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Recycling Beeswax: Part 3

The Way Back to Biological Beekeeping, Part 12

Recommended Decontamination Procedures

Having gone over some of the background as to why decontamination is necessary for beehives and some of what it will involve to clean-up contaminated comb, let’s rationalize a decontamination plan.

THERE IS NO WAY PRESENTLY KNOWN (published) TO TOTALLY DECONTAMINATE A BEEHIVE AND IT’S COMBS ONCE CONTAMINATED WITH FOREIGN SUBSTANCES TO THE POINT, THAT THE HIVE AND IT’S COMBS WILL NO LONGER SUPPORT LIFE (the rearing of brood). Beekeepers must keep in mind that the application of foreign substances to a colony of bees, be it chemical, essential oil, antibiotic drug, or feed substitutes, always leaves residues. There are no exceptions! This means it is a long way back to natural biological control without the use of chemicals, antibiotics, essential oils and even feed substitutes, because unless beekeepers can immediately stop TOTAL USE OF THEM ALL, to retrogress back onto a natural system of beekeeping that equates parallel, totally to the feral, including comb size, they can never make the leap back to traditional beekeeping food safety – organically sound practices.

The ideal situation for decontamination would be to be able to purchase new clean woodenware and clean foundation (either residue clean or residue significantly reduced) and shake your bees onto it and restart. This would be costly for many, because they would still have to draw out new combs, providing the right natural size is available for purchase in large quantity. Of course we know that this is not the scenario at hand presently.

Where woodenware is to be saved and reused, traditional field practice since the turn of this century has been to separate the wax combs from frames, scraping clean, thus separating wax from woodenware. They are both then processed differently for salvage. One is cleaned (woodenware) and one is melted and recycled into wax blocks for sale or made into comb foundation or candles for own use or sale. Today with the advent of treatments for parasitic mites and secondary diseases, beekeepers have to deal with learning how to bring down the level of residue contamination for both woodenware and wax, whether it be for reuse or sale. Concerning reuse, if available, the purchase of bulk, clean decontaminated wax, or residue significantly-reduced wax must be a consideration in the future for all, whether bought in wax blocks or pre-embossed into natural sized wax foundation.

New plastic combs could also be another alternative (Note: used even though plastic could still contain residues). However, if purchasing plastic combs keep in mind, while honey and pollen and propolis can be gathered for marketing later, rule out the production of comb honey and possibly organic honey due to the plastic base. If purchasing new pre-embossed foundation, beekeepers should make sure whether or not it is clean of all residues (uncontaminated), clean decontaminated wax (residues processed out), or residue significantly reduced wax (most residues removed but not all). This will have bearing on their honey and wax sales later under food safety laws as they gain momentum in the new millennium. Beekeepers must keep in mind they will still have to dispose of contaminated wax if they opt not to reprocess their own for personal use or sale, probably at substantially lower prices that what they are used to, whether to a wax buyer or contract to have someone else clean-up their wax for them.

Woodenware and metal hive parts can be easily cleaned with boiling water by either pouring over or dipping within, once scraped clean prior to cleaning. Residues are not easy to get rid of. Laying outside in bright sunlight will photo degrade surface residues with UV light, but sunlight can not penetrate very deep to neutralize residues locked within the wood. Fluvalinate is soluble in organic solvents to some degree. Coumaphos hydrolyses under alkaline conditions the warmer the faster, or said in another way, it undergoes decomposition by water that is alkaline solution based. Beekeepers around the turn of the century and up to the 50,s – 60,s used to clean old equipment for reuse with lye baths (potassium hydroxide / caustic potash, sodium hydroxide / caustic soda). 1 pound lye to 10 gallons water minimum to 25 gallons maximum, depending upon how fast they would want to clean. It is an alkaline solution so it would help neutralize residues, and it penetrates wood, but to use, one must take care to protect eyes and wear rubber gloves and apron, and not allow to soak for too long (about 15 minutes with higher concentration of 1 lb. lye to 10 gal water, as mixture softens wood if allowed to soak too long).

