Keeping bees requires two essential tools: a smoker, and a hive tool. There is no perfect hive tool design for all uses, or all users. But since you should have more than one hive tool, it makes sense to try a couple of designs to see which you like the best. Fortunately, most hive tools are pretty inexpensive.
There are different hive tool styles, each with a different use, as well as different sizes to consider. And from time to time, you may wish to use two tools at the same time, so there’s that reason, as well.
But perhaps the most important reason to have a couple on hand is that hive tools have a maddening way of disappearing just when you need them. Nothing brings your bee work to a crashing halt faster than losing your hive tool in the middle of an inspection. It might seem unlikely to misplace a eight-inch piece of shiny metal, but it happens all the time. A spare tool, even if it isn’t your favorite one, will allow you to finish up your work. It’s likely the missing one will show up, mocking you in plain sight, once all the boxes are back together.
The business ends of hive tools have three different shapes, each with its own use.
Most tools have at least two shapes, some of them have three. There is even one that has a small hammer, plus blades for reaming out the grooves in frames and cleaning queen excluders.
And then there’s size. Beekeepers with smaller hands may prefer more petite tools. Some tools are so small they are pocket-sized, but generally length makes a difference in the potential leverage. Eight to ten inches is a good everyday size. Which brings us to the giant hive tool. Its fourteen-inch length has one main purpose: industrial-grade leverage. It isn’t the tool you’ll use for day-to-day work, but when your boxes are glued together by paint or propolis, the extra length quickly pops them apart without damage.
The slope of the bevel on the blade is the final thing to consider. A thinner blade allows you to slip it into tiny cracks between boxes to break them apart. A blade with a thicker bevel has more breaking strength, but it can be more damaging to the edges of boxes because it needs a larger crack to get started.
At the simplest level, you use a hive tool to help you do three things: open bee hives, remove (and replace) frames, and perform maintenance on surfaces.
Opening a hive. In a perfect world when you start an inspection, little nudges from your hive tool would loosen the top box enough to easily lift it off. But usually your bees have spent a lot of time sticking the box edges together with propolis. Sometimes separating the boxes easily and quietly can be very difficult. It isn’t enough to loosen up one side or corner. You need to make sure all four edges and corners are free. Many beekeepers pry one end up high enough to break open the adjacent sides, lowering it and moving around to the opposite end and repeating this.
Unfortunately, this often results in a rush of bees bursting out between the briefly-separated boxes and then getting squashed when the box is lowered again. If your goal is smooth and quiet bee-wrangling, try this technique using two hive tools at the same time. Instead of raising the top box high enough for the bees to see daylight and start to escape, just lift the box enough to crack the seal, then insert the second tool a few inches away in the same crack. Leapfrog one tool over the other, but never raise the box enough for bees to try to get out. Once the whole perimeter is loose, you can just lift the top box straight up before the bees can get themselves in trouble.
Removing the frames. The next task is to get the frames out so you can look at them. The bees usually glue the frame ends down with propolis, as well as creating little bridges of wax between the combs to make traveling in the pitch-dark hive easier. In general, work on only one (or at most, two) frames at a time to minimize unnecessary disturbance. Use the corner of a hive tool’s flat blade to nip off the protruding bridges of wax to avoid damage to adjacent frames. The flat blade can be used to slice off any propolis covering the end of the frame against the hive wall. Many beekeepers try to slide the blade down between the end bars of adjacent frames. This is easier to do with plastic frames than with wood ones. With wooden end bars, it’s hard to see where each one ends and you can accidentally slice off a piece, weakening the frame. A better way to separate the frames is to use the bent-over end as a lever between the top edges of frames to enlarge the space. Every movement you make with the hive tool generates vibrations that can excite and disturb the bees, so the power and quiet control of the lever action is very useful if your goal is to work without arousing the bees.
Some beekeepers like to use the flat blade against the edge of the box to pry the end of the frame up. Others find that using a hook gives them the best control. Once each end has been loosened, it’s time to lift the frame straight up and out. What do you do with the hive tool while lifting the frame? The best technique is keeping it in your hand. Stowing your tool in your pocket, or putting it down, will lead to a lot of false starts when a frame which seemed ready to lift turns out to need a little extra tool-work before it will budge. Having the tool still in your hand makes that much easier and quicker.
