Comb Rotation

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In addition to regular hive inspections, another important task I perform in my apiary is comb rotation. It serves a similar purpose as when we give our homes a good freshen-up. Comb rotation, or rotating old frames of wax out of the hive is known to promote better colony health. Here, I hope to help beekeepers understand the simple guidelines for comb rotation and why it’s such a big deal

Old comb from the brood nest that has been rotated out of the beehive.

Keeping bees involves a serious of beehive management tasks to ensure productive colonies. Refreshing the wax they use every day is easily overlooked-but it is very important long term.

Guidelines for Comb Rotation

Comb construction is an expensive undertaking for the colony. Energy used by the bees making beeswax – could be used in other ways. Therefore, I am sometimes hesitant to discard brood frames too quickly-but it must be done.

  • frequency of rotation
  • inspections and assessment
  • replacement techniques

Frequency

Most researchers suggest replacing old comb in the hive every 5 or 6 years. Some beekeepers say it should be a much shorter time 3-4 years. As with many aspects of beekeeping, it is difficult to give an exact timeline.

If only we could use the age of the frames, but it is not that simple. While we use the word “frames” loosely, it is actually the age and condition of the wax that matters.

It can be difficult to know which frames are the oldest. Beekeepers have developed several methods of tracking the age of wax. But most still rely on visual inspection of the wax. 

Older frame of brown comb from a hive help up with sun shines through - maybe wait?

Visual Inspection

How does the honeycomb look? Seeing a brown color is normal – wax does not stay bright white for very long.

If the comb is very dark – black honeycomb – perhaps you should replace it regardless of the number of years inside the hive.

The old “can you see through it” method is also popular. Hold the frame up toward the sun. If you can see a lot of light through it, keep it for another season. If no light penetrates the beeswax, its time to replace it.

Of course, this method does not work if you are using black plastic beehive foundation. In that cause you must rely on the color/appearance of the wax or it’s age.

Beekeeper holding frame up to sun to see if light shows through or it is time to be replaced image.

Placing a colored dot on two new frames each year is one popular way to mark the age of frames.  If you use the same color pen as for queen marking that year, you can easily determine when the frame was installed.

Comb Rotation Techniques

Okay, so we realize our bees need to have their “interior decor” refreshed from time to time. How do we do it with minimum disruption? The most common way to rotate old comb out of the beehive is to do a partial rotation.

Partial Replacement

If you have a hive filled with frames of old honeycomb, you could replace the whole thing. Wait until spring is underway, put the bees on entirely new foundation and feed them to encourage the bees to build comb.

I do not know of any beekeeper that does this. You do not need to make your bees start over from scratch.

2 Frames Each Year

One common method of replacing old brood comb is to remove 2 frames each Spring. Two frames of old dark wax are removed and replaced with 2 fresh frames with new foundation installed. 

In a 10 frame Langstroth hive, this would allow all 10 frames to be replaced over a 5-year period. This is best done in early Spring when the nectar or honey flow is starting.

What if the bees are using these frames? If it is just honey or pollen, go ahead and replace the old brood comb. Assuming of course that you are not removing all of the food stores in the hive!

Often the comb that you want to remove will have some bee brood. In this case, I move the selected frames to the outside portion of the brood nest (after the weather is warm). 

Not the outside of the frames at the extreme edge – but rather on the outside edges of the bee brood box.

During a later inspection (1 or 2 weeks later), hopefully the brood will have emerged and the frames can now be replaced with no loss. Wooden frames can be used again by installing new wax foundation or plastic.

Left - old comb removed from hive with smaller brood cells - right, newer beeswax cells, brood and bees.

Benefits of Replacing Old Comb

The bright white appearance of fresh honeycomb is a thing of beauty. But, that appearance quickly gives way to the stains of thousands of little feet, as well as, the pollen, raw propolis and honey in the hive – comb grows darker.

Beyond the visual appearance, older comb may contain contaminants. This is one of many reasons that rotating old comb out of the hive is beneficial.

  • brood nest health
  • queen performance
  • colony strength

Health

Regularly replacing old comb is one of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of disease. Over time, harmful pathogens and bacteria build up in the beeswax.

Clean fresh comb provides a healthier environment for developing bee larvae. This gives them the best chance to reach their potential.

New white beeswax honeycomb cells in a hive.

Queen Performance

Naturally, having a healthier hive can result in better queen performance. As the queen bee fulfills her role as egg layer, she depends on a clean environment to maintain optimal condition.

While there are many factors that affect queen performance, a hive of old nasty beeswax does not promote top performance.

Colony Strength

Bees store honey and pollen (bee bread) in the thousands of beeswax cells they prepare. If these cells are contaminated with pesticides or other harmful substances – the quality of the food may also be compromised.

Remember the old saying – “you are what you eat”? Well, bees are what they eat too. Consuming low quality food does not result in strong adult bees.

Another benefit of rotating out old comb – new comb stimulates the colony to expand the brood nest. With fresh new honeycomb, the bees will work hard to prepare the cells for the queen to lay thousands of bee eggs to boost colony population.

Risks of Not Rotating Old Comb Out

Failure to refresh your hive with fresh comb can expose bees to a range of risks that jeopardize their health and productivity.

  • pesticides and pollutants brought to the hive by forager bees are absorbed by the wax.
  • even some varroa mite treatments can contaminate the wax.
  • accumulation of pests, viruses, bacteria, etc.
  • brood cells become smaller due to left behind pupal cocoons

Of course, some of these dangers can occur anywhere in the hive – but it is the wax located in the brood nest of the hive that is most used and needs replaced sooner.

What to do With Old Wax

Now that you have discard sections of old comb – what can you do with it. Beekeepers are often tempted to melt down this comb to collect any usable beeswax. 

However, I warn you – it really stinks and you are not likely to get much good wax. Old brood comb is full of stains, propolis and pupal cocoons and does not yield nice wax.

One of the best ways to use old drawn comb is as a lure to attract a swarm. A small amount of brood wax is very attractive to honey bee scouts.

Placing 1 frame or less of old comb in your swarm trap can increase your chances of catching a swarm. 

This old wax is also attractive to pests such as Wax Moths. They will devour any brood wax kept in a dark location and maybe that is not a bad thing. Wax moths do clean out abandoned hives in the wild in just this way.

Honeycomb cells of old dark comb image.

FAQs

Why is comb rotation important in beekeeping?

Comb rotation is crucial in beekeeping – it helps maintain a healthy hive by preventing the buildup of diseases and pathogens.

How often should I rotate frames in my beehive?

The frequency of comb rotation depends on factors such as local conditions and hive health.

What signs indicate that honeycomb needs replacement?

Signs of comb deterioration include darkening, deformities, and physical damage, as well as, increasingly smaller brood cell diameters.

How do you rotate out the old brood comb?

Remove the frame from the hive and replace it with one with fresh foundation. If the frame has bee brood, move it a few spaces farther from the middle of the hive and wait a couple of weeks for the brood to emerge before replacing.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes, what we should do and what actually gets done is not the same. However, it is clear that periodically rotating old comb out of the hive is a great way to promote colony health.

Using whatever method, you wish, devise a plan to replace some of the old beeswax in your hive – especially once it reaches the 5–6-year age range. Your bees would thank you for it – if they could.

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