With the temperature relentlessly around zero, the word “scorching” is clearly unrelated to today’s weather forecast.

Well, it is and it isn’t. This frosty time of year is ideal for a belt and braces cleansing of empty beehives. This can be accomplished by immersing the hive parts in a lye (sodium hydroxide) solution, or for smaller scale beekeepers, by using a blow-torch to singe the interior crevices and wide surfaces of brood and super boxes. That’s where the scorching comes in. Here I am, spring-cleaning a hive which I have just started to manage.

The technique is simple: the wood should be lightly browned, never burnt, by a close, low-level pass over it with the searing butane/propane flame. This destroys pathogens, fungal spores and eggs and larvae of wax moths and other pests. Any residual propolis or wax is turned into varnish on the wood, its colour toasting under the flame. It is a fast, efficient method of sterilization and only occasionally acutely painful to the fingers. Here’s a ten-second scorching close-up on the rim of a crownboard. It is very loud !

You will be thinking, as I did, when I first was introduced to this technique: “Hang on!”. We beekeepers use smoke to subdue our bees by prompting a reflex action in their behaviour: as creatures which spent millions of years as woodland creatures, using hollows in trees as their hives, bees are very sensitive to smoke. And as we humans have observed: “There’s no smoke without fire”.

The bees are downwind of that wisdom. At the first whiff of smoke, they ransack their honey stores, ingesting as much of that vital energy source as possible, prior to fleeing the flames which would destroy them. With the honey safely stowed in their stomachs (up to half their body weight, no less!), the bees can leave the fire-trap and find a new home, using the energy from the honey to generate the wax needed to form the honeycomb which acts as the bees’ nursery, larder, living-quarters and dance-floor.

So doesn’t that mean that the bees very nervous of a recently scorched cedar box? In practice, it’s no bother. That’s because the scorching, carried out after a thorough scraping of wax, propolis and general debris off the wood surfaces, still manages to burn a little bit of those bee-friendly materials into the grain of the wood, adding a homely fragrance for new residents. And also because all forest fires spare some trees – providing a small supply of very good hollows. There is a difference in the bee-brain between active, swirling smoke and a gently charred, sanitized wooden residence – indeed, it seems that a little lightly-charred wood brings a sparkle to the eye of a bee estate agent.

So while the world shivers in mid-winter, we beekeepers can honestly say: “It’s been  a scorching day”.

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