In Part 1 of this two-part series, we looked at the various forms of honey that you might want to harvest, as well as some of the logistical factors you will need to consider. Now we cover the specifics of harvesting honey.
We look at the ways in which you can collect and prepare frames from your hives, the equipment choices available to you and the main methods for extracting your honey.
Harvesting honey is a very enjoyable part of beekeeping. Providing you keep your bees in mind and don’t take too much honey, it is a sweet reward for all that effort, both from your bees and you.
The harvesting of honey can be divided into three main steps:
- Collection of frames from your hive
- Uncapping of frames
- Extraction of honey from the frames
Let’s look at each of these in turn. For the purposes of this article, we will assume you are interested in extracted honey, rather than comb or chunk.
Note: There’s another step about how to jar and package your honey, which is perhaps most relevant if you plan to sell your honey, but we will cover that elsewhere.
Let’s get the dry – but essential – legal stuff out the way first.
If you plan to sell honey, you are bound by local and state regulations regarding the production and selling of food. This is reasonable – when you purchase honey from someone, you should and do expect a certain assurance about the safety of that food. Therefore, if you plan to sell honey, check with the local authorities.
We will cover the implications of selling your honey elsewhere. Here we will assume you will be extracting honey for your own use.
Type of hive
As an introductory article, let’s describe the basic principles and processes associated with extracting honey. We are assuming that you are using a Langstroth hive for now.
Bees first, you second…
This is a good time to remind you that the primary reason the honey exists is for the benefit of the bees, not you! A broken record we may be, but leave your first year bees to enjoy and survive with all the honey they create.
After they have overwintered for a first time you can start thinking of the honey rewards coming your way!
How much to leave for the bees
There is no simple answer to this, since it depends on many factors including the race of bees, their ability to overwinter, our location and certainly the length of the winter.
Although we can’t offer a precise estimate, a general guideline, averaged nationwide, might suggest 70 lbs of honey to get through the winter. A single, deep frame of honey will hold around 7 lb of honey, so you can roughly consider a 10 frame deep box full of honey to be what your bees will need.
But, again, find this only in the second year. First year = for the bees!
Removing bees from frames
While most people love honey, few enjoy the crunch of a bee on their toast! So, step one in honey harvesting is to ensure you have bee-free frames! There are a few ways to do this, from the simple to the clever.
Shaking or brushing frames
The most obvious way to remove bees is simply to brush them off. Place a spare box alongside the hive. Then remove a frame from the hive and brush off your bees, near the entrance.
Next, place the bee-free frame in the spare box and cover with a board or towel. Leaving this open is an invitation for robbers to smell an opportunity.
With the frame in the spare box and covered, go back to the hive, get another frame and do the same thing over.
A note about brushing bees. We’ve seen how bees have an incredible series of behaviors and “secrets” in how they live their lives. Here’s another one. The cells in honeycomb are built horizontally, which is unusual for social insects who generally build vertical cells. If the bee’s cells were perfectly horizontal there would be a risk of nectar seeping out. In fact, each cell in honeycomb is slightly slanted upwards, at an angle of around 13 degrees.
For this reason, when you use a bee brush to remove bees, brush UPWARDS gently and with short strokes. This minimizes the possibility of injuring your bees.
Apart from brushing, another option is simply to shake the bees off or a combination of brushing and shaking.
This is, of course, a pretty simple way to remove your bees but be aware that this can take a while since you are dealing with a frame at a time. Additionally, the very process has the potential to work your bees into a frenzy – they want to be back doing their job! If you are wearing good protective clothing, though, you will be safe.
Blowing bees off frames
Another option is to blow your bees off the frame. We don’t mean to lean over and empty your lungs! We mean using a bee blower. Some people even use leaf blowers. It is technically an option but we just don’t recommend it for the new beekeeper. It can anger and disorientate your bees.
One more thing. We think beekeeping is a peaceful, quiet and sometimes almost zen-like hobby. So we don’t recommend this…
Thankfully there’s a more gentle, easy way to rid your honey boxes of bees. This approach requires a little more patience but is less chaotic and more calm for both your bees and you.
A bee escape is essentially a one-way street for your bees. By placing the bee escape between a) the boxes where you want your bees and b) the boxes with the honey that you want to empty of bees, you eventually ensure virtually all bees are out of the honey boxes. You simply install the bee escape, wait a couple of days and then return to pull out honey boxes, free of bees.
There are various types of bee escape available, such as an escape screen.
The process is easier to see than to explain, so check out this video.
With your frames retrieved from the hive and brought inside, the first step is to uncap your frames i.e. to remove the wax caps off the cells.
It is best to uncap and extract your honey soon after you pull your frames from the hive, although it is not essential. If that is not feasible, store your honey in a reasonably warm space. Honey is far easier to extract when warm and less likely to granulate. In short, consider doing the whole job – collection of frames, uncapping of frames and extracting of honey – all at once.
Uncapping is a rather simple job and involves the use of an uncapping knife to slice off the caps. While heated uncapping knives are available to help with the process, unheated uncapping knives do the job just fine. Another very popular choice is the purpose-built comb uncapper, which simply holds the frame in place while an uncapping knife is used.
Here’s a cute video of uncapping a frame – and a rather beautiful frame of honey, at that!
With your frames uncapped it’s time to get some honey! You have a number of choices, depending on time available, budget and other factors.
Crush and strain
This is a low-tech approach that works very well for small volumes of honey, as is normally the case for most new beekeepers. It relies simply on the comb being crushed to release the honey and then allowing gravity to work its magic.
One way to use the crush and strain method is with a bucket strainer system.
As your honey harvesting becomes more frequent, you may wish for a more efficient process than simply waiting for gravity. Roll up, centrifugal force.
Spin extractors are popular among many beekeepers as a very efficient and quick way to extract honey. The uncapped frames are inserted into the extractor and then spun around at a quick rate. This means that the honey pulls free of the comb, hits the insides of the extractor and then drops down into a collection chamber. A honey gate can then be used to release the honey at the bottom.
The resultant honey will retain some wax but it is a simple task to filter it into bottles.
When beekeeping takes over…
If beekeeping becomes your thing in a big way, you have lots of honey to harvest and you also have deep pockets, then a powered extractor can save you a lot of time and elbow grease.
The following video happens to show a power extractor in action but is also a delightful explanation of harvesting honey.