When and How to Store Honeycomb and Brood Comb
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Knowing how to store honeycomb and brood comb is an important aspect in beekeeping. Where do the honey bees stop and the equipment start? Though I provide the boxes, frames, and foundation, my bees create their gorgeous architecture of combs. Personally, I think of wax combs as part of the honey bee superorganism. But drawn combs also enter the territory of plain old equipment. (I’m not a fan, but you can even purchase “fully drawn” plastic combs that bees had nothing to do with making.)
So when you are talking about beekeeping equipment maintenance, think of it as hardware maintenance — your boxes and wooden frames — and software maintenance (your drawn combs). A porous structure the bees use for both pantry and nursery, wax can also hold on to plenty of pesticide residue and environmental toxins.1 So, the condition of your wax combs should be considered as part of your regular hive health assessments.
What to do with old brood comb
Some beekeepers keep their combs for decades, while others rotate out drawn frames every few years. I’d suggest a healthy mix of practicality and paranoia when deciding whether to reuse frames. Pretty much everything is a risk for contamination*, but also, bees are smart, and equipment is expensive.
Research does suggest that size of the wax cells decreases as combs age and are used and reused by the bees for brood rearing; bees reared in old comb are slightly smaller and less productive.2
At the University of Minnesota Bee Squad where I work, we tend to rotate out brood combs every three to four years to be on the safe side, allowing the bees the chance to build new, clean wax every so often.
It’s a good idea to mark the tops of frames with the year they were introduced into the colony, so you aren’t guessing the age of frames by color — which is not a good indicator, because old comb is always dark brown to black, but newer comb can also darken quickly from white to gold or brown. Decide on the number of years you are comfortable reusing brood combs, then rotate them out, introducing new foundation frames as you go.
Assessing Combs in Dead-outs
Making decisions about combing from dead-outs are necessary, but a bit tricky. To keep mice and other beekeeping pests from moving in, dead-outs should ideally be cleaned and sealed upon discovery rather than left in the field to attract cold and hungry non-bee tenants. You can scrape off dead bees and debris from bottom boards, sort frames, and seal up boxes with tape, corks, and double entrance reducers.
But how do you decide which frames to keep and which to toss? The first step is figuring out why your bees died. If you think they died from mite-vectored viruses or pesticides, it’s more economical to throw away those brood combs than to risk hiving new bees on them or give those combs to other healthy hives in your apiary. If you know your bees died of starvation or cold, chances are it is safe to reuse brood combs that are in decent shape, even if they are moldy or have some dead adult bees still on them. Reusing combs with dead larvae in cells is risky. Most likely (unless it chilled to death), that brood was sick and could still harbor pathogens. Signs of death-by-disease* could include excessive mite frass (poop) in the bottom of cells, sealed brood cells, or dead larvae. Toss, please!
And what about all that dead-out honey and pollen? Especially if your bees died in fall or early winter, you might find much of their winter stores left intact. Unless you suspect a pesticide kill, good honey can boost other colonies that are low on stores in fall or early spring. Though pollen becomes less valuable to the bees as it ages3, it’s no crime to keep honey frames that also have pollen stores.
If you don’t have any bees to receive dead-out honey frames, but do have a large freezer, go ahead and store it for future use. Absolutely don’t eat dead-out honey yourself. In general, you shouldn’t harvest honey from the brood nest area, but particularly not if it has been sitting there all winter, exposed to who-knows-what rodents.
If you don’t have a freezer, you are in for a challenge. While keeping your frames exposed to light and air will keep away destructive wax moths, that same open air may invite equally destructive (and arguably more terrifying) mice, raccoons, or heaven forbid: cockroaches. This goes for storing those wet (extracted) honey supers, too. Drawn comb is a precious commodity that saves bees lots of time and energy, so neatly stacking and sealing your combs in a mouse-proof area is well worth the effort. (Freeze frames first if possible to kill any wax moth eggs.)
Back to hardware. Keeping those boxes scraped and in good condition is a key part of beekeeping. Boxes that are well-painted will warp less and rot less out in the elements, lasting you many more years than plain, unpainted wood. A long, cozy winter is coming up, perfect for painting and mending extra boxes and bottom boards and for sorting, fixing, scraping, and storing frames while catching up on your beekeeping podcasts.4
*Never reuse or share equipment you suspect is contaminated with American Foulbrood; AFB spores can live in equipment for decades. Contact your local Extension expert or Veterinarian specialist to learn how to sterilize or dispose of contaminated equipment.
- “Pesticide residues in honey bees, pollen and beeswax: Assessing beehive exposure” by Pau Calatayud-Vernich, Fernando Calatayud, Enrique Simó, and YolandaPicóc https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749118310893
- 2 Million Blossom’s series about pollinators: https://2millionblossoms.com/thepodcast/
Originally published in Backyard Beekeeping October/November 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.