At first I thought this story was unusual. Debbie, a newer beekeeper who reported the incident to me, explained that she accompanied a seasoned beekeeper to his apiary to learn about applying oxalic acid with a vaporizer.
Here is her story, edited for brevity:
The one hive caught fire. It was hectic trying to get the boxes apart and watering the hive down to stop the flames. The flames were shooting out everywhere. I don’t know if the bees will be able to recover or not. He would not permit me to clean up the hive; he just put the hive back together, dead bees and all, and said the bees will fix the hive.
This is not how I do things, and I probably will not go with this person ever again. It was disturbing to me. If it was my hive, I would have cleaned it out, checked [to see] if the queen was still alive, etc. [I would] not just shut it up and leave the bees devastated as they were.
What else I didn’t like is…the bees continued to “attack” this poker and thus burn themselves up.…When you take the poker out, there are several bees on the end of the poker burnt to a crisp.
We did 35 hives and all did the same thing. Some ran out of the hive so fast, it wasn’t even funny. [The bees] actually “attack” the rod [when] it’s hot, touch it, and the end just burns them up. I even asked the guy about why he thought the bees would attack something so hot.
The vapors will knock you out. The one guy I went with got a good whiff, and I had to catch him; he almost fell over. I think one is supposed to wear a respirator, as breathing in these fumes causes one to cough and gag, and inside it probably does more harm to the lungs. I tried to watch the way the wind was blowing and then stand on the other side.
Solutions to torching and scorching
Based on Debbie’s comments, I did a web search and learned that torching a hive with a vaporizer is not uncommon. In addition, many who don’t actually ignite the hive manage to scorch the frames and burn some bees. It seems that burr comb hanging down below the frames is the main problem. Such wax is easily lit by the hot metal vaporizer and explodes into flame.
Beekeepers have devised a number of solutions to these problems:
- Some have found that using a slatted rack below the brood boxes increases the distance from the lower frames and accumulated burr combs, thus reducing the fire hazard.
- Other beekeepers put a narrow three-inch shim on the top of the hive that contains an opening large enough to accept the vaporizer. This reduces the fire danger because there is no wax comb above the hot plate.
- Some people wrap the sides and bottom of the vaporizer with aluminum foil, a system that dissipates heat and keeps the hottest parts away from flammable objects.
- Some simply clear the burr comb away from the insertion area with an extra long hive tool.
My sexist remark for the day is this: I know that a man—a male human—invented the vaporizer. It is so man-like to want big, powerful, macho equipment to do a wee little job. More power. More complexity. More hazards. Yay! One guy told me, “Some catch fire. So what? It is what it is.”
Whatever happened to the dribble method?
I learned to dribble oxalic acid from Randy Oliver’s website. Before my first application, I stalled around forever, obsessing over how to do it properly. Then I saw the video of Margaret Cowley of Bee Craft Magazine applying an oxalic acid dribble to her bees. She made it so drop-dead simple that all my hesitation disappeared. And it truly is as easy as it looks.
With the dribble method, there is no fire danger, no expensive equipment, no batteries to haul around, and no respirator needed. It is fast, dirt cheap, and it works. The biggest drawback, apparently, is that it doesn’t look very macho.
The vapor method works because the vapor condenses on the bees. The dribble method works because bees communicate and groom by touching each other. They quickly spread the stuff around the hive.
Endless discussion has centered around which is better, which is safer for the bees, which kills more mites, and on and on. You can find research and arguments to support either side. The latest research I read suggests that vapor may be slightly more efficacious. But my opinion is the slight benefit is offset by the many negatives.
Winter application of oxalic acid
One common argument for vapor is that you want to apply oxalic acid when little or no brood is present. That means you need to apply it in the dead of winter when it’s too cold to open the hives. But with a few exceptions for particularly cold places, I don’t see much problem with opening a hive for a couple of minutes in winter.
The main danger with opening a hive in winter is chilling the brood. But the whole point of applying oxalic acid in winter is to use the broodless window to kill the most mites. So with no brood in the hive to start with, a couple minutes of open time will not hurt anything. In addition, those of you with infrared imagers can apply oxalic especially fast because you know where the colony is before you open the hive.
Vaporizers are the current “bee thing”
I completely understand that some of you are not concerned with toasting a few bees. I get that. But setting a hive ablaze should be a financial concern, if nothing else. Additionally, using a vaporizer in areas of extreme drought sounds foolhardy at best.
My personal dislike of vaporizers has more to do with the accumulation of stuff. I try to “travel light” and I resist purchasing specialty equipment when I can do the job with the tools I have. But regardless of your personal preference, I offer Debbie’s story as a warning about the things that can go wrong. Bottom line: If you vaporize, do it with care.
More on the dribble method
For more on the dribble method see “How to apply an oxalic acid dribble.” For Margaret Cowley’s video, see “Oxalic acid trickling.” Another good demonstration video can be found on Emily Scott’s blog, “Drizzling oxalic acid on bees.”
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