The number one reason that new beekeepers get started with honey bees is access to fresh honey! While beekeepers keep bees for a variety of reasons harvesting honey is an exciting part of the job! A healthy hive can produce 40 to 100 pounds of honey depending on the size of the honey supers used. However, like all natural processes, honey production takes time. As you get started in beekeeping, harvesting honey will be a goal to work towards.
Why Do Bees Make Honey?
Bees gather both flower nectar and pollen as their primary food sources. Pollen is a source of protein, while plant nectar provides energy. However, both nectar and pollen have limited windows that are available to the bees. Depending on where you live in the world, the nectar flow may be limited even more. Bees make honey as a way to preserve food.
As beginner beekeepers, the main goal of your first year of beekeeping should be focused on the health of your new colonies. Depending on how you purchased bees, the length of your growing season, and your local climate will all impact how soon you can expect a honey harvest. Ensuring the bees have enough food to survive the dearth, the time of year when food resources are limited should be a priority.
Responsible beekeepers only harvest excess honey from the bees. A full-size hive in a cold climate needs 60 to 90 pounds of honey to survive the winter. A single frame of honey weighs about 8 pounds. Plan to leave at least 8 to 10 honey frames to overwinter your bee hives.
Did you know?
As a rule of thumb, most beekeepers should not expect to harvest honey until their second year of beekeeping.
When To Harvest Honey?
The best time to harvest honey is at the end of the honey flow, also known as the nectar flow. A honey flow is the time of year when the nectar and pollen are most available to the bees. This varies based on where you live and your weather year to year. While beekeepers can anticipate the honey flow, they can’t predict it exactly. The honey flow during a drought will not be as productive as a non-drought year. Likewise, excessive rain will also have an effect on the honey flow. The honey flow is over when the majority of nectar-producing flowers have died off.
Beekeepers who use Langstroth hives add honey supers with frames of honey comb to healthy hives prior to the honey flow. Queen excluders are used to prevent the queen from entering the boxes and laying eggs in the honeycomb. This ensures that these boxes are used exclusively for honey storage.
The process of making honey takes time and hard work. A single bee will produce only 1 tablespoon of honey in its lifetime! It truly is a group effort of the bees all working together to produce enough honey for the colony to survive. When the honey reaches its optimal moisture content the worker bees cap the honey with wax to preserve it. Frames of honey are ready for extraction when 80 to 90% of the honeycomb is capped. The more the better! In a healthy hive, the entire honey-making process takes about 45 days.
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Excluded Frames of Honey
Frames of uncapped honey are not ready for extraction. Uncapped frames of honey have not been fully ripened. You can test the moisture level of your honey with a refractometer to determine if the uncapped honey is at the correct moisture level. Honey needs to have its moisture level reduced to 15.5% to 18.6%. Honey with a higher moisture level will ferment if extracted early. While fermented honey is safe to eat, it has a tangy flavor that might not be what you expect.
Keep in mind, if you are feeding sugar syrup to bees, they may store that syrup in the honeycomb. No matter how hard they try, they can not transform sugar water into honey. Only nectar can be transformed into honey. Feeding sugar water during the honey flow can have an effect on the quality of your honey.
As the honey flow comes to a close, honey extraction is done while the weather is still warm. While honey can be extracted at cooler temperatures, the optimal outside temperature range is 75° to 80°. Honey should be harvested before the temperatures drop, as cold honey will be more difficult to extract from the honeycomb.
If you haven’t recently inspected the brood boxes for resources, prior to pulling your honey supers, you may want to check the availability of honey that will be left for the bees. The brood boxes typically have a mixture of brood, pollen, and honey that is dedicated to the bees. Make sure that the hive has enough honey to survive the winter. If you pull too much honey, you can always return some of the frames of honey to the bees. You can also provide a struggling hive with full frames of honey as a food source from other hives.
Necessary Tools for Extraction in the Apiary
To ensure that extraction day goes as smoothly as possible, gather the necessary tools prior to pulling the honey supers. As with all beekeeping tasks, dress for success! Bees instinctively protect their hives, you can expect that they might be more aggressive than usual when pulling honey supers.
