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Producing comb honey


#1

I have started producing comb honey- and so far - so good. In fact its gone so well I am thinking of making more- and forgoing some deep wired frames i had planned to use for spinning.

i have a question about making comb honey: I understand that wax is ‘expensive’ for bees to build- and comes at the cost of lost honey production. But I am wondering: how much that cost? When you uncap you lose perhaps 20-30% of the wax when you uncap- but the bees get back a nice sticky to clean up and re-use. When you remove comb honey the bees have to start from scratch so I would expect ultimately to harvest less.

Is there a figure anywhere for this A guesstimate?

and a last question: if you left an ideal on over winter as bee stores- hut then harvested in spring- would it be likely the combs would be too dark and old to make good comb honey? Or do they stay fresh clean and white?


#2

Six lbs of honey to make one pound of wax is the often quoted figure. I have seen some quote eight. Comb Honey has to be held in the finest comb so it has to be made on thin foundation or on free drawn comb. The best cut comb is made on a fast flow when the bees draw and cap the frames quickly. The super is best on top of any others so the bees aren’t using it as a thoroughfare. That way it’s nice and clean. Cut pack and freeze to use as needed. Good luck. PS old wax left in overwinter will be too grimey and chewy to be of any use I’m afraid


#3

Hi Jack,
Following your post as I wonder about the exact same thing.
I put an ideal foundationless box onto my flow box in February and the bees drew the comb in 2 weeks and filled and capped in another 2 weeks, except the 2 outside frames. Then I took the ideal off. I think the flow had stopped and they weren’t working up there in big numbers any more.
During that time they kept filling the flow frames too.
Initially I put the ideal on to keep them busy, they stopped bearding as soon as the ideal went on.

I don’t quite believe the theory that bees use up honey to build comb. Apparently their wax glands produce wax anyway, as a side product, and if they don’t need it for wax building they have to discard it outside the hive. Hoping to learn how that all works in the future.

One person said the bees need x amount of honey to make wax and it gets repeated in literature over and over.
Wish I knew, or how to find out.


#4

Even if the amount of honey they need is on the large side- they only need to make something like 100 grams of wax to store 3kgs of honey. We’re using ideals now too on our basic flow hives. It’s a great combination: flow for honey and ideal for comb.


#5

How much honey is diverted to make wax? Being scientifically minded, I have done a quick literature search on this topic in the past.

The answer is unknown. There are about 20 experiments done on this topic over the last 100 years or so, and many of them are flawed by the lack of controls, confounding factors (e.g. hive temperature, young bees produce more wax than old bees etc) or small sample sizes.

The 8:1 ratio (i.e. it takes 8 grams of honey to make 1 gram of wax) is from an experiment done by Whitcomb in 1946. Other researchers have come up with ratios varying from 3:1 to 15:1. All studies showed that some honey is diverted (metabolically) to make wax - i.e… wax does cost honey.

If anyone is interested there are 2 books that discuss these studies in great detail.
HoneyBees and Wax by Randall Hepburn and HoneyBee Nests also by Randall Hepburn, both out of print and rather expensive.

Although it does seem to costs bees honey to make wax (in whatever ratio you choose to believe), the total cost may not be as significant as it looks by the ratios. Wax comb is a very efficient way of storing honey. In my crush and strain harvest, I calculated that the ratio of wax to honey in a fully capped frame was 1:20. That is, 100g of wax can store 2kg of honey. (Sorry Americans, this is too difficult to do in antique units - metric makes it trivially easy). So if you go with the 8:1 ratio of Whitcomb, the bees have to divert 800g of honey to make 100g of wax that can then store 2000g of honey. So it is a cost, but not a huge cost.


#6

In ‘Value-added products from beekeeping’ by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Rome 1996 it says that 20g of comb supports 1000g of honey.


#7

Hullo Jack,
We always leave a medium or two of cutcomb on the hive to overwinter our bees. We also on occasion harvest a comb or two in the spring with no problem, finding the wax clean and bright. I think that as long as the bees have access to it, they keep it tidy.


#8

Its quite possible that when I did my crush and strain, some honey was left on the wax (I didn’t wash it) therefore leaving the wax heavier than it really was. If 20g of wax comb can really support 1000g of honey, then that makes the cost of making comb fairly insignificant.


#9

It’s irrelevant how much honey makes how much wax. What is relevant is how much TIME during a flow it costs the bees to draw comb. That makes a big difference in how much you harvest. The only really well done study on honey to wax conversion would be Huber’s since they were not free flying. The most commonly quoted (when they bother to quote) study is by Whitcomb in 1946.

