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Bailey Comb Change,
renewing all combs at the same time

A manipulation in beekeeping to displace old or diseased comb and replace it with fresh wax that has been drawn from foundation or starter strips. It was proposed and publicised by Lesley Bailey, the Rothamsted expert on bee diseases. This technique is also infrequently referred to as "the Bailey frame change". My version is a little more fastidious than Bailey's original, but my reasoning is that many hives carry high levels of virus these days, due to varroa and that the extra work is worth undertaking... We can't see the viruses, but anything that we remove from the hive and clean, will lose whatever virus load it had.

Part of what we intend by this manipulation is an improvement in cleanliness of frames comb and the hive in general so any hive part that can be removed and replaced with a freshly scrubbed one, that has had a lick over with the flame from a gas torch, will be of benefit. So regardless of the instructions listed below, if you can swap any item at any time during the period that the process is running for a freshly sterilised one, take the opportunity to do so. This is not wasted effort as this Bailey method is not inherently as 'clean' as shook swarming and so anything we can do to reduce virus load will be to our advantage.

Many sets of instructions start by saying change the hive floor for a fresh one, I will go further and say change it at the start of the process and again at the end, when the old brood chamber is removed.

I have not mentioned specific timing, local variations in conditions and knowledge of them will vary the times. Basically we are going to do this in early spring as the brood nest is about to be expanded and we are likely to be taking five or six weeks for the comb change process.

  1. Remove any unoccupied frames and melt them down. Centralise what frames are left and fill the outside spaces with dummy frames. Place a fresh brood box on top of the original and put in one central frame that has a diagonally cut triangular sheet of foundation, Make up this box with frames fitted with starter strips until there are as many frames as occupied ones in the box below, then fill out the spaces with dummy boards or frame feeders containing syrup. Take this opportunity to use a fresh crownboard, and add a contact feeder if you have not used frame feeders in the second box.
  2. One or two weeks later, check that comb is being drawn and introduce a queen excluder between the two boxes, ensure that the queen is in the upper portion, add one or two frames with starters strips to the outer edges of the nest, if the bees are advanced enough to be working on all upper box frames. If comb drawing has not progressed as far as that ensure adequate feed is still available.
  3. Three weeks after this point we will remove the old box and old frames, but in that interval we need to check whether extra frames with starter strips are needed and perhaps top up with syrup feed.
  4. The last part of the comb change is the removal of the old box and frames, but this is not the end of the process. When I have done this in the past (and shook swarming) I have moved the whole hive to one side and placed a fresh stand, floor and brood chamber on the old site, then transferred the upper box frames, one by one, in the sequence that they were in. Finally filling out with frames that had starter strips, frame feeders or dummies according to conditions. If this upper box was full of frames that were mostly drawn, I would put a super on. the old frames would have any remaining bees shaken onto a hiving board temporarily attached to the entrance.
  5. In the few weeks after this point the bees will build up rapidly, so rapidly that you need to be 'on your toes' as any congestion could trigger a swarm several weeks later.

The triangular foundation in the central frame, acts as a ladder so that the bees are led upwards and can climb up to the top bar of the frame where they may cluster more easily for comb drawing.

The use of only half a sheet is not done for 'penny pinching', nor is the use of starter strips an economy measure, this lack of supplied wax, enables the colony to draw wax and make use of it and to do so with little influence from the cell size imprinted on the foundation.

I find frame feeders useful as I have an aversion to large cool spaces at the top of a hive, my crown boards and roofs are all in one solid, insulated and non-ventilated, which helps to maintain warmth at the top of the hive, I also have a large number of frame feeders available.

The hiving board is used so that the combs are not shaken directly over the fresh, clean brood box.

I should say something about my cleaning and sterilising process...

  1. I have always put a strong emphasis on clean equipment, probably as a result of seeing so much scruffy equipment and dirty comb in other peoples hives. hive parts like floors stands, brood boxes supers roofs and feeders all received a good scraping, using the hive scraping tool, working it along the grain where possible.

  2. Scrubbing with water and a scouring powder like 'Vim' or 'Ajax', using a variety of inexpensive plastic brushes sold for washing up, by using a brush of this relatively small size, it allows more vigour and pressure to be brought to bear, again work along the grain where possible.

  3. The scouring powder can leave a white residue, so the part is sprayed by a strong water jet from a garden hose and allowed to drain, then while wet any noticeable propolis stains are dabbed with a caustic soda solution a paint brush (use a cheap one, they don't last long when treated like this !) finally a dilute solution of bleach is painted over all joints and the hosing process is repeated.

  4. The equipment is spread about so that it can dry and is usually left exposed to the elements so that it gets rained on a couple of times (the slightly acid rain helps to even out any alkalinity that may be left.

  5. The final stage is a quick lick over with a strong flame from a blow lamp, when I say quick, I mean fast enough for there to be no charring, but slow enough that the wood surface reaches perhaps 200° C.

  6. All parts are inspected and repaired as required, then the outsides will be treated with several coats raw linseed oil and the mating faces treated with petroleum jelly, before returning to service.

  7. Modified side cutters, for removing gimp pins Frames are treated slightly differently, the comb is removed, by prising out the wedge bar and maybe removing one of the bottom bars. Then the frame is dismantled using a pair of modified side cutters to pull out the pins. this process causes a 'V' shaped dent in the wood surface, but the subsequent treatment raises the fibres back to their normal position. I usually stack the dismantled parts in a loose heap on a bench outside so that a few days rain can remove, or at least reduce the stickiness.

  8. Wedge bars and bottom bars still have the pins sticking out of them and these are knocked back using a small (4 Oz.) Warrington pattern hammer, then pulled using a pair of pliers.

  9. At this stage none of the parts have any pins left in them, but there are comb fragments and wax accretions on most surfaces and in the grooves, so the scraping process is carried out over a large rectangular plastic tray that was originally intended as a gravel tray or a tray to hold a grow-bag for tomatoes, this collects all the fragments of wax and propolis that are eventually boiled up in an old saucepan for wax recovery.

  10. The scraping process utilises various blades, the Tungsten hive scraper mentioned above is good on the inner and outer faces of side bars and on all faces of top bars, narrow faces of side bars can be scraped using an old chisel that has been sharpened so often that it is too short for normal use. The side bar grooves are cleared out using the frame groove cleaning tool, I also have various scraping tools made from old hacksaw blades and there is a old plane iron that I find particularly useful. The scraping process imparts a degree of polish to the surfaces (cutting edges are kept keen). End grain is cleaned of propolis by using a 'second cut' engineers file, which is in turn kept clean using a fine wire brush.

  11. The parts are scrubbed with water and a scouring powder using a washing up brush in the same manner as before and the powdery residue washed off with the hose, Then the parts a dropped in a large bucket and steeped in a bleach solution that has had a few crystals of caustic soda added, the strength of this solution is quite strong and the parts are kept immersed, by using a lid from a smaller bucket with a weight applied. The period of immersion is not critical, I usually leave them two or three days, pour off the solution into a spare bucket and refill with plain water from the hose pipe, if the smell of bleach is still pungent I may change the rinsing water a couple of times, then the parts will be spread out on the freshly cleaned outdoor bench and allowed to weather for several weeks. If I had a Burco type boiler, I would use that with a washing soda solution instead of the immersion in bleach.

  12. Re-assembly of frames is always carried out with 50% new parts so that an old top bar gets two new sides and old bottom bars, whereas a new top bar is assembled with old frame sides and a couple of new bottom bars, this way all joints are tight and square.

Any broken bottom bars or top bars with broken lugs are cleaned along with the other frame parts and salvaged later for construction of frames to fit nucleus hives.