13 June 2013

Wax foundation

I had only ever seen one new frame being made up during my beginners' classes, and my ignorance and lack of experience (and vanishing 'mentor') meant I didn't realise that the 'new' wax I'd bought from a 'big' beekeeping equipment supplier was actually not as new as it should have been - the surface had developed a bloom.

In my enthusiasm I made up every single frame I'd bought, and carefully waxed each one - to be prepared, although I wasn't entirely sure what I was 'being prepared' for. I also used wired foundation throughout. Nobody had suggested that none of this was a good idea, and nobody suggested that new wax should not have the whiteish, slightly grainy, surface mine had from 'new'. (I buy all my wax foundation from Peter Kemble at Kemble Bee Supplies (KBS). - Do the same, your bees will love you for it.)

I didn't need all the frames immediately and stored them in spare boxes - outside, of course.

Changes in temperature and atmospheric moisture makes the outer surface of stored wax oxidise and develop a whiteish, grainy, bloom - which bees don't like. They can dislike it so much that they will completely ignore frames containing old foundation, treating them as the outer wall of the hive, and leave themselves without enough space to expand. Lack of space can be a swarm trigger.

The only way I know of refreshing oxidised wax foundation is to gently heat it using a hair dryer, and as the bee shed is too far from the house for an ordinary extension cable, it means taking all the frames indoors, which is an annoying nuisance - and some get dropped, and the wax gets broken.

Wax foundation should be stored flat, preferably in a plastic bag within a polystyrene box and it shouldn't get too cold. If there's no alternative, and wax has to be stored in a garden shed, it will need to be brought up to temperature otherwise it will be brittle and can shatter when it's hit by a frame nail.

Buying too much foundation at once, because it's cheaper that way, can actually be a false economy. Better to team up with other local beekeepers and buy only what you need for the coming season.

Wired or unwired
Wired foundation is strong and when drawn is unlikely to break during normal extraction of ordinary liquid honey, so is the preferred choice of most beekeepers. It's a good choice because wired frames with a thick midrib can be given back to the bees to clean up after extracting the honey, and can be used again the following year. It's what I used during my first season.

Standard foundation, when worked by bees, has the texture and strength of leather - it's meant to be that way because it's meant to be strong enough to go through an extractor. This is why it isn't easy to cut and press pre-wired wax, is why this wax is difficult and unpleasant for people to chew - and is why a special, thin and unwired foundation, is sold for 'cut comb'.

Starter strips
During my first season I learned that, although the bees in my small apiary could forage within the nearby town and local countryside during spring and early summer, they stored most of it in the brood box. Their super-filling foraging that year was late summer, on heather (Ling).

I quickly found that heather honey can't be extracted by uncapping and spinning the frames in an extractor, in fact heather honey is an absolute nightmare for an unprepared novice with only the internet and a few books to refer to for advice. (Did I mention the vanishing 'mentor'?) The comb has to be cut from the frame, has to be warmed to between 32 and 35C, and then kept at that temperature whilst being pressed. The press has to be warmed too, otherwise contact with the cold metal makes the wax and the honey set into a solid block.

All this is why I only nail my honey storage (super) frames together, except for the top wedge, before storing them.

In these frames I turn the wooden 'wedge' by 90 degrees and mostly use only a starter strip of thin 'cut comb' foundation.

Held in place by four tacks the 'wedge' and the narrow wax strip are enough for the bees to use as a comb building guide.

Making their own comb is demanding for bees, it requires both effort and energy - so they use more stores than when they build onto, or draw out, wax foundation. But this is what they would do in nature when they need extra storage space, and I make sure they have plenty of honey stored in the brood box.

Their own wax is visually appealing, and it's very much tastier for cut comb. Their own comb also tends to be easier to press and extract when they have been foraging on heather. This does mean they have to start all over again the following year - but as they don't tend to pass memories onto future generations they don't mind too much, and will only be doing what comes naturally to a bee.

Of course bees can also surprise a beekeeper and bring home a lot of non-heather honey, which needs to be extracted normally before the heather blooms. This isn't really a problem, although the thinner comb is more fragile and can be damaged by spinning. During a flow they will quickly repair and refill, it's only the beekeeper who is inconvenienced.


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