Tag Archives: wax

Winter chores

After two weeks of mites, their diets and pedantry we’ll take a break this week for some practical beekeeping.

Or at least as close as you can get to practical beekeeping when it’s been as cold as -8°C.

Midwinter is a time to prepare for the season ahead, to stock up on new equipment during the winter sales, build more frames, plan the strategy for swarm control and think about stock improvement.

And – if you’re anything like as disorganised as me – it’s also the time to tidy up after the season just finished.

Which is what we’ll deal with today.

Tidy the shed

The original research apiary and bee shed is now under an access road for a new school. Fortunately, we managed to rescue the shed which has now been re-assembled in the new apiary.

In the longer term these sheds could together accommodate at least a dozen full colonies. However, in the shorter term it has allowed me to rationalise the storage, giving much more space to work with the colonies in the larger shed.

Supers and brood in the storage shed have all been tidied (see below) and are in labelled stacks ready to use. The other side of the store contains stacks of floors, split boards, clearers and roofs.

It’ll get messier as the season progresses, but it’s a good start.

I also spent a couple of weekends making some minor improvements to the bee shed following the experience last season.

The lighting has been increased and repositioned so it is ‘over the shoulder’ when doing inspections. On a dull winter day it is dazzlingly bright 1 but I fear it will still not be enough. I’m looking at creating some reflectors to direct the light better.

I’ve also used a few tubes of exterior sealant to block up all the holes and cracks around the edge of the shed roof. Last season was a bad one for wasps and we were plagued with the little stripy blighters.

Tidy the frames

Two of the most valuable resources a beekeeper has are drawn super frames and capped stores in brood frames.

Look after them!

I often end up uniting colonies late in the season, but then overwinter the bees in a single brood box. This means I can end up with spare frames of sealed stores. These should be protected from wax moth and mice (or anything else) as they are really useful the following year for boosting colonies that are light on stores or making up nucs.

Drawn supers can be used time and time again, year after year. They also need to be protected but – if your extraction is as chaotic as mine – they also usually need to be tidied up so they are ready for the following season.

I load my extractor to balance it properly, rather than just super by super. Inevitably this means the extracted frames are all mixed up. Since frames are also often drawn out unevenly this leaves me with a 250 piece jigsaw with billions of possible permutations, but only a few correct solutions.

Little and large - untidy frames and a breadknife

Little and large – untidy frames and a breadknife

And that’s ignoring all the frames with brace comb that accumulate during a good flow.

So, in midwinter I tidy up all the cleared super frames, levelling off the worst of the waviness with a sharp breadknife, removing the brace comb, scraping down the top bar and arranging them – 9 to 11 at a time 2 – in supers stored neatly in covered stacks.

And, if you’ve got a lot, label them so you know what’s where.

An hour or two of work on a dingy midwinter day can help avoid those irritating moments when – in the middle of a strong flow – you grab a super to find it contains just five ill-fitting frames, one of which has a broken lug.

The wax removed during this tidying up is usually lovely and white. Save it for making soaps, cosmetics or top-quality candles.

Wax extraction

Brood comb has a finite life. After about three years of repeated brood rearing cycles it should be replaced. Old comb contains relatively little wax but what’s there can be recovered using a solar or steam wax extractor. This also allows the cleaned frames to be re-used.

Processing a few dozen brood frames with a solar wax extractor during a Scottish winter is an exercise in futility. For years I’ve used a DIY steam wax extractor which worked pretty well but was starting to fall apart. I therefore recently took advantage of the winter sales and purchased a Thorne’s Easi-steam 3.

The Easi-steam works well and with a little further processing generates a few kilograms of wax for making firelighters or trading in … and a large stack of frames for re-use.

Remember to keep a few old dark brood frames aside for using in bait hives

Keep an eye on your bees

In between all these winter chores don’t forget to check on your bees.

There’s not a lot to do, but these checks are important.

Make sure the entrances are clear, that the mouse guards 4 are in place and that the roofs are secure.

Storm Eric brought us 50-60 mph winds and a couple of my hives lost their roofs. These had survived a couple of previous storms, but the wind was from a different direction and lifted the roofs and the bricks stacked on top. I got to them the following day but we’ll have to wait until the season warms up to determine if there’s any harm done.

Fondant top up

Fondant top up

Finally, as the days lengthen and it gets marginally warmer colonies should have started rearing brood again. Make sure they have sufficient stores by regularly ‘hefting‘ the hive. If stores are low, top them up with a block or two of fondant. This should be placed directly over the cluster, either over a hole in the crownboard or on the top bars of the frames.


Small, but perfectly formed

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

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 Hiſtorical Chronicle) 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.

Light my fire

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 ...

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.


Flamers …

Don’t bother.

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 ...

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.

Job done.

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 ...

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 ...

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.

But you knew that.

Starter strips

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!

Dodgy foundation

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’sKBS 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

Freshly drawn comb …

Waxing lyrical

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

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

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 ...

Wax starter strips …

Lots of lolly

Tongue depressor strips

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

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.

Experimental evidence

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 ...

Take your pick …

Bevelled … at a cost

Bevelled top bar

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.



You’ve spilt wax in the kitchen … again

cover_natureThere’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.