Once we have our honey supers in the honey house (see Honey Harvest, Part One), it’s time to extract that golden delicious honey!
First things first— wherever you extract your honey needs to be bee-proof! Honeybees hone in on the smell of honey surprisingly quickly, and if it isn’t bee-proof you will soon find yourself and your equipment covered in hungry bees! It is also helpful to have access to warm water, and to work on a surface that can be easily cleaned. Extracting right in our kitchen works well for us! It also helps to have the area where you will be working set up with all of the necessary equipment ahead of time. Some of the items we use are an uncapping tool, uncapping tank, extractor, filter, honey buckets and bottles.
Our next step in extracting honey is to remove the protective layer of wax, called the “cappings,” from the frame of honey. We use a device called an uncapping plane to do this. Holding the frame of honey in one hand, we draw the heated plane from one end of the frame to the other. The trick is to peel off the wax without going too deep and gouging the frame of honey. It takes a little bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, it goes very quickly. There are other, similar tools that can also do the job, such as uncapping knives and uncapping forks. I suggest that you try out different types to see which type you feel most comfortable with. Workshops, classes, or helping other beekeepers with the harvest are great ways to try out different types of uncapping tools.
We do all of our uncapping over an uncapping tank. An uncapping tank is a large bin with a bar across the top to rest the frame of honey on, and a screen over the bottom. The wax cappings fall from the frame of honey and onto the screen, allowing the excess honey to drain out of the cappings. The honey can then be removed from the bin through a gate at the bottom, and the wax can be saved for other uses.
After we uncap both sides of the frames, they are placed into the basket of an extractor. An extractor spins the frames, pulling the honey out through centrifugal force. Extractors come in many sizes and styles. When selecting an extractor, it is important to consider the size of your apiary, and what you can afford. When we only had a few hives, we bought a used, hand-cranked extractor that could spin two frames of honey at a time. When we started expanding our apiary, we purchased an extractor that is motorized and can spin six frames at a time. If you do not wish to purchase an extractor, there are other options such as borrowing or renting an extractor through a local bee club. Some bee clubs also hold “extracting parties” where members come together at one person’s home to extract honey. It may also be possible to barter with another beekeeper who already has an extractor— maybe they will help you extract honey in exchange for your help with their honey harvest!
With our extractor, it generally takes 20 minutes to extract the honey from the frames. We carefully peek inside the extractor while it is running, and shine a light into it. If we no longer see drops of honey hitting the side of the extractor, it is finished.
At the bottom of the extractor is a gate that can be opened to allow the honey to flow out. It is important not to let the honey in the tank get too deep— if it reaches the level of the baskets that the frames sit in, it can burn out the motor in your extractor. Below the gate we position a food grade 5-gallon bucket that is only used for honey. We prefer buckets with a gate at the bottom to make bottling the honey easier. On the top of the bucket we set a sieve to filter out any particles of wax or other debris. The honey flows out of the extractor, though the sieve and into the bucket.
When the bucket is full, or when we have extracted all of the honey from the frames, it’s time to bottle the honey! We like to let the honey sit in the buckets for at least 24 hours to allow any air bubbles to rise to the surface. The bucket is then lifted onto a table or counter and the gate is carefully opened, allowing the honey to flow into the bottle held underneath. My husband is actually much better at this than I am— he drips much less honey than I do! The type of container we use will depend on what we will be doing with the honey, so we use a variety of containers. One-pound jars —both glass and the plastic “honey bears”— are very popular with our customers. We also use half-pound jars as gifts, and 5-pound jars to save for our own use, and for a few customers who prefer to purchase honey in larger volume. Most containers have a mark near the top to let you know when you have filled it with the correct amount of honey. If you don’t want to purchase bottles specific to honey, Mason jars are a popular choice.
If the honey we bottle is for sale, we include a honey label that lists the amount of honey, our name, phone number and website.
One of the best parts of honey extraction day is all of the honey we get to sample! After all, it would be wasteful to just wash the spoons and sticky fingers without licking off the honey first!
Jennifer Ford is co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary. You can visit her the Bees of the Woods Apiary official website.