Updated on September 11th, 2022
In addition to protective beekeeping clothing and a bee smoker, beginning beekeepers should get a hive tool and learn how to use it properly.
A hive tool is a multipurpose implement designed for beekeeping. Hive tools come in different designs, but all serve two primary functions. First, hive tools separate and lift hive components stuck together by propolis. Second, they scrape off excess propolis and comb. A hive tool is the most used beekeeping tool.
The two most common hive tools are the “standard” hive tool and the J-Hook hive tool.
This article discusses how to use a hive tool properly, variations on hive tool designs, and more.
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Why Do You Need A Hive Tool?
You Need A Hive Tool Because Bees Make Propolis
Honey bees collect fluids secreted by plants (such as sap), mix it with beeswax and saliva, creating propolis (also called bee glue).
Bees seal small cracks and openings with propolis. These spaces exist anyplace hive components meet: between boxes, frames, frames and boxes, boxes and covers, inner and outer covers, etc.
Without a tool, separating hive components for inspection can become very difficult.
Hive tool designs primarily help beekeepers pry apart glued hive components.
You Need A Hive Tool To Remove Burr And Cross Comb
It would be nice if your bees stayed within the confines of a hive frame when building comb. Unfortunately for beekeepers, honey bees are not always so cooperative.
Bees sometimes build comb in undesirable locations: frame top and bottom bars, covers, or hive walls. Remove this burr comb with a hive tool before it becomes a problem for your inspections.
If a hive is not level side-to-side, bees may build wax across multiple frames. This cross-combing can make a real mess for a beekeeper. Use a hive tool to remove the cross comb as soon as you find it. Then try to correct the problem that caused the bees to cross comb.
Other Uses For A Hive Tool
Use a hive tool for any other task you see fit: scraping off a bee stinger, hammering in a loose nail, removing a nail, opening a stuck bee smoker, or anything else that works for you.
Can You Use Other Tools Instead Of A Hive Tool?
You could use an assortment of other tools to perform all the tasks of a hive tool.
Before hive tools became commonplace, beekeepers made do with screwdrivers, paint scrapers, putty knives, knives, and anything else that might be handy. Some beekeepers may still use some of these items in place of a hive tool.
Hive tools, however, are explicitly designed for beekeeping tasks. As such, one multipurpose hive tool can do the job of several other instruments, making it a better option.
You may not need a bee smoker for every hive inspection (though we recommend you bring it along); however, you will need a hive tool.
The cost of a hive tool or two is a relatively small portion of your beginning beekeeping budget. We recommend you get at least two hive tools, as they can easily be misplaced or lost. An extra one is well worth the cost.
Features Of A Hive Tool
Quality hive tools are generally stainless steel for strength and rust protection. Some may have wood or plastic grips in the middle.
Hive tools range in length from 6” (152mm) for a pocket tool up to as long as about 15” (381mm). Most J-Hook and standard tools are about 9” to 10-1/2 ” (229mm to 266MM).
A portion of many hive tools is brightly colored, making them much easier to find.
However, paint can wear off, and some tools are plain steel. Adding bright reflective tape may save you from spending too much time looking for a tool in the grass.
Beveled End Of A Hive Tool
One end of the hive tool has a sharpened, beveled edge. The beveled edge lets you insert the tool between hive boxes. Once inserted, the hive tool is a pry bar to lift the box, breaking the propolis seal. (The same edge can push hive frames apart.)
The beveled is sharpened to function as a push scraper to remove propolis and unwanted comb.
Pivot End Of A Hive Tool
The pivot end of the hive tool differs between a standard tool and a J-Hook tool.
On the standard tool, the opposite bends perpendicular to the bar. This end works as a pull scraper. In addition, the bend in the bar serves as a fulcrum, or pivot point, for separating frames.
J-Hook tools have one end in the shape of, you guessed it, a “J.” The end is also notched to rest on top of a frame, while the hook fits under an adjoining frame. Using the notch as a lever, pulling the bar lifts the hooked frame.
What Is The Hole In A Hive Tool Used For?
Most hive tools have a hole on the pivot end of the bar. The hole in a hive tool is a nail puller. It also works great for hanging your hive tool in a convenient location. (I have never pulled a nail with a hive tool, but I always hang it.)
How Do You Use A Hive Tool?
Separating And Lifting Vertical Hive Components
Propolized hive boxes, bottom boards, and covers can be tough to separate.
Work the sharp, beveled end of a hive tool between components, then pull the tool up as a lever to lift and separate. For hive boxes, you may need to do this in several locations to get a good split.
Once you have broken the connection, you can lift and remove parts without the tool.
Separating And Lifting Frames
Bees glue frames to each other, and the frame rest.
When inspecting a hive, I start by removing the frame at one end of the box. It is easier to separate and lift the remaining frames with one less frame without the risk of rolling and injuring the bees.
Using A J-Hook On Frames
Push the sharp edge of the J-Hook between where the frames touch on one end. The hive tool will cut through the propolis, allowing you to twist the tool and create space between the frames.
Repeat this procedure to separate the frames at the opposite end.
Then insert the J-Hook under one end of the frame, resting the notch on the adjoining frame. Next, use the hive tool as a lever, lift the frame slowly.
Grab the raised end with your fingers then, similarly lift the other end. Now you can lift the entire frame using one hand and the hive tool, or both hands.
After the end frame is out of the hive, you can probably lift other frames by hand once separated. If you need to, use the J-Hook to lift.
Using A Standard Hive Tool On Frames
Lower the curved end of a standard hive tool partly between frames. Use the curve of the tool against one of the frames as a pivot point to push and separate frames.
Once separated, use the same end of the tool to lift the frame on each end so that you can remove it altogether, just as with a J-Hook.
If you opt for one of the hive tool variations mentioned in this article, use the comparable parts of that tool the same as you would for the standard or J-Hook tools.
Alternative Hive Tool Configurations
Manufacturers have come up with variations on the standard and J-Hook hive tool. Here are some you may come across.
Multifunction Scraper Tool
Multifunction hive tools go beyond the capabilities of other hive tools. Like a Swiss Army knife, multifunction devices have additional parts such as hammerheads and teeth for cleaning queen excluders that many beekeepers find useful.
Kent Williams (KW) Hive Tool Or Similar
The Kent Williams, also called KW, hive tool combines the features of the standard and J-Hook hive tools.
On the J-Hook end of the tool is a pull scraper instead of just a notch. Also, the beveled end is straight like on a standard tool, not rectangular.
Similar style hive tools are available without the KW name attached.
Pocket Hive Tool
Pocket hive tools tend to be much shorter than most. And, as the name implies, they are designed to be conveniently carried in your pocket.
However, the short length limits the amount of leverage they provide to lift hive components.
Italian Hive Tool
Unlike pocket hive tools, Italian hive tools are among the longest (and thinnest) hive tools.
The length of Italian hive tools can provide increased prying leverage. Beekeepers with smaller hands may find the narrower width more comfortable.
A hive tool is a versatile device that facilitates many beekeeping tasks, particularly during hive inspections.
Hive tools are easily misplaced, but they are also relatively inexpensive in the scheme of beekeeping costs.
Therefore, we recommend that beginning beekeepers start with two hive tools: one standard tool and one J-Hook tool. As you gain more experience, one of these tools (or some other variation) may become your “go-to” hive tool.
This article is part of a series on how to start beekeeping, a step-by-step guide through your first year with honey bees.
If you have not done so yet, see our article about bee smokers, another “must-have” tool for beekeepers.
Or, continue with the next part of our series, Beekeeping Protective Clothing (A Guide For Beginners).