Sunday, October 4, 2015

Bee Reset: Wax Rendering v2.0 (and 3.0)

We wrote a couple weeks ago that we used the shook swarm method to put our bees on fresh comb and hopefully help them shake their case of EFB.  So the bees got some new digs, but what happened to the rest of the hive--the honey, combs, frames, and hive bodies that were contaminated? The whole process would make for a very long blog post, so we'll break it up into a couple posts.  But to whet your appetite, here's the overall schematic:

This whole ordeal is a zero-waste process, which is nice.  On tap for today: frames and comb, in particular, wax rendering.

We're continually adapting our wax rendering process.  Version 1.0 we wrote about before, and was more of a treatise on how not to render wax.  Version 2.0 is a solar melter frankensteined together from parts of our cold frame.  The back is a piece from the brooder box, and the places they don't fit perfectly together are plugged with fence panels.

Inside is a regular Langstroth box with a couple 9" x 13"-ish aluminum pans, each with about an inch of water in the bottom (to keep the wax from sticking to the pans).  On top is our winter-time bee feeder...

...which is lined with an old t-shirt and has another Langstroth box stacked on top.

The combs to be melted get piled on the t-shirt, and the melter is covered by the windows from the cold frame, which are stacked to make a double-glazed top.  The windows should be washed to maximize the amount of sunlight that gets through (ours weren't), and every crack and crevice should be sealed tight because when it starts to heat up, every honeybee within smelling distance will be drawn like a magnet. 

We set the whole thing up on the garage roof since it gets intense sun for most of the day.

A few days later, the combs are mostly melted down...

...but the yield of wax is a little disappointing.  A couple things probably decreased our yield.  First, the t-shirt filter held up a lot of the wax itself.  Other folks have had better luck with a paper towel.  Second, the temperature should have been higher.  We added some reflective insulation around the walls, which helped, but not enough.  More insulation and a more airtight construction would have been better.  We could have washed the windows, which would have helped even more.  As it was, we got readings up to ~155 °F inside the box when the glass was on.  Good enough to melt the wax, which happens at ~145 °, but hotter would be better.

Also, when we tried a deep Langstroth box full of frames, we only got minimal melting

Plus, during the time spent with all our rejiggering, we found out that bees aren't the only bugs interested in the wax.  Ants and earwigs love it, too.  But at least there's a silver lining: if you want bespeckled wax, the sprinkles are free!  The final takeaways from version 2.0?  There are some kinks to work out, but there's good potential.  Significant improvements wouldn't be too difficult if we could find the time to properly build a solar oven (which is on the to-do list anyway), but that will have to wait until a future date.  Also, some folks have noted that from some old combs, solar melting, even in a well-designed system, doesn't cut it.  Those combs need steam to release the wax.

Enter version 3.0.  It's inspired by a few other designs we've seen and Keith's comment on our original wax melting post.  The core is a big pot with some water in the bottom, and an aluminum pie pan boat.

That goes on top of the rebuilt Dakota Rocket Silo, which is burning the contaminated frames (and other wood).

A t-shirt filter is secured to the top of the pot.  The combs go in the filter.  The idea is that the steam rises up and condenses on the combs to melt the wax.  The wax is supposed to drip off the lowest point on the t-shirt into the pan below.

The first part of that works well.  The wax melts in half an hour to an hour if the fire is really roaring.

Unfortunately, it also runs down the side of the pot, so in addition to the nice wax cake we get in the pie pan, there's also a layer in the outer pot.  (This picture is from the following morning, after everything had cooled down.)  What we really need is some kind of impermeable insert in the top of the pot that prevents the t-shirt from contacting the pot directly, but that has a hole in the middle to direct the wax to the pie pan.  Probably could be done with aluminum foil. 

Also, we should point out that the wax accumulating on the water in the big pot can be a little dangerous because when a full layer of wax forms, it prevents the water from evaporating normally.  The result is that the water gets super-heated and instead of boiling steadily, it bumps violently, and then does nothing for a few minutes, before bumping violently again.  (The same thing can happen in your microwave if the water is very still while heating.)  When the bumping was happening in our setup, it was actually able to move the pot around, and if we hadn't been watching, it could have tipped over into the fire.  Since the wax is flammable, that would have gotten exciting quickly!

In any case, the melted wax and water can be poured into a pan to cool down.

The wax will form a cake on top, which can be easily removed.  We had a lot of comb to melt, so we ended up with several of these cakes.

To make them more compact, we built a makeshift mold, lined it with aluminum foil, and stacked pieces of the cakes inside.

When the summer heat had broken, we melted it in the oven at ~150 °F.

On cooling down, it solidified, at which point the foil and wax can be removed from the box.  The foil should readily peel away from the resulting block, leaving a nice chunk of purified beeswax to play with.

The stuff that got filtered out (slumgum) can be composted, used to start fires, or used to make swarm traps more attractive.  Since we started this whole ordeal to get rid of EFB, we won't be using it in our swarm traps.  We tried a few different ways of making slumgum fire starters, including packing it into paper egg cartons, wrapping golf ball-sized portions of it in old phone book pages, and packing a thin layer of it between layers of paper grocery bags.  In our experience, it's the residual wax that actually starts burning, and the rest of the slumgum burns, but does more to inhibit the wax burning than to really support combustion.  So, adding additional dry, combustible material like paper, sawdust, or wood chips helps a lot.  Also, getting that extra combustible material to wick up and/or be coated in the wax helps it work under wet conditions.  Once we had everything packed in like we wanted it, we put it in a 200 °F oven for an hour or two to melt the residual wax and get it to soak into the paper. The egg cartons are easily divided, but the slabs with the grocery bags we cut into 1"-2" squares.

The t-shirts themselves can also be cut up to be fire starters, or saved for future use.  Since we don't want to transfer EFB to any future batches of wax, we're going with option #1 for the t-shirts this time.

We did a quick trial run of all four of our different kinds of fire starters (clockwise from top: t-shirt, egg carton, phone book, and grocery bag), and we noticed that the phone book page-wrapped slumgum balls were hard to light and keep lit, the wax-soaked t-shirt lit the fastest and burned up the fastest, and the egg carton-slumgum and paper grocery bag-slumgum fire starters had good longevity but could still be easily lit by a match.

Finally, a quick note on cleaning up the wax.  Many folks caution that it's nigh-on-impossible to clean up cookware items that have been contacted by the beeswax, but we've not found that to be entirely true.  First, the thin coating that forms on pots and pans will eventually wear off in continued use, and beeswax is inert in the human digestive tract, so one approach is to ignore it; no harm, no foul.  Second, we've found that mixing beeswax with some kind of vegetable oil (olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil, etc.) when both are above the beeswax melting temperature (~145 °F), makes a blend that can be cleaned up with soap and water, even when cooled back down to a touch-safe temperature.  And third, a scouring powder, in particular Bon Ami, which doesn't have anything in it that we would be worried about contacting food, cleans things up pretty well.

There you have it!  Our current procedure for processing contaminated wax and frames, waste free.  How to you render and clean up wax?

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