Dr. Elbert Jaycox, retired long-time beekeeping specialist at the University of Illinois, thinks there might be something to the notion of periodically replacing old comb. He wrote decades ago that it’s traditional in Europe to replace comb when it becomes so dark light won’t pass through. This means comb turnover once every three to four years.
The idea of renovating combs raises a few eyebrows in United States’ beekeeping circles. Conventional wisdom dictates that even very old comb is still serviceable. In fact, over a period of years, comb gets so strong it can be handled very roughly with little chance of destroying its integrity. So it might be argued that old comb’s value increases with age. In addition, foundation is expensive and there’s a good deal of labor involved in cleaning frames and wiring in new wax. Finally, drawing the foundation into comb costs the bees energy and the beekeeper money. To make a pound of wax costs a colony about seven pounds of honey.
According to Dr. Jaycox, however, there are advantages to replacing old comb. The cast skins of generations of bees become incorporated into the cell walls. This causes the size of the cells to shrink, and over time, may result in adult bees as much as seventeen percent smaller than normal. Honey also becomes discolored in dark comb. Finally, old combs can be considered a sink for waste products in the colony that harbor disease organisms and stimulate fungal growth.
Although Dr. Jaycox doesn’t mention it, a case might also be made for using foundation and newly drawn comb to discourage wax moth infestation in stored comb. The larvae don’t do well on foundation or new white wax, but grow fat and juicy on comb that has been darkened by an accumulation of cast larval skins, pollen and other nutrients.
Dr. Jaycox encourages beekeepers to develop a system to renovate old comb. The effectiveness of the procedure can also easily be tested by comparing performance of colonies on old comb with those on newly drawn foundation. It makes good sense that reworking and rotating comb should become just as much a part of any beekeeper’s management as preventing swarming or getting colonies ready for winter.
Comb renovation is more and more discussed as a normal beekeeping practice as exhibited by a number of sites on the World Wide Web. At least one large-scale beekeeper in Florida removed a large number of older combs and replaced them with plastic foundation. The resulting mountain of frames awaiting disposal was pretty impressive.