4th Honey bee Management revision post: good apiary hygiene

A 4th revision post for the British Beekeeping Association’s Module 1 exam, Honey bee Management, which I’m taking in March. Skipping forward a little again, onto 1.9 on the syllabus:

“The Candidate shall be able to give a detailed account of:-

1.9: good apiary hygiene

This is one of the points I feel a little more confident of, because we are lucky enough to have fantastic teachers like John Chapple and Andy Pedley down at the apiary, and they often talk about good hygiene.

Why try to be hygienic? The answer is obviously to try to keep your bees as healthy as possible, and avoid the spread of diseases such as Nosema, European Foul Brood (EFB) and American Foul Brood (AFB). It can also help ensure your honey doesn’t become contaminated in any way.

Here are a few points to consider:


  • Bee suits

How clean is your bee suit? (Ask me this question and I’ll often start looking shifty). When did you last wash it? Your bee suit should be washed after each visit to the apiary (no, I don’t always do this. But I should). As well as being hygienic, washing your beesuit has the advantage of removing any alarm pheromones deposited by angry bees trying to sting you.

Bee suits can be washed in the washing machine with the veil removed. The more delicate veil can be soaked separately in washing soda, which is a mildly corrosive disinfectant and helps remove propolis. A solution can be made up by dissolving 0.5kg in a gallon of water.

Washing soda: the hygienic beekeeper’s best friend.

  • Gloves

New beekeepers are often sold long leather gloves – resist buying these! These are lovely and soft the first time you wear them, but soon get covered in propolis and become hard and stiff. They are also un-hygenic compared to disposable latex gloves, which are cheap and can even be obtained for free from petrol stations or hospitals (a tip from the money conscious local beekeepers I know!).

If you want extra protection the latex gloves can be worn over leathers. Our local bee inpector often does this.

  •  Boots

As you stomp through the apiary you are likely to put your boot in various sticky substances, so it’s a good idea to wash wellies or other footwear in soapy water. (I wish I could say I do this).

  • Personal hygiene

(This section has been added following the comment left below by Mike Mack, who suggested talking about beekeepers personal hygiene too.)

Bees are extremely sensitive to smell; indeed smells, in the form of pheromones, are a crucial way of communicating for them. So one way to avoid upsetting the bees and getting a few unwelcome stings in the process is to have a good wash first. But don’t put on perfumes or aftershave. Certain fabrics are smellier than others too – Mike mentions the bees not liking leather or wool in his experience. A plain light coloured cotton beesuit is best.

I like to dab on a little clove oil first as I read somewhere the bees like this smell. It seems to work and has the added advantage that I smell like apple pies all day.

Don’t drink alcohol before you go to the bees. This might sound obvious, but a lot of things that are obviously a bad idea when sober suddenly seem like a fantastic idea after a drink or two. How else do you explain the Irishman who came home after a few beers and decided the early hours of the morning was a good time to try to climb up a ladder with his beehive and put it on his roof? If only he’d known that bees don’t go to sleep..

Good habits within the apiary

  • Anything taken or scraped out of your hive, even a little bit of comb or wax, should be disposed of properly and not flicked willy nilly onto the apiary floor. Comb left on the floor encourages the wax moth and robbing by other bees. Bring a container or bag of some sort with you, perhaps a plastic takeaway box, and put any brace comb etc to be discarded within it as you go through the hive.

Often infectious diseases are spread not by the bees but by the beekeeper, perhaps via a hive tool, or by gloves, or by moving frames between colonies.

  • Ideally you should soak your hive tool in a bucket of washing soda solution in-between visiting each hive, or use a separate tool for each hive. In the apiary Andy and John try to discourage us from using our own hive tools in each other’s hives.
  • Frames should not be moved to another colony unless you are confident that both colonies are disease free.
  • Whilst inspecting avoid placing frames or supers directly on the ground or grass to prevent any chance of the honey or wax becoming contaminated.
  • If a colony dies seal up the hive and move away from live hives who might try to rob it out and pick up disease in the process. Burn the brood frames and dead bees.

