Extracting Honey

It’s called extracting because the whole point is to get the honey out of the comb without smashing everything to pieces. All those tiny little hexagonal chambers, not much bigger than a honeybee’s head, are filled with the stuff we want. How to remove it without destroying the hive’s hard work?

Well, in order to keep the honey from running out all over the place, the bees build those chambers in the honeycomb on an upslope. That slight angle makes them a perfect candidate for centrifugal force.

Some extractors work like a washing machine, with the frames going in sideways. Ours is like that. So are the 2 or 4-frame hand-crank versions hobbyists use. Ours, however, takes 96 frames.

The other option used by larger operations is a horizontal extractor. These seem to be more stable in terms of “balance” and also faster — kind of the same as front-load washers compared to top-loads.

A day of extracting has to begin with getting the honey back to the honey-house. Dave has a truck with a flat-deck designed and installed specifically for this by a welder friend. Now, if we could only get a diesel to drop under the hood instead of the gas-guzzler it is….

We were blessed to move to a place that used to be a dairy operation. The dairy set-up is highly compatible with honey, since it was for food-grade liquid. The former milkhouse is now our extracting room. We’re glad to have the water hookups and concrete floor that make cleanliness so much simpler. And, of course, a shelf for Dave’s ancient stereo, so the country music can keep blasting the whole afternoon. (I felt the need to tend to the garden.)

Though old and a little dented, our extractor is another blessing. It was sitting in someone’s field until he finally decided to advertise it for sale. When we went to look at it, all it needed was a motor. The rest remained operational. All it took was a good cleaning and some food-grade grease on the moving parts up above.

The 8-year-old Banana Brain seems to have taken to the bees, and put in both field and extracting room hours today, for which she’ll get paid. The kids have timesheets where they write down their market garden and beekeeping hours. What we get paid for, they get paid for.

The bees seal the cells of honey with a capping of wax once it’s cured from nectar into bee food (thanks to a helpful dose of bee spit). Yes, honey is bee spit. Really makes you want to eat it, doesn’t it?

Well, needless to say, the honey doesn’t spin out when it’s capped. Some large operations use “hot knives” or even automated uncappers with blades that slice off the surface of the honey comb. However, a beekeeping friend told us he’d heard from some Saskatchewan old-timers that you’re just as well to hire a couple of high school students and do it by hand, as to go into debt for all the fancy equipment. The overall cost is less, you can manage your time so it’s not lost by this method, and hey, you’re giving someone a job.

We have scratchers, specifically designed for this (available at beekeeping supply stores) that we use to remove the cappings. Done correctly, the small amount of damage to the honeycomb is quickly repaired by the bees when the dry frames are given back to them. Our resident Hickasaurus Rex is quite proficient at uncapping.

Like a washing machine, the extractor also has to be balanced. This isn’t nearly as big a deal with the horizontal machines. But for ours, we do need to make sure that the weight of the frames is about equal on each side. The machine is bolted to a raised stand which is bolted to the floor. We could just set it right down if we were willing to heat the honey and pump it, but we’ve elected to install a honey gate on the outlet and pour it instead. Less heat means healthier, better-tasting honey.

The little tabs sticking up from the frames at the outside edge are “ears,” the things the frames hang on in the boxes. The frames are turned 90 degrees — from “up” to “out” — in order to spin them. The machine moves very, very fast. Inside, it’s divided into 6 sections by the metal framework. Although you don’t have to fill all the sections, you do have to fill opposite ones, and fill them completely so the frames can’t move around and get jammed in the machinery.

One of our favourite things is to peek inside the lid and watch the honey begin to spatter the stainless steel of the outside wall once the extractor’s fully loaded. The joys of summertime!

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One comment

  1. Oh wow, that is SO awesome! Around here the only beekeepers that I know of are hobbyists, one of which is a friend of my kid brother whom I really should get to know. Maybe he will shwo the kids how he does his.

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