Thanks to the national attention given to pollinator health, more and more hobby farmers are discovering the joys of raising bees and harvesting their own honey. If that describes you—and if your bees have been busy—you’ll be wanting to know how to get that rich golden amber out of the comb and into your containers. Here are the three main methods you can use.
1. Comb Honey
This honey-extraction method yields lovely jars full of comb floating in the jar of honey—the kind people will pay premium prices to get. Prevailing thought has been that making comb is harder for bees than making honey, and thus that if you harvest the comb along with the honey, you are creating a lot of extra work for your bees, as they could be using that comb-building time and effort to make honey. However, there is increasing evidence to the contrary: It appears that bees make the most wax during the season of highest nectar flow, regardless of whether or not they have comb to build out.
“The widespread view that if the combs were used over and over through the use of the honey extractor, then the bees would be saved the trouble of building them and could convert the nectar thus saved into honey, was only minimally correct,” says bee authority Richard Taylor, author of The Comb Honey Book (Northern Bee Books, 2012).
In fact, bee authorities, including the historic G. M. Doolittle, author of the book Scientific Queen Rearing (Northern Bee Books, 2010) and multiple articles on various aspects of beekeeping, state that in maximum nectar flow, the bees will make wax whether they need to or not, so if they don’t use it to build comb, it will be lost. Armed with this bit of info, you needn’t apologize to your bees for deciding to harvest via the comb method.
For a Langstroth hive—the ubiquitous bee boxes you see across the country—comb honey requires a foundation of beeswax or foundationless frames rather than a plastic foundation. Once the bees draw out the cells, fill them, fan the nectar and cap the honey, all you need to do is lay the individual honey frame onto a tray large enough to catch any drips, cut the comb from the frame, and then cut that honey-filled wax into chunks, packaging it in glass jars or other containers. This way of harvesting honey is the easiest and quickest, as there’s no uncapping of the honeycomb and the wax is eaten right along with the honey. A very gourmet presentation, comb honey is a perennial favorite.
2. Crush and Strain
One step removed from comb honey, this method of harvesting can be done with wax or plastic foundation. Cut the comb from the frame as in the comb honey method, or cut or scrape the honeycomb from plastic, preformed foundation into a strainer. Next, cut or squeeze the honeycomb until every cell is opened to allow the honey to drain out. Once this takes place and the left-behind comb is relatively dry—time and gravity are your friends here—you’re ready to bottle the strained honey.
You can buy ready-made equipment for this type of harvesting or go minimalistic with a colander and container to strain and catch your golden crop. A middle-ground option could be a DIY strainer fashioned from two 5-gallon food-grade plastic buckets. Drill holes in the bottom of one of the buckets. Drilling smaller holes will keep most of the wax from passing through, sometimes eliminating the need of a screen over those holes. If you drill larger holes, however, add a screen layer in the bottom. In the second bucket, cut out the center of the lid, leaving an inch rim around the outside to allow the strainer bucket to sit on top. The chopped-up comb will drain its honey into the bottom bucket, and from there, you can bottle it. When finished, set both buckets by your hive so your bees can come and collect any leftover honey, carry it back to their home, and store it for the next round of harvest.
The University of Missouri Extension states, “If you have six or more [bee] colonies, consider purchasing an extractor.” That is not to say that if you have fewer hives and don’t mind shelling out the extra money for an extractor, there’s any reason not to. Rather, after a certain point, the time it takes to extract honey through comb or crush-and-strain methods multiplies to the point where an extractor becomes more economical.
Extractors are fairly simple to use. While there are variations, the basic components consist of a drum/cylinder—stainless steel is recommended by most beekeepers—that is fitted with a tangential or radial set-up into which you insert uncapped frames of honeycomb. Tangential styles empty one side of the frame at a time, while radial models empty both sides without having to stop and turn them over.
Use of a centrifugal extractor leaves the cells of the comb intact because you need only remove the pure wax cap that indicates finished honey. Most beekeepers use a capping knife (either hot or cold) or a capping fork for uncapping. Available through bee-supply companies, each type has its loyal adherents. A bit of research will help you determine which you want to try.
Once your uncapped frame(s) are inserted into the spinner inside the drum, you harness centrifugal force by means of turning a crank or flipping the “on” switch of an electric model. Out flies the honey, hitting the sides of the drum, and draining down to pool in the bottom. Compared to the crush-and-strain method, your comb is emptied of its sweet contents in a relatively short time. Remove the frame(s), uncap the next few, and repeat.
Most commercially available extractors also have a spigot near the bottom that you open, draining the honey first into a strainer and ultimately into a capture container.
“When all the frames are extracted, the clean-up is easy,” says Gladys Hutson, Master Gardener for the North Carolina-Union County Extension as well as Union County’s Beekeeping Association. “We place the supers and all the extractor parts in our yard. The bees smell the honey and come and clean everything up, bringing the leftover honey back into their hives. The bees are very efficient insects; they do not waste a drop. The supers are then stacked and put away for the next honey flow season.”
So there you have it—whether you opt for comb honey, crush-and-strain or use an extractor, harvesting and enjoying honey from your own hives is eminently doable.