Bug Soup, or Wax Collection Gone Wrong

I had big plans.

I was going to harvest pounds of extra wax from our beehive. I was going to have candles for days.

But it wasn’t to be.

Basically, what I did was make bug soup and then throw it away very carefully.

This is my tale of woe.

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A while ago our poor spare frames were overrun with wax moth. It’s just what happens when you leave used frames unprotected. I’ve heard that a strong colony will clean up infested frames without a problem, but I didn’t quite have the faith to put it to the test. Instead, I brought them home to salvage the wax.

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I pulled all the wax from the frames and got a pretty impressive pile.

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My main concern was with filtering the bugs. Because yes, this wax was riddled with wax moth larvae. I decided to melt it down in a pot of water, bugs and all, and filter it in its liquid state.

Beeswax burns extremely easily, so rather than melting it directly on the bottom of the pan, I thought I’d let it dissolve into the water, strain it, and let it separate back out as it cooled.

Simple, right?

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As the wax melted, I managed to fit all ten frames’ worth into the pot. After letting it stew for a while, it was time to strain it into molds.

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I rubber banded a few layers of cheesecloth over the tops of some plastic containers. In this tiny sample, we can see three gently simmered wax moth larvae.

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This was a horrible job. Beeswax sticks to everything it touches and is famously hard to clean up. I was forever setting down cardboard and running out of space and sacrificing utensils.

To make matters worse, it was extremely hot. The pot was hard to handle, and I learned the hard way that some plastic is less heat-tolerant than others.

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I finally managed to get four containers full of strained wax water. I set them outside to cool off. The cat went out to investigate and came back wax-dipped.

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I left the containers out overnight while I googled how to remove wax from a cat. (If you don’t word your search carefully, you get very different results).

In the morning I went out to investigate.

Oh boy.

One was knocked over. They were all full of rainwater.

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And while my hopes of the wax separating and rising to the top did technically play out, it wasn’t all I’d dreamed it would be.

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This is it. My entire harvest. It weighs 0.65 ounces.

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So what went wrong? I think it was the filtering. While I managed to keep the bugs out of the final product, I kept most of the wax out with them. It all clung together on top of the cheese cloth, and the wax molecules that snuck through with the water were purely coincidental.

A decent amount also wound up on the cat.

If I ever do this again (and to do so will take a tremendous amount of courage), I’m implementing a strict no-bug policy. Maybe there’s a good way to filter them out, but I sure don’t know it.

Stay tuned for a post about making a single votive candle.

A Mothy Day

I had every intention of checking on the bees. I’d gotten the smoker out and everything. When I went to open the plastic bin we keep the bee suits in, however, I found some unwelcome guests. They were everywhere, and the bee checking had to be postponed.

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It wasn’t hard to find the source of the problem. We were storing the bee suit bin on top of another bin with some old frames of comb in it. And those frames, wouldn’t you know it, were completely full of wax moths.

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Wax moths are a perpetual threat if you’re storing used comb without bees to protect it. Fans of the blog may remember that our hive was infested with wax moths last spring, after it was abandoned. Wax moths are rarely a problem in active hives, because the bees will drive them out before they can take hold. But if the comb is unprotected, like in the empty hive or the shed, moths are almost certain to move in.

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Despite their name, wax moths don’t actually eat wax. A frame of unused foundation in the same bin was untouched. What the moths like is the thin, protein-rich skin that’s left behind on the cell walls by the bee larvae when they emerge as fully formed bees. Think of it like a bee amniotic sac. Moths lay their eggs in the wax, and those eggs hatch into grubs that burrow through the wax, feeding on these old protein skins.

Because they’re disgusting.

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I thought the bin we were keeping the frames in was tight enough to keep the moths out. I thought wrong. Here you can see a few of those little grubs on the move.

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And here are some adult moths.

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Will and I dragged the bins outside to clear them out. We wiped out all the bugs and their bizarrely stretchy webbing.

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The moths clearly started in the bin with the frames, but they’d been migrating. I found a few little cocoons in the bee suits.

