Ask Phil: December 2014

Phil Craft

Got A Question? He knows!

A beekeeper in Ohio writes:
I would like to purchase three or more nucs next Spring for expansion and to replace any winter losses. I would prefer to get them from local sources, but when I tried to buy some last year, there were none available. Do you have any advice?

Phil’s reply:
I’m a strong supporter of buying local nucs and queens. Many beekeepers and beekeeping professionals, including those in extension and research, tout the regional adaptability of bees from local sources. I feel that their greatest advantage is in minimal or reduced transportation time. Whether I’m buying a queen or a nuc, I would much prefer picking it up directly from the seller to having it sent by mail or commercial carrier and having it spend several days en route. It’s far less stressful for the bees and leads to a higher success rate. I wrote about this subject as it pertains to queens in my March column of this year. Most of the issues I discussed then apply to nucs as well.

Nuc photo by Bob Sears

Nuc photo by Bob Sears

As you discovered last Spring, one of the few difficulties with using local nucs is getting your hands on them. It’s a problem of strong demand and limited supply. Like plum jobs and desirable apartments near campus, quality local nucs rarely show up in the classifieds. They sell by word of mouth, and they sell quickly. Beekeepers who are known to produce nucs as a sideline often start taking orders in the Fall, as early as October. By the first of the year, all the nucs that they expect to be able to make in the Spring are spoken for. Often, in the Spring and early Summer, beekeepers ask me if I know where they can get a local nuc. By that time, the best I can do is to suggest that they call around in the hope that a producer had orders which were not picked up, or perhaps had a good year and was able to make more than anticipated.
I realize that it’s difficult to predict your next year’s needs in the Fall, before (as you point out) Winter losses are known. Larger queen and nuc producers, in California and in the South, often do take orders much later – often about the time smaller local beekeepers are getting booked up. However, even if you are prepared to settle for nucs from an out of region supplier, some of the most popular of these start taking orders in the Fall and can sell out early in the year. It is a good idea, when dealing with any queen or nuc producer, to inquiry when they begin taking orders, and to place yours early.

A beekeeper from Pennsylvania writes:
Why isn’t paraffin not more widely used to protect bee boxes? I recently read an article about a beekeeper who had paraffin coated hives that were 30 years old and still looked good. Is it just because it is harder to put on than paint, or are there other reasons?

Phil replies:
You’re right – it is a lot of work, but that is just one of the reasons that paraffin is not more widely used.

Pine is the most common type of wood used in the construction of brood boxes, bottom boards, supers, and other hive components. Though readily available and economical, it is susceptible to rot, and must be treated to prevent penetration by moisture. To this end, beekeepers use a variety of methods to preserve their woodenware and extend the life of their investment in it.

Nicely painted rooftop hive. (photo by Mary Parnell Carney)

Nicely painted rooftop hive. (photo by Mary Parnell Carney)

Paint is the cheapest, and by far the most common, method of protecting woodenware. It is applied to the exterior surfaces of hive bodies, bottom boards, and outer covers, and also to horizontal surfaces (for example, top and bottom hive body edges.) Painting frames and the inside surfaces of the hive is not necessary since they are not exposed to the elements. Leaving them untreated will also help reduce excess moisture in the hive because the raw wood will absorb some of it. Either oil based or latex paint can be used. The merits of one versus the other are the subject of much debate, and I do not intend to enter that discussion. However, latex paint cleanup can be accomplished with water, whereas oil based paint requires mineral spirits. Mineral spirits give me a headache, and water is cheaper, so I use latex paint. On new wood I apply a primer coat and two finish coats, though one finish coat is probably sufficient. As to color, white is of course traditional, but any light hue will work. Avoid dark colors to reduce the absorption of sunlight which will increase the hive’s interior temperature. Some beekeepers use more than one color, perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or maybe to take advantage of sale prices on overstocked colors at the building supply or paint store. I recently began using color to distinguish between my regular supers and those that I use for comb honey.

Paraffin, in this context, is a waxy solid derived from petroleum. While it is not difficult, especially via the internet, to find lots of information comparing paint and other traditional wood finishes, the use of paraffin seems to be almost exclusively the domain of organic gardeners and beekeepers. Hence, information is limited. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that wooden hive components treated with paraffin can last from 20 to 30 years, but I am not aware of any controlled studies on the subject. What is definitely known is that paraffin must penetrate wood, not just coat the surface, to be effective. Therefore, it cannot just be applied with a brush; woodenware must be submerged in molten (about 280 ºF or 140 ºC) wax, for a period 10 to 15 minutes.

