Extracting, or harvesting, honey is a well-known benefit of beekeeping. Maintaining your hives throughout the year brings a payoff in the form of sweet honey that you can enjoy at home, give as gifts, or package and sell at the farm stand or market table. As a new beekeeper, the honey extraction process may seem a bit overwhelming — but we’re here with a quick lesson on honey extraction methods.
The honey extraction process involves multiple steps, starting with harvesting (selecting and collecting the frames you’ll extract), then uncapping, extracting, filtering, and bottling. Gather the honey extracting tools you need before you start, including:
Most often, you’ll extract honey in August or September. Occasionally, high production allows for an early honey harvest as well. Frames should be at least 80 percent capped — 100 percent capped is even better — before harvest. Trust the bees on this: They cap the honey when they are satisfied with the transformation from watery nectar to honey, which has less than 18 percent water content. If you harvest too early, high water content may lead to spoiled or fermented honey.
Note: If this is the hive’s first year, you should leave any honey for the bees so they have enough resources as they overwinter. Some honey must also be left behind in established hives — bees eat it during winter. If the bees aren’t left with enough food for winter, they’ll starve and freeze, so you may need to replace harvested honey with sugar syrup fed in fall, or supplemental winter food all winter. Usually, bees stand the best chance of survival eating their own honey.
Uncapping and extracting honey should be done indoors, in a clean, food-safe space, but beware: It is messy business, and your kitchen counters, sink, and table may not come through the process unscathed. Choose a designated extraction location and protect surfaces against sticky spills. Don’t be tempted to extract outside though: Bees will descend upon your combs if they smell the exposed honey. Follow these steps to prep your frames and gather your honey harvest:
For small apiaries, harvesting honey without an extractor can be a fun and inexpensive option. We’ll cover two methods that do not require an extractor: the crush and strain method, and the cut comb method. Both of these extraction methods sacrifice comb, meaning your bees will need to draw out new comb before they can produce more honey — which can mean a smaller harvest the next year. This may factor into your decision about which method you use.
The crush and strain method is a low-cost honey processing technique. You simply scrape the honeycomb off of the frame into a bucket, then crush the comb. Place a sieve in another bucket or container, pour the crushed comb into the sieve, and strain it overnight. This process may be best suited for hobby beekeepers who only have one or two hives. The honey will move more quickly in a warm room, and you may be able to get more honey if you stir the crushed combs a few times and scrape large wax flakes off of the inside of the strainer.
Cut comb honey is an elegant way to package and use your harvest. There are tools available for cutting and packaging comb, but a good-quality kitchen knife does the job nicely, as well. This method works only for frames that contain wireless wax foundation or no foundation — you cannot use this method with frames that use plastic foundations, and wired wax foundation will limit the sizes and shapes of combs you can cut. Choose frames that are fully capped and sealed — this indicates that the honey will have the right amount of moisture to prevent spoiling.
Determine what size comb will fit in your containers, then use a knife or comb cutting tool to press through the entire frame. Warming the cutter or knife can make it easier to cut through the comb, but it isn’t necessary. Then, remove the section of comb and place it into your preferred cut comb container. If you like the look (and market price) of comb honey, but hate the mess, consider investing in a Ross Round or Hogg Halfcomb comb honey system.
While many beekeepers and customers like the look of honey within the container, you can let comb drain on a wire rack overnight if you prefer to limit the pooling honey.
Cut Comb Harvest Tip: Freeze your combs either before you cut, or after you have cut and packaged the honeycomb. This kills any wax moths that may be living in the comb, preventing infestation of stored honey.
If you plan to extract significant amounts of honey and wax, you may choose a motorized or hand-crank honey extractor. With an extractor, you will remove and reserve the wax cappings, then place the uncapped frames into the baskets within the extractor. The extractor spins, and the centrifugal force drives the honey out of the frames. Spin the frames in batches until all of your selected frames have been harvested. Make sure that every load of frames is balanced across the extractor — an unbalanced load can damage the extractor, the frames, or both. Don’t try to extract frames with no wire or plastic foundation or supports, because they can’t hold up to the intensity of the extractor and will break apart. After you have extracted the honey, replace the frames in the hive so your bees can fill them again.
Honey Harvest Tip: While your budget as a new beekeeper may be tight, your local beekeeping club may gather for extracting parties or have a loaner kit you can borrow.
Freshly extracted honey will contain bits of pollen, beeswax, propolis — and even a few bee parts here and there. While it’s not a requirement, many beekeepers strain or filter honey to remove these pieces prior to bottling. You can strain using cheesecloth or two-stage filters over a gauged sieve, pour the honey through a nylon filter inside a bucket and suspend the filter to let the honey drain through, or choose a combination honey sieve and bottling tank to streamline your filtering and packaging process.
After you’ve extracted and filtered your honey, it’s bottling time. Eating, gifting, or selling your own honey is one of the best rewards of beekeeping. Our Beginner’s Beekeeping Guide provides more resources and tips for newbies and experienced beekeepers alike.