To separate bees from honey, you can use either physical or chemical means. You can divide the physical means into fast and expensive (bee blowers) or slow and inexpensive (bee escapes, including escape boards). You can further divide the slow and inexpensive types into those that work and those that don’t.
Chemical separation works fast
Chemical repellants (often called repellant boards, fume boards, or acid boards) are most often used by commercial beekeepers because they are quick, cheap, and require only one visit to the apiary. The chemical used (usually butyric propionic anhydride or benzaldehyde) is sprayed or sprinkled on an absorbent pad affixed to a board. Once prepared, the board goes over the top of the honey supers. In about five minutes, after the bees have left, you can remove the supers, bee-free.
These chemicals are toxic, temperature-dependent, excite the bees, and smell horrible. Your family may not let you back in the house after you’ve used this stuff. Worse, if used longer than about five minutes, the chemicals can impart off-flavors to the wax cappings, honey, or both. In my opinion, chemical repellants should not be used by hobbyists.
Physical separation takes longer
Bee blowers, aside from being expensive, can also be hard on the bees. If the outside temperature is cold, bees blown away may not be able to return home. In addition, you run the risk of blowing away your queen. If you own a leaf blower, you may want to try this method, but be careful about the air temperature and the whereabouts of your queen before you start.
Bee escapes come in dozens of designs although only a few are commonly available from the bee supply houses. If you like to build your own equipment, a quick search of the Internet can provide you with plans for the simple to the complex. All bee escapes work on the same principle: they provide one-way passages so that once the bees leave the super, they can’t find their way back in.
Bee escapes are mounted in or on boards known as “clearer boards” or “escape boards.” The board goes between the honey supers and the brood boxes. At night, when the temperature drops, the bees go through the escape and descend into the hive to form a cluster. In the morning, they can’t find their way back into the super.
Be careful when using bee escapes
Besides being a relatively slow process (usually 24 to 48 hours for complete removal of bees) the use of bee escapes requires caution:
- If left in the hive for more than about 48 hours, the bees will eventually learn their way back into the supers. Also, they may begin building bridge comb (burr comb) in or around the board.
- There can be no cracks, openings, or holes above the escape boards. Any holes will be used by returning foragers, robbers, or predators (yellowjackets) to get to the honey. If a robbing frenzy begins, the robbers may steal every bit of honey before the beekeeper returns.
- Although they are inexpensive, bee escapes usually require more than one day and more than one trip to the apiary.
The types most often seen in the beekeeping catalogs are the Porter bee escape and the triangle escape board. Although I try to keep an open mind about most pieces of equipment, I draw the line right here.
Some bees decline to squeeze through Porter escapes
The Porter bee escape costs almost nothing—and you get what you pay for: almost nothing. In fact, because bees seem to multiply behind the Porter escape, it is worse than nothing. For the life of me, I cannot get these things to work.
The Porter escape is a little plastic gadget that you insert in the hole of an inner cover. Then you take this modified inner cover, place it below the supers, and wait for the bees to leave. Be prepared to wait for a really long time. Start reading War and Peace. Better yet, write a sequel. Your bees will probably die before they decide to squeeze through that thing.
Some people say that you can take an inner cover and modify it to hold about six Porters. I’ve heard this works much better. But after you buy a cover and six Porters, you have spent more money than the cost of a really nice triangle escape board—which works like a dream.
Remember, the triangles go down
Although the triangle escape board works under the same principle, it is somehow more comfortable for the bees. I leave it on only one night. By the next day, there are never more than five or six bees left in the supers. Sometimes there are none. After years of using this thing, I wouldn’t do it any other way.
However, be aware that the side with the triangles and the screen goes down. The side with just a hole in the board goes up. Getting this part right is critical.
Tips for using any escape board
Here are some additional considerations for using escape boards of any type:
- Make sure there is space below the escape board for the bees to go. With a crowded hive, you may want to add an empty super (with frames) below the escape board.
- If there is any brood in the supers, the bees will stay with it. To get completely empty supers, make sure they contain no brood.
