Harvesting honey is an activity the whole family will want to get in on. Trust me…
When it comes to beekeeping, there are about a thousand ways to do pretty much any task. At least, that’s how it seems if you ever try to get advice on how to do something. With that in mind, it probably won’t surprise you to learn there are a number of methods for harvesting honey. Obviously, a lot of how you choose to harvest your honey will come down to a few important details: your equipment, your experience, and your preference. After I give a little information on those points, I’ll share one of the most exciting moments of my time as a beekeeper. It’s right up there with catching my first swarm…
Harvesting honey for the first time!
A Little About Equipment
How much equipment you will need for harvesting honey depends somewhat on the scale of your operation. Obviously, if you’ve only got a single hive to harvest from, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy an industrial strength extractor. The honest truth is that you can harvest honey with a roll of cheese-cloth and a butter knife. Actually, if you’re harvesting comb honey you can even do it without the cheese cloth! Before I ‘wax’ long about equipment (bee humor is mandatory, remember?) I’ll address that, because comb honey doesn’t follow the same rules.
Harvesting Comb/Chunk Honey
Comb and chunk honey are glorious. I’m just going to go ahead and say that now. It DOES get a little chewy in large doses, which I’m not personally a fan of. But melted on toast? Amazing. Comb honey is basically what you think of when you hear the words – That’s right, it’s honey still on the comb! Harvesting it is actually less about equipment (remember that butter knife?) and more about preparation. To harvest comb honey, your hive needs to be making its own comb. Because the plastic foundation isn’t going to taste quite right…
However, even if you do choose to produce comb honey, there are tools you may want. There are special frames out there for encouraging bees to build their comb in the right shape to fit in your packaging. Or, comb cutters – which are basically heavy duty cookie cutters – for harvesting perfectly sized and shaped blocks of golden goodness. Mann Lake has a ton of different equipment for sale. I have to avoid their website, personally. I’m too likely to spend a fortune…
Equipment for Harvesting Honey
The golden liquid reward for hanging out with thousands of stinging insects. This is what most of us think of when we think of honey. Even when it comes to harvesting honey without the wax, there are a number of different methods. The main methods for harvesting honey without wax are called “Crush and Strain” and “Extracting”. There’s also the very media-friendly flow-hive, which is a fancy form of extracting that requires special hive parts, but doesn’t require the other usual material. I’ll admit, I’ve thought about investing in a flow-hive to give it a shot someday. But for now, the other two methods are more up my alley.
“Crush and Strain”
The name of this method kind of tells you most of what you need to know about it. This is the butter-knife and cheese cloth method I was talking about. You basically cut your comb free, pile it in the middle of a few sheets of cheese cloth, and strain it into a container. It can be time-consuming for it all to drip clear, and it leaves a gooey mess of honey-coated wax, but it’s cheap and easy. If you’ve only got one or two hives, and you’re not harvesting a full crop from either of them, but want a taste of the gold stuff, crush and strain is the way to go.
I’ve done crush and strain a few times, and a few different ways. I tried the cheese cloth method, and it worked fine. I’ve also used a ‘double strainer’, and honestly, I preferred the cheese-cloth. Not because the double-strainer didn’t do a good job. It did! But for such a small crop, the cleanup was a total drag. I’d much rather just throw out a bit of cheese cloth than try to clean a pair of interconnected metal sieves. There’s one thing you can count on when harvesting honey – stickiness WILL happen.
Regardless of how you harvest, you’re technically ‘extracting’ honey, but when a beekeeper uses that word, they’re generally talking about using a specific device. The ‘Extractor’ is basically a centrifuge for honey-frames. My own extractor can hold two deep frames and uses a hand-crank instead of a motor. Our family is big on ‘if the worst happened’ scenarios, so we generally prefer human muscle over electric options. Basically, the inner workings spin and fling the honey out of their cells against the stainless steel walls of the extractor. After giving your frames a good spin, you flip them around in the basket and do the other side. Remove the sticky frames and give them back to the bees for cleanup.
One great thing about extracting honey is that your bees get to keep their wax for reuse. This is a big deal, especially since you’re generally stealing wax towards the end of the season. It’s a bigger deal, too, if you’re like me and have standardized your frames to all be the same size. That means those newly cleared frames could be used as brood frames later or as honey frames, depending on what the hives need.
I expected the downside of using the extractor to be cleaning up. Remember how I disliked cleaning the double-strainer? This thing is WAY bigger. But I discovered that if I pour hot soapy water in the machine and run the basket it does a pretty neat job of creating a dishwasher effect. It practically cleans itself! Well, you have to run the crank, but that’s a small price to pay, trust me.
A Little About Experience
When I refer to experience, I’m not really referring to your experience at harvesting honey. Your experience as a beekeeper is really the big and determining factor in what kind of harvesting method you will use. As a first and second year beek, crush and strain was my method because I honestly had no idea how much of a harvest to take. I didn’t necessarily have enough of a harvest available to me to take from, either! As you start to get a handle on things, and a full crop of honey becomes more of a possibility, an extractor starts looking pretty attractive.
Many beekeeping clubs and the like have extractors for hire for harvesting honey as a newer beekeeper. This can be quite a boon if you don’t want to shell out over a hundred dollars for a simple extractor. Let alone the thousands for the extractors the bigger operations use.
A Little About Preference
Your preferences in beekeeping and honey-eating will also have an effect on your honey harvesting. Here are a few quick questions that can help you determine which method will be best for you.
- Do you prefer to use foundation, or have the bees build their own comb?
If the former, crush and strain is more difficult, if the latter, extracting runs the risk of damaging the comb beyond repair if you aren’t careful. I have found that’s one advantage to using a manual hand-crank extractor, you can gently build up to speed and be a lot more gentle on your natural comb than might be possible with an electric motor.
