Skip to main content
American Bee Journal

Beekeeping Basics – March 2024 Good, Old-fashioned Spring Cleaning — with a Lye Bath

By March 25, 2024No Comments

getting hives readyI had a good laugh last month when I looked at the calendar and saw the most horrible winter weather forecasts I’ve seen in a decade. The joke was on me — here, I had been writing about “mild winters” and “Super El Nino,” banking on unseasonably warm weather like it was a sure thing. But I’m very grateful for the good, old-fashioned winter. It’s hard on beehives, yes, but harsh polar vortices bring some of us a comforting feeling about climate change — the hope that we may stave it off in time to keep the young generation from facing a world with more problems than we have now.

Concerning bees, this good, old-fashioned winter may yield more deadouts than we had planned. It’s always a great disappointment to lose colonies to the extreme cold, but positive thinking means looking on the bright side. Colony loss gives us vacant equipment and drawn comb for survivor splits and swarm catching, as well as an opportunity to easily change out old bottom boards and replace rickety old hive stands with sturdier ones.

Cleaning up deadouts is not a dreaded beekeeping tradition for me, but the start of my season’s activities. On a beautiful day, I’m outdoors rounding up vacant hives, sprucing up survivors and their habitat. On a cold, rainy day, I’m down in my workshop in the basement, wiring wax foundation into frames. But what about all those “in-between” days? I love icky in-between days in the early spring for one special tradition in particular — one that’s been handed down to me from my dearest, wisest mentors: boiling out deadout boxes and frames in a lye water bath. Boiling out woodenware is something I try to do at least one night or one weekend every year.

Hive Boil-out Day is a celebration of the cycle of life in beekeeping, an engagement with timelessness. Standing over a cauldron of steam, a log fire rolling at your feet, with the sound of migrating warblers and chickadees in the crisp air, you can imagine yourself as one of your ancestors of hundreds of years past, working with the simplest of elements — water, fire, wood, ash, wax, and lye.

Boiling out hives is a trademark of good beekeeping. Thinking back on my years of annual boiling, I’m reminded of the great company I’ve had. My first mentor Ken Schaefer invited me to my first boil-out afternoon at his clubhouse. We stood around the fire, spinning bee yarns, of which his were especially fun, as his bees have always kept him on his toes, sometimes driving him to jump into his pond to escape their wrath. His minimal boil-out setup was a reminder that some of the best beekeeping gear is made from familiar farm-found materials. For his setup, we used two 55-gallon barrels with the top third cut off, side by side atop stands of welded scrap iron.

I have the fondest memories of other boil-out days from long ago when I was joined by some of the retired apiary inspectors from my area. Udell Meyer, a plumber who moonlighted as an apiary inspector, came to a boil-out I held for the local bee club. It was such a yucky day — the perfect day to gather ‘round the fire. This was the christening of an exceptional boiling tank crafted by the ever-handy Chuck Leitner, another retired inspector and expert beekeeper, gardener, and mentor to so many. Chuck’s impeccable apiary, and its flashy, unique sources of bee forage, also doubled as a produce garden. He kept a hand-painted sign out at the road: “Honey. Tomatoes.” It brought a bit of traffic to his pine-lined drive, up to his museum-perfect workshop which always featured a nifty antique John Deere tractor he was restoring to a gold standard. His craftsmanship couldn’t be beat.

For our local beekeepers club, Chuck fashioned a boiling tank from a barrel just like Ken Schaefer, but he laid it on its side, and cut it in half. He welded a fantastic angle-iron stand to hold it up two and a half feet from the ground — plenty of room to easily keep a wood fire burning beneath it all day. The advantage of the horizontal barrel boiler was that it could fit two deeps side by side, or two shallows stacked on top of each other side by side.

Also always in my heart is an especially fond memory of the boil-out day I had with my dear friend and neighbor John Accornero, who taught me about “natural beekeeping” and populated my neighborhood with a legacy of his treatment-free survivor stock, which he let swarm into nature year after year for decades. John used two ancient butcher kettles, some of the first survival equipment his family procured when they settled on their farm. We boiled late into the night, swapping opposing ideologies with open minds. This time together with these mentors was a gift to my beekeeping, as I was able to absorb so much knowledge from them while being productive, standing around a fire. Thankfully, Ken Schaefer is alive and well and still generous with his time, mentoring new beekeepers, but the other mentioned mentors have departed.

Out here on my farm, boiling out is often a peaceful and solitary pursuit. My boiling tank is a prized possession stationed permanently and prominently in the yard. I was so fortunate that it was passed down to me. I think I paid $25 for it. I picked it up from my friend Lonnie Langley and luckily Tim Lindley, an Illinois beekeeper famously known as “Big T,” helped load it onto my husband’s truck. I’ll never forget that moment I came to understand how well Tim’s nickname fit him as I watched him pry the hulking steel pipe stand from the frozen early March mud. I am in awe of the strength of some men! I’d say I don’t know how we lifted the boiling tank onto the truck bed, but I know it was thanks to Big T.

I am so lucky to have this boiling tank, the finest I’ve ever used. It’s a heavy-duty 80-gallon rectangular fuel tank with the side cut out of it, nesting in a welded stand of oilfield pipe, ¾-inch sucker rod, and some 2-inch angle iron.

As winter tiptoes into spring, my beekeeping traditions whisper warmly in my mind, nudging me to check the forecast. On a beautiful day, I begin my forensic work, gathering up samples to send to the Beltsville Bee Lab. I collect deadout bees in a sample bottle for a nosema screening. I might also send a small brood comb sample if I suspect a deadout had been exposed to European foulbrood, but honestly, if I have that suspicion, those boxes are automatically slated for boiling. I can’t stand any EFB in my bee yards. So in confidence, I boil out any equipment in question.

“Nothing can survive a lye water bath! Not American foulbrood, not European foulbrood — nothing,” Chuck Leitner used to say. I’ve found this to be true. So I also feel safe when I get the occasional phone call, “I’ve got this old equipment, are you interested?” I’ll scrape used equipment down and boil it out too. I would never use or share someone else’s used equipment without running it through a lye bath first.


Where do you get the lye?
Lye is sodium hydroxide, a caustic inorganic compound. On the pH scale, it sits at the alkaline end, exactly opposite from sulfuric acid, or ….

The post Beekeeping Basics – March 2024 Good, Old-fashioned Spring Cleaning — with a Lye Bath appeared first on American Bee Journal.

UOVBA News Bot

Author UOVBA News Bot

More posts by UOVBA News Bot