If you have a full beekeeping suit, extraction day is a great day to wear it. This not only protects you from the bees, but it also keeps you clean! If you don’t have one, that’s fine, due to the warm temperatures, we wear beekeeping jackets for all of our beekeeping chores.
It’s a good idea to wear gloves on extraction day. The honey harvest requires handling a lot of frames, and heavy boxes. It’s inevitable, you will squish a few bees during the day. Injured bees tend to sting!
Once you remove the honey supers or frames from the hives, be prepared to isolate the frames from the bees. They will certainly return to the honey frames if they find them! We use a large cooler and place the frames inside. This allows us to close the cover and prevent bees from returning to the frames.
Some beekeepers put the entire honey super inside a trash bag and add frames to the box to prevent bees from returning. Other beekeepers simply stack the honey supers on a solid surface with a cover. Your technique will depend on how you remove the bees from the frames.
Removing the Honey Supers
Removing the honey supers from the hives can be done in a variety of ways. The size of your apiary, your physical abilities, as well as your patience level can all help determine the best method of removing bees from the honey frames. The additional tools you need will depend on your method.
Smoke should be used sparingly on honey extraction day, especially if you will be using any of the honey comb in your honey.
Shake and Brush Method
If you have a smaller apiary, one of the most inexpensive ways to remove bees from the honey frames is the shake and brush method. We currently have less than 15 hives and this is the method we use. For this method, you will need a box or cooler close by to place frames to keep the bees off once removed. You may also want a bee brush or a feather.
To remove the bees from the frames, hold the tops of the frames with your thumbs on the top of the frame. Use the rest of your fingers to firmly hold onto the edges of the frame on both sides. Give the frame a hard shake with a hard stop at the end. The force of the hard stop will cause the bees to fall off. It’s best to do this over the top of the beehive where the bees can land on the hive and go back to their business.
If any bees remain, you can use a bee brush to brush them off. Some people prefer to use a large feather for this job as bees are not fond of the bee brush. Philip usually gives each frame a good shake and quickly puts them into the cooler to protect them from returning bees.
This method can also be used with an entire honey super box. Stack several empty bee boxes in a stack, instead of shaking individual frames, you can take the entire honey super and forcefully bang the honey super above the empty box. The abrupt stop when the honey super makes contact with the empty box will cause the bees to fall off.
Pros: Inspect each frame prior to removing it. No extra expenses. No special skills.
Cons: This method is labor intensive. If you have 10 hives, with 10 frames in each honey super, it’s a lot of frames to handle and shake. The box method is faster but requires physical strength.
Another method to remove the bees from the honey supers is to use bee escapes, also known as clearing boards. Bee escapes are placed below the honey supers. They are a one-way entrance with a maze. Bees are creatures of habit and very fine-tuned into their spaces. The bee escape allows the bees to easily leave, but it doesn’t allow them to easily return.
The bees should exit the box within 24 to 36 hours. Any remaining bees can be shaken off or brushed off. While the bee escape will slow the bees down from returning, they will learn how to navigate through the escape if given too much time. If you have a large apiary this is time-consuming. You would need one bee escape per hive, or just a few, and do just a couple of boxes every few days.
We have used this method when removing bees in bee removal from a house. Philip built a triangle bee escape board and covered it with a fine screen. This same triangle bee escape can be mounted on the bottom of an inner lid. Make sure the honey super is completely sealed with no means of entry.
Pros: Less aggravating to the bees. Inexpensive to build yourself. Other than lifting heavy honey supers this is less physically demanding.
Cons: Slow process. Takes a minimum of 24 hours per box or multiple bee escapes.
Blowing the Bees Off
This method uses a specially designed bee blower to physically blow the bees off the honey frames with air. Some beekeepers use a leaf blower, shop vac, or low-pressured air compressor. Be sure to blow the bees off from the top of the frames to the bottom as the bees will have more space between frames to exit as they are forcefully blown off the frames.