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I picked off all the cocoons I could find and shook everything out. For good measure, I took the suits home and washed them. I sprayed the bins down with the hose and let them dry in the sun. I’m pretty sure we’re moth-free.

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As we were working, a few of the bees came over from the hive to see what we were up to. This one found a single globule of honey on one of the frames.

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Some others flocked to the honey that dripped out of the frames onto the ground. They will have drunk as much as they could hold, then carried it back to the hive to store.

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This wasp showed up for the free food, too.

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So what became of the frames? I didn’t want to keep them around so full of moths, but I couldn’t stand the idea of throwing away all that good wax. I brought the frames home and tried to render the wax in my kitchen.

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Stay tuned for that tale of hardship and woe.

It’s Bee Time Again

I have good bee news and I have bad bee news.

The bad bee news is that our colony from last year is dead. They didn’t make it through the winter. On the first truly warm day of spring, I went down to the garden to check on them. They should have been flying all over, enjoying the sun and reorienting themselves.

They weren’t.

A few days later we got all suited up just in case and opened the hive.

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It was totally empty!

There weren’t just dead bees – there were no bees. Honestly this was one of the best case scenarios (coming in at a long second to living bees). I was having horrible visions of thousands of dead bees rotting in the hive. Instead of a disgusting job of scraping bee slime out of the hive, we had pristine frames and a whodunnit on our hands.

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Our screened bottom board had a few dead wasps on it, and our first thought was that the bees had been overrun by them. If that had been the case, though, there would have been bee corpses everywhere.

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The wasps weren’t killers – they were just opportunists. They must have come in after the hive was abandoned to steal the remaining honey. An unoccupied hive is an amazing find if you’re a wasp, unless you’re this poor little guy, who somehow died in the act of theft.

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My friends Will and David had come along, and we shed our veils and coats and did a thorough inspection of the hive.

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In spite of the wasps, there were still patches of honey. One or two frames were still pretty heavy with it. We’ll put these in the hive to give the new bees a head start.

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Some frames will not be going back in. When the colony disappeared, the wasps weren’t the only opportunists to set up shop. The wax moth is a particularly gross pest drawn to beehives. These moths lay their larvae in honey comb – when the larvae hatch they tunnel through the comb and leave behind this distinctive webbing. Their favorite food (because they are so gross) is the skin of bio material left behind in the cells when a baby honeybee emerges. They craw from cell to cell, gorging themselves on this skin.

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A strong colony should be able to fight off wax moths without a problem. They’re mostly a hazard when you store used comb that’s full of tasty brood skin but unguarded by bees.

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We found this webbing in a few of the frames. We won’t be reusing this comb, but we will save the wax. We gouged out the webbing (because who wants that?) and put the frames in our solar wax melter.

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What else did we find? Nothing much. A single cell of hot pink honey. Maybe one bee went off the grid and harvested a melting Skittle.

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A sad sight – a lone bee, about to be born but with no one left to take care of it.

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And a gorgeous display of packed pollen in different shades.

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So what happened to the bees? They didn’t starve, or freeze, or get murdered. If they had, we’ve have the bodies. Kim and I went to the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association meeting to talk to the experts, and the prevailing opinion is that Varroa mites are to blame.

Varroa mites are usually to blame when it comes to honeybee problems, especially here in the north where overwintering is so difficult as it is.

We didn’t treat aggressively enough for mites in the fall, so as winter wore on, the mites’ numbers increased. Bees with high mite infestation are much more susceptible to disease. Just like with everything else, bees’ attitude toward disease is very self-sacrificing. On a warm day, infected bees would have flown away from the hive to die, hoping to prevent the spread to other bees in the colony. But it was spreading anyway, and these sacrificial flights happened again and again until literally no one was left.

But I said I had good bee news, too, and I do! We’re moving on and learning from our mistakes, and we have new bees on their way! On Wednesday we’ll be picking up a package from Georgia – a little mesh box containing a queen and about 3,000 bees.

This will be the foundation for our new colony.