A honey extractor is an excellent way to remove honey from its comb. This piece of equipment will make your beekeeping operation super-efficient. It also keeps the comb intact for next season which is a huge help for your colony.
This in-depth guide walks beekeepers through how to extract honey using an extractor. The fundamental steps are the same, whether you use a radial, tangential, powered, or hand-crank machine.
If you prefer watching, then skip down to the video.
What gear is needed to machine-extract honey?
Get all the required equipment and tools ready before getting started. It’ll make the entire process more enjoyable if you’re well-prepared.
- Honey extractor: for fast extraction of honey
- Uncapping knife: scrapes wax cappings off the cells
- Uncapping fork: uncaps hard to reach cells
- Collection tray or bin: to catch the cappings for reuse
- Tarp: placed on the floor for easier cleanup
- Double metal sieve: separates unwanted debris and dirt
- Large food-safe vessel: for honey collection
- Plastic or glass jars with lids: for honey storage
- Jug: to pour honey
These items are all a hobbyist beekeeper needs. Commercial apiaries looking to sell their product require specialist equipment for checking moisture, blending, grading, and jar labeling.
Watch the video
The 5-step process for extracting honey
To extract honey, beekeepers should collect the supers, uncap the cells, and spin the frames. Once all the sweet goodness is removed from their cells, you’ll then strain and jar the honey, before cleaning up the honey house.
1. Collect supers
Get suited up in protective gear and then collect supers from the hives. They’re laden with honey and may be heavy. You can use a cart to transfer them from the bee yard to honey house.
Capped honey is usually a sign that the honey is ready for harvesting. But if you want a more precise way to check, invest in a honey refractometer. These basic tools measure moisture content, reducing the chance of opening jars of fermented honey a year later. Get all the top-rated refractometers here.
Take care removing supers and frames to avoid injuring or killing bees. Use a bee brush to wipe them off the comb gently. We list some handy ways to clear bees further down the page. Skip down to discover how to clear bees from supers.
While some beekeepers use manual extractors near their hives, you may have to deal with aggressive bees. We recommend finding an enclosed spot away from the colony.
2. Uncap the cells
Honey bees seal their honey with a layer of wax to preserve it. Uncapping involves removing the wax caps from the honey-filled cells. Extractors cannot remove the honey with intact caps, so don’t skip this step.
A heated or unheated uncapping knife is a helpful tool for slicing off the caps. Some beekeepers prefer using an uncapping fork (capping scratcher). They help get into hard-to-reach corners of the frame.
Hold the frame over a collection bucket or bin as you do this to catch the falling wax and any honey that might drip.
3. Spin the frames
The next step is to place the uncapped honey frames in the honey extractor. Honey extractors come in many sizes and designs, but they all operate under the same principle. Extractors use centrifugal force to spin the honey out of their cells without destroying the comb.
Review of suggested honey extractors here if you’re just getting started.
Carefully place the uncapped frames in the extractor. Most extractors hold two or more frames at once. Once the frames are in place, manually crank the handle (manual extractor) or switch on the motor (electric extractor).
If you’re using a tangential extractor, then spin the frames for a few minutes. Once the cells look clear of honey, stop the machine and flip the frames.
This step allows the removal of honey from both sides of the comb. The honey gets flung to the sides of the extractor, then runs down and collects at the bottom of the barrel.
If you’re using a radial extractor, then honey gets removed from both sides at the same time. There is no need to rotate each frame halfway through.
Beekeepers using a hand-crank machine will need to use some physical effort to get the barrel rotating. An assistant is a good idea. Kids love this process and make excellent helpers!
How long should I spin the frames?
Spinning duration can vary depending on the type of extractor, type of honey, and room temperature. Allow five minutes using a fast-spinning electric machine; extra time will be needed for a manual extractor.
Operating at full speed can damage the comb, so use caution with speed settings.
4. Strain the honey
Honey collected in the extractor will contain bits of wax, bee parts, and other debris. To get pure honey, use a double sieve (strainer) to filter out these impurities.
Place the sieve over a clean honey bucket or container. Open the honey gate (valve) and let the honey flow, then let it settle for a day.
Lay cling film over the top layer of honey and allow it to rest briefly. Carefully bring the outer edges of the film towards the center to collect all the impurities and then remove them.
Quick tip: If your honey gets left in buckets for a longer period, strain a second time to collect any crystals that may have started forming. Get more tips for using a honey extractor here.
After straining the honey, it’s time to bottle it. Begin filling jars or bottles with honey. If you don’t have a large container with a valve, you can use a jug for transferring into jars.
Fill each jar to just below the threads at the top, then carefully wipe away any drips before screwing on the lid.
Store bottled honey in a cool, dark place. If properly stored, honey can last indefinitely. It might crystallize over time, but you can easily re-liquify it by gently warming the jar in a hot water bath.
Cleaning up after extraction is vital. It keeps pests like ants and wax moths away while ensuring diseases aren’t spread. Honey and wax is messy, but it’s easy to remove.
