The great extractor debate

Every year new hobby beekeepers—those who have never harvested honey nor overwintered a colony—want to know if they should buy an extractor. It’s a personal call, but if you are asking my opinion, my opinion is “Are you kidding?”

Worse, soon-to-be beekeepers sometimes order the extractor along with the first hive. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. Everyone spends his money differently, of course, although Americans—having learned the fine art of drowning in debt from their federal and state governments—tend to spend beyond all limits of reason and prudence.

I have nothing against extractors for those who have a legitimate need, but unless you are in the business of selling extracted honey, they are hard to justify. Consider:

  • Extractors are expensive.
  • Extractors are one-trick ponies—you can’t use them for anything else.
  • Extractors take up a lot of storage space during the 364 days of the year they are not in use. Do you really want to live around this thing?
  • Extractors can be borrowed from bee clubs.
  • With very small batches, extractors waste as much honey as they extract. The process becomes more efficient (less wasteful) when you extract many frames at once.
  • Extractors produce one thing: extracted honey—something you can get anywhere.

Here’s something else to think about: most fledgling beekeepers will not produce enough honey to harvest the first year. Sadly, many of those colonies will not make it until the following spring. What do the statistics tell us? Nearly forty percent of colonies die every year? In today’s environment it takes knowledge, practice, and bit of good luck to overwinter a colony and produce a harvestable crop in the next season.

I’m not trying to discourage you, I’m just saying that maybe you should put off the big expense until you have some experience. Then, before you decide to buy an extractor, you will know more about the frame size, the capacity, and the quality you want. You will know more about how much you can expect to extract, and what your bank account will support.

Eventually, if you grow your hobby into a business, a good extractor is a must. But for a newbee, it can wait—along with the warehouse, the fork lift, and the flat-bed truck.

Personally—and here I’m delving even deeper into opinion, just a warning—I can’t understand the attraction of extracted honey for a hobby beekeeper. Why would I want my honey to look like the stuff on grocery store shelves that probably came from China? Even though it is different, it looks the same. Anyone can put honey through a filter and pour it in a bottle. Big deal.

I began beekeeping because I couldn’t find what I wanted elsewhere—certainly not at the grocery store, not at the farmers market, not from the beekeeper down the road. I wanted comb honey that tasted like comb and honey; I wanted it dark and unique—not mixed with honey from other frames.

Think about it: when you eat your honey frame-by-frame, each one tastes different because it came from different flowers. Each frame is singular, like a song. When you extract, all the flavors are mixed together and the entire batch tastes the same. Why would anyone do that?

Sometimes when I’m working the hives, I see a frame of a different color or I taste a drip of something spectacular. I remove that frame from the hive, bring it down to the house, and excise the comb. The warm and fragrant honey oozes blissfully from the beeswax and covers the tray. We revel in its uniqueness, try to guess its source, attempt to describe its flavor. It’s a passion.

And guess what? Every frame is different, every frame stands alone. All spring and summer there is something unique and thrilling to taste. The thought of mixing it all together into one uniform flavor is a sacrilege I can’t bear to think about.

So I simply urge you to seize the luscious experience while you can: taste the flowers—season-by-season, frame-by-frame, hive-by-hive. Then, when you get old and jaded, you can mix it all together and stick it in a bottle.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Extractor-Maja-Dumat
Extracting honey. Photo © Maja Dumat

Comments

Jane
Reply

Thank you for this post. Since we’re in our first year of trying top-bar hives, traditional extractors don’t make sense for us anyway. And, we’re trying not to do anything that might jinx us (your cart before the horse). Speaking of honey–almost all our combs have some portion of brood in them (all the way to bar 20 or so–almost the whole length). It’s hard to imagine having combs of JUST capped honey to harvest. I’m wondering if this is because of the time of year (and the nest will contract later) or because they are first year colonies (from nucs).

We’ll look inside our (possibly swarmed) hive Saturday and are hoping that those mini swarms we saw (we saw a third) were from somewhere else.

Rusty
Reply

Jane,

When you have an unlimited brood nest, meaning the queen can go anywhere she wants, you are bound to get brood in all the combs. Langstroth beekeepers frequently use queen excluders to keep her away from the honey supers, but you can’t really do that in a tbh. But you are right, as the brood nest shrinks in the fall, fewer combs will have brood in them. In any case, if a comb contains a small amount of brood, you can just cut it away before you crush and strain. If you want, you can tie the cutout portion to another comb or to another top bar and put it near the main brood nest.