Pros: Less physically demanding than shaking.
Cons: Requires expensive equipment. Bees are highly aggravated during the process.
The use of fume boards is the method used by commercial beekeepers. Specially designed fume boards can be purchased, or you can modify a telescoping lid by adding a layer of black felt to the inside cover. A bee deterrent is generously applied to the black felt.
Bee deterrents are made with butyric anhydride and benzaldehyde. They are supposed to be safe for both the bees and the honey. The bee deterrents are food-safe products. Throughout my research, I could not find a single source that indicated any danger to the bees or the honey. Honey Bandit, Bee Go, Bee Quick, and Honey Robber are a few brands that are popular.
Before placing the fume board on top of the honey super, make sure you have removed the queen excluder to more easily allow the bees to escape. When the fume board is placed on top of the honey super, the bees will quickly exit the honey super. Within minutes the entire box will be bee free. A good shake to the entire box will dislodge any bees that may linger. The heat of the sun helps enhance the bee deterrent effect on the bees.
Pros: Quick! Bees quickly exit the honey super without much more intervention.
Cons: Requires special equipment. Uses chemicals. Depending on the chemical you choose, they have an unpleasant odor.
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Extracting the Honey
Once the honey supers have been removed from the hive, the honey needs to be harvested as soon as possible. If we can’t get to it immediately we place the frames of honey into the freezer. The freezer has the added benefit of continuing to reduce the moisture level in the uncapped honey. Prior to extraction, the frames should be removed from the freezer and allowed to come to room temperature.
The honey extraction method you choose will be determined by the number of honey supers you have and the available equipment. While we have used several methods, my preferred method is the electric honey extractor.
A honey extractor is a large stainless steel drum-shaped device. They come with electric or manual crank operation. The prepared honey frames are placed on a rack inside the extractor. When activated, the centrifugal force of rapidly spinning the honey frames forces the honey out of the honeycomb to the walls of the drum and pools in the bottom of the extractor. Some extractors, called a radial extractor can remove the honey from both sides of the frames at one time. They are more expensive to purchase. Tangential extractors remove the honey from one side at a time. Once the first side is done, the frames are turned and spun again. These are more affordable for small apiaries.
The honey extractor has a gate at the bottom that allows you to drain the honey from the extractor. Be sure to watch the honey level inside, as the frames will whip the honey if the honey level gets too high.
A honey extractor is an investment for your apiary. Honey extraction is a messy job! The expense is well worth the cost. Depending on the size of your apiary, proceeds from honey sales could easily pay for a tangential extractor in your first year of extracting honey. We were lucky enough to find a used electric honey extractor in like new condition that saved us a lot of money.
A tangential honey extractor removes honey from just one side of the frame at a time. Halfway through extraction, the frames are turned. The honey is extracted from the other side. These electric extractors are a more affordable option for homestead apiaries.
Join Us on Honey Extraction Day
- Frames of raw honey
- Electric Honey Extractor
- Uncapping roller AND/ OR Hot Knife
- Container for honeycomb cappings with rack/ strainer (optional)
- Bottling bucket and strainer
- Additional food safe buckets with lids and strainers as needed
- Honey bottles with caps
- Labels (if required by your state)
- Pull the honey supers from the apiary. Using your chosen method, remove bees from the frames. Move the honey supers to a protected area where the honey can be extracted. It's best not to extract honey outside, as the bees will protect their honey if they discover your work area.
- Prepare the uncapping container. Use a container that is large enough to stand a frame of honey in and work with it. A rack or strainer in the bottom will allow you to place the end of the frame on a solid surface and not set it directly in any honey in the container. We use a large mixing bowl with a strainer.
- Stand the frame of the honeycomb on end inside of your uncapping container. Using either an uncapping roller or hot knife, uncap the capped honey. If using an uncapping roller, be sure to uncap every cell of the honeycomb.
- Place the prepared frame inside the extractor.
