You are a new beekeeper with a hive—maybe two—and a half-dozen frames of harvestable honey. You can’t figure out how to get the honey out of the comb, so you want to know if you should buy an extractor.
I always say no to this one. An extractor is an expensive storage problem that you use once a year, so unless you have lots of honey to sell, I would skip it. If you buy an extractor and beekeeping doesn’t work out for you, you will be left with this odd-looking device that can only do one thing. If you buy just a small extractor and then expand your operation, you will regret that too. So just wait on the extractor until you really, really need it.
In the meantime, you can do several things to prepare your honey for family and friends.
Cut comb honey is easy to prepare, fun to look at, and quite popular. All you need is a sharp knife, a baker’s cooling rack or queen excluder, a tray or baking sheet to catch the drips, and packaging for the finished product.
Just place the cooling rack or queen excluder on the tray or baking sheet, then lay the frame of honey on top of that. Slice the comb into pieces (4-inch squares are popular) with the sharp knife. To keep the comb clean, wipe the knife after each cut. Move the cut pieces slightly apart and allow them to drain for several hours. Once drained, you can place the pieces on small food trays or plates and cover them with food wrap. Collect the honey in the tray and save it for the times you need extracted honey.
Obviously, you can’t do this if you’ve used plastic foundation. Always use wax foundation in honey supers, or better yet, go foundationless and let the bees build their own.
Crush and strain
Cut the comb from the frame and place it in a bowl or pan. If you have plastic foundation, scrape the comb off each side and place it in the bowl. To crush the comb you can use a potato masher, which works well in a flat-bottomed bowl, or a pestle, which works well in a round-bottomed bowl. You can also use a heavy wooden spoon or a smooth stone.
Crushing comb is the heartbreaking part, but once you get started it’s not so bad. You need to crush every cell, so keep working until there are no lumps.
Next, strain the honey through cheesecloth, a paint strainer, or a commercial honey strainer. A honey strainer is rigid, so that’s easy. If I’m using a paint strainer or cheesecloth, I put it inside a mesh kitchen strainer for support. I put the strainer over a bucket or pan, cover it to keep off the dust, and let it sit in a warm place overnight. The warmer the place, the faster the honey will drain. But it shouldn’t get hot because you don’t want to melt the wax.
If you have only a small bit of comb to strain, you can crush it with a wooden spoon inside a jar, then fasten your straining material over the top of the jar. Next, invert the whole thing over a similar-sized jar. You can duct tape the two jars together, prop them up so they don’t fall over, and let them sit overnight. In the morning you will have honey in one, and sticky comb in the other.
With either method, you can agitate your crushed comb in some cool water and then drain the water and store it in the refrigerator for cooking. One beekeeper I know uses it for making beekeeper’s marmalade.
You don’t have to prepare all comb honey or all strained honey, you can do some of each or make chunk honey. To make chunk honey, you take a piece of cut comb, fit it into a jar, and fill the remaining space with strained honey. It’s easy and looks kind of awesome.
I have always thought chunk honey was an odd idea—having all that liquid honey on the outside of the comb feels backward to me. But people like to look at it—even I like to look at it—and it makes a popular gift. So why not?
Now that the processing is done, you have a huge mess in your kitchen. These are my suggestions:
- After storing the first rinse water in the fridge, wash the wax a few more times and put it someplace where it will dry thoroughly. When you collect enough, you can melt it down.
- Return sticky frames to the hives so your bees can clean them up.
- Clean your strainers and other equipment in cold water so you can scrape off the wax. You can also freeze and then scrape. Once the wax is gone, you can wash everything in warm water. Though this job is messy, extractors can be worse.
- Think about how much money you just saved and how much room you still have in your garage or basement.
Honey Bee Suite
Oh man, this was 3 days late for me! But I did not go buy an extractor, I just rented one. I had four frames and being my first year had no idea what else to do. The frames had been sitting on my kitchen counter mocking me for six weeks and I finally had to do something. I had tried to slice off the caps on one side of the frame and lay it over a big cookie sheet to drain on but that did not really work. I think my house was not warm enough for the honey to flow out of the cells. But I am very happy with the honey that I was able to extract, it is yummy and there is more than I dreamed of from just four frames. Can not wait for next year! Hope my bees are happy and healthy out there in the freezing cold without me.