Following cleaning, the equipment is rinsed well with clean hot water. Equipment should then be laid out in sunlight to both dry and use UV sunlight to photo degrade the surface of the bee equipment for any remaining residues, making sure frames, supers, tops, bottoms, etc., are turned, exposing all surfaces and sides to the sunlight for at least 48 hours. Aside from being labor intensive for which there is no way to avoid, the process is dangerous in that lye can burn skin and is corrosive when splashed into eyes and much care must be taken using this process. Today it is considered not very friendly relative to the environment, food safety, nor handling by people. Another way is needed!

Many beekeepers erroneously believe that processing wax cappings / slumgum into wax cakes, by either use of solar-wax melters, water-bath presses, or steam-heated melters, they can reuse wax reclaimed without fear of residue problems. But most substances applied as preventative treatments for parasitic mites and secondary diseases migrate both into beeswax and honey, and are extremely hard to get out; and in reality, although approved for treatment, actually these compounds have no known way (published) of being decontaminated completely out of beeswax in one fast processing cycle, nor removed from honey.

Many residues that contaminate wax are insoluble in water and require an antidote to hydrolyze according to various Farm / Agri Chemicals Handbooks. Here many times, the current effect, in decontaminating the wax residues, is that the wax itself is destroyed. Some residues high heat cannot destroy without destroying the wax itself. To destroy residues by burning also destroys wax. But in one instance this is alright as candles are meant to be burned. If one processes beeswax into candles and sells, as the residues are burned (possible fluvalinate and coumaphos here in the USA), a product is saved as a monetary source.

But caution, here in the USA it is known in industry practice, that some beekeepers have also used chlorine bleach within hives to fight secondary diseases by adding to liquid feed or spraying diluted, lightly on brood combs, or even bleach their wax to obtain a higher color grade. This is dangerous practice, in that chlorine is readily absorbed by beeswax (or honey) and when recycled and made into candles, chlorine gas is given off when candles are burned. As for other residues destroyed, well this is okay as long as the beekeeper knows for certain that no harmful residues are escaping the burning process, that might take the lice out of someone’s hair (reputable testing needs to be done to ascertain that no harmful residues are being given off)! As for sub-lethal residues returned to the hive in the form of wax recycled into foundation base, well the problem is still there – contamination!

In the December 1995 issue of the American Bee Journal, Klaus Wallner writes in his article about a laboratory test to show the migration of residues from wax into honey. “A thin layer of contaminated wax was put into petri-dishes and a layer with approx. 2.5mm of honey free from residues was put on the surface. The closed petri-dishes were stored in an incubator with 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) for 30 days. Then aqua dest. (distilled water) was added into the honey layer and after 24 hours the honey solution was poured off and analyzed.” AGAIN – THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT FACT TO KNOW. It shows the penetration of residues from wax into honey per say, that is, if there are residues in the wax it’s saying there WILL BE residues in the honey.

It must be understood to decontaminate! WHY SHOULD PESTICIDES WHICH ARE WAX-SOLUBLE AND WATER-INSOLUBLE MIGRATE INTO THE WATERY MEDIUM OF HONEY? This, Klaus Wallner showed, with the chemicals fluvalinate and coumaphos, which are now both approved for treatment here in the USA for parasitic mites and believed to be safely held in the wax with no fear to the beekeeper of residue contamination of honey if used properly. OBVIOUSLY THE BELIEF OF NO RESIDUE CONTAMINATION WITH CONTACT APPLIED PESTICIDE STRIPS IS IN ERROR, BUT TO WHAT DEGREE? On the other hand, we are looking here for possible decontamination possibilities for beeswax , and how it can be applied to wax combs. It does show that honey pulls chemicals held in wax out, by migrating it into the honey itself, thus lowering the residue level in the combs, but how?

Let’s look closer at this enigma as to why pesticides which are wax-soluble and water-insoluble, in actuality, migrate into the watery medium of honey. One would think that this should not be happening, but as proven by Klaus Wallner and published in ABJ in December 1995 it is. We know that fluvalinate is acid based when we look at various farm chemical handbooks that say among other things it is corrosive to eyes. We know that coumaphos is also acid based in that it hydrolyses under alkaline (opposite of acid) conditions. We as beekeepers know that honey is acid based. This being the common link then one might suppose that a honey-water bath (but not strong enough to make a wax emulsion) might be used to migrate residues out of wax during decontamination processing in a wax press to reduce the residue level lower, once wax combs have topped-out and can no-longer support life. But what could beekeepers use for a second water-bath to lower the residues even further?

