March 23, 2023

Dealing with Old Frames (118)

Dealing with Old Frames (118)

So, you take a quick look at that top box this spring, and it’s pretty much empty and you don’t need the room for a bit, so remove the box. Then you take a look at the frames, to see what can be done with them, or, what should be done with them....

So, you take a quick look at that top box this spring, and it’s pretty much empty and you don’t need the room for a bit, so remove the box. Then you take a look at the frames, to see what can be done with them, or, what should be done with them.

What you do, of course, it depends on the type of frames you have. Wooden frame, beeswax foundation, wooden frame, plastic foundation, all plastic frame and foundation in one piece.

In today’s episode, Kim and Jim discuss changing out old frames: Why you should do it and the decisions you must make along the way.


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Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 118 – Dealing With Old Frames


Kim Flottum: Jim, a couple of weeks ago, I got out and just took a quick peek inside one of my hives, just opened and shut. It was warm enough I could do that, but I tell you, right there, even there, I saw old frames that were empty and the wax was as dark as anything you can imagine. I'm going to ask you, what do you do with those frames that have got dark wax on them? They may be one year old and they may be five years old. It depends on the bees, but what do you do with those frames?

Jim Tew: What do I do with old frames? Old usable frames are just frames that have no other negative attribute than they're old. Are they all the same to you? Because if it's an old usable frame and I'm desperate, I might keep using it for another season. If it's a frame that has problems with it, too much drone comb, got a broken part of it, had some mouse damage, it's probably going to go away. I don't have a fixed frame. You want to talk about this? Clearly, it's on your mind.

Kim: Yes. Yes, it is.

Jim: Okay. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: Today, I think Kim is pretty clear that he wants to talk about what to do with old frames, so let's have a short conversation here.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew, explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Kim: That decision has way many parts. The first part is, is it one of my older frames and it's wood and it's got plastic foundation in it? Or is it one of my newer frames that's all one frame and foundation in one piece? Or is it an old wooden frame with wax foundation in it? Because I go three different directions depending on the frame that I'm looking at. You run into that?

Jim: I was just waiting for you to catch a breath so I can say I feel your pain. If you're an old beekeeper, you're going to have old equipment and that old equipment is probably going to have some old frames in it. It's a very legitimate question. How old should they be? What kind of frame is it? Does it have any repurposing capability or does it just go to the burn pile? Everything you said is right. Once that goes to the burn pile, what are you going to do with those plastic frames? You shouldn't be burning those things. What do you want to do with these things when they reach their end of life?

Kim: The wood frames, and I still have a few of those, the wood frames that have beeswax foundation in them, they go in one direction. What I do with those is I just knock out all the foundation and put it over there in a pile because I ain't going to touch that stuff again. I take a light blowtorch and [onomatopoeia] do the top bar and the bottom bar and the two side bars just to get the chunky stuff off, scrape what I can. Then that frame is ready to get another sheet of foundation or to go in the hive with no foundation at all and let them build comb in it. I like that because then I don't have somebody else's comb in the middle of my frame.

Jim: That's interesting. You have a lot of drone comb, don't you?

Kim: When they draw it out or from the old frame?

Jim: No. You don't have any foundation in that empty frame, right. Did I misunderstand you?

Kim: Right.

Jim: If they have no foundation, they're going to put what, 35%, 40% drone comb in that?

Kim: My experience has been, yes, if you put it just anywhere, you'll probably get some level of drone comb, but if you put it up in the top box of a honey super.

Jim: Oh, got you.

Kim: I'm not going to say you don't get any. Sometimes you get way more than you wanted, but usually, it's mostly honey sales rather than drone comb.

Jim: That's a dirty secret. It's not the end of the world to have drone cells and those honey supers. They're easy to extract them. As long as you don't have the queen get beyond the excluder or if you're using an excluder and put drones up there in your honey crop, it hasn't been the end of my world to have honey put in drone cell size comb.

Kim: Yes. Then you got the next kind, the wood frame with plastic foundation. Do you use those?

Jim: Yes, those plastic inserts?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: Yes, I use them. I have some questions about them, but the convenience is just obvious. Snap it in, you're done. No wiring, no support pins, nothing. I do use them. You're right.

Kim: How do you clean that sheet of plastic foundation in the middle?

Jim: How do I clean it? You mean if I want to reuse it?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: All those days that I feel like I have absolutely nothing else to do and I just want to really spend some time with myself and some junk equipment, I've got a three-inch scraper. It's probably intended to scrape wallpaper or something, maybe paint, but it's a big scraper. It's about three to four inches. I just quickly scrape the comb down. Got to be careful it doesn't gouge down into the insert. That take most of it off. Then on those days that I've really got time to spend, I'll maybe even pressure wash it. That does a good job. Then I'll recoat that with beeswax and put it back in, and most of the time the bees are fairly happy with it. I never took the insert out. It's still mounted in the frame.