Apiary layout

  • Sometimes worker bees can spread infection by drifting into one hive from another (drones do pay visits to other hives but not much can be done about this). To try and minimise drifting by the workers, arrange the hives to help bees easily find their own colonies. The entrances should face in different directions and be spaced well apart –  at least 1.2-1.5 metres is recommended. Different colour hives can help too.

Housing swarms and unknown bees

Be wary of swarms. As noted in my previous ‘how to begin beekeeping‘ revision post, they may carry disease. Occasionally they may not even be a swarm in the usual sense – bees from colonies infested with varroa have been known to abscond and find a new nesting area.

  • A swarm should be housed away from other colonies at first and monitored for any signs of disease. Keep in isolation until the health of the brood can be assessed.
  • It helps the colony if you feed them a weak sugar solution, but wait 48 hours until wax-building and foraging are under way before feeding. This ensures that any disease contaminated honey brought in the bees’ honey stomachs is used as energy for wax secretion and not stored in the frames.

Comb replacing

You wouldn’t lie in the same unwashed stinky bedsheets for several years running…

  • Brood frames should be regularly replaced – ideally annually. Nosema spores, bacteria and other pathogens can build up in comb and act as a source of infection. AFB spores are extremely resistant to ageing, heating and chemicals and infection can be carried within comb for as long as thirty-five years (Ted Hooper, Guide to Bees & Honey). 

You can tell when comb is old as it appears dark brown or even black in colour. A good rule of thumb is to hold the frame up to the light; it should be replaced if light cannot be seen through it (Aston & Bucknall, Keeping Healthy Honey Bees). The brood comb below looks pretty old.

In the Ealing apiary we replace all our brood comb each spring, either by doing a shook-swarm or the more gradual Bailey comb exchange. An even more gradual (but not as effective) method is to just replace a few frames each year and colour code your frames using the WYRGB queen marking colour codes to keep track of how old the frames are.

  • Money conscious beekeepers can destroy the comb in the frames and boil the woodwork in washing soda solution before reusing. Personally I would rather just pay the 80p or so for a new frame! But then I only have two hives. The comb should be burnt in a bonfire or thrown away in sealed domestic rubbish bags to prevent bees being attracted to the combs and possibly picking up diseases from them.
  • The brood boxes should be scorched inside with a blowtorch until the wood begins to singe coffee-brown, paying particular attention to the corners and crevices.
  • Super frames with clean unbroken comb which has not had any brood in can be reused for several years. Keeping the super frames saves the bees the effort of rebuilding the wax, letting them get on with honey production. However the frames should be stored carefully to avoid damage by wax moth or mould.

Frame storage

  • A good way to store super frames overwinter is to stack outside with a queen excluder on the bottom and another on top as a crown board below the roof. This allows air to circulate whilst keeping out mice and preventing mould. Spiders can get through to control wax moth, which should also be killed off by winter freezes.
  • If you are storing brood frames, these are more attractive to wax moths so you need to be more careful. Put the frames in a freezer for 5 days to kill off any hiding moths, then return outside and seal the boxes containing the combs. Sulphur dioxide strips, Certan spray and Acetic acid can be used to sterilise comb and control wax moth.
  • PDB (paradichlorbenzene) should not be used to control wax moth as it can accumulate in wax and transfer to honey. Neither should moth balls or any product containing naphthalene as they are poisonous to bees.

(Reference: Module 1 Study Notes, Mid Bucks Beekeeping Association)

What you’re trying to avoid – the slimy mess caused by wax moth larvae travelling through comb, excreting black mess as they feed. Photo from article by London Honey Shop – “Wax moth infestation – 5 ways to prevent this“.


  • Don’t leave a pile of honey frames out in the middle of the apiary for bees to clean up after your honey extracting. It gets the honey cleared off but it also encourages robbing frenzies and the spread of disease. Only feed bees back their own honey within their own hive, not imported honey or honey from other colonies.


  • Keep records of what you’re doing each week, especially after doing treatments. In the UK beekeepers are required by law to keep records of all substances they use to treat honey bee colonies for disease, including: the name of the product/substance used, manufacturer name, lot/batch number, expiry date, rate of application of the product, start and end time of the treatment period, how the treatment and packaging were disposed of. This is in case any concerns are raised about honey or other products from the treated hive.

