Honey Refractometers​ and How to Use Them

Honey harvesting is a large part of beekeeping. It’s one of the most popular reasons why people choose to become beekeepers. Although it’s not the most complicated hobby in the world, there is a science to collecting good, consumable honey.

Honey Refractometer

Have you ever wondered how beekeepers know when honey is ready to be reaped? Timing plays an important role. At the end of a nectar season, when the bees cap the honey they produce, it’s usually safe to take it. Intelligent guesses have room for error, and that’s why harvesting tools, like honey refractometers, are at our disposal.

What Is a Honey Refractometer?

A refractometer is a tool used to measure moisture. They’re used in various industries and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They sound like complicated pieces of equipment, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand how they work.

When light passes through substances or materials like glass or water, it changes direction. This is called refraction. A refractometer measures the degree to which light changes when it passes through the liquid.

Once the degree of refraction has been established, the refractometer will compare it to a predetermined refraction index (nD). This shows you the concentration of the liquid you are measuring.

Refraction indexes are affected by the temperature of the liquid. Most refractometers use the Brix scale, which measures liquids calibrated to their concentration in water.

Different liquids will have different indexes. That’s where specialized refractometers come in.

A honey refractometer is what beekeepers use to measure the volume or concentration of moisture in their honey to ensure optimal extraction.

It’s an important step in making sure that your honey is ripe enough to be harvested and stored in jars. You have to invest in one if you have any hope of selling your honey. Honey, and more importantly the water content of honey, is regulated by the FDA. Your product has to meet industry standards, or else you might get into trouble.

Choosing the Right Honey Refractometer

The science behind honey refractometers is simple enough, but choosing one may not be. You don’t want to buy a tool that will be useless to you, so before you splurge on one, consider the following.

Types of Refractometers

There are four main types of refractometers—laboratory, inline processing, analog, and digital.

Laboratory refractometers are used in medicine and aren’t suited for something as simple or small-scale as honey testing, so don’t worry about them. Likewise, inline processing refractometers are used to continuously measure moisture in pipes and water tanks.

You want to consider a handheld analog or digital honey refractometer. Although the result is the same between these two, the testing process will differ.

In analog (or traditional) refractometers, you will have to manually insert a sample plate and prism. Once everything is in place, you have to aim your refractometer at an external light source to be able to see the scale. Analog refractometers require manual calibration as well.

Digital refractometers eliminate this. All you have to do is place a sample drop into the refractometer’s well. It will have its own light source, and the meter will translate the reading into a refraction index.

Honey Refractometer Requirements

It might sound confusing, but honey refractometers function differently from usual refractometers. Most refractometers that use the Brix scale will measure the percentage of solids in a liquid. They’re excellent for measuring sugar content, for example.

Honey-specific refractometers don’t do that. Instead, they measure the amount of water in your honey; the exact opposite of what a non-specific refractometer will do. If you use a Brix refractometer, you will still be able to measure the moisture of your honey, but you might have to do some math for accuracy, depending on the specific type of refractometer.

A rule of thumb is to use a refractometer that’s intended exactly for what you’re trying to do. When you’re choosing one, try to make sure that it’s specifically for honey. The specifications will be suitable for accurate readings, and this will make a difference.

Even if the one you buy isn’t specifically a honey refractometer, you can still make sure you’re not buying one that won’t work.

Get a refractometer with temperature control. You’ll also have to make sure that your refractometer is suitable for Gradient II solutions. In layman’s terms, this means that it can measure the moisture in translucent liquids, like honey.

At the end of the day, all you need is a lightweight, inexpensive tool that you can operate easily. Just don’t skimp too much on quality. This could make them inaccurate and effectively useless.

How to Use a Honey Refractometer

If you’re using an analog refractometer, the first thing you’ll have to do is calibrate it.

It’s best to calibrate your refractometer at least once every honey season, but you will have to recalibrate it if there are significant temperature changes.

Your refractometer should come with specific instructions for calibration, as well as a reference solution. If you don’t have a reference solution, glycerin is a good alternative. Remember that refractometers are impacted by temperature, so you will have to calibrate it in the same environment as your testing.

Once your refractometer is correctly calibrated, you can put it to use. There is no effort required here at all. Make sure that both your refractometer and honey are at room temperature for best results.

All that you have to do is take a sample of the honey you want to test and cover the prism (or well) of your refractometer. Air bubbles or obstructions will interfere with the readings so apply your honey as smoothly and seamlessly as you can.

If you’re using an analog refractometer, you’ll have to aim it at a light source. Look through the eyepiece to see the scale and reading. The lower the water content, the higher the value of your honey will be.

This video will show you everything about it.

Honey is considered raw if it has a water content reading of lower than 14 percent. This is considered the best quality honey. The international standard for good quality, consumable honey is less than 20 percent water.

If your water content is higher than this, you run the risk of having your honey ferment, which spoils it. The lower the water content of honey, the less likely yeast is to affect the quality of your honey.

Maintaining Your Honey Refractometer

Honey refractometers are just as effortless to take care of as they are to use. When you buy one, it will most likely come with a protective carry case or storage box. So long as you handle it with care, the likelihood of it getting damaged will be low.

One thing you’ll want to be sure of that is that you’re especially careful with the prism. Keep it covered and packed away safely when you’re not using it. Scratches will interfere with your readings.

Lastly, make an effort to keep your refractometer clean. Wipe the prism with a lens tissue after every use to avoid stickiness, build-up, and inaccurate readings.


A honey refractometer is an underrated but necessary tool for any beekeeper who hopes to produce or sell good quality, consumable honey. If you have plans of harvesting commercial-grade honey, this is one tool you don’t have a choice but to invest in and learn how to use. They’re inexpensive, but make a world of difference in your honey operation.

Refractometers show us the water content in honey. This not only helps us determine if our honey is safe to be harvested, stored, and consumed, but it also gauges its quality. Refractometers are simple to use and understand and there’s no excuse to go without one. If you choose to go without one, you could produce inedible, spoiled honey and no one wants that.

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