beeswax

What’s the best and highest use for dark beeswax combs?

Brood combs get darker with batch of brood.

Why do you have so many dark beeswax combs in your hives and what should you do about them? Can you safely extract honey from dark combs?

Inside: Learn what to do with dark beeswax combs and why they can sometimes be problematic.

Dark brood combs are normal and natural

A newly secreted brood comb is an exquisite achievement. The white or cream-tinted cells gleam in the sunlight and smell heavenly. Is anything in beekeeping more exciting than seeing a new swatch of pristine honeycomb and inhaling its essence?

Unfortunately, beeswax combs do not stay that way forever. Just as new cars lose their alluring aroma, so do waxen combs.

Darkness seeps in little by little

Dark beeswax combs don’t happen overnight. The darkness seeps in slowly, barely noticeable at first. But one day, you look at a comb and think, “Gross!” You wonder how it got that way and how safe is it for your honey bees?

The darkest combs are the ones used for brood rearing. It turns out that the process of brood rearing is a dirty business. Similar to infant rearing, you have food stains, dirty diapers, fingerprints, microbes of all sorts, dust, dirt, and grime. No matter how often you clean every surface, you need to repeat the process constantly

Worker Bees and Their Dirty Feet

Worker bees are known for having dirty feet. As they walk around the inside of the hive, they track pollen and hive debris across the surface of honeycombs. Comb honey producers—who especially don’t want combs with footprints on them—have a special name for dirty bee tracks: “travel stain.”


The gooey process of brood rearing

A cell begins as an empty space with an egg stuck in the middle, but it soon becomes a factory. You may think the first bit of garbage will be an eggshell, but it’s not. The eggshell of a honey bee dissolves instead of cracking like a bird’s egg.

But after that, trash begins to accumulate. The worker bees make thousands of visits to each larva, excreting royal jelly at first, and later delivering bee bread. As the workers travel back and forth, they leave debris: dust, pollen, and splatters. All of these stick to the pristine waxen combs and give them a hint of color.

Later, as the larva spins a cocoon, it empties its intestine of all the food waste from eating so much. This excrement gets woven into the fabric of the cocoon so it doesn’t contaminate the developing bee.

Cocoons stay in place forever

The feces-containing cocoons get pressed against the waxen cell walls as the pupa grows. And when the pupa emerges as an adult, the cocoon stays inside the cell, forever glued in place.

The cocoon, feces, and hive debris darken the wax, making it light tan at first. But then the worker bees prepare the cells for the next round of brood rearing. Although they can’t remove the cocoon layer, they clean and polish the surface.

Because any pathogens in the feces become locked in the cocoon layer, the new larvae stay safe. As a final touch, sometimes worker bees smooth the inner cell surface with a layer of propolis, something that makes it even safer—and darker.

Multiple cocoons add layers of darkness

Each new round of brood rearing adds more layers of debris and makes the brood comb a bit darker. The frame in the top photo shows a comb that has raised many bees, but it still has plenty of life left.

Beeswax combs near the edge of the brood nest often stay clean longer than those in the center. That’s because nurse bees use the center of each frame more often than the ends.

When brood rearing is just starting in the spring or tapering off in the fall, the outermost combs may remain empty or they may get filled with honey. Because honey does not produce dark combs the way brood does, these combs can look much cleaner for a long time.

Management of dark combs has changed

In the olden days of beekeeping, dark beeswax combs were a prized possession. Why? Because bees love the odor of used combs.

Stories of beekeepers using combs for 25 years are not uncommon, even though the diameter of the cells gets smaller as more layers accumulate.

However, with increases in global trade, we have many more pathogens living in beehives than we did 50 or 100 years ago. Some of these pathogens—collected from around the world—can persist in brood combs and be passed to a new crop of bees.

Today, many beekeeping authorities advise that we replace black combs after about five years. This simple step will reduce the pathogen load inside a hive.

It can also reduce pesticide buildup. Because many pesticides are dissolved in oil-based carriers, they are easily incorporated into beeswax. Over time, even slight amounts of pesticide can accumulate in beeswax and sicken baby bees that are raised there. These include pesticides brought in by worker bees or introduced by the beekeeper for mite control.

How to rotate frames to remove dark combs

Beekeepers have many methods for removing used combs. Many beekeepers use a four- or five-year-rotation.

For example, in a four-year rotation, you would replace one-quarter of your frames each year. Then, at the end of the four years, all the frames will have been replaced. In a five-year rotation, you would replace one-fifth of your frames each year.

When I do this, I replace the darkest frames each year and write the year on the new frame. However, you don’t actually need to write the date. You will find that some frames don’t get much dark comb, and you can leave these in service longer if you like.

