Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hive Tools: 101

Take a minute to consider the lowly hive tool. They are rarely discussed, yet they are one of the few basic tools (along with a veil and a smoker) that every single beekeeper requires regardless of comfort level or experience. It is more or less impossible to do any manipulation of your hives without one. Bees are remarkably good at gluing EVERYTHING together. In the week or two between inspections, your bees will seal every single crack with propolis. Inner and outer covers? Superglued. Hive bodies? Unified in stickiness. Frames? I've seen all ten frames hoisted out as a single unit. (Don't do this.) Without your trusty hive tool, you might get as far as seeing the bees fly in and out of the hive (which, for the record, is pretty enjoyable), but you won't get much further.

In the showcase: A variety of of hive tools!  Show us around the fabulous prizes, Becky!
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Hive tools are used for the following basic beekeeping tasks:
-Separating any and all woodenware.
-Scraping off propolis from said woodenware.
-Removing burr comb.
-Loosening and separating frames.
-Levering frames out of the hive.
-Squashing yellowjackets.
-Swordfights. (Don't do this either. You'll put out your eye.)

There are two main styles of hive tool and they are both good at doing these basic tasks. Most beekeepers prefer one or the other and I'm no exception, but I'll show both and let you make up your own mind.

The Splendid Standard Hive Tool
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The first is simply known as a hive tool. Honestly, it's little more than a hardware store scraper/nail puller, with a few key differences. The best ones are made from chromed spring steel (easy to clean and durable), painted a nice bright color so that you don't misplace it, and can be obtained from any beekeeping supply store for around 10 dollars. As you can see, one end features a curved nail puller, while the other end serves as a flat, sharpened scraper. These basic hive tools are cheap, simple and reasonably effective- most beekeepers have a few as spares. I have a couple, but I don't really like them. People use the curved end to remove frames from the hive, but since it's so wide and flat, it's pretty clumsy. To lift out a frame, you have to hook underneath it from the side, using the edge of the hive body as a fulcrum, which bows it outwards and puts lot of stress on the wood. I've seen an old hive body break under the strain, and it certainly tends to dent up the new-style polystyrene (foam) hive bodies.

The Magnificent Maxant Hook-end Hive Tool.
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The second is generally referred to as a hook-end hive tool. It was developed by Maxant specifically for beekeeping and is, in my opinion, the much better hive tool. It shares the wide, flat end for scraping and separating hive bodies with a regular hive tool, but swaps out the nail puller for a hooked frame lifter. That hook end is remarkably handy. After you use the flat end to separate a frame from its neighbor, you simply slide the hook under the edge and use the neighboring frame as a fulcrum to lift it out. Look at the picture below (which I blatantly appropriated from a British beekeeping site) to see what I mean.

You need a college degree to operate one of these puppies.
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I find it puts a lot less stress on the hive body and since it's so much narrower, you tend to crush fewer bees, which means a happier hive and fewer stings for you. I recommend them to everyone I see using the other style. They cost around 10-15 dollars, so it's a pretty solid investment that will help prolong the life of your hive bodies. There is a subset of the hook end tool known as the 'Italian' style hive tool. It's essentially the same thing, but 2-3 times as long and usually bright yellow. I think they're silly looking, but they might offer you additional leverage if your bees are propolis happy.

In any case, these things are cheap enough that you can justify buying one of each and seeing which one you prefer in practice. That way you'll have a spare to keep in your car or toolbox in case you forget your favorite.

If you forget both... well... at least you'll have a nice time watching your hives. Take the time to get to know your bees a bit better. It'll do the both of you good.

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