The best and easiest way of recovering wax from old combs is by using the solar wax extractor. Like all aspects of beekeeping it is open to criticism but I would not be without one. The question arises whether it is worthwhile trying to get wax from old combs. Since a comb starts life with only an ounce or so of wax that is all each old comb will produce.
Old comb should be replaced regularly. A good start to the year is to put the bees on to foundation and feed with sugar syrup. Without all the work of dealing with old pollen, solid honey and millions of bacterial and disease pathogens the bees will soon build up a strong colony. Some beekeepers extol the virtue of old combs and boast their age. We are told not to use old combs from an unknown source but our own could quite well be unreliable. The modern thinking is to get rid of them and replace them with new. Some work is involved but it will soon repay itself. When the old brood chamber is replaced at the end of March some brood will be lost. I find this hard to bear but it is worth it. Gone will be most of the varroa together with the other nasties that plague our bees. There may be combs from colonies that have died out. I don't use those again but recover the wax.
Each beekeeper will have a way of disposing with old wax. One man tells me he puts it in a dustbin so it goes to landfill - not something I approve of. Another has a bonfire.. And it can be buried in the garden.
I put my old combs, four at a time, into a piece of net curtain and into the solar wax extractor. Then I pray for sun. It is fascinating to know that sometimes in the summer we go for days without sunshine. And then we get a spell when I can refill the extractor more than once in a day.
I am always amazed at how clean the wax is even from old black combs. It comes out a beautiful yellow colour with a pleasant smell with little pollen and propolis. The residue of moulted skins and pollen, called slumgum, still contains a fair bit of wax which is not economic to extract. This burns very well on the coal fire. There are firms abroad that will buy it.
When there is wax in the recepticle it is removed when cool; I pour boiling water over the upturned container. I get lots of misshapen bits of wax, some small. The important thing is their colour. I wash the honey from the wax and let it dry. Some solars have mild steel or tinplate parts which soon go rusty and impart a greenish colour to the wax. Stainless steel or aluminium are best.
It is a mistake to leave the solar wax extractor for several days and allow the collected wax to heat and cool several times. This gives an inferior wax, dark in colour and of poor texture. It is still usable but not so good as that obtained after each day of sunshine.
I not only recover wax from my own old brood combs; I also buy wax from other beekeepers. For best quality blocks I pay £1.50 a pound, more than the firms that buy wax. I exchange wax for foundation with the firm KBS run by Peter Kemble in Hastings who produces the best foundation in the country. I sell his foundation at about 30% less than catalogue prices. Sometimes I am asked if I want wax which has gone mouldy. My answer is yes. I will melt it in rain water, filter and allow it to cool in an insulated box for several hours. The block will be free of honey and pollen. It is not attractive to bees and will not go mouldy. Wax moth do not attack clean wax. Wax chandlers store theirs outside. I am often offered wax complete with mouldy pollen and wax moth. If the bees have had nosema or any other disease this will not be present in the foundation made from it. Even AFB spores which are not killed when the foundation is made are rendered inactive. Bees cannot contract any disease from foundation. A few beekeepers spread alarm by saying that medication used to treat varroa finds its way into foundation. My answer is 'Not Proven', And when you see how a shook swarm works foundation if fed there is no case to answer.
If you have a solar then use it. Empty the recepicle each time it has collected any wax. Don't worry about shape or size; the important thing is not to leave and honey in the pan to reheat. Find all the old wax in your shed and we can put it to use. You can trade directly with KBS, or see me at the Essex Conference or call on ☏.