We’re in the hiatus between the end of the beekeeping season and the start of the beginning of the planning for the preparation for the next. Or, I am.
Of course, if you’re reading this from Australia (G’day … the 5th largest readership globally) or Chile (Hola … 62nd in the list) then things are probably just getting really busy.
Inevitably things here are going to be a bit quiet for a few months. Have patience.
Getting ready for winter
Here in the Northern hemisphere, at a latitude of about 56°N, the nights are rapidly getting longer and the temperature is tumbling. We’ve had several sharp frosts already. I checked my bees yesterday through the perspex crownboards – where present – and most were pretty tightly huddled together. In the very warmest part of the day there were a few flying in the weak sunshine, but the majority of colonies were quiet.
Since many of the most recent posts have been rather long (and I’m pressed for time with work commitments) I’m going to restrict myself to a few brief comments about this tidy – and tiny – little hive tool from Thorne’s.
Pocket hive tool
One of the final tasks of the year is to slice off the brace comb built in places along the tops of the frames while feeding colonies. I only use fondant, usually adding 12.5 kg to start with and then a further few kilograms if I think the hive is a bit light. All this fits nicely under one of my inverted, insulated perspex crownboards. However, as the fondant it taken down and stored, the bees tend to build little pinnacles of comb under or around the plastic bag.
Before closing the colony up for the season all these bits of brace comb need to be tidied away. I simply run a sharp hive tool along the top bars of the frames, remove the wax and – eventually – melt it down in my steam wax extractor. If you leave the wax in place you can’t put the crownboard back the right way up … or, when you do, you risk crushing bees.
Bargains in the sales
In the Thorne’s summer sales this year I bought the usual range of stuff I have almost no use for, together with half a dozen of the cheapo copies of their claw hive tool to replace those I’ve lost or lent during the year.
In addition I bought a couple of their ‘pocket hive tools’ (shown above) for a quid each.
These are small and neat, have a simple frame lifter at one end and a very good, sharp, chisel tip at the other. They are made of stainless steel. They fit neatly into the palm of the hand, don’t project too far and yet are enough to provide the leverage to separate all but the most stubbornly propolised frames.
For tidying up the top bars of my hives before closing them up for year this little hive tool was just the job.
‘Pocket hive tool’ is a bit of a misnomer though. It’s certainly small enough to fit into your beesuit pocket, but just about sharp enough it won’t be staying there long. Any serious pressure, for example as you get back into the car/van/truck risks either a nasty injury ( 😯 ) or it will eventually escape through a neatly sliced-through seam.
It might be better to keep it in your bee bag, or – as I do with other hive tools – store it in a bucket of soda in the apiary.
The phrase small, but perfectly formed is at least 200 years old. Google Books first lists it in the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle of 1779 (though in those days they used a medial or long ‘s’ so the title was the Gentleman’s Magazine and HiſtoricalChronicle) where it appears in an article by Mr Rack describing (or deſcribing) a new found aquatic animal. Whether ‘small, but perfectly formed‘ is now an idiom or a cliche is unclear. The usually excellent Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2014) defines the idiom as meaning “something noticeably small but compensating for this by a perfection of quality”. Their first reference to the phrase occurs in a letter written in October 1914 by Duff Cooper to Lady Diana Manners, later his wife, and quoted in Artemis Cooper’s Durable Fire (1983): ‘Your two stout lovers frowning at one another across the hearth rug, while your small, but perfectly formed one kept the party in a roar’. The expression was probably not original to Cooper but drawn from the fashionable talk of the period. The usage is often tongue-in-cheek or journalistically formulaic for anything small … which is exactly how I’ve used the term in the title of this post.
If something is described as a “A triumph of form over function†“ it looks better than it works. Here’s the diametric opposite – something that works really well, but looks a bit rubbish.
Re-using dark wax
Wax extracted from old brood frames is often too dark to use for candle making. You can exchange it for cash or new foundation at Thorne’s – either at one of their regional stores or at the big beekeeping conventions. However, if you use a lot of foundationless frames you’re unlikely to need much foundation (by definition 😉 ). If you have the patience of a saint you could consider making your own starter strips. As an alternatively you use can this old, dark wax to prepare perfectly good firelighters for a wood burning stove. With British summer time ending in a couple of days sooner than you think§, now is as good a time as any to prepare a stock for the winter.
Guess which are handmade …
There are lots of suggested ‘recipes’ for these on the web. Many of these combine wax with pine cones, sometimes with the addition of a wick. By adding a few drops of essential oils to the melted wax you can create both an attractive and fragrant item to decorate your home.
