4 June 2014

Cleanliness matters

It used to be thought that a beekeeper who wore a propolis stained beekeeping suit, smock or pair of overalls was one to be admired. Propolis, wax and honey stains were a badge of office, to be nurtured and retained as evidence that they were far too busy with their bees and beekeeping to have time to take their protective clothing off for long enough to put launder it.

Times have changed, and so have perceptions, and although it's still common to see bee suits, smocks and trousers speckled with mildew from winter damp, it's as rare to see a beekeeper wearing dirty outer clothing as it is for a surgeon to wear bloodstained tweeds.

What to do?
Nothing's foolproof because, of course, bees travel a fair distance and will share food resources with other local bees. Drones will spend time in any available bee nest - they aren't choosy! There are, however, easy routines that will help to reduce transfer of pathogens from colony to colony, or from apiary to apiary, by the beekeeper.

Some simple 'best practice' tips: -
  • be clean, 
  • keep beekeeping kit clean, 
  • keep the apiary uncluttered and tidy, and 
  • reduce the chance of transferring disease from one colony to another.
There's no need to buy a chemistry set, just two things - washing soda and bleach.

Washing soda. 
Every single item a beekeeper uses during an inspection can be washed. Small items can be soaked overnight in small lidded bucket containing a strong solution of washing soda (NOT caustic soda). A kilo of washing soda costs around £1, and when dissolved in 3 litres of water will clean off the most stubborn propolis. This solution will also kill microsporidians and bacteria, but not foulbrood spores - bleach will do that.

Keeping a bucket of washing soda solution in the apiary means gloves and hive tool can be washed between colonies - to get rid of excess propolis or honey, and so bees aren't irritated by alien smells.

If a matchstick has been used to test for foulbrood it can be popped into the spout of the smoker, pump the bellows a few times and the match will burn.

Many beekeepers seem to forget that the smoker's bellows are always in contact with hands or gloves, they will just put the smoker back in the shed or toolbox so it's ready for next time. Use washing soda to wash the bellows from time to time; soaking the whole smoker overnight will dissolve the thickest layers of tar and will act as a biocide.

Hives and hive parts
Polystyrene hives and plastic hive parts can be quickly and easily scrubbed using the above concentration of washing soda, so can all wooden frames and hive components. Rinse or hose down afterwards to remove any powdery residue.

A bleach solution can be used for sterilising equipment, DEFRA recommends
Brood boxes, supers and other beekeeping equipment can be effectively sterilised using disinfectants containing hypochlorite. Sodium hypochlorite is present at a concentration of about 3% in household bleach. Research has shown that immersion for twenty minutes in a solution of 0.5% sodium hypochlorite kills AFB spores and other bacteria. In this case you therefore need to make a solution of one part household bleach to five parts water. It is essential that the spores are in contact with the solution, so any items immersed must be thoroughly cleaned.
  • Don't try to mix Sodium carbonate (washing soda) CNa2O3 and sodium hypochlorite (bleach) NaClO in solution (with water H2O) to speed things up, because they decompose quickly - leaving water, sodium and calcium salts (solids), and a whiff of chlorine gas.
  • A bucket of bleach solution will decompose in a day or so, so make it up as, and when, needed.

Other bits and pieces.
Thanks to the miracle of washing machines it's easy to launder bee suits, gloves and cover cloths overnight - no need to add fabric conditioner which might annoy the bees.

Plastic or rubber boots can be washed and disinfected using washing soda and then bleach but leather footwear is less easy to sterilise.

Don't forget to wash the bee brush and clean the kit box or tool tray - these are easily forgotten. Same with marking pens, queen clips, magnifying glasses and so on - they can get sticky and will attract bees to places where they have no need to be.

Two apiaries?
If using more than one apiary, save up and buy a set of basic gear (hive tool & smoker) to be kept at each site. Either store them in a lidded bucket of washing soda, or wash and store in a closed container tucked out of the way beneath a hive.

Wax, old comb, and extracted frames
Don't buy wax or foundation just because it happens to be the cheapest. Make sure it's from a bona fide dealer whose processing removes pathogens. (This beekeeper prefers to buy from Kemble Bee Supplies)

Any wax that is scraped off frames and any stray bits of comb should be dropped into a lidded box - the smell is irresistible to bees. Melt it down when there's enough for it to be worth it.

