Educational Guide

Harvesting and Extracting the Honey

Harvesting the honey

Timing the honey harvest is important. Never take honey from the colonies until it is nearly completely capped, but do not leave surplus honey in the hives too long. To do so results in overcrowding the colony, and the comb honey may become travel stained from bees walking over it. Surplus honey, however, should be removed before the end of the main nectar flow or during a subsequent nectar flow to help prevent robbing.

1. The helper gently puffs a little smoke into the hive entrance and adjusts the entrance to its widest position. The beekeeper waits for the humming of the bees, then uncovers the hive.
2. The beekeeper rolls back the cloth covering the combs. The helper gently puffs a little smoke onto the uncovered top bars (first position, see diagram).
3. The helper continues gently using the smoker. The beekeeper passes the hive-tool over the top bars and the width of the side walls to remove the propolis.
4. The beekeeper takes the smoker and puffs plenty of smoke between the combs to make the bees go down from box number 1 into box number 2. If you leave the cloth on the box, the smoke which goes under the material is less likely to escape and the operation proceeds more quickly.
5. When the bees have gone down, using the hive-tool the beekeeper unsticks the first and second boxes, then lifts off number 1. He can turn it over to see it better. The helper gently puffs a little smoke on to the top bars of box number 2. If the beekeeper sees some brood at the bottom of the combs in box number 1, he counts the number of square decimetres of brood. Taking this figure from 48, he has the number of square decimetres of honey. Dividing this number by 3, he has the number of kilos of honey in the hive. It is better to err on the generous side. The beekeeper takes note of this number and replaces the box, covers it and goes on to another hive. If on the other hand, the beekeeper only sees honey in box number 1, he takes off that box and puts it in a safe place, covers it and goes on to another hive.
6. The beekeeper treats box number 2 in the same way as number 1. If he sees only honey, he lifts it off. If he sees a small amount of brood, he replaces it (second position, see diagram), then covers it (third position, see diagram) after having taken off what honey there is. And he carries on in this way. He takes off all the boxes which are absolutely full of honey. He stops as soon as he sees brood in the box.

Extracting honey

The honey we have taken from the hives is in the extraction room but still in the cells of the comb that are capped with wax.

Comb honey

Comb honey may be sold as such, but account should be taken of the fact that transporting it is difficult, that by selling it this way the wax is lost, that the return of the hive boxes with the comb entails a cost, and that a new starter will have to be put on the top-bars. This comb honey should not be confused with section honey, whose production I have not recommended because it goes against the bees and it is not profitable for the beekeeper. If the beekeeper finds buyers for cut comb honey, which is less expensive than sections at harvest, he will only have to put these combs in a safe place to await sale.

Clear honey

Most commonly, the honey is separated from the wax before sale. This is called clear (runny)honey.
Clear honey is obtained in three ways: by letting it drain unaided or by assisting flow with heat or with the force of centrifugation.

1. Extraction by draining

This extraction is begun as soon as the combs have been brought to the extraction room. Using a knife, all the honeycombs are cut out in pieces leaving about 10 mm comb on the top-bars. Pieces of comb containing pollen are put aside as this pollen could discolour the honey. Bits of comb containing brood are likewise put aside if it happens that any are found.

All the other pieces of comb are put in a metal sieve of 4 mm mesh, in an ordinary colander or on a screen and crushed by hand or with a knife. The honey is collected in a ceramic or tinplate receptacle. Honey deteriorates in galvanised steel containers or those made of zinc or copper. If this is done soon after the harvest, the honey is still warm and flows easily. If it cannot be done immediately after the harvest it should be done in a room that is sufficiently warm. Honey obtained by this method is commonly called drained honey.

2. Heat extraction

When spontaneous flow has stopped there is still some honey in the fragments of wax. Furthermore, some thick and viscous honeys do not flow using the aforementioned procedure. These comb fragments and those put aside because they contain pollen or brood are combined and exposed to the heat of the sun or an oven. If this is done by the heat of the sun, all of it should be covered with a thick sheet of glass to trap the sun's radiation and stop bees robbing.

All the otheIf it is done with the heat of an oven, it takes place some hours after removing the bread; or it is carried out in the oven of a kitchen cooker, in which case too great a heat should be avoided. In both cases everything melts – honey and wax – and drips into the receiver under the sieve. Cooling separates the wax and the honey. The cappings of comb put in the extractor can be treated in the same way. Honey obtained by this method is of poorer quality. It will often be more economical to give all the comb fragments to colonies low on stores. In this case our large feeder is most useful.

3. Extraction by centrifugal force

This extraction is done with a centrifugal extractor. It has the advantage of most complete removal of the honey and is the quickest and least laborious method. Until now this method has only been used for frames from framed hives. Our cage arrangement allows comb to be extracted from fixed-comb hives. Furthermore, the combs are uncapped in these cages.
Before putting the combs in the extractor, the wax cappings covering the full cells are removed, as described in the following.

Uncapping knife

Uncapping is done with a special knife, or an ordinary one from the kitchen. It is important that the knife is clean and quite hot. It is useful to have several of them to use in succession, putting them in a vessel of hot water in between uses. The vessel can be usefully placed on a hotplate. The knife needs to be hot enough to pass easily under the cappings but not so hot as to melt them. The operator should use the knife like a saw, cutting only on the pull stroke and not on the push. When the knife has passed right across the comb, the point of the knife is used to remove the cappings that are in the hollows of the comb.

Sometimes cells filled with pollen are found under the knife. Pollen is found in boxes of all hives. It is not poison as bees feed it to their young larvae. Consumers even like to find the flavour of pollen in their honey. However, to avoid discolouring the honey, I advise not mixing this pollen in and for this reason to pass the knife lightly and carefully under the cappings.

Heat required

So that the centrifugal extraction works quickly and efficiently, it is important that the combs are not allowed to cool. Otherwise they should be put in a warm place. It is best to extract in the afternoon the combs that have been taken from the hives in the morning. Furthermore, the heat from the uncapping knife re-warms the honey and this facilitates its extraction.

Uncapping the comb

1. Turn the hive-body box containing fixed honeycomb upside down on some kind of support, two hive-bodies for example.
2. In order to detach the comb from the inside walls of the box, pass a knife down each side along the walls.
3. Turn the box the right way up.
4. Lift each end of the comb to disengage it from the rebate (Fig. A).
5. Take the top-bars with the comb (Fig. B) and place them in cage number 1, that has been prepared by placing it on an uncapping horse, so that the top-bar is at the top, to facilitate depositing the comb.
6. Rotate cage number 1 with the comb such that the top-bar is at the bottom in order to ease uncapping.
7. Uncap the exposed surface of the comb.
8. Place cage number 2 on cage number 1. Invert, remove cage number 1 and uncap the other
surface of the comb.
9. Place cage number 3 on all, so that the comb is held between the two sheets of metal.
10. Place these two combined cages enclosing the comb in the extractor.

Extracting honey with an extractor

All the cages in the extractor may have our cages placed in them. In any case, at least two should be put in four-cage extractors. Otherwise the extractor jumps during operation. Our cages should be placed in the extractor in such a way that the top of the comb is in front when the [tangential, Tr.] extractor rotates, or at the bottom when size demands, never at the back.

When the extractor's cages are loaded, it is rotated slowly, then rapidly. The honey escapes and hits the walls of the drum like rain. The cages are turned the other way round and the extractor rotated again, slowly at first then faster. The necessary number of turns of the crank is found by trial and error. It depends on the speed of rotation and the diameter of the extractor drum.

A distance covered of one kilometre in three minutes on each face gives a good result. Honey leaving the comb reaches the extractor walls and runs down to the bottom. Before this honey reaches the height of the cages and thus impedes their movement, it is collected in a ripener.

Combs which are not too old or black can be saved, either to give to artificial swarms or to make up boxes with insufficient built comb. In which case extraction is carried out thus: spin them several times gently to empty one surface of the comb, turn the cages round, spin them several times gently to empty the other side of the comb, then spin more rapidly to achieve extraction of one face of the comb, turn the cages round and again spin rapidly to complete the extraction of the other surface of the comb.


At the outlet of the extractor, the honey contains bubbles of air and various gases. It may also include pollen and capping debris. To free honey from all these foreign bodies, it is left for several days in a receptacle called a ripener. These should be taller than they are wide. A barrel may be used for this if it is not made of oak. A strainer retains the larger impurities. As a result of the different densities, the foreign material and the gas floats to the surface, and forms a scum that is removed before drawing off honey. If no more impurities are rising to the surface, the honey is drawn off before it crystallises. Ripeners are fitted with a butterfly valve, or better still, a gate valve.


The honey, a viscous liquid when it comes from the comb, solidifies and forms a compact mass of crystals varying in size. The honey is then said to have crystallised or granulated. The temperature and the plant from which the honey came modifies ad infinitum the rate at which it crystallises and the size of the crystal grains. A little old crystallised honey mixed in the bulk may haste granulation.

You can download detailed information from honey crystallization section.

Storage of honey

Honey is hygroscopic. It can absorb up to 50% water. In absorbing water the honey liquefies. As a result it rapidly ferments and acquires a sour and unpleasant taste. To remove this sourness and stop fermentation it must be melted in a bain-marie. The only way to avoid such difficulties is to store the honey in airtight containers and keep them in a cool place.