Note I said “decorate your home”, not “light your wood burning stove”. Take it from me … they’re pretty hopeless as firelighters. Been there, sent a postcard. I’ve collected pine cones, dried them for weeks in the boiler room, wrapped a wick around them, dipped them in scented wax and been wholly unimpressed at how poor they are as firelighters.
Commercial firelighters for wood burning stoves are usually composed of a wax-dipped, twisted wood shavings. Flamers work very well. However, at £24 for 200 they’re not inexpensive – particularly for something that’s going to just sit next to the stove in a bowl and then, in the space of a few minutes, literally disappear in a ball of flame.
Roll your own
Elm bowl …
You’ll need some wood shavings, egg boxes and molten beeswax. You can buy the coarsest animal bedding material or – better still – find a friendly wood-turner and ask them to save some of their discarded shavings (which will also work well in your smoker). Melt the beeswax in a slow cooker or Bain Marie. Stuff the wood shavings reasonably tightly into the wells of the egg box and dribble liberally with melted wax.
If you want to make them slightly fragrant then add a few drops of juniper or patchouli essential oils to the melted wax before pouring it over the wood shavings. They’ll smell nice but they’ll still look rubbish.
Come on baby …
Tear and share
These are not the sort of things you’ll see featured in Homes and Gardens or Country Living. They are a triumph of function over form. Hide them away somewhere close to the stove. When needed, simply tear a ‘cell’ off the egg box, stack it onto the pile of kindling and logs (I’m an advocate of the ‘top down’ or Swiss style method of firelighting), light the blue touchpaper and retire‡ to an armchair to enjoy the fire.
I claim no originality for this idea. There are loads of websites with similar suggestions, using everything from sawdust to the lint from a spin-dryer as the flammable material. Some of them look even worse than mine 😉
Ugly but fully functional …
† This phrase is a bastardisation of the term form follows function originally used by the architect Louis Sullivan in an 1896 paper The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. It became widely associated with modernist and industrial architectural design in the early 20th Century, essentially meaning that the shape of a building should reflect its primary purpose.
§ This post was written in the chilly early Spring with the intention of publishing it sometime in October (when BST ends). However, an extended period of travelling in late August and much of September meant I had to bring the date forward to post something vaguely useful (I hope) and topical when I’d been doing no practical beekeeping for 3+ weeks. Coincidentally the date this appeared (22nd September 2017) is the autumn equinox … the date at which day and night are of approximate equal duration everywhere. About the time I’ll get the wood-burning stove going regularly.
‡ This phrase used to be the safety instructions on fireworks (and may still be for all I know) and became widely used as doing something incendiary. ‘Touchpaper’ was the paper fuse soaked in potassium or sodium nitrate.
Light my Fire was a 1967 song by The Doors that first appeared on their self-titled debut album.
You should expect to replace about one third of the brood frames per season to help offset the build-up of pathogens in drawn comb. The general advice is to “rotate these frames out” of the colony … meaning gradually move them to the outside of the broodnest and then remove them. Obviously you need to replace them and so need new frames every year. Alternatively you could change the frames en masse by doing a Bailey comb change or a shook swarm … again meaning you need more new frames every year. The National Bee Unit have published a document on Replacing Old Brood Comb (PDF). Remember that old, manky, black combs can be used in bait hives.
Scaling up and shelling out
If you only have one or two colonies it’s easy and inexpensive enough to assemble these frames as and when they’re needed. With significantly more colonies it makes sense to build them in winter ready for the season ahead. This is what I do. With the colony numbers I have, a few bait hives, some small scale queen rearing and nuc production I need 100-200 new frames a year.
Based on Thorne’s list prices, 10 DN5 frames and foundation will cost £28.80, 40% of which is the cost of the foundation 🙁 You can reduce these costs significantly by buying ‘second quality’ frames in bulk in the annual (or more frequent) sales†. You can reduce the outlay even further by using foundationless frames and preparing your own starter strips (the ‘guides’ to help the bees build parallel comb). By my estimates, 100 second-quality DN5’s prepared with your own starter strips should cost abut 72p per frame. That’s more like it!
Another reason to consider foundationless frames is potential problems with purchased foundation. There are reports of contaminants (specifically with stearin and palmitic acid) in some foundation that result in a very spotty brood pattern. These have primarily been in Belgium and the Netherlands. However, there’s an international trade in beeswax and you probably cannot be sure where the stuff you purchased originated. There’s an earlier thread on the BKF that also reports foundation problems in the UK.
I’ve always bought premium (though not organic) foundation from Thorne’s, KBS or Maisemore’s and haven’t had any problems. Nevertheless, using foundationless frames means your drawn comb will be as contamination-free as the environment allows.