From Beeswax Production, Harvesting, Processing and Products, Coggshall and Morse pg 35

“Their degree of efficiency in wax production, that is how many pounds of honey or sugar syrup are required to produce one pound of wax, is not clear. It is difficult to demonstrate this experimentally because so many variables exist. The experiment most frequently cited is that by Whitcomb (1946). He fed four colonies a thin, dark, strong honey that he called unmarketable. The only fault that might be found with the test was that the bees had free flight, which was probably necessary so they could void fecal matter; it was stated that no honey flow was in progress. The production of a pound of beeswax required a mean of 8.4 pounds of honey (range 6.66 to 8.80). Whitcomb found a tendency for wax production to become more efficient as time progressed. This also emphasizes that a project intended to determine the ratio of sugar to wax, or one designed to produce wax from a cheap source of sugar, requires time for wax glands to develop and perhaps for bees to fall into the routine of both wax secretion and comb production.”

But here is Taylor on the expense of wax and Doolittle’s opinion on it:

“The opinion of experts once was that the production of beeswax in a colony required great quantities of nectar which, since it was turned into wax, would never be turned into honey. Until quite recently it was thought that bees could store seven pounds of honey for every pound of beeswax that they needed to manufacture for the construction of their combs–a figure which seems never to have been given any scientific basis, and which is in any case quite certainly wrong. The widespread view that if the combs were used over and over, through the use of the honey extractor, then the bees would be saved the trouble of building them and could convert the nectar thus saved into honey, was only minimally correct. A strong colony of bees will make almost as much comb honey as extracted honey on a strong honey flow. The advantage of the extractor, in increasing harvests, is that honey stored from minor flows, or gathered by the bees over many weeks of the summer, can easily be extracted, but comb honey cannot be easily produced under those conditions.”–Richard Taylor, The Comb Honey Book
Doolittle’s opinion:

"Again, at all times of a heavy yield of honey, the bees secrete wax whether any combs are built or not; and if the sections are all supplied with foundation, and the hive filled with comb, this wax is wasted or else the foundation given is wasted; have it which way you please…To show that I am not alone in this matter regarding the waste of wax, I wish to quote from two or three of our best apiarists; the first is Prof. Cook, and no one will say that he is not good authority. he says on page 166 of the latest edition of his Manual ‘But I find upon examination that the bees, even the most aged, while gathering, in the honey season, yield up the wax scales the same as those within the hive. During the active storing of the past season, especially when comb-building was in rapid progress, I found that nearly every bee taken from the flowers contained wax scales of varying size, in the wax pockets.’
"This is my experience during “active storing,” and the wax scales are to be found on the bees just the same whether they are furnished with foundation or not; and I can arrive at no other conclusion than that arrived at by Mr. S.J. Youngman, when he says on page 108: ‘The bees secrete wax during a honey flow, whether they are building comb or not; and if they are not employed in building comb, this wax is most certainly lost.’
“Once more on page 93, of the American Apiculturist, Mr. G.W. Demaree says: ‘Observation has convinced me that swarms leave the parent colony better prepared to build comb than they ever are under other circumstances; and that if they are not allowed to utilize this accumulated force, by reason of having full sheets of foundation at hand to work out, there will necessarily be some loss; and I think that when the matter is computed, to find the loss and gain the result will show that the foundation really costs the apiarist double what he actually pays for it in cash’…Now, I have often noticed, and especially in looking back over the last year, after reading Mr. Mitchell’s “Mistaken Economy,” that swarms hived in June would fill their hives full of nice straight worker combs, and the combs would be filled with brood during the first two weeks after hiving; while a colony not casting a swarm would not make a gain of a single pound of honey; nor would a swarm having a full set of combs given them, or the frames filled with foundation, be a whit better off at the end of two weeks. Mr. P.H. Elwood has noted the same thing; thus proving that the theory that it takes 20 pounds of honey to produce one pound of comb, will not hold good in cases where bees desire comb and have free access to pollen. As most of my comb is built at this time, the reader will readily see that the combs cost me but little, save the looking after the colony once or twice while building comb, which is far cheaper than buying foundation, or fussing with a foundation mill.”–G.M. Doolittle ABJ Vol 20 No 18 pg 276

The problem with most of the estimates on what it takes to make a pound of wax is they don’t take into account how much honey that pound of wax will support

From Beeswax Production, Harvesting, Processing and Products, Coggshall and Morse pg 41

“A pound (0.4536 kg.) of beeswax, when made into comb, will hold 22 pounds (10 kg.) of honey. In an unsupported comb the stress on the topmost cells is the greatest; a comb one foot (30 cm.) deep supports 1320 times its own weight in honey.”


#10

Hi Jack, bees have to work at producing wax. Wax is produced from large quantities of honey. That’s if the information in the video “City of Bees” is to be believed.

You often see bees hanging in long chains hard at work, producing wax. It’s the weight of the lower bees drawing on the bodies of the higher bees that produces wax. This is after the higher bees fill up on honey.

I had my bees producing mainly comb honey for a few years, about 20 years ago, until my market waned. I just got the bees producing comb honey on fresh foundation & didn’t even think about the honey/wax ratio, even though I knew at the time that it took a lot of honey to produce wax.