The advantage to a multi-year rotation is that you don’t have years when the bees need to start the season with zero pre-built combs. Instead, the bees build some new combs every year, which is not an overwhelming task.

Combs of honey are unlikely to get dark

Combs used exclusively for honey get a bit darker with use, but they don’t have the buildup of pollen, propolis, feces, and cocoons that brood combs get. You can use these longer because they are less likely to contain pathogens.

If you are concerned about pesticide buildup, you can rotate the honey frames the same way as the brood frames. In that case, writing the date on the top bar helps to keep you organized.

People often ask if it’s okay to use honey from dark combs. The answer is yes. The dark color has little effect on the color or taste of honey and the antimicrobial effects of honey keep it safe. You can be sure that much of the commercial honey we eat every day came from old and dark combs.

Creative uses for dark beeswax combs

Beekeepers find many uses for old dark beeswax combs. Depending on your level of patience, here are some creative ideas:

  • I know several beekeepers who render dark comb for candles and other crafts. However, rendering dark wax is time-consuming and doesn’t yield much. But if you have lots of time and filtering material, go ahead and experiment.

    Candles made from dark comb have a much deeper color than those made of light comb, even after filtering. However, they are great for emergency lighting and patio use when the color doesn’t matter.

  • I like to use black combs for firestarters. I spread the heated wax over newsprint and roll it into sticks for starting a wood fire. You can also melt the wax and mix it with wood chips or sawdust.

  • You can make so-called swarm charms by soaking old rags with melted black brood combs. Tie these to a long rope, throw the rope over a limb, and pull the rope until the charm is 10 or 12 feet in the air. During swarm season, swarms find these to be attractive places to land while the scouts search for a new home. Once they land, simply untie the rope and lower the swarm into a box.

  • Pieces of the dark comb are great for luring swarms into a bait hive. I just put a frame of old dark comb in the bait hive or nuc box, and wait for the bees to find it. I’ve caught many swarms with just one frame. After the bees move in, I exchange the dark comb for a new one.

  • Melt and filter dark combs for use on a workbench or in your woodshop. Beeswax is great for lubricating fasteners and the color doesn’t matter.

  • Make and store dark and filtered beeswax in cubes. You never know when it might be just what you needed. I often use a cube of beeswax to hold pinned insects until I’m ready to move them into permanent storage. The wax holds the pins upright and, once again, the color doesn’t matter.

Embrace the possibilities

Instead of worrying about dark comb, think of all the bees that your colony raised in it. That gorgeous golden comb was sacrificed for an excellent cause, and now you can use it for something else.

Just remember those old dark combs arose from successful beekeeping. Bring them on—the more the better.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Beekeepers: Are you one of the 80% who will quit?

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

19 Comments

  • “Combs used exclusively for honey get a bit darker with use, but they don’t have the buildup of pollen, proposes, feces, and cocoons that brood combs get.”

    ‘proposes’ looks like autocorrupt for ‘propolis’

  • The only way I found to get all of the wax from the dark comb was using the steam wax melter. It proved to me that there is still quite a bit of wax in those combs. You have written an article about my melting method several years back.

  • As always, OUTSTANDING article – one thing I need to research (don’t know if you have an article on this?) is about “refurbishing” the bee equipment (including hives, frames etc.) – I got some bee equipment (frames, hives, bottom boards) from the beekeeper who was looking after my bees, as I was going to store them for him till he wanted them, some of the screens in the BB were torn (I threw them out), the inner covers were screened inner covers, packed full of propolis so you couldn’t even see through them – and literally moving with creepy crawlies (since then I’ve removed all screened inner covers from my hives and replaced with solid ones – made a HUGE difference to my hives, ) some boxes were split, with rotten wood, some looked and smelled mouldy, some just smelled bad (I could NOT believe they were going to reuse these items – but they were!) – lots of black propolis in the boxes (that didn’t bother me, I put them out and bees LOVED to get at the propolis), cocoons (moths?) and things – and lots of the frames were yucky, evidence of moths, beetles etc. I threw out the boxes that I thought were awful and cleaned up those that I thought would be reusable. Some beautiful frames of dark comb had all kinds of critters in them – I froze all the frames immediately but still didn’t want to put them in with the “ready to use” frames.