Freshly drawn comb …
I’ve recently posted a description of how to make foundationless frames using bamboo BBQ skewers to provide lateral structural rigidity. The gaps between the skewers is ~11cm. This was an ideal opportunity to prepare my own starter strips as I wouldn’t need a huge vat of molten wax to make an aesthetically-pleasing full frame-length strip.
You can extract wax from cappings, from brace comb built by the bees and by recycling old frames (though you get less and less wax back as frames are used for repeated brood cycles). I use a homemade (i.e. bodged) steam wax extractor to do this. It’s a smelly and slightly sticky job that’s best done in the winter to avoid the attention of the bees (and neighbours). The wax needs to be filtered to remove the lumpy bits but certainly doesn’t need the preparation required to produce exhibition-quality candles. I’ve previously described how I process and clean recovered wax.
A simple Google search will uncover lots of videos and websites covering the production of starter strips from recovered wax. Many of these are aimed at the top bar hive community, but the process is essentially the same. I’m not going to provide a detailed account here (for reasons I’ll come to in a minute). The principle is straightforward … melt some wax in a container deep enough to make the length of starter strip you need, dip a wooden lath in several times, coating it liberally with melted wax, use a knife to separate the wax from the wooden strip … and repeat … and repeat … and repeat … ad infinitum.
Wax starter strips …
Don’t try this at home
What many of these sites don’t tell you is the following:
the wooden lath – a simple thin wooden strip of a suitable size onto which the wax is deposited – must be soaked in water before first dipping into the wax. It’s also helpful to dip it briefly in water between starter strips as well.
the wax must not be too hot. If it is, all you’ll do on the repeated dipping of the wooden lath is melt off the last layer of wax. I found that the wax needs to be at about 75°C.
it’s a pretty messy business. Cover everything with newspaper before you start. You generate a lot of wax scraps – from the edges of the wooden lath for example. These need to be fed back into your wax melter but a good proportion remains stuck to the knife and your fingers.
it’s beyond tedious. If you’re making significant numbers the repetition can get pretty boring. I made a hundred or so and was pleased to stop. Make sure you have a good radio programme to listen to …
the wax strips you make are quite brittle. The typical flexibility you get with sheets of foundation requires rolling the thin wax strips under pressure. Be warned, some of them may crack during subsequent handling.
Frankly, I’m not convinced it was worth doing and it’s unlikely I’ll be doing it again. I’m much more likely to trade in pre-cleaned blocks of wax for premium quality unwired thin foundation which can easily be cut into starter strips‡. You have been warned.
Cooling starter strips …
Fixing wax starter strips in place
Whether you make your own or slice and dice a few sheets of embossed foundation you still need to fix these starter strips into the frame top bar. I’ve previously used standard gimp pins, holding the strip of foundation down with the wedge nailed back in position. However, experience shows that these long strips often flex and fall out over time if not quickly used by the bees. This is most obvious in bait hives where – if not occupied by a swarm – you’ll often find the foundation strip has worked loose and is now hanging down.
Homemade starter strips may be too brittle to nail in place and are likely to be thinner than embossed foundation strips, so fit less well anyway. Instead, the easiest way to fix any of these wax strips is to place them into the slot in the frame and ‘paint’ a little molten wax down either side of them. This makes a secure joint with the wood.
Wax starter strips …
Lots of lolly
Tongue depressor strips
Of course, it’s widely reported that bees don’t need a wax starter strip at all and/or that bees can engineer a much more secure connection between wax and the top bar. So, why bother doing this bit for them? Michael Bush has some excellent information on foundationless frames and is a strong supporter of an unwaxed bevelled top bar or a simple wood strip. The former is more than I could be bothered to produce, but a simple wooden strip is straightforward. Michael Bush suggests that the starter strip needs to protrude about a ¼ of an inch. Tongue depressors (don’t ask) are ideal for this and you can buy them in bulk from eBay if needed. I used a pair of tinsnips to cut them to length and fixed them in place with a few dabs of woodworking adhesive.
Wooden starter strips …
Due to the ‘vertical’ bamboo skewers in these frames this is more fiddly than simply fixing a strip of foundation in place. However, if they are as robust as I expect, this is a job that will only need doing once. After use, if the comb is manky and black, it should be a simple matter to melt it out in the steam extractor and reuse the frames.
One of the pleasures of off-season dabbling is that you can invest a little time in planning for the year ahead and trying a range of new things to see what works best.
I’m already convinced of the benefits of foundationless frames. For reasons explained previously I’ve prepared some foundationless frames with vertical bamboo skewers this year, rather than horizontally ‘wired’ monofilament. As explained here, I’ve also prepared frames with different types of starter strips.