Art
Reply

You can extract honey from a top bar hive frame in the extractor. It is kind of slow, but I would guess you’ve got a TBH not because of its efficiency. Here is a link of a guy guy doing it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4lwVgHTja0

Andy Brown
Reply

I used the common frame / extractor method last year (my first year actually harvesting honey). My question is, in the next layer of supers I put on could I leave the wax and wire foundation out of a couple of my frames just to try it out? Or is it an all or nothing thing?

Rusty
Reply

Andy,

Sure, in fact it is easier that way. Just alternate frames with foundation and frames without. This will keep the new combs parallel and discourage cross-bracing.

Andy Brown
Reply

Cool, I just put a super on with three foundationless frames interspersed within. Since I’m running out of foundation, if I have to put another super on this week it will probably be 5 to 5.

Brad
Reply

Regarding extractor purchase… I agree, I was chomping at the bit my fist year and even during my 2nd year of beekeeping to buy my own extractor instead of borrowing the club’s extractor; but common sense won out and I managed to wait until my third year of beekeeping after I built up to having 24 hives sprinkled around Skagit County and figuring out exactly what type and size of extractor to purchase. I’m looking forward to using my new Maxant 9 frame extractor this August… :^)

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Brad. That is exactly my point; it is far better to get the right one the first time–imagine the money it saves.

Bill Castro
Reply

Go foundationless for honey supers and crush and strain if there are only one or two colonies…local clubs also generally have extractors for rent or borrow which will also save money.

Rusty
Reply

Exactly!

Robert
Reply

I, unfortunately, started with plastic foundation. I have since corrected this in the honey supers. I do extract a single frame at a time though. I made a press and scrape the wax and honey into it and smoosh the honey out. I like to see how the colors and flavors change with each frame and what is flowering.

John
Reply

Thank you for explaining the rationale for comb honey. It makes perfect sense. A couple questions. What type of containers do you use? And would you recommend extra thin wax foundation with split top frames?

Rusty
Reply

John,

Most of my honey is in square wooden section boxes. I also have one Ross Round super, although I find all the plastic objectionable. I also do some cut comb in shallow frames. Some of these have thin foundation with split tops, but lately I’ve been going foundationless with comb guides. The cut comb frames are mainly for home and family use, so I just put it in flat glass containers. I have some customers, though, who buy whole frames.

Andrew Hogg
Reply

I do agree that you can rush in too fast as a beginning beekeeper. We bought a 2-frame extractor last year for our two hives. We just sold it. OK here is where I scare you. We now have 6 hives but with caught swarms we’re up to 8 hives. I’m thinking on buying a 20-frame extractor. I hear Rusty groan. But really the only part of beekeeping that really sucks is extracting. So I want to spend only a few hours doing it. So I’ll buy a used one and minimize my time doing the hardest part of the entire process of beekeeping.

Rusty
Reply

Andrew,

Used is good, but twenty frames is huge!

Andrew Hogg
Reply

Rusty, Here is the math I did. With a 4 frame extractor where the frames have to be rotated (Dadant Little Wonder – $900) we have to spin 4 frames for say 5 minutes a side. Therefore 4 frames take 10 minutes not including the time to reverse frames. For 6 hives with 3 supers each that is 18 supers or 180 frames. At 4 frames in one spin that’s 45 loadings or 450 minutes = 7 1/2 hours of spinning. With a 20 frame extractor it takes probably 10 minutes a spin but you don’t have to rotate the frames. The 180 frames then take 1 1/2 hours total. Spin the radial extractor for only 5 minutes each load and it takes 1/2 the time. The used 20 frame extractor costs 50% more but the time savings will pay it back pretty quick I think.

Richard
Reply

Please explain the phrase “excise the comb”. Do you use frames without a foundation?

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

I mean I cut the comb free from the frame. I sometimes use thin foundation, but more frequently these days I go foundationless.

Art
Reply

All the points you made can be applied equally to juicers. But people will still drink juice and will still eat fruit. There is not going to be only one or the another and one is not necessarily better. It is just a matter of what you want. Some people like to chew wax, some don’t. I would agree with your point though that if you decide to extract honey, first you need to have honey. When you you do have honey you can purchase an extractor. For a small hobby beekeeper a two-frame extractor is more than enough and it is not going to break the bank either. This is the first year that I finally bought one. A new decent-quality stainless steel extractor on e-bay will run you around $170-190. Not that much more expensive than a bee suit. If you are a purist and like to chew wax or don’t mind spending time crashing comb and waiting for it to drain – well, more power to you. If you just want to have honey sitting on the shelves in jars ready for consumption or to be given away to friends and family – nothing wrong with that either. I think I belong to both camps – I like to have a stash of extracted honey, but at the same time wouldn’t mind to have some in the comb as well. However since this post is heavily pro-purist “no extraction” honey I’ll try to put forth a con for your side of the story. As many beekeepers know, drawn comb is a precious commodity. So much more if you are a hobby beekeeper and have only a couple of hives. Over the years you might accumulate enough drawn frames to spare (if you don’t keep crushing or eating the comb from them :) but if you are just starting out, chances are you’ve got enough to fill your 10 frame brood box and may be one super. Yes bees will draw new comb again, but it takes time and a lot of effort (on the part of your bees). And this is time and effort that they could’ve used collecting honey, picking mites off, taking care of the brood etc.

