Extracting Honey (the old fashioned way)

June 4, 2012 · 45 comments

We ran out of honey recently. I know. It’s bizarre. We have dozens of hives right outside, but we didn’t have one bit of honey in the house for a few days, and it was a real crisis.

Henry did a pretty complicated bee removal last week involving several ladders, power tools, and boxes of ticked off bees that resulted in Henry coming home with two hugely swollen eyes. BUT he did bring home a whole lot of bees and pan full of sticky, sweet honeycomb.

The easiest way to extract honey (if you have the right equipment), is to take nice full frames of honey, uncap them with a special hot knife, and load them into an extractor that uses centrifugal force to spin the honey out. If you’re interested in this process, you really should watch these two videos: Tiger In A Jar’s “Honey Harvest” (which is so beautifully done, but showcases a novice beekeeper with brand new shiny equipment) and “Kyrgyzstan Beekeeping” (which is not great cinematography and doesn’t feature such beautiful people, but shows a somewhat truer/crustier reality of honey extraction).

What we had on hand is called “chunk honey” because it’s just a pile of pieces that aren’t from frames. Even if we had an extractor (which we don’t), we couldn’t use it with this stuff, so we had to do things the old fashioned way.

First, I loaded all the honeycomb into a colander.

I put the colander over a stainless steel bowl.

I smooshed up all the comb with a wooden spoon to release the honey from the cells. I put the bowl over a pot of warm water to speed up the process because honey moves faster and more freely when it’s warm.

Then I let it sit overnight.

The next morning, what was left in the colander was mostly chunks of wax, and what had drained into the bowl was mostly honey. I  poured the honey (in a fairly liquid state) through a strainer to sift out more wax and funky bits of debris.

Update: Since originally writing this post, we’ve switched to this new and improved honey extraction method.

I got about a quart and a half of honey out of the process, and let me tell you, it’s really good stuff. The bees in the hive where it came from had been foraging on maple, wildflowers, and other forest blooms, but the flavor of the honey is not generic at all. It’s almost tangy or citrusy, and I’ll admit that I did a fair bit of licking fingers and spoons.

In the end, I had two bowls, a colander, a strainer, a plate, and a wooden spoon that were a sticky mess. I had this brilliant plan to take it all outside and leave it next to the bee yard for a day, so that the bees would come and clean up all the honey remaining, and I’d only have to deal with the wax (which is kind of a pain). This plan would have worked great a couple months ago, but this time of year, the bees have more than enough feed out in the woods, so they weren’t actually that interested in my honey offering. They did eventually clean up some of the mess, but I had to do some sticky scrubbing, too.

Bees will reuse wax that’s built neatly on frames, but they can’t collect existing wax and reprocess it into new forms. Henry is constantly gathering pieces of wax from bee removals or cutting out burr comb from hives and setting it aside. He recently melted (by boiling in water) and strained a whole bunch of it, so now we have what we lovingly refer to as our “ingot” of wax on hand. I use a little beeswax in the finish I apply to my cutting boards, and maybe someday we’ll make a few dipped candles, but other than that, I’m really not sure what we should do with it. Any suggestions are appreciated.

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon Thomsen June 4, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I would love to get my hands on that much beeswax! It can be used to make homemade cosmetics and all sorts of salves. You might think about selling as is as a side product on your website..you could probably find a market for it. Or perhaps ask around at local farmers markets and see if anyone makes bulk amounts of the above mentioned products. Perhaps they would be interested in an exchange of some kind for the wax.

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Good ideas. Thanks

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Jennifer June 4, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Bees wax is sought after for art projects, too. Artists use it to make encaustic paintings. I bet you could sell some at farmers market.

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:20 pm

I never thought about selling it to artists. hmmm… It seems like selling it retail in small amounts would be kind of a pain because I’d have to melt it into molds and package it up a little. I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

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Ashley Wilson June 4, 2012 at 12:55 pm

That is simply amazing. I am sitting at my desk, DROOLING over the quart of honey! It makes me want bees, something I’ve been riding the fence about for a while. With that kind of honey on hand…

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:22 pm

I hope I’m not overromanticizing things. It seriously is probably cheaper to go out and buy honey from your local beekeeper than to produce your own, and if you only have one hive, you probably won’t (or shouldn’t) get any honey at all some years.

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mae June 4, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Loved reading this, and it’s very cool to know you use your own wax as part of the finishing process on your boards.

I’m sure you could sell the extra wax locally to encaustic artists, as raw beeswax is really popular in mixed media artwork. It creates a cool filmy layer and depth in paintings. You could also sell it on Etsy in the supplies category.

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:23 pm

That’s good to know, Mae. You want a chunk? I’ll send you some.

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mae June 19, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Absolutely! I’d love some. My address is still the same one from my Etsy order last year.

