The act of harvesting honey is, for the conscientious and respectful beekeeper, a sacred practice of give and take. If hives have been managed respectfully throughout the year and the honey flow has been good, many healthy hives will produce a surplus of honey, which is anything more than the bees will need for winter—an amount largely determined by the length of the winters in your region, but also by your region, the activity of the colony and the expected severity of the upcoming winter. For most beekeepers in the Southeast, where I’m located, 40 to 60 pounds of honey makes for adequate winter stores. Anything more than that minimum is considered appropriate for the beekeeper to harvest.
When the time comes to harvest honey, there are a few popular methods that every beekeeper usually tries at least once. Just remember, whichever honey-harvesting method you choose, be sure to find a secure, indoor location for your harvest. The smell of warm honey will draw bees and other hungry, stinging insects to investigate and rob your process.
1. Traditional Honey Harvesting: The Extractor Method
The most popular honey-harvesting method of harvesting honey is through the use of an extractor, uncapping knife or fork, and traditional Langstroth hive frames. The set up is simple: A heated uncapping knife or uncapping fork is used to remove the wax cappings that seal the honey cells. The uncapped frames are then loaded into a traditional honey extractor: a large cylindrical tub made from food-grade stainless steel. Inside is a series of baskets aligned in a circle—think of the spokes on a wheel—designed to hold the frames that fit in a traditional Langstroth hive. Through centrifugal force (either electric or manual), the honey is spun from the frames’ cells, where they are held securely in the baskets, and drips down the sides of the extractor. A spigot at the bottom edge of the extractor allows for easy bottling.
- Equipment Access: As this is the most popular method of honey harvesting, you can easily find the equipment needed. Because purchasing extracting equipment can be costly individual beekeepers, many community beekeeping clubs will rent out equipment for a nominal fee —mine charges $25 for a weekend.
- Salvageable Comb: Because only the wax cappings are removed from the cells, much of the comb can be salvaged and returned to the hive as intact frames. Once in the hive, the bees will clean any remaining honey out the frames, repair the comb, and use it to store honey again. Save the wax cappings to make candles and beauty products.
- Time Consuming: Honey harvesting with an extractor is time consuming and requires quite a bit of set up and clean up. Depending on the number of hives you manage and how large the extractor is, harvesting can take several days.
- Langstroth Only: Additionally, this method only works with Langstroth hives and their accompanying frames. Harvesting honey from top-bar hives, Warre hives or other hive styles call for alternate harvesting methods.
2. The Crush-And-Strain Method
As the name implies, the crush-and-strain method of harvesting honey is more hands-on than traditional extracting. This method is great for anyone who desires to keep a fair amount of beeswax. Minimal equipment is needed: a sharp knife, several food-grade buckets, a colander, some muslin and a few other miscellaneous items.
Honeycomb is cut directly from the hive and crushed either by hand or using clean utensils. Both honey and wax are compressed through a filter, and the honey is then strained to remove large pieces of wax and debris, and then bottled.
- Lots Of Wax: The biggest draw to this harvesting method is the abundance of clean, fresh wax available at the end of the process, which can be sold or turned into value-added products, like candles or lip balm. Both wax and honey at the same time.
- Less Equipment: Crush-and-strain requires less equipment than the traditional honey-harvesting, and many of the necessary items for a successful honey harvest are likely already in your kitchen, requiring little to no upfront costs.
- Versatility: This method is ideal for beekeepers tending to varying hive types, such as top-bar hives.
- Comb Destruction: The main drawback to the crush-and-strain method is that it completely destroys the bees’ honeycomb, requiring them to make more comb to store their honey. Constructing comb is no small feat for the bees—it takes 8 pounds of honey to construct 1 pound of wax or comb.
- Wasted Honey: Unless the honey is meticulously crushed and strained, a fair amount may be wasted in the process.
- Messy: The crush-and-strain method can also be a bit messier than other forms of harvesting, but the fun factor (especially for kids) can make up for it.
3. The Cut-Comb Method
Cut-comb harvesting is popular for its curb-appeal with beekeepers who sell their honey at farmers markets or tailgate markets. Cut-comb harvesting leaves the entire honeycomb intact, with pieces or chunks displayed in attractive clear jars or plastic containers. Customers or beekeepers that use the honey are then able to choose how they consume the honey: They can crush and strain it themselves or eat the comb as is.
- Ease Of Use: Cut-comb honey is easy and undemanding. Honeycomb is cut from the frames of the hive and bottled directly. Processing is minimal or nonexistent: The comb may be left capped or slightly punctured.
- Less Equipment: The cut-comb method requires little equipment other than a sharp knife.
- Quality Guarantee: For the consumer, eating cut comb is a guarantee that the honey is pure, raw and unadulterated, as it has typically gone straight from the hive to the jar.
- Versatility: Like the crush-and-strain method, this is one of the best methods to harvest honey from non-traditional hives, such as top-bars.
- Comb Destruction: Like the crush-and-strain method, cut-comb honey entirely removes comb from the hive, requiring that the bees construct new comb for honey storage.
- Potential Waste-Maker: In some cases, cut-comb honey harvesting promotes waste; consumers who don’t know what to do with leftover comb tend to trash it.
When our hives are managed responsibly, they’re able to give back in the form of abundant, beautiful honey harvests. Through the blooming months, the bees work overtime to gather nectar, convert it to honey and tuck it away for a cold winter day. Above all, the best honey harvest is one conducted with respect and appreciation for all they do.
About the Author: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart is a freelance writer and photographer living outside of Asheville, N.C. She tends to her hives of Honey bees with her husband and young daughter (a budding beekeeper) in the mountains near Pisgah National Forest. Follow her Facebook community page The Humble Honeybee to keep up with the latest pollinator news.