Many species of bees collect nectar which they convert into honey and store as a food source.
However, only bees that live together in large colonies store appreciable quantities of honey.
These are bees of the genus Apis and some of the Meliponinae (stingless bees). Bees make
honey mainly from the nectar of flowers, but they also use other plant saps and honeydew. As a
bee sucks the liquid up through its proboscis and into its honey sac, it adds a small amount of
enzymes, and some of the water in the nectar is evaporated. The enzymes convert sugars in the
nectar into different types of sugars; honeys always contain a wide range of sugars that vary
according to the nectar source. The bees then place the liquid nectar into cells in the
honeycomb. The temperature inside the hive is usually around 35°C and, together with
ventilation caused by bees fanning their wings, this temperature causes further evaporation of
water from the nectar. When the water content is less than 20%, the bees seal the cell with a
wax capping. The honey is now 'ripe' and will not ferment.
Honey consists of a mixture of sugars, mostly glucose and fructose. In addition to water (usually
17-20%) it also contains very small amounts of other substances, including minerals, vitamins,
proteins and amino acids. A minor, but important component of most types of honey is pollen.
These components contribute to the different flavours that honey can have, and make honey a
nutritious food that has a high demand in many regions of the world.
The simplest processing is to remove the honeycomb from frame hives, top-bar hives or
traditional hives and sell or consume it as ‘cut-comb’ honey. When producing this from frame
hives it is necessary to use a wax foundation that does not contain strengthening wires and is
thinner than that normally used in wired frames. The process involves collecting pieces of sealed
and undamaged honeycomb, cutting them into uniform sized pieces and packaging them
carefully in bags or cartons to avoid damaging the honeycomb. Because the honeycomb is
unopened, it is readily seen to be pure, and it has a finer flavour than honey that is exposed to
air or processed further. Cut-comb honey can therefore have a high local demand and fetch a
higher price than processed honey. However, the honeycomb is easily damaged by handling and
transport, which makes distribution for retail sale more difficult. It requires protection by
packaging materials that will absorb shocks or vibration (e.g. cushioning plastics such as
‘bubble-wrap’ and/or corrugated cardboard cartons) and packs should be carried carefully and
not stacked, thrown or dropped to avoid damage to the honeycombs.
This is honey that is processed to a minimal extent and is usually sold locally. It is prepared by
removing the wax cappings of the honeycomb using a long sharp knife that has been heated by
standing it in warm water. (unsealed combs containing unripe honey should not be used). The
honeycombs are then broken into pieces and the honey is strained to remove wax and other
debris. A fairly coarse strainer is used at first to remove large particles, and the honey is then
strained through successively finer strainers such as cotton or muslin cloths. The clear honey is
collected in a clean, dry container. When most of the honey has drained (often over many hours
depending on the temperature) the combs are squeezed inside a cloth bag to remove as much of
the remaining honey as possible. The wax is collected and formed into a block by melting it
gently in a warm waterbath or solar wax extractor. This beeswax byproduct often has a high value
as a wax polish or for candle-making. The strained honey can either be dispensed from the
collection pan into customers’ own containers or packed into glass jars or plastic bags for sale.
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The wax cappings are removed from the honeycombs as
for strained honey. At larger scales of production,
electrically heated honey knives or ‘planes’ may be
When extracting honey from top-bar frames, the frame
is placed over a dish, and the thin layer of wax capping
is cut from the bottom to the top of the frame and
allowed to fall into the dish below. The frame is then
turned and the capping on the other side is removed.
Honey that is stuck to the wax cappings is strained
using cloth bags as above.
Figure 1: Electric uncapping
The frame is then placed in a honey extractor (Figure.
plane. Photo courtesy of Mazant
2). Honey extractors can be manually or electrically
Honey Processing Equipment.
operated, depending on the scale of production, and
can be either ‘tangential’ or ‘radial’ type machines.
They extract the honey by spinning the frames at high
speed. In a tangential machine, the frames lie against the barrel of a drum and the outer side of
the frame empties when the drum is spinning. The frames are then turned so that the other face
of the honeycomb faces outwards, and the machine spun until this side is empty. This prevents
the inner part from bursting through the empty outer combs and so prevents the combs from
breaking. Although each frame has to be handled four times to load, turn and unload them, more
complete extraction can be achieved and this design is more compact and cheaper than radial
types. In a radial machine, the frames sit between rings, arranged like the spokes of a wheel and
honey is extracted from both sides simultaneously. Radial machines are larger then tangential
machines to ensure that the frames are far enough from the centre to extract properly, but they
can hold more frames than a tangential machine (e.g. a 20-frame radial extractor compared to
an 8-frame tangential machine).