Also, this post randomly inspired me to try honey in my coffee recently (trying to move away from all unnatural/processed sweeteners). It was really good! Totally never knew honey flavors differed based on what the bee was eating…. I’m going down to the farmer’s market this weekend to pick up some different varieties since clover was a bit flowery tasting.

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Cristen June 4, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Some people use beeswax for various homemade cosmetics and body care items. I think Jennifer had a great idea in selling it at the Farmer’s Market if you don’t think you’ll use it all.

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:23 pm

My mom is a hobby soap maker, and she also uses small quantities of beeswax. Again (see above), I’m up for retail wax sales.

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Heidi June 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I use an awesome hard lotion, that is shea butter, coconut oil and beeswax. it is a hard bar that you hold in your hand and it melts a little then you rub that in. Might look at doing it either for home consumption or at a farmers market.

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:26 pm

The thing is for a lot of these homemade soap/lotion products, I’d have to buy a bunch of other ingredients. I don’t use a whole lot of cosmetics (though maybe I should), so for me, it’s generally just easier and cheaper to buy little jars of commercially made stuff. Maybe I’m disparaging the whole handmade movement by saying such things, but it’s true.

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Taryn Kae Wilson June 4, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Thanks for sharing the process you used. We are planning on raising bees again next year. In the past, the bears always got them. But we’ve got a high-up place to put them where the bears won’t be able to reach this time.
That honey looks soooo good! :)

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I’ve heard you’ve to to have strong electric fence to keep bears away. They can be a real problem. Henry will probably be selling hives of bees next spring, so check back if you don’t already have another source.

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kara rane June 4, 2012 at 6:55 pm

lovely honey~ how ’bout using the bees wax to seal your canned goods for the winter.. & of course all the above ideas too*!

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I don’t have any experience canning with wax, but I think it was traditional to use paraffin, and I think there are some questions about food safety with the wax method. I should do some more research.

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MarcAustin June 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm

this blog is pretty awesome – i envy your lifestyle! Do you need a houseboy??

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm

I have one! And besides, no one else would fit in this house. Sorry.

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catie June 4, 2012 at 8:35 pm

my fingers are still crossed for a wayward spark bee book.

could you use the wax to make beeswax seals on envelopes?

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:34 pm

I’m not really in a position to be writing a book at this point in my life. And if I were going to write a book, it probably wouldn’t be about bees. Sorry to let you down, but the blog’s going to have to be good enough for the medium-term future.

The envelope seal is a super good idea. The problem is that I’d have to start sending a lot more letters cuz right now, I only mail out a couple bills a month, and that really wouldn’t use up much wax.

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Janet June 4, 2012 at 10:08 pm

I was wondering if a salad spinner would work for extracting the honey from the combs. Also, you could make a ‘spoon oil’ for your cutting boards, put it in beautiful brown jars, label it up and sell it on etsy to use on really nice cutting boards and other wooden kitchen utensils. I found a few links online on how to make some with walnut oil including here: http://infusionfibers.wordpress.com/2010/06/05/wooden_spoon_oil/
Sounds like the perfect compliment to your already fantastic product!

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:36 pm

I think a salad spinner would probably just make a mess because you couldn’t orient the chunks in any kind of specific order. The crush and drain method worked pretty well for this small quantity, so I’m not looking for any new contraptions to wash. Plus, I don’t think I could justify keeping a salad spinner around.

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Camille June 4, 2012 at 10:37 pm

PS Walnut oil makes a really great finish, but I’ve chosen not to use it on my products because I’m too worried about the potential to harm someone with severe food allergies. It makes me really nervous.

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Jen Larsen June 4, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Great post! I’ve really been enjoying your blog, too.

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Camille June 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Hey, Jen, I just clicked back to your blog and realized that I know you…like in real life. You TA’ed a cartography class that I took back in the day, and I see you from time to time at the farmers’ market or the library. Next time, say hi, okay?

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Jen Larsen June 7, 2012 at 8:14 am

Hi Camille – Yes, we do know each other in real life! I’ll definitely catch you next time I see you around. I have two little boys that are similar in age to your little ones. :)

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Nicole June 11, 2012 at 8:49 am

My mouth is literally watering.

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Lisa June 15, 2012 at 7:19 pm

I really enjoyed this! During the bee class I took this past winter, one of our instructors told a hilarious story about how he learned to extract back when he was a boy (he’s probably in his early 70s now) — I can’t remember all the details, but it involved one of his mother’s knee-highs. Heh.

I also don’t much in the way of cosmetics or body care products at all, but I have looked for beeswax to use in a basic calendula salve like the one in this post: http://mountainroseblog.com/healing-calendula/ I’m sure you have the olive oil already, and if you grow calendula, then you’d have that too! Just a thought. But only if you’d use it.

