How Beekeeping Works

By: Dave Roos

Harvesting Honey

Harvesting, honey
Fresh, organic honey is one of nature's perfect foods. It is sterile and storable straight out of the comb if handled properly. gustavo ramirez/Getty Images

Of course, the sweetest (ha!) part of beekeeping is harvesting all that delicious honey. If you only have one hive, it isn't necessary to invest in a lot of extraction equipment. But as you get more serious about your hobby, or if you intend to sell your honey, you'll want to buy more equipment to make extraction and filtering more efficient.

The beauty of honey is that it doesn't need any processing or purifying. Honey is sterile and storable straight out of the comb if handled properly. Large commercial honey companies sometimes pasteurize the honey before jarring, but that's only to kill off any yeast carried by pollen in the honey, which isn't bad for your health, but can affect the color of the honey and speed crystallization [source: LocalFloridaRawHoney].


To remove honey-filled frames from a honey super, it's helpful to shoo away as many bees as possible. Smoking will drive some bees down into the hive box, but some beekeepers also use a bee brush to brush bees away, or a special electric blower [source: Staton]. Once the honey frame is free of bees, place it inside a separate box with a lid while you remove the rest of the frames.

To extract the honey, you'll first need to uncap, or remove the wax covering, from the cells of the frame so that the honey can flow. There are special scrapers and heated knives for this purpose, or you can heat up your own large knife in some boiling water and experiment. Save the waxy caps to melt down and make your own beeswax products like candles.

An extractor makes the next part easy. You place the uncapped frame in a large tub equipped with a hand-cranked or motorized centrifuge. As the frames spin, the honey flies out against the walls of the extractor and settles at the bottom, where there's a handy spigot. The honey can be filtered of any wax bits or insect parts by running it through cheesecloth or a fine mesh screen.

If you don't have an extractor, you can simply lay the uncapped frames on a rack over a large pot or tub and let the honey ooze out slowly. Remember to flip the frame over and empty the other side.

Jars of raw honey will literally store forever. The honey may start to crystallize and change color after a time, but crystallization is easily reversed by placing the jar in a hot water bath.

For more experienced beekeepers, the honey harvest can be timed to coincide with the flowering of specific plants and trees, creating a single-source honey with a distinct flavor profile. Professional beekeepers will transport hives across a state and even across the country to catch a particularly bountiful nectar flow from a prized variety.

Author's Note: How Beekeeping Works

I was once stung by the beekeeping bug. At the time, I was a part-time organic vegetable farmer, raising and selling veggies at our local farmer's market. As part of my back-to-the-earth ethos, I wanted to produce my own honey. A beekeeping friend told me about a neighbor who died and left behind boxes and boxes of active hives. Did I want one? I immediately went out and bought a full bee suit, smoker and hive tool. Excited, we drove my friend's truck into the backwoods of Pennsylvania to pick up my new hive. The boxes were stacked in an overgrown field and a storm was rolling in. The bees were none too happy to see us. They stung every tiny patch of bare skin they could find and buzzed angrily as we loaded them into the truck. The rain poured down so heavily that we couldn't get them all the way to my garden, so my friend offered to babysit them until I could come back and relocate them to their permanent home. They never left his place, and my suit never again made it out of the box. Homemade honey, I decided, tastes just as good when it comes from someone else's home.

Special thanks to Mark Bedillion of Bedillion Honey Farm in Pennsylvania for his expert advice on the art and science of beekeeping.

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