Oh baby! We are flush with honey!
When we started beekeeping, we were told not to expect honey the first year. Bees are focused on building comb and stocking up for the winter during the first year, so there often isn’t an excess of honey that can be extracted. If it is a choice between your bees’ well-being and a honey harvest, the bees need to come first.
Sunshine hive struggled to get established this year. By early October, they had 9-10 deep frames of capped honey in their top brood box and nothing in the honey super, which means they probably have enough honey in the hive to eat during the winter but nothing extra to share. We plan to feed them heavily with a 2:1 syrup for the next few weeks to make sure they have enough for winter.
In contrast, Blue Skies killed it. They filled up 10 deep frames with capped honey by August. And by October, they’d filled about 6 medium frames in the honey super. Most of the honey in the honey super was foraged in late summer/early fall and is likely nectar from the Goldenrod growing nearby. Oh spicy!
Because there was honey in the Blue Skies’ honey super, we decided to extract a little this season. They say a healthy hive can produce between 80-120 lbs of honey in a season. As we drove home with the extractor in the back of our car, we speculated. Maybe we’d get six jars this year? Eight at the most? We really had no idea what to expect. But we were excited to find out.
Removing frames of honey from the hive
The whole process starts with removing honey frames from your honey super(s). We took our frames out early in the week in preparation for extraction day. The greatest challenge was getting all the bees off our frames so that we could transport these frames back to the house. There are some tools, like bee escapes, that you can put on the hive a day in advance to gently force (trick?) your bees out of the honey supers. We neglected to buy one in advance so we went with the bee brush method. Bee brushing is not nearly as relaxing as it sounds.
The first step is to pull your frames of honey out of the honey super one by one. These frames will be full of bees because, well, bees like honey. Give each frame a sharp shake to knock off as many bees as possible, then take a bee brush and brush upwards knocking the remaining bees off the frame. Combs are constructed to tilt slightly upwards to keep the honey in. By brushing upwards, bees move with the comb instead of against it which means there is less risk of catching and rolling bees in the process.
Once each frame is bee free, quickly stash the frame in a tub (a large Rubbermaid bin works well) and seal the bin with a lid. If you neglect to seal your bin immediately, you will attract more bees and you will have to brush your frames once again. Rinse and repeat until all of your frames are in the sealed tub.
We did not take photos during this process because we needed to work fast. The bees got a little irritated with us. Yup, we got stung.
Before removing the frames, Lauchie watched a YouTube that showed a guy removing bees with a leaf blower. He was eager to try this method, but alas, we haven’t got a leaf blower.
Extracting honey is not especially complicated if you have the tools. It is best to have everything you need before you begin. Here is short list of the essentials:
- Large bucket with a honey gate
- 2 metal strainers with cheesecloth
- Tool to uncap the honey
- Jars & lids (quantity required will vary)
*There is a crush and strain method for extracting honey from comb that does not require an extractor but it destroys the comb on the frame and we did not want to do that.
There are a range of honey extractors on the market with different features and price points. We looked into buying one this year, but decided to rent one instead. They can be pricey and hard to store. Fortunately, we were able to rent a 4-frame manual extractor from a community beekeeping group here in Ottawa and it only cost us $20 for 24 hours. It was perfect for our needs this year.
- Disposable gloves
- Plastic drop cloth for the floor
- Spatula (for scrapping honey off the walls of the extractor)
- Paper towel
Set up everything before you begin.
We decided to extract in our kitchen because it is fall here in Ottawa and the garage is getting cold. The cold would have made the honey more viscous and would have slowed down the extraction process. Before we began, we cranked up the heat in the house and spread a plastic sheet across the floor to collect drips of honey.
Uncapping your honey
The next step is to uncap the cells of honey. Uncapping removes the thin layer of wax that seals the honey in the cells.
