May 13, 2021

Old Comb (021)

Old Comb  (021)

Old comb. What is old comb? Old comb is that which is darkened through generations of tiny bee's feet (ok, for the technically minded, tarsus and tarsal claws...) running across its surface. Is it good for years or should beekeepers pull and replace...

Old CombOld comb. What is old comb? Old comb is that which is darkened through generations of tiny bee's feet (ok, for the technically minded, tarsus and tarsal claws...) running across its surface. Is it good for years or should beekeepers pull and replace it?  At what point should it be pulled? 

In this episode of Honey Bee Obscura, Kim and Jim discuss all things Old Comb.

After listening to the episode, make sure you check out this Honey Bee Obscura video moment on the OneTewBee YouTube channel:


This episode of Honey Bee Obscura is supported by the three generations of beekeepers at Leibengood Family Apiaries, providing Georgia certified, southern raised bee packages and queens to central Ohio each Spring!


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Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

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Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 21 – Old Comb



Jim Tew: There’s a frequent recommendation that we couldn’t use comb indefinitely. When I was younger in beekeeping, I was told that comb would last forever. That may not be true.

Kim Flottum: It does last forever, but should it? I think that’s probably the question and that’s what’s changing in the world.

Jim: That’s exactly where we’re coming to. What we’d like to do then is to have some discussion here on exactly what the old comb is and when it should be replaced? [music] Hi, I’m Jim Tew.

Kim: I’m Kim Flottum.

Jim: We’re here with Honey Bee Obscura, we’re on Thursday mornings every week. We discuss some aspect of something from the hive. Today we’re wondering exactly what we should be doing with this comb? How long we should use it? When we should replace it?

Audio recording: 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 host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of man with honeybees in today’s world in engaging and informative discussion meant for all beekeepers long-timers and those just starting the journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim, and Jim explore all things, honey bees.

Kim: There’s a lot of discussion on old comb. I’m a mixed mind here, probably the most valuable thing a beekeeper owns is drawn comb.

Jim: That’s true. There’s a queen but when it comes to hive equipment and whatever that comb that you’ve found that’s ready to go. Got a swarm coming in, run get some comb. You’re right, it’s good to have.

Kim: Yes, it is. It takes a lot of energy for the colony to make comb and just getting rid of it takes energy, because it may or may not be a good idea. I think if I would call you that you had this question out of that old book you were reading, didn’t you?

Jim: I was just looking it up as we speak. 107 years ago, beekeepers were asking, how long to use comb? 107 years ago, it was not pesticide issues. 107 years ago, it was American foulbrood issues because we didn’t know what to do about AFB with no antibiotics, no nothing. It’s an old question, Kim.

Kim: Back then it was only American foulbrood but there are just some physical reasons to examine comb. I know you get some argument on this one way or another, but as those cocoons inside that comb build up, the volume of that cell decreases. Not a lot but it decreases. When you’re as big as a bee it can be a lot.

Jim: Old brood come has been through generation after generation after generation. Cells do get smaller. Those comb cocoons build-up and the bees polish that down with more propolis and over time you do to grow slightly smaller bees.

Kim: That’s an issue. I don’t know how much of an issue it is. You can argue, Africanized honeybees do okay. They’re a little bit smaller than our honeybees. Maybe it’s not a problem. What do you think?

Jim: When you were just saying that, I was wondering that very thing. Do we know? I don’t. Do we know what the optimal size is for a honeybee? Is it climate-related or are honeybees smaller in tropical areas and larger in temperate areas? Can we even tell, because we’ve got hundreds of years of selecting and breeding bees that fit our human standards?

Kim: Then there’s the whole small cell discussion that’s going on, it says that they evolve quicker. I mean develop quicker and all of that. I think there’s a bigger issue with old comb than all of those things that we’ve been talking about for all of these years, and that’s what’s in that wax.

What are we putting in that wax, in that colony? What are bees going out and bringing home and putting in that wax? I’m not going to say it’s the only thing we need to worry about but it’s certainly one of the things we need to think about. We’ve got varroa. To deal with varroa we’re putting stuff in hives and some of that stuff maybe go into the wax.

