The Buzz from Cornwall: Wax and Foundation

Wax & Foundation- A blog by Tamsin Harris

Imagine having the ability to, as a collective, to build your home complete with nursery, larder, communications network, notice board and resting place, all from the conversion of the food that sustains you.

Well that is exactly what honey bees have done for millennia. Their ability to secrete wax from four pairs of glands on the ventral side of their abdomen is truly amazing. The young workers cluster together, hanging in curtains, keeping the area warm in order that the malleable fresh wax flakes can be moulded into that super strong hexagonal shape we all know as honey comb. All this is competed in the darkness of a hive by bees that are younger than 18 days old and the most perfectly formed comb is produced when there is a good nectar flow on. Food is plentiful and in constant supply then so the energy intensive activity can be fuelled with nectar and whole frames of foundation or frames with starter strips are drawn into usable comb.

It is said that it takes in the region of 7 or 8 pounds of honey to make one pound of wax so beekeepers who wish to remove a honey crop from their hives use sheets of wax, known as foundation, in either wooden or plastic frames, to give the bees a head start in their comb building. There is the option of using plastic foundation that can be scraped clean, sterilized and reused once the wax has seen a couple of seasons.

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Good quality, fresh wax foundation had a intense, rich smell and a bright appearance. It can be bought in all the different sizes needed to fit the frames of National, Commercial and Langstroth hives, in both brood frames and super sizes. The foundation sheets that are to go in the brood box are invariably what’s known as worker foundation, the cell size corresponds with the cell size needed to produce a female worker bee. The foundation sheets that are fitted into super frames can either be worker or drone brood sized.

There are pros and cons to fitting either. A greater crop of honey can be stored in drone brood foundation as the cell size is larger, so can hold more honey per cell. The downside is that should the queen gain access to the super and lay up the drone brood cells with drones, you then end up not only with a large quantity of hungry males eating away at your honey crop, but a large quantity of drones who are too large to squeeze through the queen excluder and have no way out of the hive.

All the above sheets of foundation are produced with reinforcing wires running through them to assist with supporting the brood and honey stores in moveable frames. There is the option to buy these without wires in thin sheets that are used either whole or cut into starter strips (better quality cut comb with no chewy midrib) in order to produce cut comb honey. Care needs to be taken if these filled frames are not good enough for comb honey and are put into the extractor. As they have no reinforcing wires they can be liable to break apart if the extractor is spun very vigorously and you end up with chunks of comb honey clogging up the straining system – not advisable!  

There’s a certain sense of satisfaction, and an amazing smell of cut timber and fresh wax, when you’ve made up a quantity of brood frames and fitted the foundation. They are all ready and to hand when you start to replace the old comb you moved to the edge of your brood box late last summer. If that’s timed to coincide with when there is a good nectar flow on, the resulting drawn comb of lovely bright wax is a joy to behold.

Regularly renewing the wax in the brood box is essential in helping to maintain healthy colonies. Aim to replace at least four frames each season as a matter of course. Should the need arise and you need to do a shook swarm or Bailey comb exchange, then you will need 10 or 11 brood frames per hive, possibly in addition to the combs you replaced in the Spring. Don’t underestimate the amount you will need!

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