Spring Cleaning for Beekeepers

Happy New Year, Beekepers!

Hello all and hoping that both you and your bees are keeping well!

I’m so looking forward to the clocks springing forward, temperatures rising, and conditions becoming favourable so that I can spend time with the bees. Okay, the winter break is nice for the back, but I so miss their shenanigans and their wonderful ability to teach, entertain and keep us all grounded.

Spring Cleaning

After every harvest, my plans are to have so much cleaning and preparation done for the forthcoming year thereby enabling me to be on top of the workload for the new year but alas, alas, alas. There’s always a few queen excluders, feeders, brood boxes, supers and general beekeeping equipment that escaped the scraping, soaking and cleaning. 

Microorganisms are everywhere. Despite the fact that most are useful, there are some that are destructive and contribute to diseases. The bees we tend are domesticated and we are responsible for their survival and health. We must at least try to ensure that their home is clean and that our equipment does not aid the transmission of undesirables.

This is a great time of year to thoroughly go through all your beekeeping bits and bobs. 

Cleaning Smokers and Hive Tools 

Tools such as the smoker and hive tool can be cleaned using a solution of washing soda crystals (Sodium Carbonate). This can be made using 1 kg of washing soda to 5 litres of warm water. You could also use a dash of washing-up liquid, as it seems to help clean off propolis. Scrape out all residue from the smoker first and, when you’ve applied copious amounts of elbow grease, store your cleaned equipment in a dry environment. 

I use this same solution when doing hive inspections. Just fill a smallish receptacle with the solution and use it to clean your hive tool after inspecting the hive and before the next one. You can do something similar with your gloves. It’s a good habit and decreases the chances of cross-contamination. Washing soda crystals are cheap to purchase, they clean, they soften water, they remove smells and they kill bacteria. They are even environmentally friendly and non-toxic and available in most supermarkets.

Image: these certainly need a clean!

Cleaning Feeders

There are many types of feeders available but the same cleaning theory applies. Firstly, get rid of any mouldy or fermented syrup that was not used, but definitely do not discard this near your hives or apiary. Scavengers will come out of the woodwork, leading to all sorts of robbing and disease contamination. I wash the feeders in hot soapy water and then wipe them with vinegar. Then give them a rinse and let them dry. Job complete!

Cleaning Queen Excluders

Queen excluders are the ultimate pain to clean. However much I love to see the bees collecting propolis and using it in the hive, a mixture of wax and propolis coated on the excluder is difficult to remove. I have an old oilcloth tablecloth and I lay this on the floor of the shed. Now for the elbow grease! I scrape as much off the excluder with a paint scraper as I can. I then let the excluder soak in cold water for 20 minutes and scrape again. When the honey flow is on, the last thing you or your bees want is a barrier between the brood box and the supers. Some excluders can break when cleaning, so be vigilant that this does not happen as queenie would love to travel north and fill the supers with eggs. For the beginner, the excluder (as the name implies) prevents the queen from being able to get through it as she is larger than the worker bees.

Image: queen excluders can be a pain to clean.

Cleaning Bee Suits

Bee suits as well as any beekeeping equipment can be expensive so all the more reason for looking after it and viewing it as an investment. One of my bee suits must be over 20 years old and, despite not being brilliant white in colour, it is still fit for purpose. Most bee suits are machine washable and come with washing instructions. It is very important that the veil of the suit is detachable as most of these have to be cleaned separately.

Your bee suit should be washed regularly. Some people wash them after every use. I, on the other hand, wash them about every 3 to 4 wears, or more as deemed necessary. In hot weather, the build-up of sweat (yes, you heard me!) and hive residue makes the fabric less breathable, so a fresh clean suit is much more comfortable to wear. More importantly, your bee suit over time will accumulate bee alarm and sting pheromones from previous bee inspections. Humans will not smell this but the bees will, as the scent remains potent. This can be disturbing for the bees and encourage further stinging behaviour. By the way, I do not use highly scented washing powders or conditioners. Likewise, I don’t spray Chanel No. 5 before inspections or any other fancy-smelling potions. The bees really don’t like it! 

Caring for your veil is somewhat different. Please don’t do what I did many years ago and wash the veil in the machine. It cost me! Most brands are not machine friendly. Soak the veil instead for 20-30 minutes in warm, sudsy water and gently swish the water through the netting. Scrub the fabric section with a soft nail brush. Rinse thoroughly and hang to dry. 

If there’s beeswax on your suit, which can often be the case, scrape this off before machine washing, having poured very hot water through the garment from the back. When doing this at the sink, be careful not to block the drain as the wax will solidify again. Another story for another day I fear! It’s nearly impossible to remove propolis stains but scrubbing with a brush using brute force can clean it off a little. Maybe someone out there has a remedy and if so, please share.

Cleaning Hive Parts & Frames

Cleaning hive parts and frames is another day’s work. It’s certainly a task I don’t look forward to but, believe it or not, I feel very smug once completed. Equipment needed is basic: a knife, a hive tool, a small sharp screwdriver or any pointy tool, a pair of pliers and some receptacle big enough to accommodate a hive box. I have an old deep bath for that purpose. Somebody was throwing it out and I happened to be in the right place. An invaluable commodity and so wonderful that it has found a new use. Again, anything to do with cleaning beekeeping equipment demands elbow grease and it’s much better than resorting to all sorts of chemically loaded cleaners.

