By Alexis Griffee, Florida
Winterizing beekeeping equipment, while the hive sleeps, avoids problems when the weather warms up.
As the cooler weather rolls in, our thoughts on the farm often drift to the major winter tasks. However, for beekeepers, there are still some tasks to complete before hanging up your bee suit for the year. Proper storing and cleaning of your beekeeping equipment is not only vital to the life and functionality of your equipment, but also to the health of your bees.
As the honey flow winds down and your honey has been extracted, it is time for winterizing beehive parts like supers, frames, and foundation. On our own farm, we always take this time to clean and prep all of our equipment so that we are not left chasing our tails as we scramble to assemble it all while catching a swarm or in the middle of the bee yard. It is pretty common to find a frame that has gotten a bit off kilter from use, especially after being in an extractor for the honey harvesting! We take this time to rebuild what we have that was damaged during the year. It is also at this time that you can take inventory of your supplies. If you know that you had a certain item that was irreparably damaged, now is the time to write down what will be needed for replacements.
During this time, we go through and scrape off any extra propolis and wax, and inspect all of the frames for sturdiness. When scraping off your frames and boxes, it is important to pay special attention to the corners or any cracks. These are the areas that some pests will hide and lay their eggs. Not only is it important to eliminate these pests, but this will also tell you if there is a bigger problem brewing within your hives.
It is also through these winterizing beehive inspections that we can really have a good look at what is going on with our bees. If there were any problems with pests like wax moths or hive beetles, it will be clear when you inspect these parts. If we do find a hive or frames that have pests on them, we often will freeze them in our deep freezer to kill off any eggs. Many beekeepers will do this to all of their equipment, space permitting, as an extra wax moth treatment precaution.
However, if you find yourself lacking freezer space, another tried and true method to sterilize your equipment is to use a blowtorch. Many beekeepers will use a blow torch lightly on the insides of all of their boxes and on wooden frames. This will not only help to burn off any residual wax and propolis but kill any eggs that may have escaped your inspection. This method is chosen often because it is fast, precise and does not take any particular skill all while being effective.
Chemical sterilization, although harder to use, is another method that is used commonly by commercial beekeepers with a large amount of equipment. Chemical sterilization of your hives and components has proven through the years to be effective with threats to your hive. While more commonly utilized overseas, the use of acetic acid to fumigate your equipment has been proven very successful.
To use this fumigation method, the hive components need to be bagged, wrapped or stored in a sealed, preferably wooden structure. To use acetic acid, you will need 80 percent industrial grade. This can be acquired from beekeeping supply stores as well as some chemical supply stores. For the treatment, you will need to place a dish of acetic acid, usually about 50ml worth, on top of a stack of hive parts. This is where many people seal the hive components up depending on their storage locations. The hives and the acid should be left undisturbed for approximately one week. After this time, the acid can be disposed of and the beekeeping equipment can be aired out so that it is ready for use before next year. Once this, or other cleaning and sterilization method has been completed, your equipment is ready for storage.
However, a word of caution when using acetic acid. Acetic acid will corrode metal as well as concrete. Due to this, it is recommended that you cover all metal parts with Vaseline to prevent the corrosion. Additionally, do not store your metal extractor in the same enclosed area as your other equipment when you are using this method! If your fumigation area has concrete floors, be sure to bag your hives and seal them tightly before you begin this process so that it does not cause damage to your floor. Also, be sure that you wear proper eye protection as well as gloves when handling acetic acid to prevent injuries. Always keep acetic acid clearly labeled and away from children and pets.
Despite the extra caution needed when using acetic acid, there are many benefits. This method is especially valuable to the beekeeper that has dealt with pests and unexplained hive loss. Acetic acid is proven to kill nosema parasites, chalkbrood spores, wax worms and other problems that have plagued beekeepers. No matter what method of cleaning and winterizing you choose, all provide valuable benefits and are crucial to keeping healthy hives.
After you have your equipment repaired, cleaned and sterilized, it is time to store it for the winter. While you are preparing your own home to endure a cold winter, so are many pests. Areas that are prime for storing your equipment are also perfect for pests like mice, moths, snakes, and roaches to spend their winter, too. It is no secret that mice alone can do a lot of damage to property. Mice are attracted to the sweet smell of the foundation and equipment. The boxes make great starting points for their nests and the wax gives them something to chew for the long winter. Aside from the obvious damage that this will cause your equipment, this is not sanitary. These same boxes will be holding honey next spring so keeping them clean should always be a priority.
As with anything in nature, for every action there is a reaction. In the winter, snakes need a couple of things: warmth and food. In your storage shed if it is not properly maintained, your bee equipment can be a supplier of both of those needs. Snakes will follow the rodents, and sometimes that may mean into your storage area. While they are just following their food source and do not have a specific interest in your beekeeping supplies, this can still be problematic. Obviously, some snakes are venomous, and even those that are not can still give you a nasty infection if you are to get bitten. Like the mice, it is just best to prevent the problem before it starts.
It is not just larger pests that can cause major damage to your beekeeping equipment. Moths, roaches and other scavenging bugs are drawn to the smell of foundation in particular. They will eat, destroy and lay eggs on your equipment. Aside from negating all of your previous work with cleaning and preparing your equipment at the end of the season, this will also put you at risk for introducing pests into your hives next spring.
One of the easiest and cheapest ways of winterizing beekeeping equipment to keep it pest free is with mothballs. Mothballs will repel most major pests and keep them out of your equipment storage area. Generally speaking, mothballs should be replaced every year to ensure that they are still potent enough to do the job effectively. To use these, simply sprinkle them around the base of your equipment. When we stack our hive bodies and supers, after every few, we put a layer of cardboard in between the boxes. On this, we lay some more mothballs. This tried and true method is used commonly by beekeepers all throughout the United States.
Homesteaders are hopeful people and are always planning and looking forward to the next season in their life. Beekeepers are no exception to this rule! It is during these winter months where you can take the time to plan out your apiary and determine your plan for next year’s success. It is also in this time that you will need to start buying bees. This can be done by placing your order through a mail order company or by contacting other beekeepers in the area that catch and sell swarms or split their own hives for starting beekeeping purposes. It is important to not end your beekeeping duties as soon as the cold weather sets in. Through a little hard work winterizing beekeeping equipment, you will be setting yourself up for a productive spring.
Alexis Griffee is a beekeeper in Milton, Florida.
Originally published int he November/December 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.