Rusty
Reply

Art,

1. Well, I guess that explains why I don’t have a juicer.

2. I never “chew” wax. If you eat comb honey on something—like toast or biscuits—you never even know the wax is there, except for the fine flavor.

3. I also never “wait for it to drain.” I just place the cut comb in a container and stick it in the cupboard and forget it. If I want comb honey, it’s there. If I want “extracted” honey, I just pour it from the pool at the the bottom. Easy and always ready.

4. Drawn comb may be a “precious commodity” for a newbee, I agree. But after a number of years you begin to wonder what in god’s name to do with it all. I’ve got drawn comb stashed everywhere that is over and above any I crushed and strained or gave away. After many years and many hives it seems way less precious and more like a pain in the butt . . . just saying.

5. As a beekeeper, I’ve never suffered from lack of honey, lack of bees, or overwintering problems, in spite of the fact I produce exclusively comb honey. Yes, it is a lot of effort for the bees, but building combs and filling them with honey is what they are programmed to do.

Art
Reply

Interestingly enough I ran across this discussion today: http://www.beesource.com/forums/showthread.php?233185-quot-cost-quot-of-crush-and-strain

While the math in the statements can be argued the fact remains that it cost bees a lot of effort to rebuild comb. While it is true that you can afford to be prodigal with your comb if you enjoying plethora of honey and booming colonies it might be worth mentioning that for those of us less blessed with such abundance there is going to be the price to pay at the bottom line, that can be more noticeable if you don’t “swim” in honey

Rusty
Reply

Art,

I agree that comb costs the bees. As an offset, the beekeeper can command a lot of money for comb honey. As I’ve said before, I’ve seen the square combs (about 14 ounces) go for $24.95. I don’t charge that because I think it is unconscionably, but people do it and they sell out.

I used my example of success with bees not to brag, but to illustrate that colonies can do well even if you don’t re-use honeycomb. I think the main “tax” on the bees is in the huge brood combs. I keep triple deep hives, and believe me, there is a lot of comb in 30 deep frames that the bees don’t have to re-build every year. By comparison, a few shallow supers of comb honey is miniscule to a triple deep colony. Not having to build down below, they can draw the honey supers in just a few short days.

Brad
Reply

To Andrew,

20 frame extractor… Wow! I bet it’s big and heavy, hard to move? Do you have a honey house and fixed location? I like being able to extract smaller batches different times of the year to capture the blackberry & fireweed honey instead of it all being wildflower honey… You obviously have plans to expand your colonies… I’m staying fixed at 26 hives, and hope I don’t regret going with a 6/9 frame extractor. I am experimenting this year with a few foundationless frames in my supers so I can put a chunk of comb in some of my extracted honey jars for a premium price of course. :^)

Andrew Hogg
Reply

Brad, we don’t have a honey house just a very large garage. The Dadant 20 frame extractor is really not a lot larger than the 4 frame extractor. The 4 frame is a tangential extractor where the frames have to be turned to empty both sides. The 20 Frame extractor is a radial where the frames do not need to be turned. It means one less step in the extracting process. The different styles mean that the 20 frame is not that much larger as the frames are like spokes of a wheel and are therefore much more tightly packed in the extractor.

Brad
Reply

I was just wondering how much the 20-frame weighed… I have limited storage space, bad back and the Maxant 3100P was a perfect fit – 6 medium frames radial and 3 deep frames tangential at same time plus easy to move to different work areas. It was a bit pricey but great resale value down the road.

Andrew Hogg
Reply

We put the extractor on high quality casters and it is easy to move. The Dadant one is 30 inches in diameter. IT’s a beauty!

navi
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Great discussion, always interesting when there is a plethora of choices: Crush and strain or extract or comb honey? Not only are there choices, but preferences.

I consider myself to still be a “newbee”. When I started two years ago I began with 4 packages, and a small amount of knowledge. I decided to go foundationless, but I do put 1 frame with foundation in the middle of the super.

I also decided to build my own extractor. It ended up being a 16 frame extractor, seems to work better with just 8 frames. It is made out of a 55 gallon drum and a stainless steel reel I welded up to hold the frames, used an old 2 hp motor; wired it to a dimmer switch so it has variable speed, found a couple of pulleys laying around that gave me approx. 180 rpm, added two block bearings. Built a base out of a couple of 2x4s and presto for a little less than $150 and a lot of head-scratching I had an extractor. (And the fact that it actually works is kind of a miraculous bonus.)

But I also tried crushing comb, and in the final analysis I prefer the crushed comb. The honey from the crushed comb seems to have more pizzazz, more depth. I think that’s due to the fact that a decent amount of pollen gets diluted in the honey when it’s crushed. It is strained through a piece of cheesecloth and a colander. I like the fact that when I am nosing around the hives, and I find a couple of frames that are capped, I just cut out the comb, replace the frame and continue on my way. So for now, crushed comb is my preference. But it’s still pretty cool to have a 16 frame extractor on site. And did I mention it actually works?

Rusty
Reply

Navi,

You must be awfully handy to be able to build an extractor like that! It sounds very cool. You should send us some photos.

I’m glad you like the taste of the crush-and-strain honey. It is fun to be able to pull out honey during the season and sample it right away.

Barbara
Reply

Rusty, I am new at beekeeping, have just overwintered two colonies which came through the winter in fine style, built up well in spring and then….both swarmed. What I’m wondering is, if I do manage to get any frames of honey in my medium supers this year how would I extract it without an extractor as I’m using plastic foundation. I hate plastic but it seemed the easiest way to go for a beginner. I’ve read your post on letting the honey drain but am not sure if that is applicable to frames of plastic foundation?

Rusty
Reply

Barbara,

With plastic foundation and no extractor, I think the best thing would be the crush-and-strain method. You need to scrape the honeycomb off the plastic foundation with a paint scraper, spatula, or putty knife. Be sure to do this over a cookie sheet or something to catch the mess. Crush any remaining chunks with a potato masher and then strain it. After it drains, you can take the clump of wax and put it back in the hive (on a plate or something similar) and the bees will clean it up for you. Then you can save the wax for other projects.

Another Anon
Reply

Under 10 hives….crush and strain FTW!

Save money on extractors and use it to ESTABLISH MORE HIVES.

navi
Reply

Rusty,

May I please have an e-mail so that I can send some pics of the extractor?

Once upon a time I had it but I must have put it next to my hive tool.
Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Navi,

I sent it to you . . .

Nancy
Reply

Navi – LOL – problem with hive tool is not putting it down per se, but being completely wrong about where you thought you put it down. Can’t wait t0 see pics of your extractor.

Rusty – I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying one, but as it turned out, volunteering to take care of the hives at the Nature Center in the next county, came with the use of their (very nice) extractor. (Why they thought they needed it for 2 hives… oh well, it gets to live in my tractor shed.)

Of course, now having used (and washed) it once, I am more and more convinced of the merits of comb honey. So I couldn’t resist cutting the comb out of one frame and packaging it up for some select friends. Here’s the question: that left a lot of wax around the insides of the frame. If I want to use that frame without foundation, as you suggest, should I clean off all but a “starter strip” on the top piece, or will it not be a problem?

Second question: after we pulled a super, brushed the bees off and set the frames aside, then we checked my two spring packages. One seemed low on stores (we had a week of rain), by which I mean there were full frames of worker brood with NO honey in the corners. So I gave them one of the frames we had pulled. Then I thought Ack, would the big hive (the only one with supers on) know that was “their” honey and come after it? They have plenty. Thanks!

Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, KY

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

1. The extra wax around the frame will not be a problem. In fact, it will be a plus, helping them get the next comb in the right place.

2. No, they won’t come after it anymore than any other bee would come after it. Pheromones are not prolific in the honey supers so, after a short time, they won’t be able to tell it apart from any other honey.

Carolyn
Reply

The debate that we have with the club extractor is the possible spread of disease, specifically AFB.

Rusty
Reply

Carolyn,

I never thought of that. If you end up feeding extracted honey back to bees, that could be a real problem. AFB spores would be hard to clean from an extractor.

Victoria
Reply

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!! I am new to beekeeping. I bought a nuc two years ago and was looking into an extractor this year. After reading your site, I’m going to use a hand fruit press (already have), buy cheese cloth (watched a Norwegian video), swap a can for the wooden fruit repository, paraffin the pressy thing (I’m not very handy), and get to work retrieving my raw honey. Thank you for helping me to think outside the box!!

From Colorado…

Rusty
Reply

Victoria,

You are very welcome.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website