All of this takes extra work. However, I can justify it in terms of further money-saving, better performance or simply because of the rewarding feeling you get doing something yourself (in order of increasing importance to me).
Nevertheless, if I’m doing extra work, I want to gain the maximum benefit from the time invested. For example, I want to know which type of starter strip works best for me and my bees. I’ve therefore prepared a dozen mixed starter strip frames. One third bare wood, one third wax-coated wood and one third wax starter strips. During the season I’ll pop a few of these into expanding colonies and see which they prefer.
Take your pick …
Bevelled … at a cost
Bevelled top bar
Michael Bush likes simple bevelled top bars. Foundationless frames with a bevelled (‘V’-shaped) top bar are sold by Thorne’s. These have no additional monofilament, wire or bamboo supports. I’m not sure how long these have been available and haven’t heard any reports of beekeepers using them. They’re not inexpensive … £19.44 flat or £34 assembled for 10. Newly drawn, unsupported brood comb, particularly when it’s not fully attached to the side bars, is both a thing of beauty and rather delicate. Particularly on a hot day. These frames would certainly need careful handling. I’d be concerned that these might appeal to a relatively recent beekeeper who is attracted by the thought of a top bar hive. An experienced beekeeper would appreciate the fragility of unsupported new comb (and would likely make their own frames anyway). In contrast, a beginner might find themselves with a bootfull of irritated bees.
† But also see the recent comments from Calum on the prices of ready made frames … something around €1 if bought in sufficient numbers.
‡ Thin, unwired, premium-quality foundation from Thorne’s is just over £8 for 10 sheets at the time of writing. That’s enough for about 100 frames using a ~20mm starter strip.
There’s an interesting article in yesterday’s Nature on the detection of beeswax residues in crockery shards dating back at least 9000 years i.e. since the development of agriculture. This suggests that humans have been exploiting bees and bee products since the Neolithic Revolution when the first animals were domesticated, though evidence for beekeeping (from wall engravings in Egypt) only exists for about 4500 years. Samples of crockery almost 6000 years old from Southern/Eastern England were found containing traces of wax, but more northerly samples were free from residues. This suggests that there was a northerly/westerly ecological limit to the distribution of honeybees (Apis mellifera) but confirming – assuming Neolithic pastoralists weren’t plagued with imports – that honeybees aren’t a recent introduction to the British Isles.
Wax can be relatively easily reclaimed from used frames, brace comb, cappings and – depending upon the quality – used for candle making, cosmetics, polish or traded in to buy foundation. Since I’m not interested in producing show quality candles or preparing vast quantities my wax processing routine is relatively simple.
Steam wax extractor …
Extracted wax …
Slow cooker …
Frames (brace comb, failed candles etc.) for processing are loaded into a home made steam extractor.
The molten wax is collected in a honey bucket containing a small amount of rainwater. If the frames have large amounts of stores, pollen, brood etc. in them the bucket will also contain all the big bits not filtered out … and can be pretty messy.
After a couple of rinses in clean water the set wax disc is broken into pieces and added to a slow cooker containing a couple of centimetres of rainwater. Slow (Slo?!) cookers go in and out of fashion and can be picked up at car boot sales or via Freecycle easily and/or cheaply.
After a few hours on the ‘high’ setting, perhaps with the cooker being topped up with additional wax, the slow cooker is turned off and the wax allowed to set overnight.
The resulting wax block can easily be tipped out and the dirty water discarded. The bottom of the block usually has a layer of crumbly propolis that has collected at the water/wax interface.
Wax block and propolis …
Wax block no propolis …
Filtered wax block …
Scrape the propolis off with a hive tool or paring knife to leave a block of sufficient quality for trade-in for new foundation.
Alternatively, having cleaned out the slow cooker, put the clean block of wax back to remelt (on ‘high’ again) then filter it through something suitable … 2-3 sheets of kitchen paper, J clothes etc. depending upon the quality of wax you want to produce. I do this filtering in my honey warming cabinet set on ‘high’ (about 60ºC) directly into an old ice-cream container sprayed with silicon release agent … ideally I’d do this in the kitchen oven at a slightly higher temperature, but wax gets everywhere. You have been warned 😉
The resulting wax blocks are easy to store and of good enough quality for preparing furniture polish and day-to-day candle making. Darker ones are used for homemade foundation strips or traded-in.