I totally agree. It was quite advantageous for me to go partially foundationless this year as I was able to extract without machinery.
I don’t use any chemicals in my hives either, so if I have a post-winter “deadout”, I can extract leftover honey from the hive knowing that I will not be ‘medicating’ myself unwittingly.
Find and join a local Beek Club. They will usually have an extractor for club members to borrow/use. Alot of the clubs will also have extraction parties where 3 or 4 people will get together, use the club extractors and just hang out. Gives you the benefit of using an extractor without buying one and the few hours with fellow beeks is a wonderful thing.
Very helpful tips here. My little London flat doesn’t come with a basement or garage, but luckily my local beekeeping association has its own extractor and lends this out to members on a weekly basis during the summer – another reason to join a local association if you have one near you.
Good to know, I’d thought about this (waaaay prematurely of course) and, of course being a red-blooded American male, love gadgets, was checking out extractors online. But in the immortal words of my spirit guide, Alton Brown, I greatly *dislike* what he calls ‘unitaskers’. You know, (in his case speaking of) kitchen gadgets that only do one thing.
One question though, you mention “storing the first-rinse water in the fridge” – can you explain that?
I was just given two hives that have been untouched for 4 years. This is my first experience with beekeeping and I need some help. I got my gear the other day and took three frames out of the super; they had plastic foundation that I scraped. Some of the honey was very dark and tasted very good, not as sweet as the rest. I’m not sure when I should take the rest of the frames out. Can someone offer me some guidance please?
I love honey, use it a lot in cooking and I don’t want to hurt my bees.
Some folks harvest progressively, meaning they take some frames out every few weeks during the summer. Most people harvest only once or twice during the entire season. In any case, make sure you leave enough for your bees to overwinter.
When I take early spring frames (often because I want a particular type of honey) I often freeze the frames overnight to protect them from wax moths and then store them. This way I can give the honey back to the bees if they are not able to store enough. Or if they do store enough, I can keep it for my own use.
So, does that mean that there are often wax moth eggs waiting to hatch in the spring? and freezing kills the eggs?
I have generally had my wax moth problems in the Fall, if I remember right. I may have had them at a variety of times of year. Can’t remember!
I gave Waylon the worst-case answer because I don’t know where he was writing from. He could be far south, or he could be in Australia or New Zealand where our winter is their summer and vice versa. Same with you. But basically, wax moth damage can occur anytime. In cold weather the larval period is extended and the adults may emerge when it gets warmer. They are most active in hot and warm months, least active in cold months, but they–and the bees they live with–may keep the nest warm enough for further development. Freezing temperatures will kill all the life forms of the wax moths, but adults can re-infect a comb at any time.
The answer to your first question is yes. In cool weather, hatching of eggs may be delayed up to 30 days and the larval period may extend to five months. Second question: Yes, freezing for about 24 hours kills all forms, but once thawed, combs must be kept away from adult moths to prevent re-infestation.
Sorry, I forgot to let you know. I’m in South Carolina.
Thanks. I kinda guessed you were in the south because you were opening your hives already. Wax moths like it down there, which is why I mentioned them. Yup, I’ve got my crystal ball all polished up.
When people say to make sure you leave enough for the bees exactly how many frames should you leave? – In addition to whatever is in the brood box.
A colony of bees needs somewhere between 60 and 90 pounds of honey for the winter. I can’t say exactly. It depends on your local climate, the weather, and the number of bees in the colony.
Great article. Thank you very much. I shall be squeezing away today to extract enough for a farmers market this morning. Whatever is not extracted will be cut up to sell as is … Thanks very much.
So should you freeze your frames 24 hours before you extract? In order to kill moths? Plan on putting back in hive after extracting so I can get more.
Wax moths adults, eggs, and larvae cannot live in extracted honey. Freezing frames is usually used as a way to kill those lifeforms in frames that are going into storage. If they are going back on a healthy hive, there is really no reason to freeze them. That said, there’s no harm in freezing them if that’s what you want to do.
Honey water from first rinse:
You can use the first rinse water to make a strong green tea. You can use this with a “JUN” scoby to make Jun, which is simply kombucha made from green tea and honey.