honey bee management honey production how to

The secret to brushing bees safely

An orange-handled bee brush. Always use a bee brush carefully

Use bee brushes with caution. Never scrub bees and don’t brush down against uncapped combs.

Beekeepers who do not use fume boards or bee escapes often brush the bees from each frame before extracting. This works if the brush has long, soft bristles and the beekeeper has a delicate touch.

Brushing bees can look easy, but developing the right technique requires some knowledge of wax combs.

If you look at a honeycomb from the end, you will see that the cells on both sides of the comb angle upward. The angle varies among colonies, but it ranges from about 9 to 14 degrees from the horizontal. This shallow V is deep enough to keep liquid nectar from running out of the cells before the bees have time to cure it.

Brushing bees against angled comb can injure them

As long as you work completely capped combs, the brush is safe in any direction. But if some of the cells are not capped, the bees’ legs and wings can become jammed against the angled-up comb when you brush down.

Not only can legs and wings tear off, but delicate bee bodies can be damaged as they scrape against the irregular surfaces of the combs. It’s like sanding a piece of wood against the grain or stroking a cat in the wrong direction. Instead of smooth and silky, it is rough and ragged.

An easy fix for brushing bees

To avoid damaging bees, simply turn your frames upside down before you brush. The bees will drop off all of a piece and the job is quick and easy with few losses. If you don’t want to invert your frames, just brush up instead of down.

Some beekeepers brush at an angle, a technique that works well for many, given a little practice.

Always flick, never scrub

Regardless of where you are using a bee brush, always flick the bees off the surface. You should never use a bee brush like a floor mop to scrub the bees away. Nothing could be more treacherous.

if you gently flick the bees off the frames instead of scrubbing them, the bees will leave and they will be healthy enough to return. It’s all in the wrist—several quick flicks will do the job.

Using a specially made bee brush is also a good idea. Although paint brushes are popular, the bristles are generally too short and stiff to be safe for bees. Do your bees a favor and buy the real thing.

Rusty Burlew
Honey Bee Suite

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  • Ever since I started using a feather (that I’ve attached to a carpenter’s pencil in order to make it more robust and less likely to blow away), I’ve had much better success with brushing. I can also be very accurate in where I brush and it’s easy to get into tight quarters to coax bees to where I want them to be or not be.

  • I just harvested today and thought about how I brush them off after reading this post. Turns out I brush diagonally from bottom left to top right, so I haven’t had much trouble. Either lucky or happy instinct 🙂 I also learned early on that a quick flick got them less upset. Thanks for the tips!

  • This is a great tip. A begining bee keeper like me would never think of this but it only makes sense when you stop to think about it. Phil

  • A great tip, never thought about it but it does make sense. I too do it at an angle but will try upside down next time. I agree with the feather comment too. I got geese so I could have a good flight feather for each hive minimising the cross infection issue 🙂

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m sitting by my wood stove, soaking in the warmth on this 19-degree Shenandoah Valley VA night, and hoping the girls are staying warm out in the snow!

    I’d like to ask a couple of questions. I debated whether to scrap the snow off the front of my hives this morn, especially after noting it had frozen and was keeping the reduced entrance completely shut. I had to use my hive tool to knock the ice pretty hard. How much does this bother the bees? I assume it is necessary to allow air circulation into the hive, as well as keep the moisture from melting back inside.
    My second question is related to using the bee brush. I added a sugar block to one hive a couple of days ago when it was 65 degrees (yes, quite a quick change!) There were many bees on the top of the frames, and I had trouble getting them to move so I could place the sugar block. I tried using the brush but a bunch of them just clung to the bristles. I ended up using some smoke, which I really didn’t want to do.

    • Sandi,

      If you lower it slowly, the bees will move out of the way. Or you can put one end down and brace the other end on a stick or piece of wood, so the bees can crawl out from under it.

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