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Maintenance on surfaces of the box and frames. Scraping creates a lot of vibrations in the hive which will annoy the bees, so it’s best done as the last thing, after finishing your other work on a frame or box. There’s no need to remove every bit of stray wax and propolis. Do only what’s needed to be able to move the frames smoothly and protect the bees. Scrape off accumulated propolis on the frame rest with the bent-over edge of a hive tool. Tidy the meeting surfaces on the upper end bars to keep propolis from building up and altering the bee space between frames. Usually this kind of maintenance needs to be done only once or twice a season, and perhaps be spread out over a couple of inspections. (Scrape one side of the frame rest, or end bars, during one inspection and do the other side on a different day.) Postpone scraping off the tops of the frames until you have completed all the other work and have got all the frames back in the box.
Reassembling the frames within the box. Once you’ve looked over as many frames in a box that you need to see, it’s time to reassemble them correctly. If you’ve accidentally left a large space between the end bars of the frames and it has filled up with bees, move the frames close enough together so that there’s only a bit less than ¾ of an inch between the end bars. If that space is still full of bees, gently slide the flat blade into the space between the frames, going down about four inches into the middle of the scrum of bees. They will move safely out of the way. To keep them from returning, push one frame against the blade of the hive tool, and then withdraw the tool. If you’ve spaced it right, the remaining area will be too narrow for additional bees to crawl back into and you can safely close up the gap without squashing any bees.
One way to get all the frames back in place efficiently is to move some of them as a group. You can usually push 2-4 frames at once using the flat blade of the hive tool placed against the upper part of the end bar. If crossing a large distance, move one end part way and then the other end, to avoid getting the frames catty-corner. Always keep the finger of your free hand on the far side of the group of frames when pushing. Your fingertip is there to act as a shock absorber to cushion any jolts that would crush or excite the bees. Never push without that shock absorber to control the movement because sometimes considerable pressure must be exerted and the frames may stop and start unexpectedly.
When preparing to re-install the first frames you removed, push the other frames in the box as far away as possible using the flat blade. This will give you the maximum amount of space to slide them in without any damage. If one of these frames is more uneven, or fatter, put it back in first. The thinner, or flatter one will be the easiest to slip back in.
Once all the frames are back, use the bent-over edge of the hive tool in each one of the corners to compress the frames together in the center of the box as closely as possible. Any extra space should be divided up between the two sides. Leaving the frames even slightly separated will tempt the bees to start making the combs uneven. To read more about this important step, click here
Although it’s tempting to begin an inspection by scraping off the tops of the frames, it’s best to delay this until the last step. Removing burr comb on the tops of the frames, whether it holds honey or drone brood, will be upsetting to the bees. At the end of your work on the box, smoke them down off the tops, and scrape off only what you need to do in order to keep them safe when you put the next box down. Use the flat blade and keep it at a low angle to do the least harm to the bees who persist in the comb. If there is a lot of debris or dead bees on the top surface of the box edges, you can scrape that off, too. But there is no need to scrape it completely clean.
Once the hive has been reassembled, check to see that all the boxes are even and square with each other. At this point when the propolis seals have been broken free, you can use the flat blade of the hive tool to lever the boxes into perfect alignment. Although this seems like a picky step, it prevents development of ridges of propolis that can eventually create gaps between the boxes.
Although it may seem odd, a surprising number of beekeepers bang their hive tools on the edges of boxes. Whether they’re using the tool as a pointer for emphasis, or feel the need to use the box to snap bees off the tool, or they are mindlessly tapping on the box while they think, banging a hive tool on the box is guaranteed to make your bees crazy. Just. Don’t. Do. It!
One of the pleasures of getting a new hive tool is how it feels in your hand and how easy it works. After only a day’s work, your hive tool may be sticky with honey and gummed up with propolis and wax. Aside from the aesthetics, using the same hive tool in different hives has the potential to move some bee diseases around on the build-up of gunk on a hive tool. Hive inspectors whose job it is to investigate reports of bee diseases in their area need a way to clean and sanitize their hive tools in the field to avoid spreading a problem. Here’s how many of them do it. First, they scrape as much of the wax off as possible. Then they use water and Comet with Bleach™ cleansing powder and a stainless-steel scrubbie to get the rest completely off. After rinsing in more water, they immerse the tool in a bath of rubbing alcohol until it is needed again. While a private beekeeper who only uses his own tools in his own hives has less disease-spreading risk, it still is a good practice to keep your hive tool clean. After giving the tools a thorough scraping outside, wash them in hot water with the Comet powder and a scrubbie. Then let them air dry, unless you feel they need additional sanitization using alcohol. It’s courteous to never use your hive tool in someone else’s hive without cleaning and sanitizing it, first. And it’s smart to ask your visitors to only use your hive tools to prevent any disease from being brought into your apiary.