Most beekeepers wash the inside of a honey extractor with cool water. Chemical cleaners and soaps shouldn’t be used as leftover residue may taint or contaminate the next lot of honey.
Wipe down the external surfaces of an extractor with a damp cloth.
To remove honey from the sticky supers and extracted frames, beekeepers often place them back in the hive they came from. The colony will make quick work of cleaning up the frames.
If you choose to leave the super out in the open, there will be a swarm of bees for a few hours. Place it well away from the bee yard to reduce the chance of robbing.
Learn more about cleaning honey extractors here.
What to do with uncapped honey
Sometimes beekeepers may extract uncapped honey, which isn’t ready for jarring. Leaving the frames in the hive until the honey is ready makes sense but isn’t always possible.
One solution is to set up a dry, airtight drying room for stacking honey supers. Use a dehumidifier combined with a fan to reduce the moisture content in the honey. You’ll need a refractometer to check moisture levels are correct.
4 ways to remove bees from frames before extraction
- Bee brush: Use a bee brush to gently wipe bees off frames. Place bee-free frames into a spare super next to where you’re working. Replace the frames you take with empty ones, allowing the bees to start drawing out the foundation.
- Blower: Place a super on top of the hive and use a leaf blower or air compressor to blow off the bees. Aim the airflow towards the front of the hive, making it easier for the bees to get back inside.
- Bee escapes: A bee escape lets bees leave the super without re-entering. Various designs like conical, triangle, and the Porter bee escape exist. Remember that these devices give small hive beetle unfettered access to the super, so use escape boards sparingly.
- Fume boards: A fume board is placed on top of a super with a smelly chemical that bees dislike. This method usually clears all bees within five minutes.
How do I harvest a specific type of honey?
Honey flavors vary depending on the forage available to the hive. Once a specific type of flower stops providing nectar (like manuka or clover), beekeepers should remove the supers and return new ones to the hive.
Early harvesting could mean some of the frames aren’t ready. The options are:
- take only the capped frames.
- remove them all and reduce moisture content in a drying room before extracting.
Some frames with varying nectar sources will include light and dark honey. You can extract all the honey simultaneously; however, if you’re looking to enter a contest for light honey, avoid combination frames. They’ll darken the honey’s appearance.
Did you know? Honeycomb may appear white at first as the wax starts a lighter shade. It darkens with age but won’t impact the honey quality.
Straining vs. filtering honey – what’s the difference?
Straining honey is a less intensive process for removing larger particles from the honey, like hive debris, wax particles, or dead bees. To strain honey, a metal sieve works well.
Filtering honey is a more rigorous process that removes smaller particles. The honey is typically heated and then forced through a fine filter.
The process results in a clear, smooth honey. It is typically used for commercial purposes because it has a longer shelf life (due to less crystallization) and a clear appearance that many consumers find appealing.
Some critics argue that filtering can remove beneficial nutrients, change the honey’s flavor, and make tracing the country of origin impossible.
Commonly asked questions
When is the right time to extract honey?
It’s best to extract honey when the honeycomb is capped. That’s nature’s way of letting you know it’s time. Typically, this happens in summer or early in the fall, depending on the local climate and the types of plants near your hives.
How much honey can I expect to extract?
The amount of honey an apiary produces depends on hive count, bee health, local climate, and forage conditions. A healthy hive can produce 40 to 60 pounds of honey each season, but there’s a lot of variability. Check out our guide to how much honey a hive produces if you’d like to learn more.
What can I do if my honey has crystallized in the jar?
Crystallization is a natural process that does not affect the quality of the honey. You can re-liquify crystallized honey by placing the jar in a pan of warm water and heating gently until the crystals dissolve. Avoid high heat, as it can damage the flavor and quality of the honey.
Should I use a smoker when collecting honey?
Bees may become aggressive once their hive is full of honey. For this reason, beekeepers often use smoke to calm the colony before removing frames. Some beekeepers avoid using smoke for fear of tainting the honey’s flavor with smoke.
Will a bread knife destroy the comb?
If you don’t have access to an uncapping knife, a bread knife dipped in hot water is a good alternative. A heat gun or hair dryer will also work well in a pinch.
Even if the cells are damaged during uncapping, bees repair them much quicker than replacing an entire comb destroyed by crush-and-strain extraction.
Local nectar sources impact honey flavor and appearance. Beekeepers can produce specific honey types through migratory beekeeping, where hives are relocated to capitalize on seasonal nectars.
If you intend to sell honey, research compliance with local and national regulations, health standards, and labeling requirements. These laws define what constitutes pure honey and dictate labeling requirements, like origin, grade, and net weight. Failure to comply could lead to legal complications and damage your reputation as a beekeeper.
Always remain vigilant for wax moth infestation. These pests cause significant damage within hives and target frames in the honey room. Check out our guide to preventing wax moths to keep stored comb free of larvae.