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 multiple hive tools on hand, and most are inexpensive, try a couple of designs to see which you like the best. Explore this round-up of hive tool options and tips for use, and learn how to choose the best one for you.
A hive tool is your beekeeping multi-tool. It’s used to open the hive, lift and shift frames or other hive parts, scrape away wax and propolis, pry out or re-set loose nails or staples — and you need one from the beginning when installing a package of bees.
Each hive tool style offers different uses, and there are various sizes to consider. We recommend keeping a couple of hive tools on hand so you have the right style to suit the task at hand — and from time to time, you may wish to use two tools at the same time. It’s also nice to have multiple options because hive tools tend to disappear 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. A spare tool, even if it isn’t your favorite one, allows you to finish working — the missing one will likely show up, mocking you in plain sight, once all the boxes are back together.
When it comes to choosing the best hive tool, consider shape, size, and blade slope (or width). Explore these hive tool features to choose the best style for you.
Shape: There are three different hive tool end shapes, each with a specific use.
Most tools combine at least two shapes, while some of them have all three. The Everything Hive Tool has a small hammer, plus blades for reaming out the grooves in frames and cleaning queen excluders.
Size: The best hive tool size depends on your intended use and personal preferences. Eight to ten inches is a good everyday size, while beekeepers with smaller hands may prefer more petite tools. Length also makes a difference in the potential leverage.
The giant hive tool’s fourteen-inch length has one main purpose: industrial-grade leverage. It isn’t used 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.
Blade width: A thinner blade allows you to slip into tiny cracks between boxes to break them apart. A blade with a thicker bevel (slope) has more breaking strength but may damage box edges because it needs a larger crack to get started.
Mainly, a hive tool helps you do three things: open bee hives, remove and replace frames, and perform maintenance on surfaces. Explore these instructions and the accompanying video to learn how to use your hive tools.
In a perfect world, 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 difficult. You must make sure all four edges and corners are free. Many beekeepers pry one end up high enough to break open the adjacent sides, lower it, then move around to the opposite end to repeat, which often results in a rush of bees bursting out between the briefly-separated boxes, then getting squashed when the box is lowered again. For smooth, quiet bee-wrangling, try this technique using two hive tools at the same time.
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 and create little bridges of wax between the combs to make traveling in the pitch-dark hive easier. Work on one frame at a time to minimize unnecessary disturbance.
Every movement you make with the hive tool generates vibrations that can excite and disturb the bees, but the lever action offers quiet control to prevent arousing them. 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.
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 provides the best control. Once each end has been loosened, lift the frame straight up and out.
Keep your hive tool in your hand while lifting the frame: Often, a frame that seemed ready to lift needs a little extra tool-work before it will budge. Having the tool still in your hand makes that much easier and quicker.
Scraping creates 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.
Once or twice a season, perform these basic maintenance steps — and perhaps spread them out over a couple of inspections:
If the end bars of the frames fill up with bees, move the frames close enough together so that there’s 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, 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 to 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, then the other end, to keep them straight.
Always keep the finger of your free hand on the far side of the group of frames to act as a shock absorber when pushing to cushion any jolts that would crush or excite the bees. Never push without that shock absorber 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, use the flat blade to push the other frames in the box as far away as possible. This space to slide frames in without damage. If a frame is more uneven, or fatter, put it back in first. The thinner, or flatter ones will be the easiest to slip back in.
Once all the frames are back, use the hive tool’s bent-over edge in each corner to compress the frames together in the center of the box as closely as possible. Divide up any extra space should between the two sides. Leaving the frames even slightly separated will tempt the bees to start making the combs uneven.
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 upset the bees.
At the end of your work on the box, smoke them down off the tops. Then, scrape off only what you need to, using the flat blade kept at a low angle to prevent harming 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. Without the previous propolis seals, 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 the development of ridges of propolis that can eventually create gaps between the boxes.
One of the pleasures of getting a new hive tool is how easy it works, but after only a day’s work, your hive tool may already be sticky with honey, propolis, and wax. Using one hive tool in different hives also has the potential to move bee diseases around. Hive inspectors whose job it is to investigate reports of bee diseases clean and sanitize their hive tools in the field. Here’s how many of them do it:
While a private beekeeper who only uses tools in personal hives has less disease-spreading risk, you’ll still need to know how to clean propolis off of hive tools. In this case, give the tools a thorough wash in hot water with Comet powder, then let them air dry. If they need additional sanitization, feel free to wash them with alcohol.
Quick Tip: 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 use only your hive tools to prevent any disease from being brought into your apiary.
Hive tools are arguably the most useful item to have on hand while working your hives — it’s even necessary to have one to install your bee package. Choosing the right hive tool for the job and learning how to use it properly will improve your beekeeping experience greatly. For more tips and advice, explore our Beekeeping Guide.