There are many different ways to uncap honey and all can be effective. You can buy fancy electric knives and steaming planes, use a plain uncapping knife, heat a kitchen knife or even use a heat gun to melt the top layer of wax. All can work well so it is mostly comes down to preference, access and cost. We used an uncapping fork to uncap the honey, because it is inexpensive and easy to use.
To uncap honey using an uncapping fork, apply light pressure as you skim the fork across the top of the comb. The top layer of the wax will peel off leaving the honey exposed. If you miss a patch, go back over it with the fork.
It is important to extract capped honey only. Uncapped honey is not properly dehydrated and is not ready to be consumed. It is still too moist and it can spoil the rest of your honey as it starts to ferment.
Extracting your honey
Once your frames are uncapped, it is time to put them in an extractor.
Honey extractors come in two basic varieties: manual crank and electric. Most have a 2-4 frame capacity. Manually cranked honey extractors are likely what you would use as a hobby beekeeper. They are less expensive, easy to use and perfect for beekeepers with a limited number of frames that need to be extracted. Electric honey extractors are more expensive and tend to be used for commercial honey operations (or hobby beekeepers with a large quantity of hives).
Honey extractors use centrifugal force to spin honey from honeycomb into a large catch drum. Spinning honey frames leaves the honeycomb intact making less work for bees to repair and refill the honeycomb after extraction. During the extraction process, the spinning honey frames fling honey onto the walls of the extractor drum and gravity draws the honey down and into the base of the extractor tank where it pools and waits to be strained.
We rented a 4-frame manual extractor. Once our frames were loaded in the extractor, we spun our frames for about two minutes per side to remove all the honey.
Since we didn’t have many frames, it only took about ten minutes to spin all of our frames.
If you are working indoors, we suggest placing some cardboard or folded up tea towels under the legs of your extractor. This will protect your floor from scratches if the extractor starts wobbling while you are spinning your frames.
Straining your honey
Freshly extracted honey contains beeswax and other beehive matter which you do not want in your honey. Straining cleans the honey of these particles so that is suitable for human consumption.
To strain our honey, we piled two metal strainers on top of our honey bucket with two pieces of cheese cloth sandwiched between them. Once these strainers were set-up, we loosened the spout in the base of the extractor so that honey flowed from the extractor into the strainer, and from the strainer into the bucket below.
Straining was the slowest part of the extraction process. Despite the warmth in the house, the honey was still somewhat viscous and it took time to seep through four straining layers and into the bucket below.
Bottling your honey
Once the honey is strained, it is ready to be bottled. We used a honey bucket with a honey gate at the base to pour our strained honey. Once you are ready, open the honey gate and the honey will drain into your bottles.
Bottles can be purchased in bulk through a beekeeping store or online.
Although we bottled our honey immediately after straining, next time we plan to wait 24 hours to let all the little air bubbles rise to the top. By waiting, we will have more opportunity to skim off any foam that may appear on the surface. Bubbles/foam won’t hurt the honey, but it can affect the final product aesthetic.
So what was the take this year? We bottled 24-250g jars or approximately 6 litres of honey. That is nowhere near the 80-120 lbs average, but it is much more than we expected for a first year.
The final product is a dark amber and has a faintly spicy aftertaste. It is a late season/fall honey. We are not sure about the grade, however it is “Lauchie approved.”
Cleaning up for the season
By using an extractor, the combs are still relatively intact post‑extraction which means that—with a bit of TLC—our bees can continue to use cells on those frames right away.
When we get a nice day, the plan is to take these frames to the apiary and leave them out for a couple of hours so that our bees can gather up the excess honey. Once they are “cleaned up,” we will store these frames for winter.
All the wax cappings we scrapped off will be melted down and saved, either to make candles or some other by‑product.
And that’s it. Extracting honey felt like the culmination of the beekeeping season, but that is not exactly true. Over the next few weeks we will continue to feed our hives to get them ready for winter. We will also treat for varroa mites and winterize our hives. Come back soon to learn more about these critical seasonal activities.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Here is a link to the entire video playlist: