How to Harvest Honey
If you’re interested in learning how to harvest honey, we’re here to help. We will go through everything you need to know in order to do this safely and successfully.
When Is the Best Time to Harvest Honey?
Honeybees are insane hoarders. They are incredibly busy, but they do make time for sleep. Honeybees will keep making more honey as long as they have the space and resources to make it.
Beekeepers take advantage of this hoarding nature by building bigger hives with more room for honey. In that way, the honeybees will make enough for themselves and for the beekeeper to collect.
The right time for the harvest depends on different factors. If you want high-quality honey, it’s essential to wait until the bees have processed it sufficiently, meaning, when it’s low in moisture.
Rushing this process, you may end up with fermented honey. Waiting until 75 percent of the cells within the honeycomb are capped will ensure the moisture is low.
Another crucial factor is waiting for the blossoming plants to finish blooming. Waiting for the plants will maximize the honey crop, since the bees will have more time to gather nectar and produce honey. Harvesting later on in the season ensures the bees have produced a greater amount of honey.
This, however, depends heavily on your location. Beekeepers in northern regions might have quite a short season, due to cold weather. Flowers and plants will stop blooming much earlier compared to southern regions.
Colder temperatures will also make the honey thicker and more difficult to extract. Later in the season, you will have to deal with honey robbers, as well. When winter is right around the corner and resources are low, bees tend to steal honey from nearby hives.
When harvesting honey, it’s essential to make sure the extraction is done within two or three days of removing the bees. Doing this will prevent wax moths and hive beetles from settling on the unprotected combs.
Honey Harvesting Equipment
There’s lots of equipment required to safely extract honey. It’s important to keep yourself, your bees, and the hives protected. The correct tools will ensure that the honeycombs are removed safely and the honey is extracted without breaking the comb.
A honey extractor uses centrifugal force to remove the honey. It’s a fairly simple device consisting of a drum or container, with frame baskets. The honeycomb is placed within the frames. The device will then spin fast and the honey will come out.
Although not essential, a good extractor is extremely handy to a beekeeper who produces large volumes of honey. The device will extract the honey while keeping the comb intact and ready for the bees to reuse.
When buying a honey extractor, you can choose between two types: radial or tangential. Radial extractors position the combs with the top side facing outward. The tangential extractor only has one side facing outward.
Both of these can be found as electrically or manually powered. The radial extractor is the most common for commercial use. Here’s a list of some of the best honey extractors currently on the market.
A bee smoker is one of the most essential things a beekeeper can have. The smoke disorients the bees and prevents them from stinging. It also calms the bees and stops the guard bees from releasing alarm scents, known as pheromones.
The smoke doesn’t hurt the bees, in fact, it encourages them to eat honey, which further soothes them. The smoker uses various types of fuel, such as pine needles, hessian, twine, and rotten wood. Here’s a list of my recommended bee smokers.
When harvesting honey, you want to stay safe, and that means avoiding bee stings and venom. A bee suit is the best way to stay protected, as honeybees tend to become quite aggressive when anyone approaches their hive.
The most crucial parts to protect are your face and neck, therefore, a hat and veil are essential. A full suit is basically a full-length, one-piece overall. It’s made out of a lightweight but strong material that is easy to move in but has no gaps for bees to get into, thereby helping to prevent stings.
Most suits come with gloves. Now, some beekeepers actually don’t like to wear gloves as they feel constricted. New beekeepers, though, might want to stay extra protected.
This type of brush is used to brush the bees off the honeycomb when you’re harvesting. The brush has soft bristles so it won’t kill or hurt the bees. It’s important to sweep the frames before placing them in the extractor.
A good way to get all the bees out is by positioning the frame upside down; you might notice lots of bees coming out. It’s crucial to always brush the same way as you’re holding the frame. Brushing the opposite way may result in bees getting stuck, breaking their legs, or dying.
Uncapping Knife and Fork
An uncapping knife is an electrical knife, which is heated up in order to remove the cap easily. All honey cells are capped by the bees to keep the honey safe. Trying to extract honey from capped cells is close to impossible.
You can also use a saw-like knife if you don’t have an uncapping knife. Make sure the knife is heated and dry, though. It also won’t be as easy as the specialized knife.
Uncapping forks are used to scratch the caps that the knife missed. The uncapping fork is also very useful; you could even skip the knife and only use the fork.
An uncapping tank is used to collect wax cappings. Many beekeepers use it to process the honey before putting it in the extractor. It separates the honey from the wax.
When harvesting honey, tiny pieces of wood, wax, or comb, might make it into the honey. Using a specialized honey strainer is a great way to ensure clean honey. It basically removes any impurities and you’ll end up with clear honey.
You can use a regular kitchen strainer for this task as well. We recommend using the specialized honey strainer though, as it’s more thorough.
Jars and Bottles
Once you have extracted the honey, you will need a place to store it. Honey is best stored in an airtight container. This could be sterilized glass or food-grade plastic, with a tight seal. Either of these will ensure the honey is preserved well.
Getting to harvest your first honey is one of the best feelings in the world. You’ve nurtured and cared for your bees and it’s finally time to see what the hive has produced. If you’re new to harvesting honey, look no further, we have put together an easy-to-follow step-by-step guide.
Step One: Open the Hive
Once you have put on your protective suit, approach the hive from behind. Gently press the trigger on your smoker and puff it around the hive. Remove the top of the hive and smoke the surface, this will make the bees crawl further down into the hive.
Pick a frame to take out. Remember to look for closed cells, since that means honey. You might need to use a small crowbar, or the uncapping knife to get the frame out. They can be tough to get out since bees will sometimes seal them using a type of bee glue called propolis.
Step Two: Remove the Bees
Place the frame at an angle and use the bee brush to gently wipe off the bees. You can easily take multiple frames at a time.
Once you’ve taken out the frames you need, you have to take them away from the hive and the bees. Some beekeepers will have a little shed, while others might do it in their basement.
Step Three: Uncap Honey Cells
Once you’ve made it inside, use your uncapping knife and fork to gently uncap the honey cells. Uncapping the cells is important to be able to extract the honey. Capped cells can be extracted, however, it’s not easy and will take some time.
Hold the frame vertically, then scrape using the knife from bottom to top. Use the fork afterward to pick out any cells that might still be capped.
Step Four: Extract Your Honey
Place the uncapped frames in your honey extractor. If it’s electrical, simply turn it on and wait. If your extractor is manual, turn the lever to spin the frames.
The honey will be spun around quickly, it will then fly out of the cells and onto the sides of the extractor. The honey will then slowly run down into the spout.
Step Five: Strain and Collect Your Honey
The final step is to remove all impurities from your honey. There might be tiny pieces of wood, wax, comb, or even bees in the honey.
Use the honey strainer to separate the good from the bad. Honey refractometers can also be used to measure moisture content within the produce.
Once the honey is clean, get out your jars, fill them up, and mark them with your label. Make sure your jars are sterilized to avoid any contamination. Honey jars don’t need to be sealed to preserve it, although you should make sure no hungry bugs can enter, so a tight-fitting lid is recommended.
If you extract honey before the bees have finished processing it, you’ll end up with very light-colored honey. Uncapped honey hasn’t been finished by the bees just yet, therefore, they haven’t sealed it with beeswax. This honey is edible, but it’s high in moisture and not as high in nutrients.
Unfinished honey is also very likely to ferment and spoil. When the moisture content of honey is high, it’s vulnerable to yeast and other microorganisms. By converting sucrose into smaller sugars and evaporating the water, the honey simply becomes too concentrated for any organism to grow.
Go for Quality Over Quantity
Filling the pantry with your own honey might seem like the ultimate beekeeping success. You want to make sure the honey you harvest is as close to perfect as possible, though.
What your honey should look like depends on different factors, such as location, plant life, and weather conditions. There are six colors of honey that have been marked as good quality, these are:
- Extra light amber
- Light amber
- Dark amber
You can use a digital analyzer to measure the light absorbed by honey samples.
How Often Should You Harvest Honey?
You could easily harvest honey as soon as you find a capped frame, but that’s not always practical. It’s important to remember that honeybees produce honey as a food source. If you go and take all the honey they make, they won’t have any to live on.
Many beekeepers will check the hives regularly, but most only harvest once per season. It also takes quite a lot of time and effort to extract honey. You also don’t want to go and smoke the bees often, which would disturb their work.
Does Harvesting Honey Harm the Bees?
Harvesting honey (and collecting pollen, for that matter) using the right equipment and methods won’t harm the bees. The smoker is fueled by natural fuel, therefore, there is no danger. Be sure that the smoke isn’t too close to the hive, though, as this could burn the bees’ wings.
The other situation where you could potentially harm your bees is when you’re brushing them off the frame. As mentioned above, it’s crucial to brush along the direction and angle you’re holding the frame.
If it’s upside down, you should brush it that way. Brushing the opposite direction, you could risk having a few bees getting stuck and breaking their legs.
Other Risks & Precautions
When harvesting honey, you might want to avoid getting stung by angry bees. It’s important to make sure your suit doesn’t have any gaps in it. The suit should be a thick material that is also breathable and lightweight.
It’s important to consider the hive’s location and the surrounding environment. Having an apiary in urban areas could make the honey contaminated.
Some beekeepers use antibiotics or other drugs, even chemicals, to prevent diseases within the hive. Overusing these products could result in honey being contaminated by the same things.
Using too much smoke or the wrong fuel could result in the honey having a strange odor or weird taste.
It’s crucial to keep everything clean; this includes anything that might be in contact with the frames or the honey.
The beehive is very sensitive and diseases can occur, therefore, it’s essential to look for any abnormalities. This could be tiny beetles, moths, mites, or even sick bees.
Some beekeepers choose to treat the hive with specialized pesticides which kills sick bees and any other intruders. This, however, is not recommended if you don’t have experience, as it could result in contaminating the honey or killing the colony. Keeping an eye out for anything unusual and removing it if found could do the trick.
Because the honey industry is so large, honeybees are being sold and shipped around the globe. Introducing new bees to your hive or environment could result in the spreading of diseases.
Whenever you’re done checking the hive, it’s essential to put the top back on. The special top will help to keep the hive at the warm temperature that the bees and offspring prefer.
Keeping a water source close to the hive could really help the bees as well. Bees require water to function, just like other living creatures. Honeybees will also collect water to help cool off the hive on warm days. Having water close at hand means less time is spent getting water to the hive, and more time foraging for pollen and nectar.
Harvesting honey is one of the many joys of being a beekeeper. It’s probably the most rewarding, too, financially and emotionally. It can be quite intimidating if it’s your first time, though. With the right knowledge, you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
It’s important to be gentle when handling the bees, remember, they are working very hard for you. Always remember to leave enough honey behind for the bees.