How to extract honey

In the UK the honey harvest usually starts around July until August. When all the honey on a frame is capped it is ready to harvest.

I wrote this post one year ago on my old blog and, with the exception of a few edits, the process of clearing bees and extracting honey are the same. Our adventures took a few different twists and turns this summer, but here is how it’s supposed to be done.

I am aware that this is a slightly long post, so I have divided it into two parts and an addendum:

Part one: How to clear bees
Part two: How to extract honey
Addendum for treacle honey

It has been a good beekeeping year and you have a super or two of frames filled with capped honey. Great, but how do you get hold of it?

Part one: How to clear bees

Step 1: Clear bees from the supers

First, you need to remove the honey from the hive. Guarded by about 50,000 bees this could be Mission Impossible, but is in fact only Mission Slightly Difficult. There are these handy little inventions called ‘bee escapes’ that allow bees to leave supers, but which do not let them back in. You can get various bee escapes from beekeeping suppliers with instructions for use. I am reliably informed that rhombus escapes are very good, but we used Porter bee escapes and they worked quite well.

Bees don't give up their honey easily. Clearer boards trick them into leaving the supers overnight, so you can harvest a bee-free honey crop the next day.

Ideally, you need two crown boards to carry out the process of clearing bees from the supers. Place a crown board between the brood box and supers with the Porter bee escapes in the two holes.

The second crown board (with something covering the two holes like a tile or brick on top) should go on top of the supers before you put back the roof. This is because you are now going to leave the hive for 24 hours or overnight, during which time supers will be cleared of bees and left vulnerable to robbers. 24 hours is more than enough time for wasps to invade and clear out your honey. Check your hive, particularly around the roof and supers, for any holes or gaps, and seal with tape. Wasps are crafty.

Step 2: Remove the supers from the hive

Return to your hive 24 hours later and find the supers almost empty of bees. A bee brush or shaking can help to remove any remaining stragglers from the frames, before you take the supers back to your kitchen to start extracting honey.

If, like me, you have a kitchen in a studio flat not big enough to swing a cat, you will want to make sure you don’t bring any bees. Trust me, it’s not fun sharing your flat for a night with about 50 lost bees. You won’t sleep.

Your bees will try to help extract your honey unless you shake or brush off stragglers and quickly cover the frames.

So if you are super-organised (sorry for the pun), go to the hive with a partner in crime. Shake and brush bees off the frames, then quickly wrap each frame inside a plastic bin liner and hang on an empty super. This method makes sure that no bees hitch a ride back home.

This is a more laborious method of taking honey off the hive, but well worth it to take home bee-free frames. Emily and I did this, and enjoyed a bee-free extraction process.

My dad, who is highly suspicious of bees, was secretly relieved we brought home bee-free frames.

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Part two: How to extract honey

Step 1: De-cap the honey

Ok, so that was actually the ‘slightly difficult’ bit. You have your supers, or box with honey frames, standing on your kitchen work surface. Now you need:

  • A de-capping fork
  • A centrifugal extractor
  • Buckets to collect your honey
  • A kitchen wire mesh strainer
  • Storage jars and labels

All of the above can be purchased at Thornes.

Be careful to keep your work area dry and free from water. Water is the enemy of honey.

Take a frame and place it over a bucket. Use the de-capping fork to run along the surface of the honeycomb and remove the wax caps. Super easy!

Hold a frame of honey over a bucket, and get a de-capping fork to take off the wax caps of the honeycomb

Run the fork lightly up the frame to remove the wax caps. Turn over the frame and repeat on the other side. Some honey will drip into the bucket but can be drained off from the wax later on

Place the wax from the honeycomb into the bucket. It can be separated from the honey dripping into the bucket at a later stage, cleaned up and used to make beeswax pellets for cosmetic recipes (face and hand creams) or to make candles

Step 2: Spin off the honey

Now place two frames of de-capped honey into a centrifugal extractor. Most are manual and are really hard work, so if you are going to do beekeeping seriously invest in a mechanical one.

A centrifugal extractor has a metal basket in which to place frames of honey. Put on the lid and spin the frames round as fast as possible for about a minute. Then turn the frames around inside the extractor basket (so that the opposite side of honeycomb is facing out) and spin again

Honey spun off from the frame at the bottom of the extractor

A frame of honeycomb with the honey spun out. You'll notice how much lighter the frames are when you remove them from the extractor

Step 3: Drain off the honey

Spin off as many frames of honey as you can in the extractor until the level of honey at the bottom starts to reach the metal basket. It is harder to spin round the extractor with honey restricting the motion.

Lift up the centrifugal extractor to the kitchen work surface (if it is full with a couple of litres of honey, you may need someone to help you do this) and put another bucket in the sink. Open the tap of the extractor and let the honey pour out. Some manipulation of the extractor is needed to get the last dregs of the honey out.

It takes one bee a lifetime to collect one teaspoon of honey, so try and get every last drop.

Open the tap of the extractor and let the honey pour out into a clean honey bucket

A bucket filled with freshly extracted honey ready to be filtered and strained off into glass jars

Step 4: Products of the hive

Remove the froth from the top of your extracted honey into separate containers. This can be used as a ‘marmalade’ on your toast or fermented for mead. As enjoyed by Vikings – ARG!

Filter honey from the buckets through a kitchen strainer into jars and label for family and friends.

Filter the honey in the bucket of wax to ensure you get as much honey harvested into jars as possible. Clean the wax in warm water and leave to dry. You can mould beeswax into pellets for beauty products or use to make candles.

Clean the extraction equipment, including centrifugal extractor, with washing soda and scrubbing brushes to get rid of stubborn sticky bits.


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Addendum for treacle honey

My old boss, Bob Allan, kindly gave me his electric honey extractor this year. Bob used to keep bees but he gave up the craft, because his mother-in-law was allergic.  ‘One
winter the hive died out,’ said Bob. ‘It seemed only polite not to re-stock the bees.’ Most beekeepers at my apiary have balked at this. However Bob says, ‘I am rather fond of my mother-in-law’.

After last year’s hard graft of extracting two supers of honey manually, I was excited to try the mechanical extractor. Disaster! The first three frames almost spun apart on the highest setting. So we cleared up and started again, this time using a lower setting. Nothing. Our honey was like treacle! It didn’t even drip out of the comb when we de-capped it.

Plan B. So we decided to make cut-comb honey instead. An evening of delicate operations began and the result was rather spectacular.

Taster pots of cut-comb honey for all our family and friends.

You can read all about it on Emily’s blog: Hunny time and Bringing home the hunny!

This post is dedicated to Bob Allen, who retired as medical director of publications at the Royal College of Physicians this year and to who we said a fond farewell, and to my dad who let us take over his house to extract our treacle honey.

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