You could knock the insert out if you want to, but in that propolised waxed-up frame with maybe a wedge nailed in and those wooden frames, it can be a cranky job getting that insert back in, so I would almost rather do it without taking it out of the frame. Now, you're going to ask me what my time is worth.

Kim: [laughs] Exactly right.

Jim: I know you're just dying to ask me what my time is worth. Yes, it takes a lot of time. It's a labor of love to do that. You have to be of a personality type that wants to use everything as long as it can be used. If you're other personality types and you take on more than you can do or more than you should do, then you probably don't want to even tinker with that. When you say, "How do I clean it?" that's a technique. I got a friend who told me his technique was to take those frames out on that plastic insert and maybe put them on a drum, 55-gallon type drum and just leave it there. Of course, the wax moths will find them, and then the wax moths have their go at it.

Then after he thinks they're done with it, he has a pressure wash contraption and he washes off the webbing, and then he recodes it, puts it back in. He didn't tell me what he does with all those wax moth holes that gets punched in the wooden parts, but he uses wax moths instead of scrapers to get rid of the comb.

Kim: Every day you're waking up listening to somebody telling us about the unsustainable environment we're living in and what do we do with all of this plastic. For quite a while, my first shot was I didn't keep the wax because it was dirt brown and I wouldn't want to make a candle out of it and I wouldn't want to do anything with it. I just wanted it to go away. I'd throw it on a campfire or something, use it for fire starters around the house. That sheet of plastic went away. It just went in the trash. A long time ago, somebody's guardian angel came up to me and said, no, you're not supposed to be putting this stuff back in the environment where it's going to get burned.

Then you start looking at recycling. Are there people that recycle that kind of plastic? There are, but you got to find them. So then what do you do? Then there's the plastic, the all one piece of plastic frame and foundation.

Jim: You're really digging a deep hole for you and me here.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: You sound like that old beekeepers are going to have a building or two filled full of old foundation inserts because you can't throw it away and you can't keep it. You can't clean it.

Kim: Right.

Jim: You never should have bought it. You should have bought a wood frame and let the bees build their own comb.

Kim: I'm going back in that direction, I got to tell you.

Jim: I have to agree with you. You're making that sound better and better from an end product use. Now, for all those people who sell plastic frames, my equipment is filled full of plastic frames. I use them, but you are about to go to the next stage, the entire, that single uniframe. That's the frame and the foundation, this insert, all combined. What do you do with that? Pick up there before I cut you off.

Kim: Okay. There is a place that I can take this stuff to that will recycle it. What they tell me is is that it is unassembled is the word that they used. They crush it, they turn it into powder, and then they send it to manufacturers who buy the powder and reformulate it into another object.

Jim: What I'm envisioning now is you got a bunch of boxes that are empty and you will be looking for someone to buy frames for them. Somebody helps us with this show, they'd be happy to talk to you about that. Let's hear from them for a minute.


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Jim: You're the one who started this conversation. Tell me where we go from here. You got wood frames with plastic foundation, even the old stuff had plastic center in it. We've been using plastic in our foundation for 40, 50, 60 years. Then we got these plastic inserts and now we've got plastic frames. How do you recycle those, repurpose those? You take them to someone special, but what if you don't have someone special. That may be a reason, Kim, that someone should go to the process of cleaning those frames and putting them back in if their alternative is just to keep buying more and more and more and digging bigger and bigger holes to bury them in.

Kim: I got to tell you, when it comes to the cost and the time, the frame that I liked the best in terms of the environment, in terms of acceptability by my bees and in terms of easy to work with is a wooden frame with a snap-in plastic piece of foundation that I put the wax on. I want my wax on that foundation because I know where that wax came from; cappings from last summer. It's not perfect, but it's cleaner than probably anything you can get anywhere else. That's what I like. Almost no time and I'm pretty confident in the product that I put in my hive.

One piece framing plastic foundation you can do that with, but when you go to clean it. You talked about pressure washing, and I'll be honest, I never thought about pressure washing a frame, but I suppose that would buy probably pretty good. I can do that in the garden and get my garden wet at the same time.

Jim: I want to tell you, Kim, you can be pressure washing yourself too. I actually bought a wetsuit because you're soaked. I have never found any kind of gadget, holder, vise that would hold that frame firmly enough not to drench me at the same time, but on a hot day cleaning frames, blowing that stuff everywhere, it works out all right. Go ahead.

Kim: Like I said, I hadn't thought about power washing them, but I can see doing it in the garden maybe in a shallow tub so it doesn't go scooting across the ground. Just wash it one side, turn it over, wash the other side, dump that water right in the garden because all that stuff that came off that frame is good garden stuff.

Jim: Yes, it is. Good point.

Kim: I think I'm going to go back to that box and I'm going to take a look at those frames. Most of them are wooden with plastic foundation. I may get a pressure washer session in my garden this summer.

