Liquid honey reigns as the premier natural sweetener. Increasingly, pollination rental fees pay the bills for many commercial beekeepers, but honey is still the beloved beehive product. Bee biology and beehive management have absolutely nothing in common with the actual machinery of honey processing. One could very easily be a bee biology expert and have no clue how to devise an efficient honey extracting line. In Extracting Honey - Part I, Bee Culture, November, 2007, I discussed examples of the various types of equipment needed to get honey frames uncapped by hand. In this segment, I will begin at the stage of mechanized uncappers and extractors.
Energized honey processing equipment – a blessed development
Many years ago I had a professional electrician wire my storage barn for electrical power. He made the passing comment that my barn was to be 'energized' rather than wired. I am using that term to describe processing equipment that heats, pumps, slings, or otherwise helps in the honey extracting process. Energizing honey processing equipment was a grand development in honey processing. Most beekeepers whose bees produce surplus honey dream of electrically mechanized equipment. The challenge is that nothing in the extracting line is standardized. It would be impractical for me to imply that my comments here serve as recommendations for specific equipment you will need. What I can offer is comments on specific pieces of equipment and what they do.
Any mechanized uncapping device will be a costly addition to your extracting line. After reviewing a few current supply catalogs, $2500 would be the low starting point for an energized uncapping device. Used uncappers are out there, but you will need to have a mechanical background to keep an aging uncapper running. Simple repair kits are available, but true mechanical repairs will usually require the services of a machine shop.
The Sideliner uncapper from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm
I am only announcing the availability of this device from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. I have no experience using it. The device is called, the Sideliner and is manufactured by the Italian equipment manufacturer Guiseppe Lega. The Brushy Mountain catalog states, 'This is a metal device that has a pair of cutting cylinders that uncaps as you slide the frame through them. Lay your frames on the table and easily crank them through the blades to reduce your uncapping time in half.' While the price is lower than that of other devices ($995 plus shipping), it is strictly a manual device without electrical assistance.
Motorized Chain Uncapper
Maxant Honey Processing Equipment makes a vertical uncapping device. Their catalog states, 'No Knives, no steam required. Only 10 second per frame. Operates like a pop-up toaster. The motor automatically starts when the frame is hand lowered. Revolving stainless steel chains strip off the wax capping. The machine automatically stops when the frame is raised. Chain reels are adjustable.' The unit sells for $2295 plus shipping.
The tips of revolving chains nick the honey cappings just enough to open them. The resulting cappings residue falls below, and some will have to be caught in a filter in the honey line beyond the extractor.
The Handyman from Cowen Manufacturing
The Cowen Manufacturing Company has been producing heavy duty honey processing equipment for many years. They presently offer a part manual/part electrical uncapping device that is named, The Handyman. An electric motor operates two serrated, vibrating knives that are heated with either hot water or steam. A hand crank mechanism forces the honey comb between the two vibrating knives that uncaps them to a preset depth. More advanced Cowen uncapper models are fully mechanized using a chain drive to push the frames between the knives and then to push the uncapped frame away from the uncapper. While this is not an endorsement, I have a mechanized Cowen Silver Queen uncapper in my lab that has operated for many years. It is essentially trouble-free but does require periodic bushing replacements. Occasional frames don’t drop straight down and will jam the machine, but a reversing mechanism allows for quick recovery.
The Dakota Gunness Company manufactures an uncapper that uncaps both sides of the frames with two sets of chain flails. No heat and no knives are required. A conveyor moves the honey frames – laying flat – into the uncapper head where the uncapping occurs. This is a heavy duty unit intended for larger honey producing operations.
Characteristics of all uncappers
All uncappers require a solid stand. The uncapper should be firmly attached to the stand. All uncappers require some kind of catch basin underneath the machine to catch oozing honey and cappings that are produced by the uncapper. Electrical wiring should be heavy duty and unless specially installed will be somewhat in the way. The potential buyer’s market is small so the production of these devices is specialized. If you come across a used model, it is probably worth repairing. Otherwise, select the model that suits your needs and take care to maintain it properly. It will last you for many years.
All honey extractors work by slinging the honey from uncapped frames. The smallest that I know of is a two-frame while the larger extractors take up to 30-40 frames – some commercial units over 100. Only the very largest extractors have automatic frame loaders. By far, most extractors require loading and unloading by hand.
Through the years many styles and designs of extractors have been marketed. In most instances a four-frame extractor is about as large as hand-cranked extractors can be. Such extractors require positioning the frames tangentially (or flat to the extractor side). This characteristic means that the frame must be removed and the opposing side put to the outside to extract both frame sides. Larger extractors use a radial design in which the frames are positioned like spokes in a wheel. Both sides of the comb are extracted without having to flip the frames. On the used equipment market some vintage hand-cranked extracted are 'reversible.' Upon throwing a lever, all the frames in the basket flip over without having to individually remove them from the basket. The Walter T. Kelley Company still manufactures a few models of small, reversible extractors.
