Honey Extractors: How to Extract Honey from the Comb

It’s been a long time coming… After many hours of research, buying the best equipment, finding the right bees, and obsessively inspecting your hive, it’s time to reap the rewards. That’s right, we’re talking about finally harvesting that sweet honey! This article will teach you how to extract honey from the comb using a wonderful tool called a honey extractor. 

As an advocate for our precious honeybees, I always have to remind new beekeepers that the honey belongs first and foremost to the bees. Bees create and store honey so they can feed and survive the winter. Typically, bees do not have the energy or resources to create more food over the winter so they work hard to store as much honey as they can so they don’t starve over the cold months. A colony can eat as much as 90 pounds of honey over the winter so it’s important to leave the bees more than enough honey before autumn. Many beekeepers are now choosing to extract honey in the spring, not in the fall, to ensure that their hives have enough food for the winter. Always make honeybees and their survival a priority.

For more information on how to prepare your hives for the winter, see our post about How to Winterize a Beehive.   

How to Extract Honey from a Comb

As you learn about how bees make honey, you may wonder exactly how to remove honey from the wax combs in the frames and get it into the honey jars that we see in stores and farmer’s markets. There are several methods to remove honey from a comb. Beekeepers who maintain only a few hives may use methods that don’t require an extractor. However, a major benefit of using a honey extractor is the ability to preserve the honeycomb so the bees can reuse them.      

What is a Honey Extractor?

A honey extractor is a mechanized device used to remove honey from honeycombs without damaging the combs. The tool uses centrifugal force to remove the honey. Centrifugal force is defined as the apparent force that is felt by an object moving in a curved path that acts outwardly away from the center of rotation. The benefit of using a honey extractor is that the beekeeper is able to preserve the combs which can be returned to the bees to be used again.

The extractor will start to spin when the frames are placed inside. The honey is forced out of the wax cells which have previously been uncapped. The honey will flow down to the bottom of the drum to a valve. Once filled, the valve can be opened to allow the honey to flow out of the extractor. To maintain the extractor, you should always remove the honey from the tool within a short period of time. If left in the extractor too long, it can prevent the tool from properly spinning for future uses.

Types of Honey Extractors

There are two types of honey extractors- radial and tangential. The difference between these two types of extractors is how the frames are oriented in the basket.

  • Radial baskets have the top bar of the frame facing outwards.
  • Tangential baskets have one side of the comb facing outwards.  

A radial honey extractor is the most popular type for beekeepers. With this extractor, the honey frames are loaded once and both sides will spin at the same time. This makes the extractor much more efficient than a tangential extractor.  Commercial beekeepers typical prefer radial extractors, which can hold over one hundred frames.

A tangential honey extractor will require every frame to be removed and then flipped for the second round of spinning because only one side of the frame will be exposed at one time. Tangential extractors are ideal for hobbyists or smaller beekeepers because of the lower costs compared to radial extractors. However, it can also be time-consuming because the frames must be removed and flipped.

Electric vs Manual Extractors

Honey extractors can be further categorized as either manual or electric.

Electric honey extractors use an electric motor to spin the attached frames at a certain speed. These tools come with controlled speed because spinning too quickly can damage the honeycombs. Commercial beekeepers use electric honey extractors because they are convenient and energy-efficient. Electric honey extractors can quickly and easily extract large amounts of honey.

Manual honey extractors spin due to manual operation by the user. Most manual extractors will hold 2-4 frames at one time. Novice beekeepers benefit from a manual honey extractor because they cost less than electric extractors. Using a manual extractor also ensures that wax combs are not damaged because the spinning speed can be controlled. Some beekeepers even choose to make their own manual honey extractor at home. 

How to Use a Honey Extractor

You’ve been inspecting your hives and ensured that your colonies have more than enough honey to survive the winter. It’s time to harvest the honey for you to eat or sell. A honey extractor is easy to use and very efficient.

There is a great video linked at the bottom of this page that shows a step-by-step tutorial on how to use a honey extractor. Extracting honey is one of the most rewarding tasks in beekeeping. In order to do so, there are several steps:

  1. Uncap the Combs
  2. Load the Frames in the Extractor
  3. Spin the Frames
  4. Fill the Storage Tank
  5. Store the Honey

The night before you plan to extract the honey, go to your hive and pull out the frames. Store the frames inside where the bees won’t be able to reach them. Bees have an extraordinary talent for finding their own honey and returning it. 

1. Uncap the Combs

The frames you remove from the hive will be full of honey, but you will see a wax cap protecting it. Honeybees create this cap and cover each cell to protect the honey. You will need to remove the cap so the honey can be extracted. There are several ways to remove this wax. Beekeepers tend to keep tools such as an uncapping knife or an uncapping roller on hand so they can swiftly remove the wax without compromising the combs. If you don’t have an uncapping tool, you can use a large kitchen knife and a fork although this may result in a messier cut. The goal is to get the caps cut off without destroying the combs.

As the frame stands upright, hold the knife horizontally at the top of the frame. Looking down, you should see that the cap sticks out beyond the frame- making it easier to cut off. Slowly glide your knife down and begin removing the layer of wax. Continue all the way down to remove the caps. Return the knife to any areas with remaining caps.
Man cutting off caps from hive frame

If you find certain parts of the frame where the wax caps are lower than the wood frames, you can break up the wax carefully with a fork. 

Once the combs are uncapped, you will be left with honeycombs exposing golden honey beginning to drip. 

Put the wax that you cut off in a bowl. You’ll see that there is still honey on the wax. Later, you will drain this excess wax and store it for future projects. 

Man using a form to uncap combs on a hive frame.
Uncapped hive frame filled with honey

2. Load the Frames in the Extractor

Next, place the uncapped frames in the extractor. Depending on the type of honey extractor you use, there can be a few ways to load the frames. Typically, with a radial extractor, you will place the frames upright in the internal baskets. Keep the extractor balanced by having the same weight on each side of the basket. When unbalanced, an extractor can be wobbly and shake while spinning.
An open honey extractor with 4 hive frames inside

3. Spin the Frames

Close the lids and begin spinning the extractor. If you have a manual extractor, you don’t need to spin it fast. The goal is to be steady. Spinning too hard and too quickly is counterproductive because both you and the extractor are working harder yet the honey does not come out any easier.
Man spinning a honey extractor with 4 frames inside
As you spin, you will see the honey being thrown against the walls inside the extractor. Periodically, stop spinning and check the frames to see if the combs are empty. Keep spinning until all the honey has been extracted. You’ll know when the frames are empty when they begin to feel lighter and you see empty honeycombs. 

The frames with the preserved honeycombs can be returned to the hive. If you accidentally damage any part of the wax combs, don’t worry. Simply bring the frame back to the hive and the colony will repair the combs. The honeybees will be able to reuse the combs to make more honey.   

4. Fill the Storage Tank

You don’t want to leave the honey in the extractor any longer than it needs to be. Remember, keeping honey in the extractor will risk the effectiveness of the extractor for future uses.  The honey will be moved to a honey storage tank.
Some extractors feature a built-in strainer that the honey will move through, therefore filtering out impurities. If your extractor does not have one, be sure to place a strainer over the storage tank. It’s best practice to strain the honey prior to storing it.  

Keep the honey extractor elevated above the storage tank. You can put the extractor on the kitchen counter and place the storage tank on a chair directly below the valve. This way, the honey will flow directly into the tank.   

Pouring Honey into an Extractor

5. Store the Honey

Once the honey is in the storage tank, the final step is to properly store the honey in a jar or other container. Place the storage tank at the edge of a table or counter and place the jar directly under the spout. Allow the honey to flow from the tank into the jar and seal it. Now you are ready to store or sell the honey.

Store the Excess Wax

Remember all that excess wax that you cut off the combs? You can separate the wax from the honey by creating your own extractor.

To make the extractor, place a large bowl on the counter or table. Next, cover the bowl with a large, wire-mesh rack. Finally, put a colander on top of the rack.

Using your hands, break up the wax into small pieces. Place the broken pieces of wax into the colander and let it drain overnight. In the morning, you will be left with wax in the colander and honey in the bowl underneath it.

You can now melt down the wax and store it for another project, like candle making or lip balms.

Cleaning and Maintaining a Honey Extractor

Because honey extractors can be an expensive investment, it’s important to properly clean and maintain it to guarantee a long time. The extractor is particularly sensitive because it holds (and sometimes filters) raw honey. This piece of equipment must be meticulously clean and free from any contaminations.

Honey extractors are designed to last for years if properly maintained. It’s important to protect the bearings and gearbox from meeting water. The extractor should be cleaned and stored properly immediately after use. It is not recommended to leave the equipment out for bees to eat the remaining honey due to the possibility of spreading bee diseases.

Here are some tips for cleaning the extractor:

  • Securely closing the valve. Tilt the extractor so the remaining honey flows to the gate. Leave the extractor in a warm room and leave it tiled overnight.
  • The next day, most of the honey will be collected at the bottom of the extractor. Open the valve and collect the honey in a jar for later consumption.
  • Next, you will need to remove any leftover wax. As before, tilt the extractor toward the valve. Keep the valve closed and fill the extractor with cool water. Leave it overnight.
  • The next day, empty out the water and rinse it with cool water.
  • Be sure to protect the extractor bearings and keep them away from water. You can use plastic wrap to cover the bearings and protect them from rusting.

Store the extractor in a clean, dry area.

Final Thoughts

Extracting honey from the comb is easily one of the most rewarding parts of beekeeping. There’s nothing more fun than seeing a stream of golden liquid come out of the valve. The honey extractor is a very important tool for removing the honey without damaging the combs. No matter what level of beekeeper you are, be sure to choose the right extractor for you.

Make sure to check out our buying guide and reviews of the best extractors.

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