As a beekeeper for more than 10 years, I fondly remember starting on my beekeeping journey. The fresh smell of my new Langstroth hive and frames was exhilarating, but after the “new car smell” wears off, the question facing any beekeeper is how to manage aging frames from a hive that’s not fresh off the assembly line. What do you do with the hive that froze out during the winter or those frames that were overtaken by moths or a wayward field mouse? The answers to these simple questions can quickly take beekeeping from a fun hobby to a monotonous chore if you’re not careful.
Set A Comb Maintenance Schedule
As a sustainable bee farm, we try to keep our frames on a regular maintenance cycle. Every few years, consider taking out your frames and simply replacing the wax foundation to start fresh. Wax moths tend to prefer comb as it ages and gets darker, so ensuring clean wax helps to reduce potential issues. Limiting the amount of time a frame of comb is used also ensures that you minimize contaminants in the hive that can build up over time and reach a critical mass that affects hive health.
When you replace foundation, scrape off the old comb and save as much of the wax as possible to melt. Remove any old wiring and wedge from the frame. I’ve always used the traditional wedge-top frame with double bottom bar, but today there are many other options, so be aware of the style you’re using. Also check for loose nails and make sure all your joints are tight before replacing the foundation.
While a set maintenance schedule is optimal, if you’re like us, you also have kids, a job, a farm to run and all sorts of “life” that gets in the way. Do your best, but don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself playing catch-up with your frame management. I always have stacks of frames that need some TLC to get them back into circulation.
Time Vs. Money
Like any big decision in life, the deciding factors for frame maintenance are time and money. Do I really have enough time to fix all my hive frames, or am I better off just buying some new ones periodically. Repairs can be a tedious and time-consuming job, so be realistic about your ability to allocate time. The answer for a hobbyist will be much different than that of the commercial producer. Make sure you weigh all your options before making a decision to fix or replace:
- Build Your Own New Frames: If you have time and money, purchase new frame parts in bulk, so that you can build up your own supply before the season and have top and bottom bars or end bars available to make repairs. I’ve spent many weekends during the winter on my living room floor, gluing and nailing together new frames while watching football games.
- Buy Frames Already Built: Out of time? Consider purchasing frames ready to go onto the hive. Check your local bee club for members who build hive parts as a side business, particularly during the honey flow, when you run short and need supers in a hurry.
- Make Repairs As You Can: If fixing things is your specialty, set up a work space and enjoy the challenge.
Keys To Repairing Frames
As you get set to repair frames, make sure you consider some of the key questions.
Are there any disease issues?
In today’s world of stressed and diseased bees, if there is any question that your hive may be compromised, err on the side of caution and start anew. Make sure that frames are disposed of properly—many states require diseased hive parts to be burned.
Can pest damage be fixed?
The first time they encounter the aftermath of wax moth, beginning beekeepers often ask if the chewed up frames can be reused. Usually moth or even mouse damage results in superficial impacts to the wood. If frames have been frozen and cleaned up to remove all traces of moths, they can usually be fitted with new foundation and put back into circulation. Consider the severity of the wood damage and do what feels right.
Do you have hardware to make repairs?
Over the years, I’ve seen many beekeepers use metal brackets, nails and other creative ways to patch together broken top bars or reinforce cracks and splits. Having a supply of such things at your disposal to extend the life of a frame is an option. However, with the rising price of hardware, you might be better off just replacing the piece of damaged woodware if you need to purchase brackets.
What is the extent of the frame damage?
When working a hive or cleaning up frames, the most commonly damaged portion of the frame is a snapped bottom bar or end of a top bar. Bottom bar replacement is usually a simple fix and can be made by removing the broken pieces and nailing in the replacement. Top bars can be more difficult depending upon the style of frame, and end bar repairs generally require more intensive work because of the wiring from foundation. Each manufacturer now has multiple styles of wedge-top and groove-top frames that require different parts and construction methods. Make sure you find the type of frame that matches your personal style of beekeeping.
No matter what choice you make, whether to repair or replace, know that there is no “one” answer for everyone. Fix what you can do easily and move on. When frames are going to be too time-consuming to repair, consider deconstructing it and saving it for spare parts. If you can’t devote enough time needed to fix all your frames, focus your energy toward harvesting the wax your bees worked hard to collect. You can always make candles, lip balms or salves. Add your broken or old frames that are beyond repair to a campfire and make some s’mores. You’ll love the sweet fragrance of the wax and, more importantly, enjoy the greater benefit of time spent around the fire with family and friends.