Navigate / search

And you thought extracting was messy . . .

I’ve tried about twenty ways to get beeswax from old combs. So far I’ve found nothing that works for me. Cappings wax is pretty much doable, but I tend to be thrifty and I can’t bear to dispose of those old, dark, cocoon-filled combs without trying to render the wax. I want to make it into candles—candles that don’t sputter and smoke—and I want to do it without ruining every tool in the kitchen.

I have learned several valuable lessons so far. The most important is you must deny everything. At the end of the day when your significant other says, “What’s that stuff all over the stove?” it’s best to say, “What stove?” Or “What stuff?”

Same goes for the kitchen floor. “Did you spill something on the floor?” my husband asks, looking down at one bare foot. He just walked from the sink to the fridge, but his right sock is attached to the floor, facing the sink. “Uh, you must have stepped in something,” I reply helpfully.

When that same person asks, “Where did you put the “­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____?” (stock pot, funnel, strainer, wooden spoon, spatula, slotted spoon, measuring cup or anything else you ruined and hid in the trunk of your car) you need to look innocent and say, “I have no idea. I think you were the last one to use it.” You should practice your innocent face in front of a mirror because, I swear, you will need it every time you play with beeswax.

Second lesson: It seems that no matter how carefully I plan to separate hot gunk from hot wax, and no matter how many times I rehearse the steps in my mind, I always need just one more of the aforementioned objects—one more strainer, one more pot, one more spoon, one more pan. But after I requisition it from the cupboard or from the store—and it gets all gunked up—I need one more after that.

The third lesson I’ve learned is that these household objects will never—ever—be useful for any other purpose ever again. Once melted beeswax is all over it, it is history. Oh yes, I’ve tried freezing, melting, rubbing, sanding, and dissolving in alcohol. But forget it, beeswax becomes one with anything it touches.

The fourth lesson is that I need two sets of all that hardware to get the job done. The first pass through the strainers removes the macro stuff—the big, black, shiny, ugly clumps that really muck things up. The second pass is more genteel. It removes the fine particles—the tiny ones that cause candles to smoke and sputter, regardless of their size. But if you try to reuse the first set of straining tools for the second pass you won’t get the little specs. In fact, you may end up putting more back in. So just accept it: you need two sets of non-recoverable tools for one job.

Number five: save any burnable items that are infused with beeswax, including paper, cotton sheeting, and cheesecloth. These things burn like crazy and can be used a light a fire anywhere, like in a woodstove, fireplace, campfire ring . . . or even in a bucket of water.

The sixth lesson is you can only render wax in a devil-may-care, what-the-hell kind of mood. If you try it in a neat, clean, or anal kind of mood you will fail miserably. You need childlike non-attention to details to succeed.

Last week I did the “first pass” on a bunch of old comb I’ve been storing for years. I melted it with a heat gun and let it drip through a strainer and into a bucket of water. When the waxbergs hardened, they reminded me so much of cow pies that I put one in a dark corner of the hallway. I thought my husband would freak. But, alas, I’ve been married too long. He just muttered, “Is this another of your jokes?” and walked on by. Too bad. It should have worked.


Beeswax waxbergs, flipped upside down

Thy neighbors’ bees

I’m sure you’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about beekeepers and their neighbors–usually threats, warnings, or fears of some type. Well, here’s one I can’t get my mind around. It was relayed to me last summer, soon after our new neighbors began tending their garden:

Wife to husband, as she pauses with trowel in hand: “Wow, there are so many bees around here! I’ve never seen so many bees. They’re all over the flowers. Do you think they will sting the kids?”

Husband to wife: “Don’t worry, hon. They’re the neighbors’ bees.”

Wife to husband: “Oh, I didn’t know that. Okay, then.” And she goes back to work, ignoring the bees. End of conversation.

Seriously, I don’t get it. Because they belong to us they aren’t threatening? They don’t sting? They’re kid friendly? Do they think I’ve given them instructions? “Mind your manners over there or no t.v. tonight!”

Does ownership make bees nice? Domesticated instead of wild? Civilized and orderly? Respectful of private property? Educated, perhaps?

Or are they still mean, threatening, and sting happy, but because they belong next door you take it in stride? Like neighborhood dogs, you accept them as a fact of life?

Yes, I am grateful, but if anyone can explain it to me, you have my rapt attention. The more I think about it, the curiouser it gets.


The dead hive that isn’t

Saturday was a perfect day on the northwest coast. Rumor claims that all the elements come together only six days a year: warm enough to go coatless, clear enough to see the sky, dry enough you don’t dissolve. It was a perfect day to take apart my dead-outs and do some maintenance.

Late December, when I was assessing my losses, I closed up the dead hives to keep out local varmints. One loss that was particularly heart-wrenching was a hive I had built for a gorgeous swarm. I was out of equipment at the time, so I rigged a hive from miscellaneous parts and called it the drainfield hive, since that’s where it was.

Just before Christmas the cluster was the size of a baseball. I counted it as a dead-out because I knew it couldn’t possibly survive. But I didn’t seal the hive because even if they were doomed I wouldn’t deny their freedom. As the weeks went by, I totally forgot to go back and tape it shut.

January was cold and nasty. The ice storm dropped two sixty-foot trees within inches of that hive, one on either side of it. Snow piled on its roof and blocked the landing board but I did nothing. After all, the hive was dead.

Fast forward to last weekend. The sky was bright and cloudless. The occasional whiff of woodsmoke reminded me it was still cold, but the sun felt like warm toast on my cheek. Trillium and skunk cabbage sparkled beside the stream where a fingerling made a splish-splat in the riffles. A steller’s jay glinted blue and metallic in a nearby cedar. All around, things croaked and twittered and cawed.

