How to Use a Honey Refractometer [6 Steps]

A beekeeper using a honey refractometer with honeycomb in the background

A Honey Refractometer helps beekeepers decide when honey is ready for extraction or jarring. But the best equipment in the world won’t improve your operation if it gets misused.

This guide explains how to use a honey refractometer correctly so that you never have to deal with fermented honey. If you haven’t yet bought one, be sure to also check out the top refractometers for beekeeping.

How do I use a honey refractometer?

A honey refractometer is a simple handheld tool that beekeepers can easily operate. Follow these basic steps to get trusted results every time.

1. Prepare the honey

If you’re testing honey straight from the hive, it’s ready for testing and needs no prepping. Honey sitting in jars or buckets in a honey house needs stirring. Otherwise, samples from the vessel’s bottom and top will give different readings.

2. Get the temperature right

The refractometer should be the same temperature as the honey. Allow the honey to warm to ambient room temperature if it’s currently stored in a cool environment.

3. Apply the honey

Add a small amount of honey to the refractometer’s glass plate. Beekeepers can use a hive tool to scrape a small amount of honey from the comb and drip enough on the plate to thinly cover it. Use a spoon or toothpick if you’re scooping it from a container.

4. Remove air bubbles

Close the panel and check there are no bubbles. These are easy to pop by gently wiggling the panel.

5. Check the reading

Look into the eyepiece, holding the gadget toward bright light. If the reading is blurry, twist the focal adjuster until it becomes clear.

While refractometer models differ, analog devices often include a Brix scale and a water percentage. Beekeepers should check the water content reading.

Measuring a frame only requires one sample, but if you’re testing a large container, take multiple samples and average them. Use a lint-free cloth to clean the panel each time.

6. Clean the refractometer

After testing, clean the device and return it to the box.

An image of a honey refractometer showing the Brix and water percentage reading

How to calibrate a honey refractometer

Calibrating a honey refractometer before its first use is good practice. You’ll also want to recalibrate at the start of each season and if there are extreme temperature changes.

Refractometers come with calibration instructions specific to the model, so always read these first.

Most tools also come with a reference solution labeled with its moisture content. To calibrate, apply a few drops of liquid to the panel and check the reading. If it’s a little off, adjust the screw until it provides the correct result. 

Keep in mind some cheap refractometers don’t include a solution for calibrating. Alternatively, use olive oil and calibrate it to 27% water content.

Once the panel is cleaned, the refractometer is calibrated and ready for use.

How to store a honey refractometer

After using a refractometer, clean the glass using a moist, lint-free cloth. Then store the instrument in a dark, dry location like a cupboard that doesn’t experience too much heat fluctuation.

Excessive heat can cause the device to warp, and moisture encourages mold.

Watch the video

Check out the following video if you prefer to watch how honey refractometers work. You’ll get detailed instructions from an experienced beekeeping operation.

Summing up

Honey refractometers are essential for beekeepers to determine when honey is ready for extraction or packaging. It’s crucial to use them correctly for accurate and reliable results.

Ready to notch up your refractometer skills? We recommend reading our tips for using a honey refractometer. They’re quick to read, but they may save you from making some rookie errors getting started.

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