- If you are in a hurry, you can place a bottom board with a standard opening on a hive stand. On top of the bottom board, place your escape board. On top of that stack the supers from multiple hives. As mentioned earlier, make sure the stack contains no cracks, openings, or holes where robbers could enter. The bees will move down through the stack, through the escape board, and will eventually fly back to their respective hives, leaving the supers empty.
As you can there, there are many different ways to separate bees from their honey. Your choice will depend on your circumstances, but most people try a few different ways until they find the method that suits them best.
Honey Bee Suite
Here in the UK, Porter escapes are the most common. They DO work, but need adjusting every time they are used, and require constant cleaning.
I use the 8-way round escapes (see http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/8wayescapebd.html.) and they can clear a stack of 3 supers in 2-4 hours.
If you put wet supers back over the top of a (Canadian type) clearer board, the bees will find a way through, and clean the supers out like there is no tomorrow!
I used porters for years, then the triangle boards, and then the 4 sided board . The 4 sided board is superior and fun. It is a stampede as far as I can tell. 2 days works for me, no more no less. Usually only 6-10 bees left. Just make sure to have pencil width passages so there is no turning back.
Do you ever get fighting in your stack with supers from different colonies? I would think that combining all those bees together might result in some warfare.
Guard bees fend off intruders at the entrance, but once the bees get inside the hive they are generally accepted. In other words, they have made it past the border patrol so they must be okay. When you stack honey supers on a foreign colony, the bees are already inside the hive so fighting rarely occurs. Next time those bees are outside, they just fly home to their regular hive. The mixing of bees is especially easy when lots of bees are introduced at once because it is just too confusing for everyone to know who is an intruder and who belongs there.
If you are still uneasy with the concept, you can always stack the supers above the escape board on a completely empty hive. Once the bees go down through the escape board they will find nothing there and each will fly back to her own hive.
I have heard down here in Australia, that the SHB can infestate a super when using clearer boards once the bees have escaped to the lower boxes. Has anyone come across this situation or heard of this?
Cheers and merry xmas to all.
It wouldn’t surprise me. You should take off the supers as soon as the bees are out
I have read the use of bee escapes but i don’t know their cost. Please tell me their cost. I live in Kigali capital of Rwanda.I have a cooperative of beekeepers but all of us are beginners. We need your help.
Bee escapes, especially the small plastic “porter” type, are very inexpensive. However, I do not sell bee equipment.
You can easily make a triangle escape board out of a box-sized piece of plywood, two sets of spacers (1 bee-space thick x 3/4″ x a length that will make a large unilateral triangle), screen or hardware cloth to cover triangle and a border for the plywood to provide clearance over and under between the other boxes.
Drill a 1″ hole in the center of the plywood and lay out around this a large equilateral triangle. Cut the first set of spacers to this size, allowing an angled bee-space gap at each juncture. One bee-space inside of the first triangle, construct a smaller triangle with gaps that align with the first. Cover all with screen, attaching to the large triangle.
Attach spacer strips around the rim of the plywood, and that’s it. The theory is the bees leave the upper box through the hole and are directed to small escapes at the vertices some distance from the hole, when they try to return, they are drawn by the odor coming through the hole in the plywood and congregate there, never venturing out to the points of the triangle.
Nice instructions! Thanks.
Hi, small question. I have inherited my dad’s few colonies of bees (about 6 hives), and I need to move one of them to the site where the others are (it’s more then 3 miles away). I have limited experience with dealing with the bees themselves, all my experience is with the processing of the honey and wax afterwards.
I have all the equipment, but what is the best time of day to fit a bee escape? And I’m thinking it’s ok to clear down a couple of supers in one go rather then one at a time? Also, is it best to get them all into the brood box then move them or is it best to put a new super on the top? Also I’m not at a point at the moment to have the room to deal with extracting and all that, so when I move the hive, I can just put the original full supers back on for the moment?
Simple questions maybe, but would like to just check on all these things.