If using a solar wax extractor, make sure the lid is beeproof especially if trying to melt down comb containing dead brood. Warm wax attracts bees, but hot, rotting, larvae will contain pathogens that could be carried back to the hive - do you really need to melt those drone combs? Would it be better to burn them?.

Ancient brood comb comprises mostly old pupal casings so will give a tiny return of wax, it smells disgusting when it's heated and will taint the wax. Would it be better used as fire-lighters?

It's no longer considered a good idea to lay out extracted frames for the bees to clean up, nor is it sensible to leave out drone brood for wild birds or poultry to eat - even though I've done so in the past. This is simply because it's impossible to control the number of visitors from other colonies. A quick check on Beebase will tell most beekeepers that there are at least 100 registered apiaries within a 10km radius of their own apiary site - that's apiaries, not individual colonies. Unregistered and feral colonies cannot be counted.

Please, never buy honey to feed bees, not even if there's a convincing argument that it's the 'natural' thing to do - foulbrood spores can be transferred from jar to hive. It's better, and safer, to either make syrup using white sugar or buy baker's fondant or a more expensive commercial syrup.

In Britain "open feeding" is not good practice - an open food source will attract bees from miles around; not only can this spread disease, but it can lead to robbing, which is nasty for the home colony.

Give syrup using an internal feeder of whatever design is preferred, and try not to spill any on the ground because it will attract bees. For the same reason, put wet cappings in a plastic box or feeder tray inside a super or eke, and make sure the whole lot is protected from the outside by a closed crownboard.

If just one colony needs feeding it should be done at dusk, or as late in the day as is practical for the beekeeper. This will reduce the incidence of robbing because any residual smell will have gone by the morning.

For autumn or spring feeding, or during a dearth, it's best to feed all colonies in an apiary on the same day.

Storing equipment
In an ideal world we would all have a massive beeproof shed or workshop where we can store boxes and frames during autumn and winter. The reality, especially here in Britain where space can be quite tight, is that boxes containing empty comb tend to be stacked outside.

Raise the stack above ground (and potential water) level on a couple of bearers - fence posts on top of breeze blocks, or a pallet or two, will do. Make sure these stacks of boxes are bee and rodent proof by standing them on a solid crown board, then a metal queen excluder to keep out the mice and shrews. Top the stack with the same, and a roof. Cold won't do any harm, in fact sub-zero winter temperatures will kill wax moth eggs and larvae.

Buying second hand equipment
There's nothing wrong with buying second hand equipment, it's how a lot of beekeepers start out, but before taking it anywhere near the apiary please, for the bees' sake, clean it very carefully. Some equipment can be run through the dishwasher, but hives and larger hive parts need to be cleaned as suggested above.

Some beekeepers still swear by scorching (carefully burning the top layer of wood with a small blow torch), but it's difficult to heat propolis enough to make it sink deep into corner joints - there's too much wood for the heat to penetrate without either burning the timber or damaging, and weakening, the joints.

If in doubt soak in bleach as recommended by FERA and then rinse. If still unsure, and the outlay hasn't been too great, have a bonfire!

And finally : -

The thing most beekeepers seem to dread is finding evidence of foulbrood.

If, during an inspection, possible symptoms of either European or American Foulbrood are seen, please don't go into a flat spin and panic.

Do not feel ashamed - disease happens!

Don't immediately rush around closing all the hives - there's no point.
  • The disease won't have arrived and spread on the same day as the inspection, it will have been simmering in the background for some time. 
  • During the inspection bees will be in the air and, of course, because it's daytime there will be plenty of bees out foraging for nectar, pollen, propolis and water - these bees need to be able to get back inside their hive.
  • If you do close up your hive your colony could overheat and die whilst waiting for somebody to inspect. If negative, all those bees will have died for nothing other than you being scared of foulbrood.
The first thing to do is contact the nearest RBI or your club's Bee Health Advisor (if the local BKA has one) and do not close the hive entrance unless you are advised to do so. Remember those foraging bees? - They shouldn't be left scrambling to get into another hive or a nearby apiary because their front door has been closed.

It's very much up to the beekeeper whether they wash and sterilise all their kit overnight, ready to inspect their apiary again when help arrives, there's no real reason why it can't be left until afterwards. It runs against the whole spirit of this article, but wearing the same kit to inspect the same bees the next day really won't make much difference - but if foulbrood is confirmed, please be sure to clean the whole lot very carefully before visiting another apiary.

The RBI, SBI or BHA will inspect as soon as they can, and will advise the next course of action if any. They are there to help, not punish.


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