How to extract honey from the comb: a small-scale beekeeper shares the full process of taking honey from the hives and extracting it into jars.
After toiling long and hard over the summer, honeybees will have stored up a supply of honey that will last them through the winter. In fact, they will often overproduce when it’s been a good summer for them. So much so that their surplus is often thirty or forty pounds of honey per hive. That’s more than enough for me and I’m always conscious to leave plenty for the bees. Beekeepers in warmer climates, with larger and more productive bees, can expect double that harvest. To put it into perspective, a standard jar of honey often contains one pound (454g) 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 a bit of honey for their rent and they carry on without any ill effects. It’s a win-win situation.
I now have three hives but since the third is just starting out I’ve decided to not take any honey from it this year. It’s a small colony that started as a wild swarm. I’ve only just moved it from the small hive it was living in before, called a nucleus, to a full-sized hive. The other two colonies are mature and productive and I harvest honey from them every year.
How Honey is Extracted from the Comb
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. How you do this is 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 super(s) cleared of nearly all the honeybees and ready to be taken off to be harvested. The few that remain aren’t harmed and are easy to gently brush off.
Uncapping Honeycomb in the Honey Shed
The honey shed I use is a closed room with ventilation that insects can’t come through. When you’re extracting, the aroma of honey can attract local honeybees en masse, and that can be an issue. In the shed is an electric extractor, pans, metal trays, uncapping tools, a sink, and other honey processing tools. You can see a full tour of the honey shed over here.
The first step in extracting honey is to uncap the honeycomb. 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 but it’s far easier to use an uncapping comb which 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 hand-powered extractor. The usual set-up is in the kitchen or garage with layers of newspaper or cardboard on the floor to catch the mess. It’s hard work but a manual extractor is much less expensive than a fancy electric set-up.
A beekeeping friend of mine says it takes him about two hours of hand-spinning to extract his year’s honey harvest. In contrast, it takes the flip of a switch and fifteen minutes to extract the same number of frames using an electric extractor. Now you can understand the appeal of borrowing my friend’s honey shed.
Settling & Botting
When the honey flows out of the extractor, it will be filled with bits of beeswax and other debris. Once it’s spun out, the honey needs to be drained through a mesh to separate the larger bits out. I save the beeswax from this step to use in handmade beauty products such as Manx Beeswax skincare.
Next, the honey needs to sit for a few days so that any remaining wax particles have the chance to float to the top. I use a relatively basic method for this step in that I simply skim this layer off and then fill sterilized bottles with the rich honey underneath. I don’t heat or process my honey in any other way so it’s pure, rich, and a hundred percent raw. Settling tanks with a tap at the bottom are more common, and an easier method.
Once you’ve finished the sticky business of extracting honey you’ll be left with 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 skincare.
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 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.
Interested in seeing a second to extract honey? If you have only a little comb to extract, try the Crushing & Straining method.