Whitening the comb
Although we haven’t had any appreciable rain around here for the last 10 days, we are still hanging on to the green and the summer flowers are starting to appear.
The bees are actually beginning to make a little honey, from just what I’m not quite sure, not a strong honey flow but good enough that the packages are filling out their second stories and “whitening the comb.”
Whitening the comb is a beekeeping term, pretty direct and self-explanatory, and it describes just what it says.
It takes two things for beeswax production and the resultant comb building, a good supply of incoming nectar and a good population of young bees. The nectar is the raw material. Young bees are the producers.
The young bees consume honey and during the first two or three weeks of their lives their wax glands are functioning and they can convert that honey metabolically into wax, which is extruded in tiny flakes from beneath the plates of their abdominal segments.
The young bees then mold the wax into one of the marvels of the natural world, honeycomb — beautiful, orderly, hexagonal cells that are the strongest and most efficient use of space.
In managed colonies there isn’t too much comb building going on once the colony is established. At the beginning we give the bees rectangular wooden frames that hold flat sheets of beeswax called foundation. The foundation has been run through a mill and has the impression of the cell bases pressed into it on both sides. The bees produce the wax to draw out the cells and complete the comb, and after that the comb can be used year after year.
The comb darkens over time, turning to a deepening brown from the rich lemon yellow of new comb.
The darkening color comes from brood rearing, which quickly darkens the comb, and pollen tracks, the staining that comes from pollen, both that which is stored in the cells and the “tracks” left by the nurse bees as they move the pollen from the cells to feed the larvae.
When the wax is first extruded it is almost white, and this is what the bees put on the edges of the top bars, like they are touching things up, putting on some fresh paint, in this case wax, and when I open a hive the top bars look like they have been delicately frosted along the edges.
Some of that wax production and comb building urge is put to work when the honey supers are added to a colony.
When the supers were filled the previous season each cell was capped with beeswax, and in order to remove (extract) the honey those cappings were cut away with a hot knife. It is the cappings that are refined and used in the winter for candle making, it is the best wax because it is new each season. So now when the honey supers go back on, the new wax is used by the bees to repair any damage done to the comb during extracting and then as the combs are filled, to cap each cell.
The economies of wax production are interesting, both for the beekeeper and the bees. The general rule of thumb in beekeeping is that the young bees have to consume about 7 pounds of honey to produce a pound of wax.
Drawing out comb is a business investment for a beekeeper because of the value of the honey required. The drawn comb in a honey super represents an investment of dollars in lost honey, not lost entirely because it has been converted from one asset to another, honey to wax, but lost in terms of the harvest at the end of the year.
While the comb itself is used year after year the cappings are harvested each fall when the honey is extracted, and a well filled super will yield a little less than half a pound of new cappings wax. That wax will be rendered and will become candles in the winter, and a 12-inch taper takes 1/5th of a pound of wax.
So for the sake of discussion let’s just assume some arbitrary value for the source of it all, the honey. It will vary from one operation to another and depend on whether the honey is sold in 55-gallon drums or 8-ounce squeeze bears, but for a small producer, let’s say $5 a pound. This makes the comb in a honey super worth about $20 in wax alone, but of course the comb will be used for many years so the investment must be amortized over perhaps 20 or 30 years for a honey super.
I have honey supers with wax even older than that, which is still a bright yellow because there has been no brood rearing or pollen storage in it, just honey.
The bees make the same investment. Initially to store the honey they consume 30 pounds of honey ($150), to draw out enough comb to store and cap 45 pounds of honey the first year, in succeeding years only $5 per 45 pounds since the investment is just in the cappings.
For the candles, each candle represents a fifth of a pound of beeswax or about $7 in lost honey. Under these economics a pair of dinner tapers has a raw material (honey) value of $14 before figuring in the time invested in making them.
In reality, there are economies of scale and raw beeswax doesn’t bring anywhere near that price, nor do my candles even after I’ve invested hours in their creation.
Not all of life can be looked at in economic terms, some things are done for love, for beauty, for some intangible reward. Sometimes it isn’t a good idea to put too sharp a pencil to life’s little rewards, you just take ‘em and savor them and be thankful that you can.
To open a healthy colony of bees and hear a contented hum, to have the warmth of the hive waft up delicate fragrances of new honey, to step back and see snow capped mountains to the west right out my office window, what price do you attach to that?
The bees are whitening the comb. Every life should be punctuated with such moments. ❖
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Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., presided Wednesday over a hearing on agricultural research and food security that is likely to be his last before his retirement.