First Year Honey Extraction Equipment
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Shiny new honey extraction equipment is not necessary the first year, so here’s a quick rundown of what to consider when first getting started in the extraction process.
It seems nearly every first-year beekeeper dreams of the sweet taste of their own honey slowly drizzled onto a fresh-from-the-oven biscuit. Eager they are to set up their own honey extraction equipment, quickly peeking inside their wallet to see if there’s any bee money left to buy those expensive extractors. However, not all the shiny new gadgets are necessary that first year, so here’s a quick rundown of what to consider when first getting started in the extraction process.
To get started, you need to determine how you’re going to remove the honey from the hive. Your ordinary smoker that you already have is the first piece of equipment to consider. Smoke is applied to the honey frames to move bees down into the lower box. Moving the bees down makes pulling bee-free honey frames easier while also reducing the possibility of removing/injuring a queen should she be up in the honey supers. Usually, a few puffs of smoke are sufficient at moving most of the bees down with no residual smokey flavor imparted to the honey.
Once most of the bees have moved down, an inexpensive bee brush or even a handful of grass are all that is needed to finish removing any lingering bees from the honey frames as they are pulled from the hive. Brush bristles may be made of hair or plastic and handles are made of plastic or wood. Either version works quite well and will be gentle enough on the bees that few injuries should occur provided a light hand is used, so don’t stress over which type of brush to select.
Once bees are brushed from the frames, you’ll need an empty hive box or tote to carry the honey frames to the kitchen or garage for extraction. You’ll repeat this process until every honey frame needing to be extracted is removed. With two hives, many folks take no more than 20-30 minutes when using only the brush and smoker, so there’s no need for those expensive bee repellents you see in the bee catalogs until you have several more colonies from which to pull honey.
After you have all of your frames inside, the next piece of honey extraction equipment you’ll find useful is an uncapping fork. It looks exactly like the name suggests — a simple fork resembling a wide hair pick. The purpose of the uncapping fork, sometimes referred to as a honey fork, is to pop the tops, or caps, of the honey cells to allow the honey to be removed from the comb. Some have a wide head while others are narrower. Some forks have very stiff and closely spaced fork tines while others have more flexible ones that are spread further apart. Another difference you may notice is that some handles are plastic while others are wooden. Again, select whichever version appeals to you and your pocketbook the most, because all honey forks work basically the same with little to no noticeable difference.
In addition to the uncapping fork, many beekeepers find a honey roller helpful. This simple device works in much the same fashion as the uncapping fork, except it is rolled instead of dragged across the comb to uncap the honey cells. This action tends to make uncapping cells a little faster than the fork. However, when rolling down the frame, a light hand must be used to prevent the roller from crushing the entire comb.
An optional third uncapping tool that is highly useful even with one or two hives is the uncapping knife which slides over the frames cutting and/or melting the cappings along its path. Bear in mind this tool is not an absolute necessity. The previously mentioned uncapping tools are more than sufficient for extracting only a few hives’ worth of honey. However, many beekeepers choose to purchase a knife for their first harvest as it does make uncapping go a bit faster with much less damage to the comb. The trick to the uncapping knife, though, is to use it in conjunction with a fork or roller as the knife has difficulty uncapping cells that are recessed below the frame or are in the tight corners.
Knives come in two options — cold and heated. The cold knife’s best virtue is its low cost and simple design. Cold knives are large, flat knives with or without serrated edges much like an oversized cake icing spreader. The cutting edge cuts through cell tops thus preserving the integrity of the comb much better than forks and rollers and is why many choose this option. The heated knife, on the other hand, is more expensive but the heat does allow for faster uncapping than all previous options. However, even the heated knife needs to be used in conjunction with a roller or fork to better open all the honey cappings.
You’ll also need a container to catch all those loose cappings. A large container like a tote or large stock pot works nicely for a year or two, but uncapping tanks are also easy to DIY or may be purchased from bee equipment suppliers. The key is to ensure the opening is large enough to allow the cappings and dripping honey to fall easily into the container instead of on the table or floor. Ease of cleanup is also essential as sticky honey will likely coat the container both inside and out.
And now for the item on everyone’s wish list — the honey extractor. Extractors come in all sizes and will hold anywhere from two frames to nearly as many as your heart desires. Extractors also come in both manual and motorized versions. Some extract from a single side of the frame at a time while others extract both sides simultaneously. BUT, your first year is not the year to worry about such details. If at all possible, avoid this financial mammoth your first year and see if you can rent one from your local bee club or a fellow beekeeper. By delaying the purchase of an extractor, you can not only put your money into more important items like mite treatments and more hive boxes and frames, but it will also allow time for you to get a feel for beekeeping and what you personally would prefer in your own extractor.
First year honey extraction equipment need not break the bank. With a few carefully chosen selections, that first extraction should be quite inexpensive. Allow some time to learn beekeeping and the extraction process before making those pricey purchases. Your wallet will thank you.
Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.