Waxing Eloquent
by Donald Ray Burger

One of my favorite bee columns is “The Classroom,” by Jerry Hayes. He writes in the American Bee Journal. In his October, 2012, column a question came up about a perennial debate topic among beekeepers: “waxed versus unwaxed foundation.”

Some beekeepers still use natural wax foundation. Unfortunately, that requires the time consuming task of wiring the foundation for extra strength. Most beekeepers applauded the development of plastic foundation as a way to add strength to the product. Sadly, the bees were not as enthusiastic. There are many reports in the literature about beekeepers who have had total unsuccess when using plastic foundation in their hives. Other beekeepers sing the praises of Plasticell, Duragilt, and Pierco plastic foundations.

It is generally agreed that the bees will draw comb on plastic foundation so long as the foundation has a wax coating. One can buy the above foundations with the wax already added or one can add a thin coat of wax to the foundation.

Hayes, in his article, clearly advocates adding a thin coat of wax to the foundation. He goes over what exactly it means when the bees “draw comb.” I hadn’t really given this much thought. I assumed the bees deposited wax from their wax glands and built up the comb. Hayes makes the point that what the bees are doing is “drawing out” the comb. They are not “building up” the comb. Hayes states that if you paint wax on the foundation the bees will stretch the wax up into an hexagonal shape. If there is no wax on the plastic foundation the bees are unlikely to show any interest in building a comb there. His proof that the wax is drawn out is that a friend used red wax in coating and the entire cells were red, not just the bottoms of the cells. This shows that the bees used the existing wax to draw out the shape.

If you do an internet search on this subject you will find several stories where beekeepers tried factory waxed, unwaxed, and painted waxed foundation to see which worked best. The bees clearly preferred the painted wax foundation.

There are various ways to add wax to your commercially purchased foundation. First, I recommend that you purchase foundation that comes from the manufacturer with a light wax coating. Second, if you paint on additional wax, the bees will draw out the comb much faster and with less energy. When starting a new hive, this can be important in getting the colony off to a good start.

The simplest way I saw for adding wax is to warm some wax in a double-boiler to about 175 degrees F. Be careful of kitchen fires when heating wax. Also, realize that any container in which you heat wax is ruined for regular cooking. Do not use your good Cuisinart pans!

After the wax is melted, use a foam brush to apply the wax to the plastic foundation. Beekeepers have tried to lightly coat the top of the foundation and leave the dimpled holes clean. Other beekeepers were less concerned with neatness and allowed wax to get into the preformed depressions also. Experiments showed that the bees preferred both of these systems over the factory wax and that they preferred the heavy coat of wax over the carefully applied method. My theory is that the heavy coat gives them more wax to draw out, making their lives easier.

You need to use beeswax for this process. Soy wax will not be used by the bees. Give this a try.

Written October 10, 2012

First published in The Skep, October, 2012

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