If frames are broken or the foundation is old and discoloured or super frames have a lot of residual pollen left in them after extracting, using a knife I cut away the old comb. I then scrape the frame itself removing as much wax and propolis as possible. I loosen the removable wedge piece at the bottom and clean this too. I can then scrape the smaller nooks and crannies and remove loose nails and pins with the pliers. You can then soak the now-empty frames in a bleach water solution, i.e. 1 part bleach to 5 parts boiling water. (Bleach is also known as chlorine and is a powerful oxidizer. It is not technically considered corrosive or toxic but can cause irritation to the eyes, mouth, lungs and skin. In beekeeping terms, it is used as a disinfectant because of its microbicidal properties.) 

Once the frames have soaked, leave them to dry thoroughly. I hang them on a rope similar to a washing line. They dry easily and are accessible when needed. I replace brood frames definitely every 3 years or less and because of this don’t recycle these. When replacing frames in the brood box, I like them to be pristine and new. The discarded well-worked frames make great kindling for starting the fire. Firelighters crossed off the shopping list!

Image: there’s nothing better than fresh, clean frames.

Supers, brood chambers, roofs, floors, crown boards, ekes should be cleaned when necessary. Wooden and polystyrene materials are cleaned differently. However, they all need scraping and checking, e.g. making sure that they are in good condition and fit for purpose. 

The wooden components are easily cleaned using a propane torch so as to scorch (not burn) the wood. This is a great way of ensuring that unwanted pests and possible diseases are eliminated. It goes without saying that you can’t scorch polystyrene, so these hives and hive parts must be soaked and scrubbed in the aforementioned bleach solution. This is when the old bath comes into play. Polystyrene will float so you do need to keep them weighed down. I use a few big stones and fortunately don’t have to travel far for them.

Feel free to amble through all the previous newsletters on our web page as other January and February issues cover more bits and pieces applicable to beekeeping at this time of the year.

Plants for Bees: Hottentot Fig

by Elizabeth Savage

Despite its exotic name, this succulent (Carpobrotus edulis) grows like topsy on Guernsey. A mat-forming creeper, it flows over the ditch at the end of our drive. Clobbered by the cold of 2012, it has obligingly resumed its creep. While invasive in the Mediterranean, it knows its place here in Cork and has bright jolly pink flowers which honey bees love in early autumn. The edulis refers to its edible fruits which, frankly, I’ve never noticed.

Recipe: Honey Cheese Pie

Recipe kindly provided by Elizabeth Savage.

These are a bit of a departure for a “cookie”. They are both sweet and a little bit salty so would pair

Paula Wolfert’s classic Mediterranean Cooking has a “Honey” chapter. Representing the littoral cuisines, “Honey-dipped pastry stuffed with figs” or “Puffed fritters with Mount Hymettus honey” make for a mouth-watering read. While we may never get around to tackling either, just rolling the name around in your mouth “Svingous me melismas Hymettus” is satisfying. Her “Honey cheese pie”, Melipitta, is another Greek treat within reach, although a two-step process: crust and filling.

Pastry (for a 10” tart mold)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbl sugar
Pinch salt
6 ounces (12 Tbl) unsalted butter
1/2 tsp grated lemon rind
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbl ice water

10 ounces creamed cottage cheese
2 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup honey
1/3 cup sugar
Ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, lightly beaten

  1. To make the pastry: mix the flour with sugar and the salt. Rub in the butter. Mix egg, lemon rind, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Stir into the flour. Quickly add enough ice water to form a ball of dough. Usually 2 to 3 tablespoons is enough. Work lightly until smooth, wrap in wax paper and chill 2 hours.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees (C).
  3. For the filling: combine the cheese, honey, and sugar, mixing well until smooth. Gradually beat in the eggs then stir in 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon.
  4. Roll out the pastry and line the tart mold. Trim and flute the edges. Transfer the honey-cheese mixture to the pastry shell and set in the oven to bake until golden brown and puffy (35-40 minutes). Sprinkle with a little ground cinnamon and serve when cool.

2023 Beginner Course

Our beekeeping for beginners course commences via Zoom on Monday February 20th at 7.30pm. The FABKA team look forward to meeting all of our new-bees!

Beginners who joined last year will also be sent the Zoom links, so you can take the course again. This seems to go down well, because the modules make so much more sense when you’ve completed a year of beekeeping. Feedback from you to the beginners is always appreciated!

Next Meeting – Wed 22nd Feb – Schull Parish Hall

We also have our regular monthly association meeting on Wednesday February 22 commencing at 8pm. We look forward to seeing you all!

Date: 22nd February
Time: 8pm
Location: Schull Parish Hall, P81 HC57

(Note: we’ll be in a new location in Schull this time! The hall is next door to the church on the way into Schull from the east. You can’t miss it.)

We are honoured that the wonderful Hanna Bäckmo of Hanna’s Bees (and her excellent articles in An Beachaire magazine!) has not only joined our association but is going to help us start our year in style! She will be sharing her beekeeping skills and knowledge with us at our first 2023 assembly.

All beginners are very welcome to attend and will be able to meet all our other members. As always, if any of you have any information or interesting points, please share! Remember how the bees work together for the good of the colony? We, too, try to mimic them. What great teachers they are!

We will continue to keep you all updated regarding any FIBKA issues. It has been a time of change, so let’s embrace it and continue working with the bees for the good of the bee, the beekeeper and the earth.

Beir bua agus beannacht (kind regards),
Mairead Love & the team at FABKA

 A More Ancient Mariner 

The swarthy bee is a buccaneer,
A burly, velveted rover,
Who loves the blooming wind in his ear
As he sails the seas of clover.

– Bliss Carman