Sharing more than extractors

Since I wrote the post “The Great Extractor Debate,” several beekeepers have reminded me that a borrowed extractor can be a source of disease. They are absolutely right.

American foulbrood is the disease most commonly associated with used equipment. The disease is caused by the bacterium, Paenibacillus larvae, which is passed from hive to hive as a spore.

Once a spore enters a hive, it is eaten by a young larva along with its food of nectar, honey, and pollen. Inside the midgut of the larva, the spore germinates and the bacterium uses the larva as its own food. After the larval cell is capped by the worker bees, the bacterium produces many spores before it dies. Some estimates put the number of spores produced per larva at 2.5 billion.

When the worker bees attempt to remove the dead larva and clean out the cell, they end up spreading the spores throughout the hive, including the honey supers. Robbing bees and drifting bees carry the spores to other hives, and beekeepers may spread the spores with their hands and tools.

Clean shared extractors carefully

The spores are extremely resistant to heat, dryness, and many chemicals, so a used extractor that is not thoroughly cleaned can easily spread spores to the next beekeeper. This, in itself, is not a danger to humans because the pathogen has no effect on humans. However, should a beekeeper feed any of his contaminated honey to his bees, he can introduce the disease into a once-healthy apiary.

A used extractor—or any other tool—has to be more than visually clean because the spores are so small and well-protected. The recommended treatment is removal of all debris followed by soaking in a solution of household bleach and water.

The cleaning is important because unless the bleach is in direct contact with the spores, it won’t kill them. For this reason, bleach will not work on infected wooden products because the spores may be well-protected between the wood fibers.

Also, if you use a stronger bleach solution, less soaking time is required. But a stronger solution is harder on the equipment, especially the metal parts, of which there are many in an extractor.

It is all a balancing act. In short, if you share an extractor, the best protocol is to keep your honey for human use and do not feed any of it to bees.


Honey flowing from an extractor. Keep shared extractors especially clean.

Is your honey disease free? Photo © Blumenbiene.


  • Great article Rusty, especially if your local bee club or association rents out extractors. It might be prudent to also clean them before and after you use them.

    Yes, feeding honey to a bee from an unknown hive is always a very bad thing to do.

    It makes me cringe when I read about someone on Twitter or Facebook feeding bees honey, because they look hungry. I heard of someone the other day mixing water and honey and spraying the fruit tree to attract bees!!!!

    Wow, the bees will find the nectar themselves; please people don’t feed honey to bees unless you know the source is AFB/EFB free.


  • Hi Rusty,

    Good read . . . I learn something every time I visit your website! Question for you . . . I am a new beekeeper and have 2 hives. I harvested 2 mediums from my strong hive and would like to give the 3rd medium from the strong hive back to the girls in that hive. It is 70% capped and was wondering how to feed it back . . . just leave it on the hive? Uncap a a frame or 2 at a time and feed it back inside a hive body? Probably need to go down to 2 deep configuration some time this fall, right? There are still a ton of bees in this hive so I am not sure when to drop down to 2 deeps. Your thoughts?



    • Hi Tommy,

      There are several things you can do, but I would not uncap it. It will keep better and not draw robbers as easily if it remains capped.

      If you want to save it for emergency rations, you can store it in the frames. Remove the frames from the hive, wrap them in plastic, freeze overnight to kill any wax moth eggs or larvae, and then just store them at room temperature still in the wrap. Then later, if they need food, you can give them a frame or two at a time.

      Or you can just leave the super in place all winter and the cluster will move up into the super when they need the food.

      Or, if you want them to move the honey down into the main hive bodies, put an inner cover with a central hole above the brood boxes and put the honey super on top of that. They will eventually move the honey down to the main hive, assuming there is room there to store it.

  • Thanks, Rusty! I was given the use of an extractor, and didn’t stop to think about sterilizing.

    This post raises another question. Heading into fall, I plan to store some capped frames as you recommend. Everyone I know has had, or heard of, bees starving in winter even with honey in the hive: one friend even has pictures, they’re heartbreaking.

    Is there a way to tell if this is going to be a problem? With a warm spell like we often get in January, is it possible to go in and rearrange frames to give them better access? I know enough not to split the brood nest, but could you put frames above the cluster? And the same would go for using stored frames – where’s the best place to put them?

    Thanks! We’re looking at a good goldenrod flow, and hoping it will see them all right this winter.


    • Nan,

      By all means, move frames of honey to a place where the bees will find them. If more people bothered to rearrange frames, fewer bees would die of starvation. Honey is best placed right beside the cluster if possible, and/or directly above the cluster. Honey bees are notoriously bad at moving laterally, although they will if conditions are right. They are better at moving up. What frequently happens is you get a cluster with empty frames on both sides. This leaves a blank space which they don’t cross even though there is honey a few inches on either side.

      Because heat rises from the cluster, I think it is a bit easier for them to go straight up because it is warmer. If you need them to move laterally, as in a top-bar hive, keeping the space immediately adjacent to the cluster full of honey will encourage them to move in that direction.

  • Thank you SO much!! Inspired by your post a year ago about fall inspection, my club is doing a workshop next week on winter preparedness. A speaker at our state meeting said that most colony losses happen over winter, and the one that’s most preventable is from starvation. We were going to mention the failure to feed during summer dearth, but we’ll be sure and include this too.

    This is for beginning beekeepers, and is aimed at preventing loss of beekeepers (from discouragement) as well as loss of colonies 😉 Your post was the basis for our outline, so extra thanks!


  • Rusty,

    I love your site. One questions about AFB from borrowed extractors. You say: if you share an extractor, the best protocol is to keep your honey for human use and do not feed any of it to bees. But can your extracted frames and wax get contaminated?
    Thank you,

    • Elinor,

      I would say it’s possible but not probable. Most often honey gets stuck near the seams in the metal and near the gate. The frames them selves don’t touch much honey unless the extractor is really dirty. Of course, if there is lots of AFB in an area, contamination is more likely.

  • I have an urgent question.

    Just how mobile are AFB spores. By that, I mean, once an infected hive has been burned, can a new hive go in the same place, if it’s a foot or so off the ground? Further, what are the dangers for new hives 10 feet away from the old spot?

    If you could answer, I would greatly appreciate it! Thanks!

    • Chuck,

      I’ve never heard of using the same spot being a problem. The only question is whether any spores were transmitted to other hives before you burned the bad one.

  • Thanks for your reply. No other hives affected. But I’ll tell you, the more I read about AFB, the more terrifying it seemed. The spores, I read, can live 40 or more years, they are almost impossible to kill outside of burning… I’m not exaggerating when I say thoughts of it kept me up nights!

    • Chuck,

      But think of it this way: You had one colony come down with it, but the rest didn’t. That shows it is containable.

  • On another subject, I set up two new hives this year from package bees and new foundation. One week in, and they are building out well. But it seems like all they are doing is storing nectar and a little pollen. I don’t see many eggs at all.

    In the past, I remember a lot more eggs before they really started storing nectar, and even that was in arcs above the brood. Is it different from year to year? Or should I really be expecting a lot more brood than I’m seeing?

    • Chuck,

      Queens are different, seasons are different. As long as she is laying some eggs, I think her pace will pick up.

  • I plan to use a friend’s extractor to pull some honey for my personal use. Can the spores transfer to my frames if there is any in it?

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