You can easily extract wax for recycling from old brood frames, cappings or offcuts of brace comb collected during the season. On a hot sunny day a solar wax extractor works well, but needs regular turning to the sun for maximum efficiency. These are also the days on which bees will be flying and the inevitable smell of hot wax and residual honey can be a bit of a bee-magnet. I prefer to do my wax extracting in the autumn or winter, using a steam wax extractor which also sterilizes frames ready for the next season. Thorne’s sell one of these (Easi-Steam), consisting of a modified roof and floor to add to an existing brood box. These are nicely made but not inexpensive, and it is relatively straightforward to build your own.
Earlex wallpaper stripper
Steam is generated using a wallpaper stripper. The make is unimportant but ensure it has a reasonably sized reservoir and so generates steam for a long time. I bought an Earlex SS125UKP which has a 4 litre tank and runs for a little over an hour (~£20). It takes about 30 minutes to extract 11 brood frames and quite a bit of brace comb which, with a 2kW element, makes it economical to run. You only need the tank and hose from the wallpaper stripper so might even be able to pick up one with a missing “business end” from a car boot sale. If you are going to buy one ensure it has an auto-cutoff should the tank run dry – this allows you to run the steam extractor unattended.
The design is straightforward. You need a solid floor, lined to prevent wax sticking to it, some sort of mesh screen to prevent too much contamination of the melted wax with propolis, cocoons or lumps of pollen, a brood box and a tightly fitting lid through which the steam is piped. I just use a sheet of ply for the lid, held on securely using ratchet straps.
Extracted wax …
It’s worth using thick ply for the floor and lid to minimize warping from the repeated exposure to steam. I used 12mm ply, but thicker would have been better. I added a lip of 22mm softwood around the lid to provide some rigidity. Using the same sized stripwood I added a lip around three sides of the floor, together with two angled pieces that effectively form a “spout” through which the melted wax will pour. I lined the floor with a suitably shaped piece of metal from the side of an old washing machine, bending the edges up to provide a wax-tight (more or less) base. Take care cutting sheet metal – use thick gardening gloves to protect your hands. I originally used an old travel screen to prevent too much rubbish contaminating the wax. However, it quickly gets clogged and this year I’m going to use some galvanized flooring mesh (see photo).
Hose attachment …
The last thing to arrange is to secure the steam hose to the lid. The best way to do this would be to fix a threaded tube to the lid. However, I’m still searching for something that fits properly. In the meantime I created two Perspex “clamps” through which the hose end fits, with the Perspex bolted through the lid to hold everything in place (see the photos as it’s easier to illustrate than describe).
To use the steamer place the floor on a hive stand, add the mesh and a brood box (either dedicated for the purpose or one that would benefit from being steam sterilised – I use a plywood bait hive that’s a bit deeper than a normal brood box, allowing me to add frames and some brace comb scraps). To extract from frames simply fit them into the brood box, squeezing a dozen in if you can – there’s space above and below for the steam to circulate well. If you’re extracting from offcuts of brace comb, grafted queen cells and all the other bits scraped up and collected during the season, simply spread these across the mesh. Fit the lid in place and clamp the entire thing together with some ratchet straps. Finally, add a block of wood under the back of the box to tip it up and encourage melted wax to pour out of the spout. Place a container with an inch or so of water under the spout and turn on the steamer.
Wax being extracted
It takes 10-15 minutes to get to temperature. During this period honey and condensation may run out of the spout. Once a higher temperature is reached the wax pours out. Once the wax has reduced to a trickle you can turn it off, let the entire box cool to avoid scalding (the inside of the box will reach 105oC) and only then open it up. With brood frames you’ll be left with black, papery thin cocoons, bits of wire and softened propolis. All of this is easy to discard (though a bit messy) and, after a quick scrape with a hive tool, the frames are ready to be reused.
Cocoons and crud …
The wax generated is not particularly clean and will need further filtering. If there was residual honey in the frames you will also need to wash this away. Thorne’s reckon that wax recovery with steam is about 95% efficient. It probably doesn’t need adding … run the extractor out of doors! Not only does it generate a lot of steam, but it tends to irregularly drip from various unsealed (i.e. poor quality) joints and can pong a bit. Actually, it can be pretty rank. Don’t use it when bees are flying or you’ll be inundated.
After quite a bit of use I’d noticed that the flush joints between the floor/mesh, the brood box and the lid provided opportunities for the steam to escape, so lowering the temperature and making the extraction less efficient. To avoid this I added strips of rubberized self-adhesive draft excluder to the upper surface of the floor edge lip and the lower surface of the lid edge lip. This is not really suited to high temperatures, but appears to do the trick.
As an aside, a slow-cooker provides a great way to melt wax. These can be picked up very cheaply from car boot sales or for nothing from freecycle.org.