The extractor base – the common problem
The universal extractor problem is its base. It is rare for a freshly loaded extractor – of any size – to be balanced. Some frames are heavier than others. Any extractor must run out-of-balance for a few revolutions to sling out enough honey to balance the remainder of the load. This puts significant torque on the base supporting the extractor whether the extractor is large or small. Unfortunately, there is no perfectly designed base for any extractor. Normally, small extractors simply sit on a heavy metal or wood base that you improvise. Larger extractors are manufactured with legs incorporated into the design. Individual legs are commonly attached to either cement or wood floors with lag bolts. It is not uncommon for bolts to work loose as both years and honey loads pass. I have improvised a spring loaded base in my lab which lets the extractor slightly float. The problem is that the machine, when initially loaded, makes a rhythmic tapping and bumping as the springs flex. After the load settles, the extractors run quietly.
Extractor base height – a second common problem
Even with small extractors, to get the extractor high enough off the floor to accommodate a five-gallon bucket or a sump, the extractor must sit about 16-18 inches off the floor. This height means that each frame must be laboriously lifted high (with honey stringing everywhere) when placing uncapped frames into the extractor. Frequently, a stand is built beside the extractor for the person loading the machine, but then the problem becomes what to do with the stack of supers as they get near the floor. I don’t know of a perfect design for a small extractor other than just withstanding the work and getting the job done. Larger extractors can be installed directly on the floor with a sump underneath within the floor structure.
What size extractor do you need – a third common problem
When to upgrade to a larger extractor is strictly your call. In theory, even a commercial beekeeper could use a small extractor if he or she was prepared to use it a lot. At some point, the ratio of time vs. task becomes so out-of-balance that the beekeeper decides a larger machine is required. Everything is proportional – the size of the crop vs. the capacity of the extractor vs. the time spent extracting. Larger honey production operations frequently have older, smaller, semi-retired extractors sitting in storage that have been outgrown.
Vintage extractors turn up all the time. They are usually cheap to buy. These old units were very well made and nearly impossible to wear out. The problems are the galvanized tanks they have and the solder used to assemble the devices is no longer approved for food contact. Since parts are long since unavailable, be prepared to have a machine shop make required parts, and coat the tank, inside and out, with food grade epoxy paint before using.
Heated vs. unheated sumps
Normally, extracted honey free-flows into sumps that sit just beneath the extractor. Basic sumps are single-walled and simply catch the liquid honey flowing from the extractors. Heated sumps are double-walled (water-jacketed) and have a heating element to heat the honey to make it easier to pour or pump from the sump. Heated sumps are preferable to unheated ones.
Honey pumps are worth their weight in gold. No monitoring of sump capacity and no hand pouring is required if a capacity switch is included. Honey pump models for the smaller beekeeper are very few in number in today’s market. Not wishing to leave any manufacturer out, I think that only Kelley and Maxant routinely advertise small capacity honey pumps that sell for less than $500. Otherwise, honey pumps can cost more than $1000. It may very well be that you will be required to put a motor on the pump you buy. I strongly recommend a motor with a reversing switch. Being able to pump honey back into the sump can really save time when cleaning filters or lines. As with extractors, old honey pumps frequently turn up on the second-hand market. They normally have crystallized honey in them so the pump housing should be opened up, heated with a heat gun to soften the gummy honey, cleaned with hot water, and reassembled with new gaskets. Some of these old pumps get very hot if run continuously. Many don’t have bearings or bushings. Using heavier oil or heat-tolerant grease will help, but do not use light oil to lubricate these pumps. It won’t hold up.
Honey line plumbing
Commonly, rigid, white plastic tubing or clear, food-grade plastic tubing is used to plumb the honey processing line. Unions should be included somewhere in the line to aid in breaking down the lines to clean them when the season is over. Clear plastic tubing is easy to install and allows for easy observation of honey flow. However, sump-heated honey can cause a clear plastic line to bulge and burst if the filter plugs tightly.
Honey filters and settling tanks
Commonly, beekeepers managing smaller operations allow the honey to settle in heated tanks. After a few days of settling, debris rises to the top where it can be skimmed off. The honey coming out of the bottom valve of the settling tank will be clear. Strainers and filters speed this process along. Strainers of various sorts are available from suppliers, but few filters for smaller operations are available. Dadant markets a filter that works well in my extracting line. It currently costs $450 and requires frequent maintenance, but it works well.
It is important to know that any filter or strainer is intended to clog. Be prepared to provide frequent maintenance. Heated honey passes through a filter much, much faster than cold honey. Also, the filter will work for longer intervals if the honey flow is not allowed to stop. Once the flow stops and the filter empties out, the detritus will flow against the filter wall and will cling there. Starting the honey flow again means the filter is already partially clogged. Cleaning honey filters is a messy but necessary job.
Settling tanks and bottling tanks are essentially the same piece of equipment. Though more expensive, double-walled, temperature-controlled tanks are worth the extra costs. In heated tanks, honey particulates rise to the top faster making the bottling process go faster.
Your extracting system
The extracting line I described above is not ideal. I am always changing and experimenting. You will come to know the strengths and weaknesses of your personal honey processing system. No system is perfect and honey is always sticky. Accidents will happen, but aside from that, you will process your own crop and it will be rewarding. I end where I started – the machinery needed for honey processing has nothing to do with bee biology. It is another component of your bee world.
Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Ohio State University, Wooster, OH 44691, 330.263.3684, Tew.firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.beelab.osu.edu