How to make a steam melter

When it comes to rendering beeswax from old combs, one common concern is the amount of wax that remains in the slumgum. Whereas it is fairly easy to melt new comb or cappings, old combs can be difficult and frustrating due to cocoons and other debris in the wax.

Aram Frangulyan, a beekeeper in Auburn, Washington devised a simple rendering system that separates most of the wax even from the darkest combs. He uses steam in an enclosed box and lets the wax drip out the bottom into a pan of water. Aram writes, “It does not matter how old your frames are. Steam chases wax out of frames completely caked with propolis or frames that are so old you would never get anything out of them with any other method.”

Here are some instructions for a building a wax melter using a wallpaper steamer:

1. Build a steamer box. Aram used a deep brood box and made a top and bottom out of scraps of plywood. Attach the bottom piece of plywood securely to the bottom of the deep box.

2. Drill a hole near the center front of the plywood. This is where the melted wax will drain out.

3. Line the box with aluminum foil, completely covering the bottom and then up the interior sides of the box. Punch a hole through the foil at the drain hole.

4. Drill another hole in the top plywood, large enough for the steamer hose to fit snugly.

5. Arrange the steamer box so that it tips forward and the drain hole is over a catch bucket filled with water. The water prevents the wax from adhering to the inside of the bucket.

Once the melter is complete you can begin filling the box with frames. If your frames are wooden with wax foundation, you can put them in the melter as is.

If you have plastic frames or plastic foundation, the steamer will melt the plastic. So for these frames, you can scrape the frames free of wax and place the scrapings in the box.

When you are ready to begin, just turn on the steamer. Aram says it takes about 40 minutes for the wax to begin dropping out the bottom.

Aram used a feeder board underneath, but he suggests using a plain piece of plywood with a hole cut for the wax to drain. © Aram Frangulyan.
The wax can be scraped directly from the plastic foundation into the melter box. © Aram Frangulyan.
Here the box is filled partly with frames containing wax combs and partly with wax scraped from plastic foundation. © Aram Frangulyan.
A pile of scraped frames. © Aram Frangulyan.
The wax drips into a bucket of water. The water prevents the wax from sticking to the bucket. © Aram Frangulyan.
This rendered wax is ready for a secondary process. It needs to be remelted and filtered to remove the fine particles. © Aram Frangulyan.
After the melting process, all that remains is slumgum. © Aram Frangulyan.
Aram pulled aside the slumgum with his hive tool and, as you can see, no layer of beeswax remains. The wax has all been steamed out. © Aram Frangulyan.

I have not tried this method because I don’t have a steamer, but I’m seriously considering it. I have buckets and buckets full of wax waiting for me to do something.


Pearlescent honey

Robert Lunsford from down in Louisiana wanted to know what was up with his honey, so he sent the following three photos of shimmery, iridescent honey that seems to glow from within. Awesome looking stuff!

My theory is simply this: I think he had at least two different types of honey in the pot. One of the types was much higher in glucose than the other, so it began to granulate much more quickly.

It looks to me like they were not thoroughly combined, but just stirred a little bit—the way you would make a marble cake or strawberry swirl ice cream. The result was ripples of granulated honey suspended in liquid honey. Because honey becomes lighter in color when it granulates, the nearly white but opaque crystals could easily be seen through the darker, but still translucent liquid honey.

I figured that it would all soon granulate, especially since it was now seeded with crystals. Sure enough, by the time I requested permission to use the photos, Robert reported that it had all granulated into a fine-grained, silky smooth, and creamy consistency.

Has anyone else seen this? I thought the photos were great.

Thanks, Robert!


Iridescent honey. © Robert Lunsford.
You can see the swirls where it was stirred. © Robert Lunsford.
It seems like magic. © Robert Lunsford.

Is my honey safe to eat?

Is it safe to eat honey from a hive with mites?

Is it safe to eat honey after my bees absconded?

Is the honey from a dead hive safe to eat?

A moth was on the honey comb. How can I sterilize it?

Is it safe to eat a jar of honey with comb inside?

Help! There’s a bug in my honey. Will I be sick??? Please get back to me right away!!!

