Honey extraction is the central process in beekeeping of removing honey from honeycomb so that it is isolated in a pure liquid form.
Normally, the honey is stored by honey bees in their beeswax honeycomb; in framed bee hives, the honey is stored on a wooden structure called a frame. The honey frames are typically harvested in the late summer, when they will be most filled with honey. On a completely filled frame, the cells will be capped over by the bees for storage; that is, each cell containing honey will be sealed with a capping made of beeswax.
The first step in the extraction process is to break or remove all of the cappings. This may be accomplished using an automated uncapper machine or with a manually-operated uncapping knife. Usually, these tools are used together, along with a pronged cappings fork. To facilitate cutting off these wax cappings, the knife is often heated. The removed bits of wax, called cappings, are rich in honey which can be slowly drained off with the help of some heating. This ‘cappings wax’ is very valuable and often used to make candles or other products. Automated uncapping machines normally work by abrading the surface of the wax with moving chains or bristles or hot knives. This, while messy, makes the process easier than doing this task manually.
Some beekeepers will also harvest (before uncapping the honey) the propolis, a resinous material bees gather to glue the frames together; propolis is used for its medicinal properties.
Once uncapped, the frames are then placed in a honey extractor, which spins them so that most of the honey is removed by centrifugal force. Care must be taken to ensure that all frames are loaded correctly, as the comb is angled slightly upwards to prevent the honey flowing out; if loaded incorrectly, this can also prevent the honey flowing out during extraction. Once extracted, the resulting honey will contain bits of wax and must be passed through a screen so that clean liquid honey results.
Any honey that can’t be harvested, which includes crystallized honey left on the frames after extraction, or honey that is not capped over, and therefore unripened, is usually placed back into the colonies for the bees to clean up. Some beekeepers place wet frames outside so that it will be reclaimed by the bees. This must be done early in the morning or late in the evening as the bees will aggressively harvest such a rich source. Care must be taken so that this is done at a time when food is not scarce, or else bees from differing colonies will fight over the honey. In addition, this can spread disease from contaminated frames and can be a potential problem; this technique is not advised.
The extraction process is typically done inside a specialized room, or honey house, that can be heated (since hot honey will flow faster), with all of the necessary tools nearby and is washable. The room must be well sealed, as bees (and other insects) will eagerly try to enter and gather the honey. It is important to remember that honey is a food product.