The honey is collected in a pan, preferably made from food
grade plastic or stainless steel, and filtered through a nylon or
stainless steel filter unit that has progressively finer filters as
the honey moves to the outside of the filter unit. Some filters
are fitted with heaters to make the honey flow faster, but these
are not necessary in tropical climates and any increase in
temperature risks a reduction in the quality of the honey (see
below). The clear honey is then collected and packaged into
glass or plastic containers and labelled. The package should be
moistureproof to prevent the honey picking up moisture from
the air during storage.
Figure 2: Nine-frame electric
Photo courtesy of Maxant
Honey Processing Equipment.
Because customers regard the colour of honey as an important
quality characteristic, the containers should preferably be
transparent so that customers can see the product. Glass jars
with screw-on lids or plastic pots with heat-sealed foil or plastic
lids may be used. In countries where glass or plastic containers
are difficult to obtain, heat-sealed plastic sachets are an
The label on the container is important for attracting customers and a professionally designed
label that describes the source of the honey (e.g. sunflower, mixed blossom, tree honey etc.), its
purity, and the district it was produced in, can give a marketing advantage. Legally, in most
countries the label should have the following information:
The name of the product (i.e. pure honey)
The name and address of the producer.
The weight of honey in the container (the net weight).
Other information may be included to benefit the customer: for example, the label on comb
honey may indicate that the whole comb including the wax is edible, or strained honey may have
a note to explain granulation (see below).
Honey is preserved because of its high sugar content (or
conversely its low moisture content), which prevents microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts and moulds) from growing in it.
Despite this, it must be handled hygienically, and all
equipment must be properly cleaned (see below).
The aroma and taste of honey are its most important
quality characteristics, but honey is often judged
according to its colour. The colour of honey depends
mainly on the source of the nectar. Usually dark-coloured
Figure 3: Honey tanks with
filters. Photo courtesy of
honeys have a strong flavour whereas pale honeys have a
Camelot Country Products.
more delicate flavour. Generally light-coloured honeys are
more highly valued than dark products. Some honeys have
a high pollen content, which makes them appear cloudy,
and this may be considered as lower quality by some
The main causes of loss in quality of honey are:
An increase in moisture content - too much water in honey (greater than 19-20%)
causes it to ferment. Honey is ‘hygroscopic’, meaning that it will absorb moisture, and
all honey processing equipment must therefore be completely dry. Honey should also be
processed as soon as possible after removal from the hive to prevent it absorbing
moisture from the air, especially in humid climates. In areas with a very high humidity it
can be difficult to produce honey of sufficiently low water content.
Development of HMF (Hydroxymethylfurfural). This is a break-down product of fructose
(one of the main sugars in honey) that is formed slowly during storage but very quickly
when honey is heated. Colour can also be an indicator of quality because honey becomes
darker during storage and heating. The amount of HMF present in honey is used as a
guide to the age of the honey and/or the amount of heating that has taken place. Some
countries set an HMF limit for imported honey. HMF is measured by laboratory tests and
technical advice from a Bureau of Standards should be sought if export is being
Contamination by insects. Honey processing is a sticky operation, and the sugar in honey
attracts ants, cockroaches and flying insects. Careful protection is needed at all stages
of processing, including insect screens on doors and windows to prevent contamination
by insects. All honey residues on equipment should be removed by proper cleaning to
prevent them attracting insects. The presence of any other contaminations (e.g. particles
of wax, parts of bees, splinters of wood, dust etc.) make the honey very low value.
A note on granulation
Glucose is one of the main sugars in honey and when it crystallises (i.e. it changes from a liquid
to a solid), the liquid honey also becomes solid (or granulated). Depending on the source of the
nectar collected by bees, some types of honey are more likely to granulate than others, but
almost all honey will granulate if its temperature falls sufficiently. Granulation is a natural
process and there is no difference in nutritional value between solid and liquid honey. Although
there is obviously a difference in the texture between liquid and granulated honey, there is no
difference in the flavour or other quality characteristics. Some customers prefer granulated
honey, and if liquid honey is slow to granulate, the addition of 20% finely granulated honey will
cause it to granulate.
The routine quality checks on honey are a visual inspection to detect clarity, any contamination
by insects or other materials such as particles of beeswax, and checking that the pack contains
the correct weight of honey. In humid climates, or if a batch of honey is suspected of containing
high a level of water (e.g. honey that is returned because it has started to ferment), it can be
checked for moisture content. Because honey is mostly sugar (around 80%) and water (19-20%)
the sugar content can be measured using a refractometer, and the value subtracted from 100 to
measure the moisture content. However, refractometers are expensive and it may be more
affordable to send samples to a laboratory for checking if a problem with the moisture content is
suspected. If during production, the level of moisture is too high, it can be reduced by blowing
air for several hours over a pan of honey using an electric fan. Honey should never be heated to
remove water because this will increase the amount of HMF and significantly reduce its quality.
The other important quality assurance check is to ensure that the correct cleaning procedure is
in place and is being properly followed by production staff. All equipment, floors and work
surfaces should be washed daily with hot water and detergent, and rinsed with clean water. They
should be allowed to dry completely in the air before production starts again. Cloths should not
be used to dry surfaces and equipment because they can contain sugar residues that
recontaminate cleaned surfaces.