Many thanks 🙂
1. I don’t think it matters when you put the escape on. However, the bees usually won’t clear the supers until they cluster in the evenings. If it is very warm, sometimes they won’t clear for two or three days, so be patient.
2. Yes, you can clear a whole stack at once.
3. I would get them down to the smallest size possible before moving them; it is easier and you are less likely to get something out of alignment during the move. So yes, I would get them all into the brood box if possible.
4. Once you get them moved you can put the honey supers back in place.
Thanks for the advice. Another question: I remember my dad changing supers at nighttime sometimes. If all the bees are in the brood box, is it ok to remove supers at nighttime or at least fit clearer boards? Have plenty of lights where they are and also would be better for my work schedule. I’m thinking if that’s the case, then not to smoke them at night? I was really young when I remember him doing this, so don’t know how or why he was doing it at night.
I suppose the theory of doing it at night is all the bees will be clustered down below in the brood box instead of in the supers. But if it is very warm, they don’t cluster so much as hang around the hive wherever they can. I’ve had them spend two or three days in the supers before going down through the clearer board, so I suppose it will vary with temperature and other conditions.
I was always taught to add the clearer boards in the middle of the day when half the population is out foraging so you have fewer bees to deal with. On the other hand, it isn’t going to make any difference to the hive. You should do it at a time that suits you.
The same goes for smoke. Bees will fly out at night if they are disturbed, so if you normally use smoke you may want to use it at night as well. Maybe someone with nighttime experience will chime in here? Since I never use smoke, I’m biased against it.
Bah. I wish I’d read this *before* I bought a Porter bee escape and tried it. It’s been 48 hours and the population in the supers has decreased maybe by half. I guess it’s time to get out the bee brush 🙂
First year, first timer. I waited a season. I added the 8-way bee escape. Urban environment, Warre, minimal supplemental feeding, Italian. Well, it’s been two days. I’m checking on the third mid-day. I can’t wait’ It’s raining. It will be raining. There are so many bees I can believe. No way that box is cleared in just two days. I’m not sure where my percentage of cappings are, probably lucky. I’m a lucky dude, well see I probably could of waited more days till summers end but the weather is about to go bad, or worse.
If your supers are not clearing, you may have a queen or brood up there. I would look for that first. If any brood at all is in those supers, they will not clear.
You are right. I was stupid to not check first I i know for sure queen not up there. got about 4 whole solid frames capped then about 3 frames emerging brood like, popping out in my kitchen, and little nectar uncapped. It was raining, I just blew them off and dumped them by they hive, not cool. What was I thinking. I deserve a thousands stings.
It’s all part of the learning process.
I was thrilled to finally discover this post. Very straightforward and helpful – as usual! – especially the description of how and why the escapes work. I’ve always been stumped by the blithe statement to just “remove the honey supers” for various reasons. Mine are always full of bees. I used a stink board my first year’s harvest, having seen it demonstrated by a club member’s extraction tutorial in the field. Worked OK, but was kind of a nuisance, and required the use of a bee brush, too. I bought a Porter last year but ended up having no opportunity to try it (a bunch of long stories). Now I have a triangle escape on order.
Two typos persist in this old article. The stink method is described as being “spayed” on the pad 🙂 Secondly, the triangle escape paragraph has a subject-verb disagreement: “By the next day there is never more than five or six bees left” should be “. . . there are never more than five or six bees . . .”
I enjoy your writing for the humor and technical content, but also for your nitpicky attention to spelling and grammar. I ingrained this habit in my own daughter, and she occasionally gets in trouble for correcting her superiors.
Thanks for pointing out the errors. I fixed them.
Hi – Do you remove the queen excluder before placing the escape board?
Usually, not always.
I’ve been keeping bees for several years and somehow never learned how to use a bee escape! I saw Bob Binnie use one in one of his videos so I started researching how to use them! I love your advice on making the separate stack! Way better than taking them off and then putting them back on only to remove them again the next day! Thanks for the instructions!