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Comb Rotation: Replacing Old Brood Frames

By keeping honey bees in manufactured hives, we have removed them from their natural home.  In addition to regular hive inspections, the beekeeper has another task to consider.  Comb rotation, or replacing old brood frames with new wax is known to promote better health for the colony.  Healthy bees are productive bees so replacing old comb should be a concern of every beekeeper.

Old dark brood comb that needs replaced in the frame image.

Why Replace Brood Comb in a Beehive

Seeing a new colony building fresh wax gives one the feeling of new beginnings.  And, it is a new beginning for that particular sheet of honeycomb.  Unlike other insects that gather natural materials for nesting, honey bees truly to make their home.

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Young adult workers are the primary wax builders in a colony.  However, older bees can also make beeswax if needed – they just don’t do as good a job.

Building the sheets of comb with their thousands of wax cells is a lot of work.  We often call the process “drawing comb” (not to be confused with an art project).  A finished frame of honeycomb is a frame of “drawn comb“.

Beekeepers are often anxious for new colonies to get this task well underway because colony survival depends on this space for food storage and brood rearing. New comb is fresh and clean without contaminates-but it doesn’t stay that way.

Benefits of New Comb in the Hive

The bright white appearance of fresh honeycomb is a thing of beauty. But, that appearance quickly gives way to color. 

Beeswax absorbs the stains of thousands of little feet, as well as, the pollen, propolis and honey in the hive.  This progression from snow white wax to beige, yellow, brown and eventually black is normal.

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The wax located in the brood chamber of the hive changes in other ways.  It too becomes stained from the same substances as comb found elsewhere. However, wax cells used for brood rearing also grow smaller. 

Honeycomb cells of old dark comb image.

A study of the life cycle of the honey bee, takes us through the 4 stages of bee development.  When the baby bees reaches the pupal stage, it is encased in a cocoon.

Later, the emerging adult leaves the cell to take its place in colony life.  Even though the first job for this new worker is to clean her cell, she leaves something behind.  A thin pupal cocoon remains inside the wax cell.

This is no problem and does not prevent the cell being used over and over again.  However, over a period of years, this causes the cells to become smaller and smaller.

In addition to a changing appearance, old comb in the hive may contain toxic substances.  Pesticides and pollutants brought to the hive by foragers are absorbed by the beeswax.  Even some of the varroa mite treatments used by beekeepers for bee health can contaminate the wax.

Add in any manner of pests, viruses, bacteria, etc and it is easy to understand why rotating out old brood comb is a very wise idea. Clean fresh comb provides a healthier environment for the bees.

How Often Should Wax in the Hive Be Replaced?

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. 

But beekeepers realize that comb construction is an expensive undertaking for the colony.  Energy used to produce wax could be used in other ways.  Therefore, we are sometimes hesitant to discard frames of comb too quickly.

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 foundation.  In a 10 frame Langstroth hive, this would allow all 10 frames to be replaced over a 5-year period.

If only it was that simple.  It can be difficult to know which frames are the oldest.  While beekeepers have developed several methods of tracking the age of wax, most still rely on sight. 

How does the honeycomb look?  Is it very dark? 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.

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

Of course, this method does not work if you are using black plastic foundation.  In that cause you must rely on the color/appearance of the wax or mark the frame in some way.

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

Assuming your frames have been in the colony for a couple of years, it is probably time to start your comb rotation. During a Spring hive inspection, select 2 frames to remove from the hive.

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.  Not the outside of the frames but rather on the outside edges of where brood is located in the box. 

During a later inspection, 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.

Honeycomb in hive frame with bee brood and darker color image.

What to do With Old Brood Comb

Now that you have frames of old black comb, what can you do with it.  Beekeepers are often tempted to melt down this comb to collect any usable beeswax.  You can proceed with this task. 

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.

Using Old Drawn Comb for Swarm Traps

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

New bees will use old comb or other resources that are available. 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 attracting 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.

Very old black brood frame comb suitable for swarm trap image.

Comb Rotation Promotes Healthier Colonies

Sometimes, what we should do and what actually gets done is not the same.  However, it is clear that periodically providing your bees with fresh comb is a great way to promote colony health.  This remove toxins from the hive and give the bees fresh full sized wax cells.

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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