Let’s look again at the old turn of the century water-bath method of washing beekeeping equipment in lye. We know that lye is in reality a strong alkaline solution of potassium hydroxide (caustic potash) or sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), and an alkaline solution over time will decompose even coumaphos. But beekeepers must also remember that anything that will wash wood, penetrate it and decompose it if left soaking too long, and shine rusty nails, will probably destroy the wax within the combs too (that’s why they are removed first)! Further, honeybees probably would not want to live in these combs even if they could be treated with a very mild solution. So what do we have available that would be food-friendly, and alkaline (to neutralize what is left after a honey-water bath initial processing of combs into wax), and not burn fingers, or be corrosive to eyes if splashed into, when used?

Further, it must also be cheap because we are beekeepers, and be environmentally friendly with the growing emphasis on food safety. The only thing that comes to mind when looking at known alkalies (a hydroxide of any of the alkali metals, soluble in water and capable of neutralizing acids i.e. lime, lye, magnesia, lithium, sodium, potassium), or alkaline compounds (earths such as the oxides of calcium, strontium, barium and magnesium), is maybe that Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate) would work. We use it in cooking, for medicinal purposes, as a laundry aid, to absorb odors, to clean, and use it also to neutralize battery terminals. Perhaps in putting the two baths together, one following the other, we can come up with a decontamination process for our hives that includes both woodenware and wax combs, though it might take a little work.

SUGGESTED DECONTAMINATION PROCESS: We have talked about saving woodenware using a lye bath. Now suggest to beekeepers to use a sodium bicarbonate bath to clean their equipment with. Both are alkaline solutions but the sodium bicarbonate is user friendly and should not destroy the woodenware if left to soak too long, further, it is environmentally friendly. The results with AFB and EFB fears should be the same. – ELIMINATED – for there will not be enough spores left for bees to find and digest to re-infect thus starting a problem. Further, bees will not be repelled by the sodium bicarbonate solution, like they are with lye, if the frames have to be reused right away within a few days. Following cleaning, the equipment should still be rinsed well with clean hot water and laid out in sunlight to both dry and use UV sunlight to photo degrade the surface of the bee equipment for any remaining residues, making sure frames, supers, tops, bottoms, excluders, etc., are turned to make sure all surfaces and sides are exposed to sunlight for UV photo degrading of at least 48 hours each side.

We still cannot talk about honey decontamination because there is in actuality none, other than heating to try to remove objectionable smell by volatilization, and/or filtration of solid particles to remove contaminated solid matter (residues held in wax particles, pollen, and propolis, bee parts, wood, etc.). Residues which are locked within the honey itself so far as we know cannot be removed without destroying the honey.

Decontamination processing for old combs, cappings wax, slumgum wax salvage, to recycle into wax for market (candles or bulk wax buyers) or for recycling into new foundation for either personal use or sale is recommended as follows:

1. Since both fluvalinate and coumaphos now approved in the USA are acid based to some extent, and honey is acid based; and we know that traditionally honey taken before meals helps older persons, stomach acids digest foods better showing that acids mix together, then recommend wax be processed initially in a honey-water bath. (Caution: Reference Coggshall and Morse in “Beeswax” that state, “Beekeepers occasionally report the formation of wax emulsions during rendering; these are sometimes difficult to break. The most common emulsion is a wax-in-water type, described in the beekeeping literature as granular wax. Granular wax is found most often when cappings or combs in contact with CONSIDERABLE HONEY are melted without the addition of sufficient water to dilute the honey. Remelting the wax with a large quantity of water usually breaks the emulsion and the wax solidifies in firm cakes.” We have also found that letting the emulsion set and dry, then rewater-bathing also works.)