Jim: I just want to talk to you for a minute and ignore our listeners. This is confidential. I really enjoy the convenience of those single-piece frames. You open the box and you put them in the beehive. There is no nailing, there is no gluing, there's no snapping, there's no wedge to put in. The one huge characteristic for those single-piece frames is how easy they are to use. Everything beyond that that we just talked about, what to do with them, how to repurpose them, that's a different subject. On the day you open that box and put those frames and the supers and deeps that you had, that was a neat clean operation.

There is that strong factor of convenience to those unit frames. What we've discussed here is chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. Which way do you want to go on this? Are you strapped for time and you've got actually more bees than you can manage so you probably want to go with convenience. If you're a traditionalist and you want to do what your father and your grandfather and grandmother did, you may actually go back to putting frames together, nails, gluing, snapping foundation. You could still wire foundation, you can roll back the years, and go back to the '40s and '50s and actually wire the frame. Put eyelets in first and do all of that. That would be the traditional way. That'd be like using a hand plane instead of using some kind of modern electrical woodworking piece of equipment.

You can be as much of a traditionalist as you want. If you got no way to throw it away, I'm just listening to you, if you got no way to throw it away, then you have a responsibility for maybe cleaning it up, putting it back on. I actually bought from one of the thrift shops an old crock pot. I did it because other beekeepers had already done it. It's on YouTube everywhere. Then you put wax in that and a three-inch paint roller and let that crock pot heat the wax back up and then roll that back onto those foundation inserts.

Put it back in. There's all different kinds of ways to do this. Kim, I basically agree with you. At some point, that frame has reached its end-life. It's dark, it's heavy, it's the liver of the colony. It's absorbed things that the bees brought back, it's absorbed environmental toxins. That wax has a strong affinity for absorbing things that bees bring back in. Over time, it really has become dark. Seeing a tree, the colony would have died out. The wax moths would have destroyed it and that cavity would have been available again and that wax would have had its own lifespan inside a natural nest. We're not doing anything that the bees aren't doing themselves in a different way.

Kim: When I was a kid, we used to buy wax moth larva for fish bait. I can see going back that direction. [laughs]

Jim: Yes. I liked your idea of going back, way back. Foundation was hasn't existed forever; any kind of foundation. Those oldest beehives ever, they just had a leading edge on the top bar and the bees tended to follow that triangular leading edge rather than cross it. You don't have to have it. The reason we wanted it was because we didn't want a lot of drone comb and we wanted nice, straight combs, but if you can live with some slop, let the bees lay it out and draw it. You don't have foundation in there at all. Now, that's going to come back to bite you when you put that frame into an extractor, if you tried to automatically extract it.

Kim: Exactly.

Jim: You've got to have some kind of reinforcement or, get ready for it Kim, you just produce cut comb honey and you don't extract it at all. You know that I just said a few minutes ago, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, which way do you want to go on this? It's your option beekeeper.

Kim: Yes, cut comb honey. That's good idea. That's probably the best way to go with that comb but that cut comb honey goes into a plastic box. [laughs]

Jim: What it does now, it didn't used to. It used to go in a basswood box and you cut a basswood tree down to get the basswood lumber, so you lost a nectar source and you lost a tree, but you had a nice box for your honey.

Kim: There you go.

Jim: You used to put it in glass and those glass honey dishes now are expensive and collectible and hard to find. I don't know what we've worked our way through on this. I fought it Kim because my earliest days in beekeeping, I was distinctly told that that wax comb was just like a Coca-Cola bottle. It could be refilled over and over and over again. A lot of things have happened. Coke bottles are not now refilled and I realized that there is a life limit to how long you should use that comb for any purpose inside the hive for either brood or honey storage. Just because it's just not intended to go for 50 years without being replaced. Probably what would you say, three to five years?

Kim: Closer to two to three.

Jim: I can't do that. Two to three I'll be replacing comb all the time. I'm getting a nosebleed saying three to five, but it needs to be replaced.


Kim: We got to get going here pretty quick, but I'll tell you, the trick used to be, when I was using beeswax foundation, that when a frame got so dark and I held it up to this sun and I couldn't see light through it, that time was over. With plastic foundation, that doesn't exist, so there's a date on the top of the top bar.

Jim: That date, I do mine too, Kim. I use a marker and put the date on them. The primary thing that does is make me feel guilty as I watch the years pass. There's that number on there reminding me of what a sloppy beekeeper I am. It is on those days that you're in the mood for it and you're ready to recycle some frames, those date numbers are really helpful. I'm glad you brought it up. I wouldn't have thought about this. I'm glad you brought it up. I've enjoyed talking about it.

Kim: It's 40 degrees and snowing today. I'm not going to have to get out there for a little bit. I can think about it some more. I'll let you know what I come up with.

Jim: It's is a good day to go clean frames, Kim. You go out there and practice what you preach.

Kim: [laughs] Okay.

Jim: I enjoyed talking to you.

Kim: I'll let you know how it goes.

Jim: I enjoyed talking to you. Bye-bye.

Kim: Next time.