by Jeanne Davis
I’ve been thinking about the quality of beeswax for quite a while and I’d like to share some of my developing ideas here. I keep 10-15 colonies of bees in two bee yards in southwest Vermont. My colonies consist of 3 medium hive bodies and shallow honey supers. In 2008 I started thinking a lot about the nature of beeswax to act as a sponge, holding environmental and intentional (beekeeper applied) chemicals. I had already been rotating out older combs but now proceeded to do it more regularly. I marked each frame with the year it was first employed and this helped me see which ones to cycle out first. Over time I’ve pulled out old frames so that I am on a 4=5 year cycle of replacement.
Then I started to think about the foundation that I install from various venders. The literature started to report that the chemicals found in foundation included what the commercial outfits were using as treatments. This was just a couple years after Colony Collapse Disorder was first reported (2006) and we were all looking seriously at agricultural chemicals, especially neonicotinoids. Findings that that family of pesticides was appearing in beeswax and that it was being examined for sub-lethal effects on developing bees was a wake-up call to us all. I understood that foundation wax contained some amounts of pesticides and other chemicals in it and the comb the bees developed was drawn on that chemical/wax base.
I don’t remember where I learned about foundationless comb but I started introducing it in my hives. I couldn’t introduce a whole box of empty frames without bees creating crosswise artistic sculptures so I came up with compromises. I had drawn comb frames that I could alternate with empty frames but I also decided to use plastic foundation. I found out that Mann Lake would sell me unwaxed plastic foundation as a special order. Unfortunately their free shipping offer doesn’t include special orders and so this unwaxed foundation probably cost me twice as much as the standard ones. I installed unwaxed plastic frames that I coated with my own beeswax (cappings wax) in between existing combs and foundationless frames. In this set up the bees drew out vertical combs that followed the frames. Over time I have built up the number of foundationless combs but those too have to be cycled out every 4-5 years.
I have produced foundationless frames a several ways. In the beginning I bought medium plastic, uncoated foundation and cut a 1” strip off each one, on the table saw, so the larger piece would fit a shallow frame. The strip then became a starter piece for a foundationless frame and I coated it with my beeswax. Later I tried Popsicle stick type shims in the top bars and also coated them. More recently I’ve been making my own smooth wax foundation strips and insert them in the top frame groove. I glue them into place with melted beeswax. All of these methods work well. The shallow frames are for honey and the plastic foundation is strong in an extractor but once the foundationless combs are wired they also extract well. I started wiring the frames with two horizontal wires. That works well and allows me to extract or turn the frame for inspection without worrying about the comb bending.
A downside of using the plastic foundation is that it doesn’t have a recycling code and I can’t get it accepted at the local transfer station except as trash. As I build my inventory of foundationless comb frames I am able to use less and less plastic foundation.
It turns out that most of the chemicals detected in honeycomb are chemicals put in the hive by beekeepers not by agriculture. Now we have more treatment options than when varroa first arrived. I did use Apistan (fluvalinate) and stopped using it in 2007. I never used Checkmite (coumaphos). Both of these products are still on the market but there has been evidence of mites developing tolerance to them and becoming stronger in the process. In more recent years I have treated with Apilife Var and Apiguard (essential oil systems) and Miteaway Quick Strips and Formic Pro (formic acid) as well as with an oxalic acid drip. These products do not leave residues in honeycomb. I use the herbals and acids as needed after doing mite counts to determine load levels. As far as we know organic acids (formic acid, oxalic acid, hops beta acid) and herb based treatments (Apilife Var and Apiguard) do not lead to mite tolerance but we have been advised to still vary products so as to insure it. Regular mite count checks appears to be the best way to stay on top of varroa mite issues.
Foundationless frames often have larger quantities of drone cells but these are easily cut out when including drone cell removal as part of varroa management. Putting the frame with parts cut out back into the hive leaves them gaps to fill and requires me to rethink where I locate those frames so that they are rebuilt in a timely manner.
To minimize honey bee exposure to chemicals and to keep beeswax as clean as possible I only treat when mite counts exceed thresholds or appear to be climbing. I’d like to not treat at all but am not ready to do that yet. I feel that my hives’ comb is as clean as I can get it. This is a more labor intensive way of working with combs and it might not translate easily to beekeepers working with large numbers of hives. For a backyard beekeeper it can work very well to introduce frames that are foundationless into the brood chamber and honey supers of already established colonies. One could use some honey super frames without wires and be able to produce cut-comb squares or rectangles from the best ones.
Every season there is more to learn about keeping honey bees and often there are new areas to explore. What will you try this year? Comb honey? Catching a swarm? Doing splits? How about minding your own beeswax?! See you in the bee yard!