The great extractor debate
Every year new hobby beekeepers—those who have never harvested honey nor overwintered a colony—want to know if they should buy an extractor. It’s a personal call, but if you are asking my opinion, my opinion is “Are you kidding?”
Worse, soon-to-be beekeepers sometimes order the extractor along with the first hive. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. Everyone spends his money differently, of course, although Americans—having learned the fine art of drowning in debt from their federal and state governments—tend to spend beyond all limits of reason and prudence.
I have nothing against extractors for those who have a legitimate need, but unless you are in the business of selling extracted honey, they are hard to justify. Consider:
- Extractors are expensive.
- Extractors are one-trick ponies—you can’t use them for anything else.
- Extractors take up a lot of storage space during the 364 days of the year they are not in use. Do you really want to live around this thing?
- Extractors can be borrowed from bee clubs.
- With very small batches, extractors waste as much honey as they extract. The process becomes more efficient (less wasteful) when you extract many frames at once.
- Extractors produce one thing: extracted honey—something you can get anywhere.
Here’s something else to think about: most fledgling beekeepers will not produce enough honey to harvest the first year. Sadly, many of those colonies will not make it until the following spring. What do the statistics tell us? Nearly forty percent of colonies die every year? In today’s environment it takes knowledge, practice, and bit of good luck to overwinter a colony and produce a harvestable crop in the next season.
I’m not trying to discourage you, I’m just saying that maybe you should put off the big expense until you have some experience. Then, before you decide to buy an extractor, you will know more about the frame size, the capacity, and the quality you want. You will know more about how much you can expect to extract, and what your bank account will support.
Eventually, if you grow your hobby into a business, a good extractor is a must. But for a newbee, it can wait—along with the warehouse, the fork lift, and the flat-bed truck.
Personally—and here I’m delving even deeper into opinion, just a warning—I can’t understand the attraction of extracted honey for a hobby beekeeper. Why would I want my honey to look like the stuff on grocery store shelves that probably came from China? Even though it is different, it looks the same. Anyone can put honey through a filter and pour it in a bottle. Big deal.
I began beekeeping because I couldn’t find what I wanted elsewhere—certainly not at the grocery store, not at the farmers market, not from the beekeeper down the road. I wanted comb honey that tasted like comb and honey; I wanted it dark and unique—not mixed with honey from other frames.
Think about it: when you eat your honey frame-by-frame, each one tastes different because it came from different flowers. Each frame is singular, like a song. When you extract, all the flavors are mixed together and the entire batch tastes the same. Why would anyone do that?
Sometimes when I’m working the hives, I see a frame of a different color or I taste a drip of something spectacular. I remove that frame from the hive, bring it down to the house, and excise the comb. The warm and fragrant honey oozes blissfully from the beeswax and covers the tray. We revel in its uniqueness, try to guess its source, attempt to describe its flavor. It’s a passion.
And guess what? Every frame is different, every frame stands alone. All spring and summer there is something unique and thrilling to taste. The thought of mixing it all together into one uniform flavor is a sacrilege I can’t bear to think about.
So I simply urge you to seize the luscious experience while you can: taste the flowers—season-by-season, frame-by-frame, hive-by-hive. Then, when you get old and jaded, you can mix it all together and stick it in a bottle.