To do this yourself you would need:

  • An outdoor location. This process should not be attempted indoors.
  • A tank large enough to submerge at least one hive body with room to spare. Paraffin is highly flammable and should not be brought into direct contact with a heat source, so it should be a double boiler.
  • A regulated heat source. Gas is the most common, but whatever the fuel, it is important that you be able to adjust and maintain the temperature.
  • A thermostat or thermometer. If the temperature is too low, the paraffin will not be hot enough to penetrate; if too high, it can burn and splatter. Paraffin should not be heated above 350 ºF.
  • Paraffin. A fairly large quantity will be needed depending on the diameter of the tank. Most of it will not be absorbed into the wood, but will be necessary to achieve a depth sufficient to cover the woodenware; the excess can be poured into molds and saved for reuse. Paraffin can be purchased in large blocks, but at several dollars a pound, the initial outlay is not insignificant.
  • Miscellaneous tools. You will need weights to keep the wooden pieces from floating in the tank, tongs to lower items into and remove them from the tank, etc.
    Time. In addition to the time required to treat each piece of woodenware, allow several hours to set up the apparatus and heat the paraffin to the proper temperature.
  • Strict attention to fire safety. Not only is paraffin flammable, but so also is the vapor. It is heavier than air and will ignite if it comes into contact with a spark or heat source. If the woodenware contains any moisture, it can cause the paraffin to froth and potentially to splash or overflow and be ignited by the heat source. You need an area around the cleared of any flammable material that could be ignited by the hot paraffin as it drains from the woodenware after its removal.
  • Personal protective equipment. Wax burns are serious and painful. At the least, gloves and goggles should be worn at all times.

As you can see, the difficulty, risk, and initial cost of treating with paraffin are prohibitive for most single, small scale beekeepers. It would make better economic sense for a commercial beekeeper or for a group or cooperative. Some bee supply companies will do all the work you, selling paraffin dipped woodenware at a surcharge of somewhere between $4.00 and $6.00 per piece above the cost of the item. But this begs the question, is it worth it in the first place? I have painted woodenware that is close to 20 years old. Though showing its age, it is still serviceable with the application of an extra coat every few years. The labor and cost of those extra coats is small compared to that of paraffin treatment, so even if paraffin lasts longer, I am not sold. In the absence of evidence that it does, the answer for me is no. Still, the topic is an interesting one. If you would like to read a very thorough publication on the subject see:

Naturally finished hive.

Naturally finished hive.

OTHER METHODS There are a number of other products which beekeepers can use to protect their hives, some of which also enhance their appearance. Even beeswax can be used for dipping, though it has many of the same drawbacks as paraffin, and is more expensive. The following products are, or can be, used by beekeepers, are considered safe for bees, and, like paint, are applied by brush to the outside of the hives only.

POLYURETHANE It can be applied with or without stain, and is the most commonly used product for those who wish to maintain a natural, wood grain appearance. The cost is comparable to that of paint, but I’m not sure about its useful life. The application on my front deck, which is partially protected from rain by a roof, needs a new application after only three years.

LINSEED OIL and TUNG OIL Both are natural products. Linseed oil is derived from flaxseeds and Tung oil from the Tung Tree (Asia). However, both are much more expensive than paint, and have to be re-applied frequently. Every one to two years?

Whatever preservative method you choose to use, here are a few tips to extend the life of your hives. Moisture is the enemy, so use screws instead nails, especially at joints of hive bodies. Nails are more prone to loosen, which creates cracks in the corners, and allows water to seep in. Liberal application of wood glue during assembly will also help keep joints tight. Use a non-toxic silicone caulk to seal cracks or damage to the wood. Most wood treatments (with the exception, arguably, of paraffin) have to be reapplied periodically to be effective. Just as your wood siding needs to be repainted and your deck resealed from time to time, your beekeeping equipment needs maintenance if you want it to have a long life. I am not speaking now as one who leads by example, but as one who sees and recognizes his own shortcomings. We have been remodeling our house during the last few years, and my wife tells me that my bee yard, due to the deteriorating state of my hives, is an embarrassment. I’m not alone in this situation. I think there must be a mathematical formula in which the condition of a beekeeper’s woodenware varies inversely with number of hives and years of beekeeping experience. For me, that equation yields an unflattering solution, so I’m trying to reform. I’m starting with honey supers, since they are all off the hives at this time of the year. A few I have discarded outright, victims of too many years without maintenance. Those in good condition I lightly scrape and sand and top coat with a new coat of paint. Some have too much peeled or missing paint, and need two coats. If I had been as diligent as I should have been, one coat would have easily sufficed for all. Supers more badly damaged will be repaired with wood putty, sanded, and re-coated. I’m also trying to approve the appearance of my bee yard – again, my wife’s idea – by using colors other than white. If and when I complete this project, I will share a photo of my spruced up apiary. In the meantime, see photos of the hives of some of my more conscientious, and creative, friends.

As you can tell, I’m a paint guy, but I would appreciate hearing from those of you who have experiences with alternatives to paint for protecting bee hives. And please send photos.

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