- Do you prefer comb/chunk honey, or liquid honey?
Naturally, if you want chunks of honeycomb, there’s no point in extracting from or crushing that product! You’ll want to specifically set your bees up for producing your comb honey. There are whole blog posts on the topic. Here are a few over at Honey Bee Suite.
- How many hives are you keeping?
You might have guessed it already, but crush and strain is a messy and time-intensive process. I’ve harvested just a couple of frames at a time and it has taken quite a while. I can’t imagine doing the combined product of a half-dozen hives or more. Talk about a lot of cheese cloth! I’m not saying using an extractor is a quick process, but when you’re dealing with bulk, you can save a lot of time.
My Harvesting Experience
As I mentioned before, I had done some small ‘harvests’ of a spare frame here or there of honey. I used mostly crush and strain but also experimented with comb honey. My efforts were rewarded with some excited kids and happy taste-buds, which are the best kinds of rewards. But I didn’t really get much for my efforts. It was just a taste of the future, and all it was meant to be.
This year, I did my first REAL harvest.
I started this season off with only 2 hives having survived the winter, and they were both doing really well. I set one up to split and try to grow my hive, and it exploded with swarms. The other hive I set up for this harvest. This particular hive is my most aggressive. I blame all my bee stings on them. However, they’re also stubborn enough to make it through my beekeeping and a Washington winter. It’s hard to argue with that…
Parting Frame And Hive
To say I wasn’t properly prepared for this part of harvesting honey would be perhaps a bit of an understatement. I’m not sure why I hadn’t given thought to getting the bees off their hard-won honey… But I didn’t. So harvest day rolls around and it finally occurs to me that I don’t have any of the ‘normal’ methods available to me for removing bees from a box full of honey.
What are the normal methods? Some of them include blowing the bees out with a leaf-blower (this sounds horrible to me, but people do it), using a chemical to stink the bees down into lower boxes of the hive, or using a one-directional frame between the honey box and the rest of the hive. Lacking all three of these options, I settled on the old backup – The bee brush.
I assure you, brushing a hive of aggressive bees off their honey is not for the faint of heart. This is particularly true in light of the recent discovery of my possible allergy to honeybee venom! Fortunately, my ‘space-suit’ is an amazing confidence booster, as well as nearly impregnable to angry ladies. Well, angry lady BEES anyway. I haven’t tried to use it to defend against an angry wife yet… I doubt it’ll hold up nearly as well.
Basically, I pulled each frame from the hive, brushed the bees down into the hive and walked away to a box I had placed elsewhere, with a lid, opened it up and put the frame inside and closed it off to the world. This took quite a while as I had placed the box a good distance away from the hive. It also involved a lot of angry buzzing and constant brushing of the hive. Then when all was said and done? I still had a few bees that snuck their way past me and got in the storage box.
Parting Honey And Frame
Next came the exciting part. I set out a baking dish to catch my mess and went about opening up the cells of glorious honey for extraction. Once again, my lack of preparation showed through… I had an uncapping fork, which is typically used to catch those few cells that slip past an uncapping knife. But I never did buy an electric uncapping knife. I thought about using a bread knife and some hot water, but honey is just SO sticky! It wasn’t worth the effort. Unfortunately, using the capping fork did a lot of damage to the cells and I think resulted in a lot more wax debris in the extractor.
I’d like to try the process next year with an electric, heated uncapping knife. Until I do, I won’t know for sure if my way was actually that much harder, but it sure seemed problematic.
My other issue was that even using the fork, I pulled a fair amount of honey-laden wax free of the comb, but I only had the baking dish to catch it. Which meant that the honey on the wax was pretty much a lost cause. If I had a bigger harvest, I would have lost a fairly significant amount of honey! Can’t have that. So, next harvest I’d also like to have an uncapping tank to strain my wax cappings in. Waste not, want not, after all.
Cleaning The Honey Harvest
This was the first step of harvesting honey that I actually felt like I had under wraps. The honey you buy from the store has been heated and ultra-finely sieved to remove imperfections and meet legal codes. It’s barely even honey anymore, in my opinion. When harvesting honey from your own bees, for your own use, however, none of that is required! In my case, I set up my honey bucket (no, not a bathroom, an actual bucket for honey) beneath my extractor’s honey gate, and just let it pour down through my double-sieve.
I did have to stir around some of the wax leavings that got caught in the sieve, and it took a long time for the last drops of honey to filter through the sieve. But it was so worth it.
No drop left behind was my motto that day!
The last step of the process was opening the honey gate on the honey bucket and letting glorious golden honey pour into individual jars. Honey is amazing, in that it doesn’t require all the usual canning procedures to store correctly. What honey needs are dry, clean jars, with tight lids. That’s because honey is hygroscopic, which means it absorbs moisture, even out of the air. Leave it open to the air and it will absorb moisture until it ferments and spoils. Leave it sealed off, and it will stay as is, an environment too ‘dry’ for bacteria and the like to grow in, in perpetuity. Literally, they found viable honey in Egyptian pyramids. ‘Nuff said?
The Final Honey Harvest
So there you have it. My first time harvesting honey. Unlike many people, I use standardized deep frames for all my hive adventures. I have questioned the intelligence of doing this from time to time, but for now, it’s what I’ve got. The plus side is, that while I only had 1 box of honey to extract this year and some of those frames weren’t 100% full, I harvested a grand total of 22.5 pints! That’s 2.8 GALLONS for those of you who don’t want to do the math.
It was an amazing experience, and one I will remember and treasure. But I’m excited to see how I can not only improve my honey harvesting process but increase my yield in the years to come!
Thank you for sharing my adventure with me.
Until next time, remember, we CAN become self-sufficient. Together.