Honey Extractors Explained

Honey Extractors Explained

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Story and photos by: Kristi Cook  The honey harvest is a busy time of year for beekeepers. Honey supers fill pickup trucks, minivans, and even electric cars this time of the year as beekeepers of all apiary sizes gather the rewards of their labor. And to extract that luscious honey, honey extraction setups of all types pop up in a multitude of locations including kitchens, basements, garages, apartments, even church buildings. In the beekeeping world, variety seems to be the common thread among us, and honey extractors are no exception. So, here’s a quick rundown on what to look for when selecting a honey extractor. 

Size Selection 

Before purchasing an extractor, it’s a good idea to consider how large you anticipate your operation to grow within the next two to three years. The reason is simple — time. If you have two colonies right now, that adorable manual two-frame extractor you purchased at the local hardware store will work perfectly for years to come.  

But what about when you make splits and your apiary grows a little? Within a single year, those two colonies can multiply to four or more. The second year, four colonies can turn into 10 or more. At nine to 10 frames of honey per super and an average of two supers per colony (and that’s on the low side for many), you’re looking at extracting 18-20 frames of honey per colony.  

With four colonies alone, you’re averaging between 72-80 frames total. At three minutes per load — which is rather optimistic for many who manually spin their honey—72 frames in a two-frame extractor takes a minimum of 108-120 minutes to extract a single side of each honey frame. You now need to double that timeframe because that two-frame extractor only extracts one side of the frame at a time, so now you’re at three-and-a-half to four hours just to spin honey. That does not include uncapping, filtering, or any of the other chores required during extraction.  

All extractors contain a gate valve that locks shut to prevent seepage and opens wide to allow for fast passage of honey from the extractor to the honey bucket.

That two-frame extractor will do the job, but it will be slow going for sure. Not an issue for most with a small number of hives, but this is where larger extractors begin to be a little more appealing. So be sure to consider the number of frames your selected extractor will spin at one time while also considering how much you intend to grow within the next few years. 

Electric Versus Manual 

The power with which an extractor does its job can be either manual power with a hand crank or a motorized crank with speed adjustment capabilities. Obviously, manual power is slower than electric. However, manually cranking an extractor is relaxing for many beekeepers and is preferred by many.  

But if the idea of spinning honey by hand sends shivers down your spine, fork over the extra cash for a motorized version instead. Even better, select the option that offers manual speed control because some frames do better at lower speeds than others, especially when extracting from wax foundation frames. 

Radial and Tangential Extraction 

Another area to consider is how the extractor removes honey from frames — either one side or two. Tangential extractors are the original style extractors and also the least expensive of the two. These extractors place the frames in such a way that when the extractor spins, honey is released from a single side. Once that side is completed, the operator removes each frame and turns it around, and then spins the frames one more time. Not an issue with a handful of frames to extract and a good area to save your cash for other extraction equipment. 

Don’t be caught with an extractor too small for the job or you’ll likely find you do not enjoy the honey harvest after all.  

If, however, time is a concern, you’ll want to select the radial versions which extract honey from both sides simultaneously through the use of centrifugal force. No frames have to be turned, thus saving loads of time. The efficiency of this type of extractor does depend heavily on the model, however. Some extractors, while claiming radial extraction, still may need to have frames turned to get every last drop of honey out of those frames, so be sure to check reviews before forking over the extra cash for this feature. 

Miscellaneous Components 

Most extractors tend to have the same elements — motor or manual, radial or tangential, variable speed or not. However, a few other little tidbits can make or break an extractor for some so here’s a rundown of those little elements. 

The lid of honey extractors is likely the area of most variance. For instance, lids may be solid metal preventing viewing of the inside operation while others utilize clear lids to better enable observation of the extraction process. Lids may also contain magnets to assist with keeping lids closed and/or may have a shut-off switch that automatically shuts the equipment down when the lid is lifted. A few extractors offer a tiny handle to grab for opening but most do not. These options are purely for personal preference and do not affect the extraction process. 

Another area to consider is leg attachments. Some extractors don’t offer legs as an option while others offer metal legs that may be attached to the base of the extractor. Some are removable while others are permanently attached. The purpose is for securing the extractor into concrete flooring or some other mountable surface to alleviate the issue of the extractor moving about during spinning. These legs may be sturdy or flimsy, so attention to reviews can be helpful if this is an option that interests you. 

Honey extractors are a fun gadget to add to the beekeeping mix and are a necessary component of most beekeeping operations of any size. So, take the time to determine your goals and look at the various options closely. You just may find your patience pays off by saving you both time and money when you make the right purchase the first time. 

Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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