No extractor, no problem
You are a new beekeeper with a hive—maybe two—and a half-dozen frames of harvestable honey. You can’t figure out how to get the honey out of the comb, so you want to know if you should buy an extractor.
I always say no to this one. An extractor is an expensive storage problem that you use once a year, so unless you have lots of honey to sell, I would skip it. If you buy an extractor and beekeeping doesn’t work out for you, you will be left with this odd-looking device that can only do one thing. If you buy just a small extractor and then expand your operation, you will regret that too. So just wait on the extractor until you really, really need it.
In the meantime there are several things you can do to prepare your honey for family and friends.
Cut comb honey is easy to prepare, fun to look at, and quite popular. All you need is a sharp knife, a baker’s cooling rack or queen excluder, a tray or baking sheet to catch the drips, and packaging for the finished product.
Just place the cooling rack or queen excluder on the tray or baking sheet, then lay the frame of honey on top of that. Slice the comb into pieces (4-inch squares are popular) with the sharp knife. To keep the comb clean, wipe the knife after each cut. Move the cut pieces slightly apart and allow them to drain for several hours. Once drained, you can place the pieces on small food trays or plates and cover with food wrap. Collect the honey in the tray and save it for the times you need extracted honey.
Obviously you can’t do this if you’ve used plastic foundation. Always use wax foundation in honey supers, or better yet, go foundationless and let the bees build their own.
Crush and Strain
Cut the comb from the frame and place it in a bowl or pan. If you have plastic foundation, scrape the comb off each side and place it in the bowl. To crush the comb you can use a potato masher, which works well in a flat-bottomed bowl, or a pestle, which works well in a round-bottomed bowl. You can also use a heavy wooden spoon or a smooth stone.
Crushing comb is the heartbreaking part, but once you get started it’s not so bad. You need to crush every cell, so keep working until there are no lumps.
Next, strain the honey through cheesecloth, a paint strainer, or a commercial honey strainer. A honey strainer is rigid, so that’s easy. If I’m using a paint strainer or cheesecloth, I put it inside a mesh kitchen strainer for support. I put the strainer over a bucket or pan, cover it to keep off the dust, and let it sit in a warm place overnight. The warmer the place, the faster the honey will drain. But it shouldn’t get hot because you don’t want the wax to melt.
If you have only a small bit of comb to strain, you can crush it with a wooden spoon inside a jar, then fasten your straining material over the top of the jar. Next, invert the whole thing over a similar-sized jar. You can duct tape the two jars together, prop them up so they don’t fall over, and let them sit overnight. In the morning you will have honey in one, sticky comb in the other.
With either method, you can agitate your crushed comb in some cool water and then drain the water and store it in the refrigerator for cooking.
You don’t have to prepare all comb honey or all strained honey, you can do some of each or make chunk honey. To make chunk honey, you take a piece of cut comb, fit it into a jar, and fill the remaining space with strained honey. It’s easy and looks kind of awesome.
I have always thought chunk honey was an odd idea—having all that liquid honey on the outside of the comb feels backward to me. But people like to look at it—even I like to look at it—and it makes a popular gift. So why not?
The Clean Up
Now that the processing is done, you have a huge mess in your kitchen. These are my suggestions:
- After storing the first-rinse water in the fridge, wash the wax a few more times and put it someplace where it will dry thoroughly. When you collect enough, you can melt it down.
- Return sticky frames to the hives so your bees can clean them up.
- Clean your strainers and other equipment in cold water so you scrape off the wax. You can also freeze and then scrape. Once the wax is gone, you can wash everything in warm water.
- Think about how much money you just saved and how much room you still have in your garage or basement.