Jim: Oh, I think it is going into the wax. We’ve gotten so good at finding a molecule in a swimming pool. If you put anything inside that beehive, somewhere, there’s a technical person who can find some residue of that product.


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Jim: You know that wax, in some circles has been colorfully called the colony’s liver because it basically absorbs everything that goes through there. It’s a fact that it starts snow white, and then ends its life jet black and that must mean it’s absorbed a lot of something.

Kim: Some of those things we put in the hive for varroa are a lot more absorbent in wax because wax is made to do exactly that. That’s what it does, like you said, it’s a liver. It takes stuff out of the bees and encapsulates it or captures it and holds it tight in the wax. There’s always that stuff there.

Jim: 107 years ago, when that question was first asked, I shouldn’t say, first asked 107 years ago, things have changed so much. Because I spent the early years of my bee career, being told that the one of the most miraculous things about beekeeping was that the comb could be reused over and over again, and there were combs at Cornell that for 25, 35, 45-years-old then that were still in use. That was considered to be a good thing, but you remember, Kim, at that time you also sent Coca-Cola bottles back to the bottler and they were filled again.

We all had this refillable, recyclable concept that we don’t do now, and we didn’t know varroa. We had no knowledge about all this virus business going on and I didn’t really understand. I am now at a reluctant place where you say, probably shouldn’t keep this wax much more than - what did you say - a couple of years certainly no more than three or four years?

Kim: A couple or three at the most. That’s the stuff that we’re putting in hives for varroa there’s other stuff coming in and that’s where the bees go out and forage. They’re foraging and if you’re out in the country they’re on an agriculture setting and they’re running, at least sometimes, into stuff out there that you don’t want them to run into. It’s not a lot of stuff. It’s not enough to kill them.

In fact, it’s often not even enough to make them sick but they’ll pick up a little note and bring it home, but you’ve got a lot of bees going up and a lot of bees coming in. A lot of little bits of stuff that are being brought back and because the comb is deliberately absorbs this stuff. What’s the word? Hydrophilic?

Jim: Hydrophilic, I think so.

Kim: It absorbs this stuff. Then if you’re in town, it’s the same thing you’re not subjecting them to the same sorts of agricultural toxins, but you’ve got homeowners that are getting rid of dandelions and cities and parts that are spraying to get rid of weeds and keep the mosquitoes down so kids can play outside at night. Not much is coming back to the hive, but a little tiny bit is.

You add all that together and then just the regular everyday dirt, detritus bees bring back after they’ve been out foraging just clean. Dirt - that’s why it turns black. I’m thinking a couple, maybe three years but not much more than that before this stuff begins to build up to a point where it’s challenging the bee’s immune system.

Jim: I have no idea about that time frame, but I can see exactly where you’re headed with that. You’re right, we know a lot more than we used to know and I’m not sure what to do with that information. At some point, tear down comb, I suppose. Now, you and I’ve talked before, we didn’t rehearse this, (aside) but you’ve told me that rather than tearing down comb you just replace frames.

Then we pivot to the wrong subject, but you probably should talk about that sometime. I don’t really have a good plan for how I’m going to replace that comb. Am I just going to replace the frame? Am I going to do what my good friend Jimmy does down in Alabama and let the wax moths eat it and then pressure wash it off and then recoat it beeswax and put it back in? Since we’ve got ourselves out here on a limb saying, “You shouldn’t keep this comb.” How are we going to get rid of?

Kim: What Jimmy’s doing sounds good. It sounds like it’d be effective power-washing the plastic foundation or if you only have plastic foundation, just the wooden frame that you’re removing is probably going to get rid of a good share of anything in there that shouldn’t be in there. A long time ago, my dad taught me, “What’s your time worth?” I look at the time, it would take me to do all of that and I look at the cost of a new comb and I’m going, “It’s easier, cheaper, and faster for me to replace the whole frame than it is to clean off an old frame.”

Jim: You really stung me there, Kim, what is my time worth? I’m 72 and four-fifths years old. My time is worth more than what little bit of money I’ve got.

