each. I keep my honeybees in National hives, the most common hive type in Britain, but the honey harvesting method I use is universal to many modern hives kept by small-scale beekeepers. But first, why do bees make honey and how can we harvest it sustainably?
Honey is food for honeybees. They make it so that their large colonies — up to 80,000 bees in summer and around 10,000 bees in winter have food through lean times. The larger the hive or space that honeybees have to live in, the more honey they can make to create stores for the future. In good years, honeybees can make vast amounts of honey and far more than their colony could use. Honeybees are honey-making machines though and given the opportunity they’ll keep making honey as long as there’s nectar to collect. When the weather takes a turn for the worst, honeybees live off their supplies of honey.
Small Scale Beekeeper
As a beekeeper, I’m in a relationship of give and take with the bees. I provide them with a suitable home and make sure that they’re healthy. At the end of the summer, I take some of their honey for their rent payment. It’s a win-win situation and we’ve happily lived with this arrangement for over ten years. What I always do is leave the colonies enough of their own honey to see them through rainy and wintery times and beyond. I’m not an advocate for taking all the honey off beehives and feeding bees with sugar water. The honey bees produce from flowers contains far better nutrition for them than white sugar. I want my honeybees to thrive as well as produce a honey crop for us!
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How to Extract Honey from Honeycomb
Beekeepers harvest honey at different times of the year. I tend to take honey off in September and then extract the honey in October when I have more time. To extract honey, you need to first clear the honeybees off of the frames. That way you don’t upset or hurt them, and it’s not stressful for you to take the honey off. You do this by placing a clearing board under the ‘super’, or box of frames, that you want to clear of honeybees. A clearing board has little doors that they can exit through but not come back through. After a day or two, the beekeeper arrives back to find the honey super(s) cleared of nearly all the honeybees and ready to be taken off to be harvested.
Now, clearing boards work well in theory. There’s ever been one case that I’ve arrived to take honey supers off and not found a single bee on the frames. Often there are at least a few if not a few handfuls that remain. I tend to take each super off individually and gently brush or shake the remaining bees off the frames. A bee brush comes in handy here but many beekeepers use a goose feather. Having a smoker on hand helps a lot too! Smoke calms bees and makes them less likely to get upset when you’re working in the hive. Regardless, you’ll then need to either cover the supers or remove them quickly (or both!) or honeybees will find them and start crawling over the frames again.
Honey Processing Tools
The honey harvesting method I use is standard and suitable if you’re harvesting honey from a modern hive. That means that your hive is comprised of removable frames that you fit with wax foundation that honeybees then build their honeycomb on. Though there’s a lot of equipment and materials out there that you can buy, I’ve tried to keep my set-up as low-cost but effective as possible. These are the honey-harvesting tools that I use:
- Stainless steel catering trays
- Plastic tubs
- Metal sieves
- Silicone spatulas
- Uncapping fork
- Manual Honey Extractor
- Settling Buckets
- Honey Jars
Honey Processing Set-Up
No matter where you process honeycomb, you need to make sure that it’s clean and comfortable, and that bees cannot get inside. Once you begin opening up the honeycomb, honeybees will be aware of the scent and come looking for an easy meal! One bee can turn into dozens then hundreds in the space of just a few minutes.
These days I harvest honey at home in the kitchen, but in the past I borrowed another beekeeper’s honey shed. It makes sense to have one if you have a lot of colonies and need to house a lot of equipment and tools. If not, you can set up your honey processing area in your kitchen and store equipment in your attic or garage when it’s not in use. That’s what I do now.
One thing that I’d recommend is to cover your floor with newspaper or cardboard since honey can and will get everywhere. I’m a very clean honey processor but honey has a tendency to end up where it decides to go! Being able to peel honey and beeswax-splattered paper off the floor makes clean-up so much easier at the end of a hard day extracting honey from honeycomb.
The first step you take to extract honey from the honeycomb is to uncap the comb. Bees fill the little hexagonal cells with honey and then seal them with beeswax until they need to dip into their stores. Traditionally beekeepers use an uncapping knife (or hot knife) to remove wax cappings but it’s far easier to use an uncapping fork that gently pulls off the caps. It also minimizes damage to the comb structure so that the honeybees can take make minor repairs and immediately begin using it again.