Emma and I have paper records in the hive, which have the advantage that other people can see what we’ve been doing if we’re away on holiday.  For this year I have purchased a Beecraft ring binder and record card set, which will keep the record cards nicely clean and neat. I like having the blog as an electronic record too, as taking two buses to a dark apiary isn’t too convenient on a cold winter’s evening when I want to remember what I did this time last year.

Does anyone have any hygienic tips they want to share to help me pass my exam? I’d love to hear them.


  • Collin’s Beekeeper’s Bible (2010)
  • Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper (2010)
  • Keeping Bees and Making Honey, Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum (2008)
  • Keeping Healthy Honey Bees, David Aston & Sally Bucknall (2010)
  • Module 1 Study Notes, Mid Bucks Beekeeping Association

Other Module 1 revision posts:

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
This entry was posted in Colony management, Exams and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to 4th Honey bee Management revision post: good apiary hygiene

  1. hencorner says:

    Morning Emily!
    Another fab post…
    I was given a new book for Christmas which I’m finding really helpful:
    ‘Keeping Bees, Looking after an Apiary’ Vivian Head.
    It’s smaller and easier to curl up with on a cold winter evening than the Collins Beekeeper’s Bible (last’s night book at bedtime!).
    Thanks for all the help & encouragement that your blog brings!


    • Emily Heath says:

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list. I like the Collins Beekeeper’s Bible but it’s not very easy to take on the bus either!

      Emily x


  2. mike mack says:

    How about talking a little about beekeepers personal hygine in the apiary?Bees don’t react well to bad body odor.Shower first,brush your teeth but on the other hand don’t smell too good either. Avoid using cologne ,perfumes or scented hairsprays. In my experience, bees don’t like the smell of leather or wool as the material retain body odor. Disposalable latex gloves work well.
    Lastly, I remove all rings and jewelry before going into the apiary . My mentor had to have his wedding ring cut off after he got a sting on his ring finger. Not a happy camper.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Hi Mike,

      That’s an excellent suggestion. I’ll add a section on beekeepers hygiene to the post. I put a couple of dabs of clove oil on before I go to the bees as I read somewhere they react well to the smell of cloves – I smell like apple pie all day!



  3. pixilated2 says:

    This is an awesome resource! Thanks for sharing! I will be bookmarking this page for reference later.
    ~ Lynda


  4. Mil says:

    Very comprehensive. Thank you.

    I’m wishing that I had marked our frames so we would know how old the comb is. As is, we’ve been knocking out old comb and sending it to the solar wax melter for use outside the hive.

    Also, I have been known to wash my leather gloves in the machine. I don’t put it through the dryer, though, I leave them out to dry naturally. I’m sure that will dry out the gloves sooner, but I like having cleaner gloves.


  5. daveloveless says:

    Good suggestion on the gloves. I’ve noticed how my gloves are getting quite sticky and stiff. I do have a mild allergic reaction (I swell pretty badly around the sting), so the surgical gloves over the top would probably be a good solution for me.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Make sure you take all your rings off before beekeeping! I’m going to be checking that extra carefully after reading Mike’s comment above about his mentor needing his wedding ring cut off. I think swelling up around the sting is quite normal, I do lots anyway. Hoping not to get stung under the eye this year!


  6. I love this post!! Things you really know you should be doing, but hope they aren’t that important.. 🙂

    I’m going to print it out and study it carefully.


  7. I’m glad you like it!! You have inspired me to enroll in the Master Beekeeping Program here in Ohio. 🙂
    I’m really impressed you replace your comb every year!! I couldn’t stop thinking about it today. We replace every three years or so….


    • Emily Heath says:

      Wow, that is exciting that you’re doing the program! Let us know how it goes.

      It’s quite easy to replace all your comb when you only have two hives and a nice beekeeping partner who helps you make up frames. I appreciate that it might get a little more time consuming and expensive when you have twenty…


  8. I only have two, so I don’t have any excuse. 🙂 I thought I’d start gradually replacing frames in my older hive this year. But I’m like you, I can hardly bear to throw out brood. They’re like my babies!!


  9. Reblogged this on Romancing the Bee and commented:
    I started my own post on apiary hygiene, but then decided this one was so much better! This is great advice for all beekeepers!


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