An extractor is a special style of centrifuge, which is usually how beekeepers remove honey from wax combs, while saving the combs for the bees to use again. A honey extractor has an upfront cost, and also costs some time to rinse out after each extraction, but it's well worth it for the ease and efficiency it provides. In addition to being easier on the beekeeper, extracting with an extractor is better for your bees because the honey can be removed from the wax without destroying the combs. Since producing wax comb takes the bees a lot of time and energy (the energy is nectar they drink, which could have been stored and turned into honey), your colonies will thank you when you return their honeyless frames of comb for them to reuse. 

However, beekeepers who don't have an extractor still need to harvest honey. In this article, we share some tips for extracting honey without an extractor using two different methods - both of which will destroy the wax combs in the process. Which of the two methods you choose will depend on the foundation under your wax combs. The "Crush-and-Strain" method should be used for frames of plastic foundation, or frames with thick or reinforced wax foundation. The "Cut-Comb" method can be used on frames with no foundation at all, or frames with special extra-thin cut-comb foundation.  

The first step is selecting the combs of honey you want to harvest. You should trust the bees' instincts and the delicate sugar-concentration sensors in their mouths, and choose frames of honey that are fully capped. Capped honey will not spoil because the sugar concentration is too high for yeasts and bacteria to grow, but uncapped nectar contains too much water and can cause an entire batch of extracted honey to spoil. Keeping excess moisture out of your honey is crucial to long-term honey storage. For the same reason, dry all of your extracting equipment before use, and even avoid extracting on rainy or very humid days since honey can absorb moisture from the air.  

Whichever method you choose, your extraction location should be dry, and also isolated from bees. Bees can smell the scent of honey in the air, so you don't want an open garage window to invite them into your extraction process.  Warm honey and a warm room will make the honey flow more freely - this is desirable when spinning the honey in an extractor, or when crushing your combs and waiting for the honey to drip out of the wax. It is not necessarily helpful when making cut-comb honey, because soft wax and runny honey will cause your combs to be floppy and delicate while you're working with them. During the cutting process, you may have more luck if things are a little cooler and firmer. (But not so cold that the wax becomes brittle!)

Method 1: Cut-Comb Honey

  • Beeswax on its own is perfectly edible (though many prefer to spit it out).
  • Newer, light-colored combs that have never contained brood are the best choice for cut-comb honey. Best of all are combs the bees created this year.
  • The process is quite messy - it's tempting to do it outside, but remember that you will also attract all of the foraging bees in the area.
  • Cut squares of comb with a sharp knife. Try to cut, not crush. The line of cells you cut through will leak honey, but the goal is to leave most cells undamaged.
  • Cut comb sections should be stored in food-safe containers (clear tops let you show off the combs) and it's best to only store in a single layer, or else the weight of the combs on top will crush and deform the combs below and they won't look very appetizing. 
  • After you've cut the combs you must freeze them at least overnight to kill wax moths and small hive beetles (including eggs and tiny larvae)/ Two nights in the freezer might leave you even more confident that these pests have been killed.
  • Eating the honey is as easy as grabbing a spoon or knife and scooping up a bite of comb. Spreading comb honey on toast makes the bits of wax melt in, and it's delicious overall.
  • If you grow to like the sensation of harvesting and eating comb honey, you can also buy comb honey systems like Ross Rounds or Hogg Halfcomb to produce a similar product in a more orderly way in future years.

Method 2: Crush-And-Strain 

  • The simplest method of honey extraction, and probably the oldest, is the crush-and-strain method. You simply destroy each of the wax cells holding the honey by crushing the entire comb in a bowl (with a tool or with your hands).  
  • Once you've broken the cells, you must strain the honey and wax to separate them. The easiest method for most people involves draining honey into a bowl under a kitchen colander with a piece of filter cloth set inside it. 
  • You can periodically squeeze the pile and rearrange the crushed comb as it drains, to speed the process along.
  • The honey will need to drain for a number of hours, maybe overnight. Remember that warm temperatures will speed up the process.
  • Seal the honey in a jar once you've collected it so that it can't absorb moisture from the air. Then use it whenever you need to add a touch of sweetness to your favorite recipes.

At the end of both methods, you'll be left with some wax mixed with leftover honey. You can wash this in cold water to dissolve the honey without harming the wax, and then dry it. Alternatively, you can melt everything together in a double boiler and then pour it (carefully!) into a container to cool. The honey will sink, the melted wax will float and then harden, and once the wax completely hardens you'll have honey, wax, and a layer of "stuff" in between them. You can make use of the wax to coat hive equipment, or you can melt and refine it further for use in candle-making or cosmetics.