Manual vs Electric Honey Spinning
The next step is to spin the honey out of the comb. Most small-scale beekeepers do this with a manual honey extractor. These devices use centrifugal force to throw the honey out of honeycomb and fling it onto the side of the extractor’s drum. The usual set-up is in the kitchen or garage with layers of newspaper or cardboard on the floor to catch the mess. They tend to be able to accommodate between two to nine frames. The one I have fits four frames. It can be hard work if you have a lot of frames but a manual extractor is much less expensive than an electric setup.
Hand-cranking a manual extractor isn’t as difficult as you might think though. With mine, it takes about two minutes of spinning then a pause to flip the frames around inside the extractor. Then another couple minutes spinning so that honey can be flung out and against the side of the bucket from the second side. If you have up to about eight colonies a manual extractor is perfectly suitable. If you have more than that, the work can get a bit difficult so you may want to look into an electric extractor. It takes the flip of a switch and five minutes to extract the same number of frames using an electric extractor.
When the honey flows out of the extractor, it will be filled with bits of beeswax and other debris. Once it’s spun out, you then filter it through a mesh sieve(s) to separate the larger bits out. The way this happens is that you empty the extractor once it’s so full of honey that the bottoms of the frames are getting stuck in it. You open the valve, or honey gate, at the bottom of the extractor and let the honey flow out. This honey is filled with visible bits of wax and debris so you catch it in a sieve(s) held over a vessel. I filter my honey directly over a settling tank so reduce any steps needed to transfer the honey to it later.
Honey sieves tend to come as two stacked together. The medium-mesh sieve on top is supposed to catch larger pieces of beeswax while the fine mesh one underneath catches the smaller pieces. They do a relatively good job of this but will clog up quickly, so I take a spoon or silicone sieve and remove the beeswax after each batch drains. I save it to process into clean beeswax that I’ll then use in everything from beeswax furniture polish to beeswax soap. I also sell beeswax skincare.
Settling & Bottling Honey
Next, the honey needs to sit for a few days so that any remaining wax particles have the chance to float to the top. The easiest, cleanest, and most efficient way to do this is to use settling buckets. You pour honey into them and allow any remaining wax or particles to float to the top of the honey over a period of about two to three days. At the bottom of each settling bucket is a honey gate, a kind of tap that you can open and close to allow honey out. It’s here that you place jars and fill them with honey.
Filling jars with honey is the most exciting part of extracting honey from the comb! Jar after jar fills with pure golden deliciousness. However, you’ll get to a point where the honey that comes out of the honey gate starts to have beeswax and foamy residue on top. Stop bottling honey at this point, since this residue will collect on the surface of the honey in the jars. That means that once you twist the lid off the jar, the person hoping to get at yummy honey will instead find a layer of weird white goo at the top.
The Last of the Honey
Not all is lost for this last bit of foamy honey in the settling tank. What you’ll need to do, though, is move the honey still left into a smaller settling tank with a smaller diameter. Either that or pour what’s remaining (usually about a gallon of honey) into a narrow-diameter vessel such as a large mason jar. Then leave it to settle for a couple of days before skimming off the foam and beeswax. It’s a similar method to what I used to do to settle honey.
When I first started beekeeping, I used a relatively basic method of settling honey instead of using settling buckets with honey gates. I’d leave the small amount of honey that I’d harvest in a tall kitchen pot. Then I’d simply skim this layer off and then fill clean jars with the clean honey underneath, using a ladle.
Cleaning up Wet Frames
Next comes the sticky business of cleaning up. If you’ve laid some sort of paper on the floor, it will be easier to clean up. Any utensils or containers that have honey on them can be scraped off into one container. You can even use warm water to gently rinse them off and into the same container. Collecting all of your honey residues is a great excuse to make a batch of honey wine, called mead. Collect all your beeswax pieces in another container to render down for candles, furniture polish, or skin care.
What to do with the honey-soaked frames? The best way I’ve found to clean the frames is to put them back into the hives. My comb is mostly intact and cleared of honey at this point. I put them back on in the evening or night so that it doesn’t instigate robbing — other honeybees will be drawn to the scent. I either leave the honey frames on for the colony to use again, or take them off after a few days. They’ll be clean and tidy by then and ready for storage.