How to Extract Honey: Steps & Precautions

As a beekeeper, there is no better time than honey extraction time. Although some of the methods involved are tedious and involving, the final product is what keeps you going.

Extracting honey is the process of getting honey from the honeycombs in pure liquid form. The goal is to have the honey in its purest form. Getting it in this form from the honeycombs lowers the chances of contamination and adulteration.

This article explores the different honey extraction methods and provides guidance on effectively carrying out the process. We’ll also explore how you should handle and store the honey to benefit from its long shelf life.

Honey extraction methods

You can use several extraction methods to get the honey in its pure liquid form. They include:

Crush and Strain

This method is the traditional way of harvesting honey. Some beekeepers claim it can’t be termed an extraction method as it ruins the honeycombs, and you remain with wax to handle.

The process is involving and takes longer compared to modern extraction methods as it follows these steps:

  1. Get to the hive frames and break the honeycombs into large pieces. If you have the plastic frames, wipe the combs off entirely from the point they are attached to the foundation. 
  2. Gently place the chunks of honeycombs in a clean, spacious bucket.
  3. Using a masher, crush the honeycombs to extract the honey. Crush the honeycombs for a while until you’re sure you’ve extracted all the honey from the combs. 
  4. It’s now time to strain. First, use a colander to eliminate the larger pieces of the combs. Ensuring the room temperature when carrying out the exercise is ideal for optimal results. Preferably make it about 90⁰C. Don’t exceed this level as it could alter the honey structure, damaging the enzymes.
  5. Get a fine mesh strainer that will get rid of the smaller honeycomb crumbs.
  6. Use a cheesecloth to ensure you eliminate the tiny particles that could have escaped the previous two filters. At this point, you should have pure liquid honey.
  7. Allow a few minutes to cool off. Pour it into air-tight jars. The product is now ready.

Although the crush and strain method does the job, it could take longer if you have a large volume of honey that needs extraction simultaneously.

Most people no longer use this method because it destroys the combs, so they can’t be reused. This means you’ll need to install a new foundation on the frames.

Using a Honey Extractor

This is a modern and easier way of extracting honey. It’s the preferred method by most beekeepers nowadays as it’s cleaner and saves the wax for reuse by the bees, unlike the other traditional methods.

In using an extractor, these are the steps to follow:

  1. First, uncap the cells using a special comb designed for the exercise or the heated uncapping knife. This stage involves removing the outer cover that caps the cells.
  2. Place the frames into respective slots within the extractor.
  3. Run the extractor so it spins and empties the honey.
  4. After a few minutes, and depending on the extractor you’re using, flip the frames so you can extract the honey from both sides.
  5. Filter the honey by opening the bin and letting the honey flow in the pre-set filter bucket.
  6. Allow the honey to rest a while until it forms a foam that you can scoop.
  7. Bottle the now pure raw honey.

Note that there are two major types of honey extractors in the market; tangential and radial. Tangential extractors are small and less expensive; however, they require you to flip the frames manually to extract the honey from both sides of the cells.

Radial extractors, on the other hand, are fast as you don’t need to flip the frames manually, making them work a lot faster. They also come in bigger sizes, allowing you to place more frames at once, making the entire exercise less taxing. 

Radial extractors take up more space and are a bit pricey compared to the tangential type.

How often should I harvest honey?

It’s possible to harvest honey twice a year during the honey harvesting season, which falls between June and September.

The number of times you harvest honey in a season is not guaranteed as it depends on several contributing factors, as highlighted below:

1. Climate

The climate of the region where you have your hives will affect how many times you harvest your honey. The plant life may not be very vibrant if you live in a mostly cold region. That means you must time when the weather is warmer to harvest the honey.

Plant life during the cold season dies off, resulting in your bees having less nectar to feed on. Consequently, you can only harvest honey once or twice.

2. Pests

If pests invade your hives during the season, you might skip harvesting the honey. Infestation means there’s little honey left to take the bees through the winter season when the nectar supply is low.

3. Plants

The plants surrounding the beehives provide nectar for the bees and will influence how many times you harvest the honey. 

If the plants are vibrant throughout the year, the bees are well-fed, and you only have to wait for the climate to be conducive and warm enough to harvest.

Once winter kicks in and the plant life dies off, you’ll have to harvest the honey less often.

4. Diseases

Suppose the colony has been affected by diseases during the year. In that case, you might have to skip harvesting the honey to maintain enough to help the bees recover from the ailments, as their honey production rate is low during the ailing season.

5. Size and Age of the Hive

You may have to skip harvesting the honey in the first year as it’ll be little, given that the bees were busy making the combs during this time. 

The bigger the size of your colony, the more times can harvest honey, as the production rate is higher.

To know when it’s time to harvest the honey, you need to invest in a refractometer that will help you measure the moisture levels within the hive.

Ideally, you should harvest honey when the moisture content is between 15 and 17%. Harvesting honey below this level will yield raw honey that spoils fast and is not ideal.

How to store honey

Mature honey has a long shelf life, determined by how well you store it.  To maintain and increase its shelf life, ensure the following:

  • Store the honey in air-tight containers to prevent contamination from air and other contaminants.
  • Freeze the honey if you intend to use it over a long time, as this will help prevent crystallization.
  • Alternatively, keep the honey in a dark room at room temperature. This will help retain the original flavor, color, and texture. Avoid hot sections and direct sunlight, which will alter the honey’s structure.
  • Use glass jars or plastic food-safe containers to store the honey. Keep off metallic containers as they could oxidize, affecting the honey’s quality.
  • When it’s time to consume the frozen honey, place the container in warm water to allow gentle and gradual thawing. Hot water could break the container spilling the honey. Imagine that!

This way, you’ll always have fresh honey for consummation or selling.

Tips on honey extraction and storage

Honey extraction is a major exercise for every beekeeper and the bees. To avoid stressing your bees implement these tips:

  • Gently remove the bees on the honeycombs before you begin the extraction process.
  • Immediately hang the combs on the transfer frames, covering them as soon as possible to avoid stressing the bees and ensure they remain in place.
  • Use the right equipment for uncapping. Preferably use a fork if the honeycomb is not even. For an even honeycomb, a heated uncapping knife is ideal.
  • After using extractors when harvesting the pure honey, allow it to sit for three days until it forms a foam which you remove using a scoop.
  • Use the skimmed foam to make feed for the bees.
  • Fill the honey directly into jars to avoid multiple refilling exercises and reduce handling.
  • Store the honey away from direct sunlight. Store it in cool, dry places to increase its shelf life.
  • If you must heat the honey to liquify it, do it under 40⁰C to avoid hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). This is the measure used to tell the quality of your honey. If you can keep the HMF level below 15mg/kg, the better, as this indicates high-quality honey, which could fetch you more.

To succeed in beekeeping, whether as a hobbyist or doing it commercially, applying best practices in extraction and storage determines your success in the endeavor. The golden rule in beekeeping is that you take care of them, and they’ll take care of you.

Avoid extracting honey in your first year as a beekeeper, as you might overdo it, leaving the bees with little to feed on during the winter.

Engage a professional during the first extraction exercise to lower the margin of error. Learn and train yourself on the extraction and storage processes, as getting it wrong could stress the bees and slow your hive’s progress.

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