Is it safe to eat honey from a hive that had mice?

Some variation of the “is it safe” query pops up every day. The questions often concern insects or mites, as if a stray wing may sicken us.

In my generous mood, I patiently explain. In my catty mood, I want to say it is entirely unfit for consumption, and if they’ll send it to me, I’ll take care of it. In my impatient mood, I want to know what they’re smoking.

Why are we so afraid of insects? Furthermore, why is food from a store or restaurant deemed perfectly safe while food directly from nature is suspect? People will eat mystery meat out of a can—or a shiny apple containing 37 different pesticides—without a thought. But those same people will panic at the idea of eating something a mite may have stepped on.

When I read these questions, I get the feeling that people don’t realize how many contaminants are in their food. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes a handy-dandy little guide called the “Defect Levels Handbook,” which lists the allowable number of insect parts and rodent hairs in all different types of food. For example:

  • Peanut butter may legally contain up to 30 insect parts per 100 grams. My jar of Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter says a serving size is 2 tablespoons or 32 g. So that’s 10 insect parts per serving. Yum. Furthermore, the reason for the restriction is listed as aesthetic. In other words, those parts won’t hurt you, they just look bad.
  • Broccoli is always interesting. Frozen broccoli may contain up to 60 aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams. That’s about 3/4 cup. Reason: aesthetic.
  • Canned mushrooms should not contain more than 20 maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained product, nor should they contain more than 75 mites per 100 grams of drained product. Reason: aesthetic.
  • Wheat flour should average less than 75 insect fragments per 50 grams. Reason: aesthetic. And you thought you were vegetarian? Think again.

When I was a kid my grandfather would ask, “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?”

I would shrug, trying to imagine something worse.

Then he would laugh merrily and say, “Finding a half a worm!” He though that was hilarious; I thought it was gross.

One day, as he was loading bushel baskets of apples into the trunk of his car, I poked around, looking for one to eat. “These are all wormy,” I complained, tossing them back.

“Of course!” he said. “That’s why we’re pressing them for cider!”

Needless to say, cider didn’t pass my lips for many months. But people don’t get sick drinking cider or grape juice or cranberry juice, worms and all. It all goes back to the aesthetic: we dress up our food to make it look nice, but the harmless contaminants are still there. The trouble is, we do such a great job hiding the truth, that people believe their food is pure.

My point? Don’t worry. Honey is one of the safest foods around. If you don’t like insects on your toast, remove the ones you can see, then chill. There are things out there we should be worried about, but a bug in your honey doesn’t make the list.


What lurks within?

Packin’ propolis

I am pleased to share another photo from Louisiana beekeeper Robert Lunsford who, earlier this year, sent awesome images of chimney bees. Today’s photo shows a honey bee fanning in front of her hive while carrying a full load of propolis. I love the way the light glows through the big, gooey drops. Better still is the shadow cast by her fast moving wings. The shadow takes on a surreal shape, probably the result of the figure-eight pattern of her wing movement. All in all, a great shot. Thanks, Robert!

Honey bee with a load of propolis. Photo © Robert Lunsford.

Meadowfoam honey?

Last time I was in Oregon, I picked up a sample of meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba) honey and it’s been sitting on the shelf. Three days ago, I opened it for a taste. My first thought was “bubble gum.” Hmm, not good. I put it away and tried it again yesterday. My first thought was “marshmallow.” Not good at all. Today was my third try, and I’m going to stick with marshmallow.

The primary flavor is just over-the-top sweet with a slightly artificial taste, almost metallic—what pennies must taste like only sweet, sweet, sweet.

I tried meadowfoam honey once before and I don’t recall this flavor. I looked up the ingredients for marshmallows and they are made primarily from high-fructose corn syrup. How interesting. I’m not accusing anyone of anything, I’m just saying.

Does anyone know what meadowfoam honey is supposed to taste like? Has anyone else noticed a cloying sweetness with no floral overtones? Does anyone who produces this stuff have some insight? It was probably my worst honey experience ever, but now I’m really curious. I will try to find another source so I can compare.