- Once the extractor is full, close the lid and spin the honey frames until the honey is fully removed from the honeycomb. 5 to 15 minutes is sufficient. If using a tangential extractor, turn the frames around and extract the honey from the other side.
- Place a food-safe bucket under the honey gate to drain honey. We have specially designed strainers that fit a 5-gallon bucket. These strain debris from the honey. Be mindful of the honey level at the bottom of the extractor. If possible, leave the honey gate open and allow the honey to drain as you extract.
- Once the honey is extracted, cover the honey and allow it to settle at least overnight to several days. Air bubbles trapped inside the honey will work their way to the top. The foam-like bubbles can be scraped off.
- Thoroughly clean the extractor and the honey gate. Be mindful of trapped honey inside the honey gate.
- Any containers, frames or tools that will not be damaged by the weather can be set outside in the apiary. The bees are very efficient at clean-up. Within just a few days the bees will remove any honey left on the equipment.
- Bottling honey is most easily accomplished with a bottling bucket. Some beekeepers use heated bottlers that allow the honey to flow more freely. While these work at lower temperatures, I prefer not to heat my honey and destroy the qualities of raw honey.
- Elevate the bottling bucket with a stool. This keeps any mess on the counter, rather than allowing it to drip all over the floor. I keep a tray under the bottling bucket to catch any drips.
- Open the honey gate and fill each honey container. If you sell your honey, weigh each bottle and label it appropriately as required by your state.
- Honey should be stored in a cool, dry place.
Radial extractors can remove the honey from both sides of the frames at one time. They are more expensive to purchase.
Tangential extractors remove the honey from one side at a time. Once the first side is finished, the frames are turned and spun a second time. These are more affordable for small apiaries.
Both radial and tangential extractors come in hand crank and electric models.
If you don’t have a lot of honey to harvest there are a few other options you can try. Both are more time-consuming and messy but easy enough to do.
In our first year of beekeeping, we pulled only two frames of honey from the beehives. While we owned the honey extractor at that time, the cleanup of the equipment was more work than we wanted to invest for so little honey. Since it was important to us to preserve the honeycomb to return to the bees we opted to use the uncapping roller to uncap the honey and allow gravity to do the work. We simply placed the frames in a bucket and allowed the honey to drain out of the frames. This took a few days and is not as efficient as the honey extractor in thoroughly removing the honey from the comb. However, we preserved the honeycomb and returned it to the bees.
Crush and Drain
The other method we used was the crush and drain method. Philip was called into an area that was damaged by a tornado to remove a beehive from a hollow tree. Inside the tree was a well-developed wild beehive full of honey. When rescuing bees, we like to return to them their honeycomb, however, feral colonies are prone to pest infestations such as wax moths and beetles that are not welcome in our apiary.
Since we could not return the honeycomb to the bees, we opted to harvest the honey. The crush and drain method is simple to do. The honeycomb is crushed into smaller pieces and allowed to drain. This also is not as efficient as the electric extractor, but it works surprisingly well for its simplicity. The wax can be melted, cleaned, and harvested as well. Once cleaned, the wax can be used in the apiary to wax frames.
Fresh Raw Honey
An abundance of fresh raw honey is one of the sweetest perks of beekeeping! With proper storage, honey doesn’t go bad! However, we have found that we can barely keep it on the shelves! Raw local honey is extremely popular!
Even with proper storage, raw honey may crystallize over time. Honey is a supersaturated solution which means it contains more dissolved material than water. Over time crystals can form. This only changes the consistency of the honey, not any of the nutritional benefits. Personally, I like crystalized honey, it’s easy to spread on a biscuit! To liquefy honey after it has crystalized. heat it slightly. The simplest way to do this is to heat a pot of water to just under boiling and then shut it off. The ideal temperature is 95° to 104°. Add the honey jar to the pot and allow it to sit until the honey dissolves. This low temperature does not destroy the nutrients inside the honey.
Raw honey is considered the healthiest kind of honey to purchase. The unique qualities of raw honey are proof you purchased the real deal!
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.