Further suggest double-sacking within burlap bags tightly closed, layered between pressing plates under water in a Kelly wax press. Recommend lowest grades of honey be used (also create a market) and heating of honey-water mixture to 190 degrees F and held there for a minimum of 24 hours to slow cook rather than rapid boil. At this temperature residues which are volatile should release, residues which are acid friendly should migrate somewhat into the acid based honey-water with the help of heat, dirt should release from the wax to help lighten, and when pressed, – cocoons, pollen, and small solid impurities should all remain within the double burlap sacks, which in itself will reduce contamination still contained within solid matter by separating from wax. Drain Kelly wax press from bottom after wax solidifies on top after most wax has been poured off into cakes.

2. Since coumaphos is what many beekeepers in the USA consider hard-core pesticide treatment where the line is crossed (equate fluvalinate usage to marijuana and coumaphos usage to heroin), suggest second water-bath to further neutralize coumaphos residues (fluvalinate has a CF3 besides Cl; Terramycin has nitrogen and carbon to neutralize). Suggest baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) be used in a second water-bath (1/2 cup) in the Kelly wax press, to create an alkaline condition within which to hydrolyze residues at 190 degrees F and hold there for a minimum of 24 hours.

(Caution: Reference Coggshall and Morse in “Beeswax” that states, Beekeepers occasionally report the formation of wax emulsions during rendering; these are sometimes difficult to break. Less common is the water-in-wax type of emulsion, where the solution of water, with whatever impurities it contains, is held in droplet form by a layer of wax that surrounds it. On cooling, the wax holds a considerable quantity of liquid. If this emulsion is more complete, the wax does not become a solid cake but instead a mushy mass, from which a large volume of solution can be squeezed by hand pressure. Remelting the wax with a large quantity of water usually also breaks this type of emulsion. We have found that too much sodium bicarbonate causes the wax to lighten considerably into a fine paste emulsion. This was then allowed to set out to evaporate water, after which when dried was reprocessed into a wax cake.)

Suggest Kelly wax press be filled with wax processed and drained from step #1 in loosely layered cakes or cut-out chunks. Then press is refilled with hot water with baking soda added and wax allowed to melt. Stir floating wax occasionally throughout the time period to keep separation point between wax and water co-mingling. You will notice wax lightening in color during the period as more dirt and impurities drop out into the water and sink to the bottom. Cool and drain.

3. Repeat step #2 with plain water bath to rinse (liquefy in hot water stirring occasionally for a few hours to rinse) and drain into thin trays to cool (could be large shallow cookie type sheets or trays) and set-out into bright sunlight to photo degrade any remain surface residues with UV light 1/4 to 1/2 thick. Flip over after 2-3 days and continue for another 2-3 days. If unable to set outside in bright sunlight consider UV black lights inside. Set up lights in a series shining onto a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood on legs (or large table) for holding thin trays of wax.

4. Market to bulk wax buyer, or recycle into candles or foundation base.

If unable or unwilling to process contaminated combs to decontaminate, then beekeepers must eventually junk them or send them out to professionals for processing when their bees can no longer live upon them, or buy new clean processed wax or foundation. However, bear in mind as combs and equipment become more contaminated, their value due to the contamination will rapidly depreciate in value, so to recoup loss, many beekeepers will be forced to learn to either process or trash every comb they own or possibly go out of business.

It should be obvious that decontamination will probably be a long hard process, but when combs will no longer support life and resistance cannot be avoided, it’s either replace with new or recycle the old. Many beekeeper will probably not want to go through the process more than once. To junk combs completely and replace with new clean combs is costly. To recycle is time consuming and costly also. To stay on an artificial oversized bigger is better system aided by the use of chemicals, drugs, and essential oils to control parasites and secondary diseases, until ones spirit is broken or one becomes acclimatized to a perpetual time loop of changing wrong size combs is frightening! Unless beekeepers are willing to make changes to go back to beekeeping’s traditional methods, used before today’s current problems started in the first part of this century, they will not be able to solve their problems. Indeed it will be a hard long way back to biological beekeeping without the use of drugs, chemicals, and essential oils, but it must be done if our worlds industry is to survive!


Signed: Dee A. Lusby, Amado, Arizona, USA