    So when I get them out of the freezer, do I physically try to scrape out the yucky parts? Or will the bees do that when the frame is used? And when you decide to swap out frames from active hives, you just wait for all brood to hatch and hopefully no more eggs are on there, etc., shake all the bees off, and just put a new frame in? And that frame, you freeze it and then reuse it afterward? Do you leave the comb ON it or melt that comb off? How can you tell by looking in an active hive, which frames NEED replacing? Sorry if these questions seem basic. Frame replacement is one thing I have not done over the years, and I definitely need to. If I have hives that have had the same brood box since the beginning (3 or 4 years old), do I need to swap that box out with a new one? i.e. relocate all the frames into a new clean hive? Or just assume that the bees are taking care of it? I don’t want to disrupt them, but as I’m studying to become a master beekeeper, I’m now learning about things I never even considered before (I had someone else taking care of my hives before – now I’m doing it myself). I have to say, taking a course like this is the best thing I’ve ever done – I have learned SO much, and having a blog like yours, it’s just fantastic. Thank you again for all you do for the bees.

    • Joanna,

      Most of these things are personal preferences. As for frozen frames, I let the bees clean out the cells. They are both quicker and more thorough than we mere mortals, so I let them do it their way.

      I usually switch frames when there isn’t much brood in the hive unless I just happen to see an empty one. One way is to put the worst frames on the outside (frame positions 1 and 10). These go empty quite often and then you can switch them. You can toss old frames or reuse them, depending on your preference. I’ve done both. If a frame is in good condition, I will reuse it. Otherwise, I use them for kindling. I’ve hardly ever replaced a box.

      One thing to remember: you need to be more careful if you’ve had brood diseases. They are harder to handle. If your problems have been other insects or mites, you don’t need to worry as much. Freezing kills insects easily, but it doesn’t destroy disease spores. Consider those issues when you’re deciding what to keep and what to discard.

  • Some of us in our club have made our own solar heater for separating the wax from the slumgum. The equipment consists of an old plastic cooler with the lid removed, an aluminum or plastic container placed inside filled with water, a mesh screen stretched and secured around the upper rim of the container, one layer of paper kitchen towels placed on the mesh, wax comb placed on the paper towels. Then a cover of glass or plexiglass to cover the entire cooler rim. Place in a sunny hot place. Wax globs and drippings will drop through into the water container and collected for later secondary processing. Paper towels above are soaked with the slumgum. As earlier mentioned, I use for fire starting.

    • Tony,

      You are encouraging me to get to work. I have tons of unprocessed beeswax in pails in my garden shed. It’s time to get it processed. Thanks for the ideas.

  • Agree on the “use a dark comb for swarm trapping” idea.

    Invariably, I end up with several either really old combs that I want to get rid of – or just plain old “wonky” comb. I use that as a draw along with swarm lures and it seems to help.

    I was always afraid of putting out something that the wax worms were going to destroy – But in reality, I don’t care all that much about those problem combs and swarm traps are a good use.

    And even wax worm-damaged comb can be melted down to help get that fire starter fuel you mention. Waste not……. reuse or repurpose is the best recycling.

      • My grandfather always melted it down to be used in something else or saved them to help gather a swarm. It is what I was I was taught so I guess I never knew any different. He always had a use for it; I wish I had taken notes on all of the things he worked it into instead of the few I do.

        • Michael,

          Yes, it’s sad when we lose track of the old ways of doing things. Some were quite creative and could teach us.

  • If you put your dark wax in water with hydrogen peroxide it will bubble (boil) at a lower temperature and bleach your dark wax to make a very nice end product. Also with comb damaged by wax moth, if you use it for swarms, they will fix it just like new. It will look like a marble cake with light new wax and the old comb, this way you are replacing a percentage of your comb while repurposing the older comb. I never really minded the wax worms doing their part unless they destroyed the whole frame. Where I lived if you stood your supers on end the wax moths didn’t like the lack of humidity and darkness so it would slow down their activity.

  • You can find someone who does pysanky, the Ukrainian Easter eggs who would love the dark wax to provide a resist to the eggs dyes.

  • Thanks for another great article!

    In the section on Combs of Honey are Unlikely to get Dark, you wrote “People often ask if it’s okay to use honey from dark combs. The answer is yes.” Did you mean for this to refer only to honey frames that are in a honey super? Or are you suggesting that it’s okay to use honey from the dark combs in the brood box? I would be concerned about residues from pesticide treatments on frames that were in the brood box.

    • Helen,

      Naturally, the amount of pesticide buildup varies from hive to hive, depending on the pesticide load in surrounding areas. If a beekeeper believes his brood combs are so loaded with pesticide they could harm humans, they should not be used to raise bees. The amount necessary to affect a human would likely kill any bee.

      However, recall that most pesticides (or their carriers) are highly lipophilic, so they can dissolve in the wax-based combs but not in water-based honey. In all the studies I’ve read on pesticides in beehives, honey nearly always comes up clean—much cleaner than food routinely purchased in a grocery store.

  • Thank you for this explanation. I have been searching on this topic and yours has been the only coherent and scientific explanation of dark comb use I have found. thx

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.