In 2014, I entered the wonderful world of beekeeping. Throughout this journey, I have been able to catch wild swarms, ensure the health of the hives, watch the bees work, and have our garden pollinated by thousands of bees who live about 20 feet away. The best part of beekeeping, though, is when we have the opportunity to extract honey from our hives!
What You Need to Know About Extracting Honey
Beekeeping has been an extremely rewarding venture for me. I am able to sell honey, give honey to my neighbors, and replace the majority of refined sugar in our diets with raw honey. Now, I want to walk you through the steps that I take to put gallons of this liquid gold on my family’s table and on the tables of our neighbors.
Types of Honey Extractors
There are a few different types of extractors available on the market. The first choice you need to make is between a tangential or a radial extractor. Then, you can decide if you want to go with a manual or electric model.
Tangential Honey Extractors
This type of extractor holds frames with one side facing outward. It will hold 2-4 frames and spin one side at a time. Once the first side is finished, you stop spinning and flip the frames over to spin the other side. This is a good method for backyard beekeepers who don’t have to extract a large amount of honey at a time.
Radial Honey Extractors
Radial extractors can generally hold more frames than tangential extractors. The frames fit into the basket with the top of the frame facing out. This means that honey from both sides of the frame are extracted at the same time.
Manual Honey Extractors
Manual extractors are hand-powered. They require you to turn a handle on the top that spins the honey frame basket inside.
Electric Honey Extractors
If you have a lot of honey to extract, an electric extractor will save you a lot of work. Instead of turning the handle yourself, you can plug this extractor in and it will do the work for you!
When to Extract Honey
You need to extract honey from your hives when it is warm outside and when the bees have already been able to store up a sufficient amount of honey for themselves.
You will also need to be sure that each frame is at least 80% capped. Bees cap the cells of honey with wax when the moisture in the honey is at the proper levels. Harvesting too early can cause your honey (technically still nectar at this point) to ferment in the jars.
If you are planning to make honey wine (mead), then fermentation is what you want… If you are trying to extract honey to eat or to sell, then you need to wait for the honey to ripen in the frame.
I like to extract honey from my beehives 2 times each year. The first extraction is in Spring (usually later April or early May) and the second time is in the fall (usually October).
How Often Should You Extract Honey
I suggest only extracting honey 1-2 times per year. You don’t want to rob your bees of all of their honey stores because they will starve.
There are many people who believe that beekeepers take honey that the bees desperately need, but that isn’t true. Honeybees are hoarders so as long as you give them extra space (supers on top of their regular supply box) then they will continue to hoard honey.
We ONLY take honey from the extra supers that have been added to the top of the hive. These extra supers are removed from the beehive in the winter to help the bees stay warm. If these honey supers were left on the hive over the winter, then the bees would have to warm a much larger space, and the honey would be unused and become crystallized.
How Much Honey Can You Expect to Harvest
You can expect to get between 30-80 pounds of honey per super depending on the size of the super.
- Shallow Super: 30-40 pounds
- Medium Super: 40-60 pounds
- Deep Super: 60-80 pounds
*Estimations based on 10-frame honey supers
How To Extract Honey From Beehives
Honey extraction isn’t a difficult process, but there is a learning curve when you are first starting out. First, you will want to make sure that you have the proper tools & equipment. These tools don’t have to be fancy, just functional.
Honey Extraction Equipment Needed:
- Frame Puller
- Hive Tool (my hive tool came from The Honeystead)
- Bee Brush
- Capping Knife
- Bin or Bucket for Caps
- Honey Extractor– If you have a local beekeeping association, they might have one that members can borrow.
- Honey Bucket
The Honey Harvesting Process
STEP 1: Wear Proper Protection.
I always wear a full bee suit with a hood when going into a hive. Each beekeeper will have his or her own preference here. I have one beekeeping friend who doesn’t wear any protective gear at all. You can wear a full suit, just a jacket with a veil and gloves, or just a veil.