As I approached the drainfield I saw honey bees coming and going with determination etched on their faces. I immediately chastised myself for not locking down the hive—no doubt these were robbers, looting for all they were worth.

I threw off the lid to have a look, muttering all the while about beekeeper incompetence. But, to my utter astonishment, I found not comb rent asunder by robber bees but a basketball-sized cluster covering four frames of brood! Whoa! How the heck did that happen? How could it happen?

Needless to say, I am elated but still a bit nonplussed. It seems impossible that a cup of bees could morph into a full-size cluster in spite of rain and snow and ice and wind and cold and falling trees and beekeeper abandonment. But it did. It proves we never know it all. It proves nature always has the last word. It proves we should never give up . . . or give in. It proves that honey bees rock.


The drainfield swarm.

How to kill bees with soapy water

I want to address this issue because lots of non-beekeepers land on this site looking for ways to kill bees without using pesticides. This is good news because it shows that people are becoming aware of the dangers of pesticides to our environment, children, and pets. But killing a swarm of bees with soap is not a walk in the park.

If you have stinging insects you need to get rid of, I strongly recommend you call a local beekeeper or a company that gathers wasps for medical purposes. These people will generally come out to your home for free. Once there, they will be able to identify the type of insect you have and either collect it or tell you what needs to be done. If a nest is firmly established in your walls, removing it may be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. In any case, you will know a lot more after a bug person takes a look.

If the nest is small and outside your home, you can try to destroy it using a solution of soapy water (one part liquid dish soap to four parts water) in a plastic spray bottle or garden sprayer. Before you start you need to sequester your family and pets in a safe place and cover yourself from head to toe with protective clothing. Also, be sure no neighbors or pedestrians are nearby.

Soap allows water to enter the insect

Soap can kill bees and other insects because it is a surfactant—a substance that essentially makes water wetter. If you take a leaf and spray it with plain water, the water forms little round droplets. If you spray the same leaf with soapy water, the water flattens out into a thin layer. The wax of the leaf is a fatty substance much like the wax on the outside of an insect or the grease on your dishes—normally water cannot penetrate it. But add soap to the water and suddenly the water and the wax (or grease) form an attraction for each other.

In effect, the molecules of water—with the help of the soap—surround the fatty molecules. In the case of your dishes, molecules of fat surrounded by the soapy water are released from the dish and go down the drain. On the leaf or insect, the molecules of wax surrounded by soapy water allow more water to freely enter the insect’s body. Essentially, it drowns.

Before you kill bees, protect yourself

The homeowner who tries this method must be aware of several things:

Remember that pollinators of many types are endangered, so it’s best to have someone look at a nest before destroying it. If you know nothing of bees and wasps, stay clear of them until someone can identify them. If you live in areas with Africanized honey bees you don’t want to go near a swarm—even to kill it—until someone in the know has assessed the danger.


Water-drops-on-leaf-by Brett Jordan
The waxy surface layer of leaves is similar to the protective surface layer of insects. Soap can break down these layers and make them permeable to water. To kill bees, each one must be covered with the soapy water. Flickr photo by Brett Jordan.

Why do brood combs turn black?

It doesn’t take long to discover that brood combs can turn dark as night after just one season while honey combs stay light for many years. What causes this difference? Several reasons are usually given for this phenomenon, but in truth, it is probably a combination of all them that causes brood comb to darken so quickly.

The cocoons that remain in the cell after the bees hatch are the major problem. The cocoons are extremely sticky and, try as they might, the bees cannot strip it all from the comb. Some say the darkness is caused by the feces that remains in the bottom of the cocoons. Although this may be partially true, based on what I’ve read, the bees manage to remove most—if not all—of the feces as they prepare the cell for the next generation.

What is more likely is that the sticky cocoons attract all sorts of hive debris, from dirt tracked in on bee feet (many bees times six), pollen grains, and atmospheric dust. In addition, the bees polish the insides of these cells with propolis to make the surface smooth and to take advantage of the many antimicrobial agents found in the propolis.

The color found in the dirt and debris, combined with the layers of propolis—which is usually dark—probably accounts for most of the color change.

But, you say, the inside of honey cells are brushed with propolis too. That is true, but the honey cells do not contain cocoons and they are emptied and polished seldom—usually only once a year. Brood cells, on the other hand, may be polished and reused every 21 or 22 days during the spring and summer—a huge difference.

Another difference between honey comb and brood comb is the amount of bee activity. Once a honey cell is filled the bees move on to another. But once an egg is laid in a brood cell, the uncapped larvae is fed a thousand times a day—quite a different traffic pattern.

The buildup of cocoons and propolis in brood cells is significant. Some researchers have analyzed brood comb and found that the cells become measurably smaller as the walls become thicker. If you render your own beeswax, you know how much more debris is filtered from melted brood comb than melted honey comb. Clumps of this debris, appropriately called “slumgum,” clog strainers and mesh bags, and tiny bits of it darken the liquid wax.

The question always arises whether dark comb is harmful to bees. In truth, bees love dark comb and it is often used in bait hives to attract wild swarms. I’ve heard rumors about beekeepers using black comb for twenty-five years with no ill effects.

Recently, however, there is concern about pesticide build-up in old combs, as well as the accumulation of some pathogens. Many sources now recommend rotating old black comb out of the hive every four or five years, not because of its color but to protect the hive from these pesticides and pathogens.


The upper part of the comb has never been used for brood and remains light. The lower portion has contained brood and is starting to darken. Flickr photo by Jordan Schwartz.