Please note this is a selective list of suppliers, not implying endorsement by Practical Action.
Honey processing equipment
Camelot Country Products, Curry Rivel, Somerset, TA10 0HB, UK., Tel: +44 (0)1458
253098 Mobile: +44 07973 905606, email: email@example.com, Website:
E.H. Thorne Ltd., Beehive Works, Wragby, Market Rasen, LN8 5LA, U.K., Tel: +44 (0)1
673 858555, Fax: +44 (0)1 673 857004, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website:
Korea Beekeeping Association and Korea Bee Product's Research institute, 6F The
Farmer's Hall, 436-3 Hwaseo-dong, Jangan-gu, Suwon, 440-150, South Korea, Tel: +82
331 291 6622/1223, Fax: +82 331 291 6682, E-mail: email@example.com, Website:
Maxant Industries, PO Box 454, Ayer, MA., 01432 USA., Tel: 1 978 7720576, Fax: 1
978 7726365, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website:
Steele & Brodie Limited Beehive Works, Kilmany Road, Wormit, Newport-on-Tay, Fife,
DD6 8PG, UK., Tel: +44 (0) 1382 541728, Fax: +44 (0) 1382 543022, E-mail:
Swienty A S, Hortoftvej 16, DK 6400 Sonderborg, Denmark, Tel: +45 74 486969, Fax:
+45 74 488001, E-mail: email@example.com
The Bee Keeper's Supermarket, 38 Milner Road, Maitland, Cape Town 7450, South
Africa, Tel: +27 21 5114567, Fax: +27 21 5119962.
Thomas Apiculture, 86 rue Abbé Thomas, Fay aux Loges, F-45450, France, Tel: +33
(0)2 38 468800, Fax: +33 (0)2 38 592828, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website:
Larger scale honey processing equipment
SSP Private Ltd., 13 Milestone, Mathura Road, Faridabad, Haryana-121 003, India,
Terl: +(91)-(129)-2277442/2275968, Fax : +(91)-(129)-2277441, E-mail :
email@example.com, Website: http://www.sspindia.com/enquiry.html#contact .
Locally available from laboratory equipment suppliers/agents.
Bellingham and Stanley Ltd., Longfield Road, North Farm Industrial Estate, Tunbridge
Wells, Kent, TN2 3EY, UK., Tel: +44 1892 500400, Fax: +44 1892 543115, E-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: http://www.bs-ltd.com/
Basic Honey Processing, Allan, M.
Beekeeping in Africa, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin 68/6, Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1990.
Beekeeping in the Tropics: Agrodok 32, Segeren , Mulder , Beetsma , Sommeijer,
Directory of suppliers of beekeeping equipment worldwide, International Bee Research
The Complete Book on Beekeeping and Honey Processing, NPCS Board of Consultants &
Engineers, NIIR Project Consultancy Services, 2007.
The Golden Insect: A handbook on Beekeeping, Adjare, S., Practical Action Publishing,
Tools for Agriculture: A guide to Appropriate Equipment for Smallholder Farmers, 4th
Edition, Carruthers, I. and Rodriguez, M., Practical Action Publishing, 1992.
Beekeeping, Ethel Crane, Practical Action Publishing, 1985
Controlling Crop Pests and Diseases, R Rappaport, Practical Action Publishing, 2004
Apimondia, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 101, I-00186 Rome, Italy, Tel: +39 668
52286, Fax: +39 668 52286 or 683 08578, E-mail: APIMONDIA@MCLINK.IT,
Apimondia is an international organization including 55 national beekeeping
associations representing all continents. Members include institutes studying
beekeeping as well as institutions and firms promoting and trading products and
Bees for Development, Troy, Monmouth, NP5 4AB, UK., Tel: +44 (0) 16007 13648,
Fax: +44 (0) 16007 16167, E-mail: email@example.com, Website:
Bees for Development produce a quarterly magazine, Beekeeping and Development, and
produce books that are available through mail order.
International Bee Research Association, 18 North Road, Cardiff, CF10 3DT, UK., Tel:
+44 (0)29 2037 3409, Fax: +44 (0)29 2066 5522, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org,
The International Bee Research Association are a not-for-profit organization that aims to
increase awareness of the vital role of bees in the environment and encourages the use
of bees as wealth creators. IBRA has published a full list that includes over 265
suppliers, listed under their countries (a total of 40), and with an index to suppliers of
The Schumacher Centre
Rugby, Warwickshire, CV23 9QZ
Tel: +44 (0)1926 634400
Fax: +44 (0)1926 634401
Practical Action is a development charity with a difference. We know the simplest ideas can have the
most profound, life-changing effect on poor people across the world. For over 40 years, we have been
working closely with some of the world’s poorest people - using simple technology to fight poverty and
transform their lives for the better. We currently work in 15 countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin