Double, double, toil and trouble

It’s Halloween and it seems apt that I find myself hovering over a cauldron with wooden frames sticking out over the edge of the bubbling mix of hot water, soda crystals, foaming melted wax, propolis and bee detritus.  I am sure medieval witches were beekeepers as the charming of bees must have seemed as mystical then as now and definitely could be classed as witchcraft. Actually, a good old cast iron cauldron would be much better than the stainless-steel beer barrel I am using. I am very grateful for this bit of equipment that had been tailored made for me by a very understanding friend and enabler….still, a cauldron has its merits.

This 1643 woodcut shows a wretched fugitive apparently surfing on a plank across the River Kennet at Newbury. Shot at by Parliamentarian soldiers, she reportedly caught and ate the musket balls, until finally being brought down. 

Far from ancient forest and coven I am. Alone in my rear suburban garden the fragrant steam wafts up and swirls around and fills the air with a smell of honey and wax…mostly…. and thankfully it’s not a bad smell. A guilty thought steaks through my brain. “What would the neighbours think?” I furtively look around to check yet again that this part of the garden is definitely not overlooked. Out of sight, out of mind and good fences make good neighbours and all that. I don’t think they’d mind but I’d rather not rub their noses in…wafting aroma notwithstanding.

The frames are nearly ready for rotating in my guesstimation.  This is not rocket science and heating water in the open, on a gas burner, on a cold, breezy, October day has made me reluctant to add extra boiling time.

As a new beekeeper I hadn’t given a thought to having to re-use frames and I had glossed over this part of the lessons as a beginner enchanted under the spell of the bee lecturers. However, during my second year keeping bees, my brand-new shiny hive with its brand-new shiny frames had started lacking a bit of their original luster and I was faced with reality. Do I buy new frames every year? If so, do I just throw away the old ones? Slowly, it dawned on me that I would have to find out what other beekeepers do as I vaguely remembered that old frames were cleaned and re-used.

I had met a commercial beekeeper during my first year at Gormanstown [see blog post Crossing the Rubicon] and he had invited me to call to see his set up. If you are an experienced beekeeper and throw out random invitations to wannabee beekeepers then you should expect them to arrive at your door. I did phone in advance, I’m not that bad…nearly, but not quite. I arrived up to his remote location in the mountains and parked in front of a huge shed. I felt a strong pang, what was it? Ah! beekeeper envy. What a perfect shed for storing equipment!  I was given a very warm welcome and with great generosity he gave me a guided tour of this shed, the purpose-built honey house, the queen rearing apiary in a small orchard and the home apiary which was in a 5 acre field. All this was interspersed with beekeeping yarns, mishaps and funny stories as well as being drip fed nuggets of beekeeping facts and information which was followed by tea and homemade cake and even more bee stories.

The shed, though, this was wonderful. It was big and had hundreds of cleaned neatly stacked supers, shelves of cleaned frames lined up like soldiers and a myriad of big and small inventions he had built over the years to facilitate his beekeeping, these were occupying various corners. There was also large bench for making bee boxes and every tool you could imagine including a state of the art table saw.

I was rapt and taking everything in. He showed me several of his inventions but I was particularly taken with his method for cleaning frames. He had repurposed a large, second-hand copper tank which he had added a water heater and thermostat, its operation was like plugging in a huge kitchen kettle – simple, efficient and relatively cheap. Boil the water, add soda crystals, put in your frames, take them out again, done! So easy.  

I took his idea and scaled it down.

  • Large tank was replaced with beer barrel with the top cut off.
  • Electric heater replaced by gas burner (left over from craft beer making),
  • Thermostat replaced with um…standing over it and guesstimating.
  • Large shed replaced by…well…open air.

Surprisingly, that beer barrel fit 14 super frames or 12 brood frames… half sticking out. I could clean half the frames at a time, rotate them, boil again and then throw them into a large plastic barrel with cold water laced with bleach. Did you know timber floats? Like you’d think I’d have thought of that before I started putting the frames into the steel barrel. I put in 3 or 4 at a time and they just instantly popped up like a jack-in-the-box. Determined, I wedged as many as I could in the barrel. Floaters sorted. Do you know how long it takes to boil a barrel of water on a cold October day? Ages! The first batch of 14 frames took over an hour to come to the boil! This job was taking waaay toooo long but at least I had only two batches to do. When I put the boiled frames horizontally into the wider plastic barrel up they all popped again! Who needs bobbing apples at Halloween? I had my own entertainment here.

Why couldn’t they have been made from African Blackwood? That doesn’t float. African Blackwood Conservation Project. A plank of timber and few concrete bricks put manners on the frames while they soaked. Four hours later I had the two lots finished, clean and sanitised.


  1. Clean nozzles of gas burner!!!!!
  2. Put in a very sheltered corner.
  3. Do on a warmer day.
  4. Do on a windless day.
  5. Put a heavy lid over the frames to keep heat in and frames down.
  6. Consider another method!

I have stayed loyal to the small beer barrel for a few years and it doesn’t take as long now. I suppose that’s the way with everything, the first time doing anything is awkward and only the beginning of a learning curve.

To see cleaning frames in action check out these YouTube videos The Fat bee man scraping down frames or a method using Bleach &water only The Bush bee man is always entertaining and informative. I’ve put up this Cleaning and boiling frames in my last blog post as well (post called Framed.) Or check out the Hive Cleaning and Sterilisation Excellent PDF

Cover picture . Shaiith via Shutterstock. and The Conversation piece
“In medieval England magic was a service industry used by rich and poor alike”


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