Kim: You think? [laughs]

Jim: Yes, I think, exactly right.

Audio voice recording: Betterbee is pleased to sponsor today’s episode of Honey Bee Obscura Podcast. For over 40 years, Betterbee has supplied beekeepers across the country with the tools, equipment, and knowledge needed to succeed. Because many Betterbee employees are beekeepers themselves, they understand your needs and challenges and are better prepared to answer your beekeeping questions.

From their colorful catalogs to their supportive beekeeper educational activities including this podcast, Betterbee truly lives up to their tagline of “Beekeepers serving beekeepers.” See for yourself at

Jim: As long as we’re being honest here about this whole thing too, I got to tell you that in my life, wax moths probably do a pretty decent job of recycling my comb. By the time I get back to an out yard, they’ve already gone through some of the brood frames and messed everything up, tore things down. In a peculiar way, you scratch that off the foundation and you say, “Will they build back on this?”

You’re desperate because you’re somewhere far from home and you put it back in the colony and sometimes, they’ll build back on it, sometimes they make a mess. Overall, over time, the wax moths do an annoyingly decent job of requiring me to remove it.  Where this frame is junk, it just won’t work anymore. Then at that point, I have to do something.

I began to accumulate these. I began to take them out of the colony, and I began to stack them over in an empty deep somewhere, and I give them a promise that “I’ll be back to you, buddy!” I wanted to come back and clean these frames up and put this back together,” but I’ll never do that. I don’t, you just put in other frames and keep going.

Kim: You may have stumbled on something here on good wax moth control. Let them eat that stuff that’s got whatever it is in it.


Jim: Oh, I can’t get off on that, the whole wax moth thing. Here I am, I’m getting off the subject.  At first, I said, “I couldn’t do it,” but I don’t know how we control wax moth anymore. I’ve got some deeps in the back of the bee yard that I’ll have to get back to – sometime. One- time, years ago you said, I’m quoting you and you’re sitting here that “Maybe just let the wax moth have it, don’t store the comb, just clean it up. Put it back on instead of trying to store it”

The old days, put para-dichlorobenzene on them. I don’t think you can even get that anymore, can you?

Kim: Yes, you can get it again. Somebody reregistered it. You’re getting back to Jimmy’s way of handling this and now, maybe that’s not such a bad way to think about how to take care of this problem. I don’t know if we’ll ever settle it.

Jim: Since you’re talking about Jimmy and I’m talking about Jimmy, let me do it one more time - a beekeeper’s procedure for dealing with this, (aside) and he didn’t give me permission to use his name, but Jimmy, you know who you are, said, “Let the wax moths eat as much of it as they want, and then pressure wash those foundation inserts clean, and then recoat them with molten beeswax, and then give it back to the bees and they would rebuild it.” Good.  Better work.

You go on the web and have a look in YouTube, there’s all kinds of beekeepers there who are using those crockpot devices. You can get them at the various secondhand stores for a couple of bucks, put beeswax in that, then get a two-inch paint roller- maybe three-inch paint roller and roll it back on. Then Kim Flottum said, “Well, what’s your time worth?” [laughs] Because by the time you go to that crockpot, you store it away, get bees wax that’s reasonably clean, get the pressure washer out, get all this done, what is your time worth?

It may very well be, Kim, pull the frames out, put some new ones in. I don’t like that, it’s not my style, but that may be the best way to go.

Kim: I got another season to figure it out, I hope.

Jim: I think we’ll have to hold off on this. We probably offended more people than we’ve helped. [music] We got a lot of people who listened to us, Kim.

Amanda, thank you for tuning in. You gave me a nice comment the other day and you made me feel better about the segment. I appreciate you being here. I hope you’re here next Thursday when we do this again and talk about some other aspect of beekeeping that we probably know very little about, but that doesn’t bother us, Kim, does it? Nothing bothers at all. (Laughter)

Kim: Why should it?

Jim: I’ll see you next Thursday. I always have a good time.

Kim: Next Thursday, guy, take care.

Jim: All right. Bye-bye.

[00:15:24] [END OF AUDIO]