STEP 2: Smoke the Bees.
Smoking is a practice that we use for protection and to help keep the bees calm. We put grass, twigs, or paper into the canister of the smoker, light it, and press some of the smoke onto the hives as we open them. This creates a cool smoke that doesn’t hurt the bees, but it keeps them calm long enough to pull the frames out without causing them to swarm.
STEP 3: Pull Frames Carefully.
Pulling the frames out of the hives can be really simple or really tricky. This time we had one hive that was simple- just pry the frames apart gently with the hive tool and lift them out with the frame holder- but we had another hive that was a little more complicated. The bees had built burr comb between the frames so the wax would break into chunks each time we pulled a new frame.
When this happens, simply scrape the burr comb off with your hive tool and save it to render into beeswax or to feed back to your bees. You can also save this comb to eat as chunk honey.
STEP 4: Brush the Bees Off of the Frames.
Once the frames are removed from the hive, you will need to brush the remaining bees off. Use a bee brush to swipe them away gently. I then put the bee-less frames full of honey into some empty honey supers or a storage container.
STEP 5: Transport from Hive to the Extractor.
You have to move the honey pretty far away from the hives before you can extract or the bees will come after it. I like to put my frames straight out of the beehive into a container- usually an empty honey super or a storage bin. I then move the frames of honey to an enclosed room in my garage so that I can extract honey in peace.
STEP 6: Remove Wax Cappings
When the bees have filled a frame with honey and it has reached the right moisture level they will place wax caps over the hexagonal openings to keep the honey from spilling out and to maintain the correct moisture.
This wax needs to be removed in order for the honey to spin out during extraction. I use an uncapping knife to slice the wax caps off over the box that will catch the wax. These caps can be rendered later for beeswax or given back to the bees.
STEP 7: Spin the Frames.
This is the most time-consuming step when we extract honey. The uncapped frames are placed four at a time into the frame basket in the extractor. Place the lid on and spin.
The honey is drawn out of the outermost side of each frame by the centrifugal force exerted during spinning. Then, flip the frames and spin until the other side is empty. This is repeated until all of the frames are emptied.
I use a hand crank extractor, but you can purchase an electric honey extractor to save your elbow grease.
STEP 8: Strain the Honey.
During the spinning process, the extracted honey collects in the bottom of the extractor. When you open the spout, it will pour through a mesh sieve and into a food-grade honey bucket (that also has a spout).
The sieve will remove any dead bees and wax that were still on the frame during extraction and the strained honey will flow into the 5-gallon bucket.
STEP 9: Jar the Finished Product.
After the honey has gone through the filter, I break out the mason Jars to fill. I continue filling until there is no more honey in the bucket.
All you have to do for this is open a jar, hold it under the bucket spout, and open the spout.
What to Do with Extracted Frames
Now you can take your empty frames and prepare them for next year. All you have to do for this is pop them in the freezer. This will keep bugs off of them and the wax foundation and comb can be preserved for the bees to use next season.
Harvesting Chunk or Comb Honey
Since several of our frames had burr comb with honey built in between them, it broke into chunks and could not be placed into the extractor. Instead of wasting this precious liquid, we decided to try our hand at chunk honey.
Chunk honey is basically a chunk of honey-filled comb surrounded by more honey. Packaging this way keeps all of the propolis, pollen, and everything else that the bees put into the honey because the comb has not been uncapped, filtered, or altered by us at all. It is the most natural form of honey available. The comb is also said to be one of the best cures for allergies and asthma!
To eat it, you can use a kitchen knife to cap and let the honey drain out, but many people love to eat a chunk of the comb whole or spread it on toast. There are many different ways to utilize chunk honey to fit your palate preference.
>>More Beekeeping Resources<<
- Making Sugar Cakes for Honeybees
- Overwintering Honeybees: 5 Things You Need to Know
- 9 Things to Know Before You Catch a Wild Bee Swarm
- The Honeybee Record Book
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