I like Janet’s idea of a spoon oil to accompany your cutting boards! Maybe with a non-nut oil or jojoba? But again, as you say, it would have to feel worth your time to do all that processing. We’re often asked if we sell any of our produce canned etc. but at this point we’d spend way way more paying our crew and ourselves to can than we could make back — so no value-added products for us, at least at this point.

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mary black April 7, 2013 at 8:53 am

Thanks so much for this information. I need to know how to do this for a novel I am writing. You really have a great-looking blog!
Best wishes,
Mary

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Jesse April 9, 2013 at 8:12 am

Cabinet and furniture makers need beeswax for fastners and finishes. Good luck
-Jesse

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albert April 18, 2013 at 9:14 pm

I read somewhere that beeswax was great for seasoning cast iron. I haven’t tried it because I don’t have a source for beeswax. It makes sense though. It’s edible and would cover iron just like it covers wood furniture. I’d love to have a pound of beeswax to try it out in several ways.

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Camille April 18, 2013 at 9:27 pm

I actually wrote about seasoning cast iron with beeswax a while back here: http://waywardspark.com/seasoning-cast-iron-with-beeswax/

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jackie April 22, 2013 at 6:46 am

we are beginning bee keepers, 2nd yr. if you didn’t want to be bothered by going to markets, etc. just put it on ebay… so many ounces for a starting bid of $ ??.?? you will sell it quick, ppl will bid on it, you will make some extra money, they pay shipping, its a win win. :)

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Krista May 2, 2013 at 7:39 am

Make lotion bars with the bees wax! It is so easy!!! Just 3 ingredients in 3 equal parts put in a pirex glass messuring cup into the microwave. Melt, stir and pour! They make great gifts for teacher, nurses, construction workers, daycare staff… anyone who has dry hands!!!
Bee’s Wax
Grapeseed, Almond or other oil and
Coconut Oil

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Krista May 2, 2013 at 7:39 am

Make lotion bars with the bees wax! It is so easy!!! Just 3 ingredients in 3 equal parts put in a pirex glass measuring cup into the microwave. Melt, stir and pour! They make great gifts for teacher, nurses, construction workers, daycare staff… anyone who has dry hands!!!
Bee’s Wax
Grape-seed, Almond or other oil and
Coconut Oil

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Sonja July 3, 2013 at 2:22 pm

THANK YOU SO MUCH! We just took a trip to Alabama to remove some bees from my grandmother’s house. They were nesting in between the interior and exterior walls of one of her bedrooms. Anyway, we came home with a ton of honey in the comb (the hive was about 7 ft high and 18″ wide) and no way to get it out that we knew of. No way am I throwing it out. This looks like the answer I needed. One question — you mentioned your husband melted the wax down in boiling water. Did he just submerge it then strain the water off, or is there something special we need to do? Other than allowing my children to chew it like gum, I’m looking for some way to use it and need to be able to store it “unstickified” (my sons word) until I figure out what. Thanks again. I’m so enjoying your site.

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Trevor July 10, 2013 at 9:48 am

Extractor less too. But all that work building frames and then strain thruough collander?
Is there a better way?
Thanks

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stephanie September 2, 2013 at 10:04 am

contact local floor finishers… they used bees wax to finish old fashioned chestnut floors etc…

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Tracey October 11, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Hubby and I extracted our first “batch?” Of honey…lol not sure if that’s proper English! It’s a beautiful blonde color, and rich in flavour. Feeling very amazed with our bees-and thankful. I really want to get in to soap and candle making…

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Nick November 26, 2013 at 2:09 am

You can use it as a direct modelling medium to make sculpture, and from that it can be turned to bronze by the ‘lost wax’ process. It cuts out the middleman ‘clay’!

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Moyer442 January 14, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Quick question, I smashed up some honeycomb in a colander and then put it through a strainer, didn’t heat it at all and used no other filtration system. It came out a milky yellow color. Have you got any suggestions?

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Alison February 15, 2014 at 9:27 am

I actually sent my husband out to harvest our honey, just So I could have the wax. I used a little in homemade lotion, but you can use all of it in candle making. Bees wax is the most sought after candle wax, but is usually very expensive. You don’t need other ingredients. Just melt the wax and pour it into a mould (many objects in the house are good for this). A wick can be made of string, paper, a birthday candle, etc. a lot of information is on the web about low tech, homemade candles.
Have fun,
Alison

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Dawson June 25, 2014 at 12:10 am

Do you feed your bees sugar water? And if so do you do it year round or by season?

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Kat June 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

I just found this page and must say a big THANK YOU! We discovered a hive had been built in the rafters of our rental house. 1000+ bees. Some professionals have come to remove it and we got to keep the honeycomb and a lot of honey. I plan on separating and using the wax for Christmas ornaments. I made these as a child and I’m super excited to do it again!

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