Waxing on About Beehives: Woodware Finishes

Finishing your bee hives can be one of the more agonizing decisions new and old beekeepers make. Many old timers have a variety of opinions based on their experiences, economics, and value of their time. One thing that is universal is that you want to finish your hives with a product that is safe for the bees.

Protecting the Wood

Boxes can be made from all types of wood. Most are made of pine, but many are made of wood resistant to rot and decay like cedar, larch, Cyprus, and Yellow Pine. Each wood has its advantages and disadvantages. Like Cedar and Cyprus are both great woods that resist decay and are light weight, but they are more fragile and are may not endure the rigors of, let’s say, commercial beekeeping.

Most of my boxes are pine; it is durable to the stress and strain of moving, prying, hive tools, and the like. The inside of a hive is a moist environment damaging to most woods. Pine is not that resistant to rot, mildew, nor decay. With all our rain in the Pacific Northwest, my issues include moisture control in the hive and maintaining proper ventilation. The inside of a beehive can become very wet. If you don’t have proper ventilation, you may lose a colony.

In a well-ventilated beehive the relative humidity can be around the 80-90 percent range due to many environmental factors, such as: rain, honey curing, feeding the colony, etc. This causes the inside of the hive to stay warm and moist, damaging the wood from the inside out. Bad news for your investment and your bees.

Painting and Staining

Paints and stains are very viable options for finishing your hive boxes and other equipment. Many people go to their local “Big Box” lumberyards and ask for their mis-colored or overstocked products that they are willing to sell cheap. I have not seen a huge difference in using latex vs oil-based paints. Once they are cured, they both protect the hive without off-gassing. But I always lean toward the water-based products because they are gentler on our environment.

Some beekeepers will paint the interior and exterior of the hive boxes, while most just paint the outside. Painting the interior of your hive box could cause issues down the road for food safety reasons. Plus, if the paint or stain is off-gassing the least little bit you are forcing your bees to breath in all those fumes. It is safe to say most people hate breathing paint fumes. Forcing your bees to be unintended “paint huffers” could cause a reduction in the output of your hive, i.e. honey, wax, brood… Possibly even kill it. With all these factors in mind, I am not in the camp of painting or staining the inside of the bee boxes.

Many beekeepers will just paint their raw wood with their bargain paint disregarding the need for proper wood prep. Some will prime the boxes then paint. Truly raw wood needs to be sanded, sealed, primed then painted. A 4-step process that could include a 5th step of a second coat of paint. A good exterior paint can give the backyard beekeeper several years of protection and the commercial beekeeper may have to reapply paint after 5 years.

Staining is a little easier than painting in my opinion. A good deck stain will penetrate the wood and leave a viable protective finish for 5 or more years. This process done to manufacturer’s recommendations could include sanding, staining, and a reapplication of the stain, more of a 3-step process. Both methods work well and are used by most beekeepers.

My final thought about paints and stains. I am not the person who buys cheap paint to slather on my hives. I want a specific look to my hives and do not wish to be a slave to the whims of the paint gods and end up with Pepto Bismol colored hives.

Varnishes

Varnishes are a viable wood protectant but require more maintenance compared to paints and stains, at least in the Pacific NW. I live about 5 miles from salt water so not only do I live in a wet climate but also a salty climate. Microscopic layers of salt act like prisms and wreak havoc with varnishes. Even a good spar varnish must be maintained every few years. Depending on the varnish, the box can become slick and difficult to handle. But I will tell you, in a garden setting, a varnished cedar hive has an incredible look.

Waxing

In my opinion, waxing woodware is one of the best options available. I have heard some commercial beekeepers who are getting 20 years out of their hives. Waxing provides not only a deep penetrating finish that is harmless to the bees, it also protects the hive boxes inside and out. This 1 step process can take 10-12 minutes per hive. And, if you really want to paint your hives, the wax acts as an incredible primer; but it must be noted you have to paint the wood while it is still hot, for the paint to adhere to the wax. Painting cold boxes is an exercise in futility.

Personally, I do not choose to paint my hives. I love the natural look of wood, it does not matter the species. I was happy to discover, waxing accentuates the wood and does not cover up its beauty. The process can darken the woodware a little bit depending on how long you cook it and what formulation of wax you use to protect it.

The process of cooking the hives is beneficial in killing pathogens. Cooking the wood at 300 degrees for 10 minutes is an inhospitable environment for things such as spores, molds, mildew, bacteria, and viruses. I have not seen any scientific data on this, but it makes sense that autoclaving your woodware gives the bees a nice disease-free place to start.

The process is expensive in the beginning, but the downstream payoffs are very significant. Once you have the initial investment in wax, the cooker, and heat source, all future outlays will be for wax. The amount of wax necessary to coat a hive is variable but my expenses are near that of buying mis-colored paint. Almost a once and done proposition. My most expensive and precious commodity is time. If I don’t have to refinish my woodware for 10, 15, maybe 20 years, then I have come out on the winning side of that equation.

Other issues with waxing woodware are the real danger of fire and burns. You must realize you are heating a product that emits vapors and burns in its liquid state. The wax should be between 275-325 degrees Fahrenheit (135-165 C), this is hot enough to cause a significant 2nd degree or partial thickness burns. Plus, there are real possibilities of overheating your wax and causing auto-ignition, the auto-ignition temp of the wax blend I use starts at about 450 degrees Fahrenheit (230 C). Auto-ignition is when a flammable or combustible product is heated to such a point that its vapors spontaneously catch on fire.

So, if you choose to wax your woodware, take all necessary precautions. Do it outside in an open, well ventilated area, remove all combustibles from the area, wear gloves and eye protection, be vigilant about monitoring the wax temperature, have a fire extinguisher, and have a lid that easily closes on your wax vessel.

There are many recipes for wax that people use for their woodware. Some use paraffin with pine resin. Others will add some linseed oil as a thinner to help with penetration. There are beekeepers that will use a combination of paraffin and micro-crystalline wax in varying proportions. Some will cook their hives for 2-3 minutes while others cook them for up to 15 minutes. So, you can see there is no real consensus.

I use a combination a proprietary mix of 3 waxes, paraffin, micro-crystalline, and beeswax. Micro-crystalline wax and beeswax have very similar molecular properties as well as having similar melting points. Paraffin alone will not penetrate the wood, it is a straight chain alkane CH4 structure that will sit on the outside of the wood and peel off. Micro-crystalline wax and beeswax are branched chained alkane CH4 structures and they penetrate the wood. Mixing them allows the paraffin to be drawn into the pores of the wood.

Conclusion

Why don’t I use just beeswax instead of the micro-crystalline wax combination? Simple economics, beeswax sells for $8-$15 per pound, micro-crystalline wax I can buy at $4/lb. I put beeswax in the mix for its scent as paraffin and micro-crystalline are odorless waxes. I have swarm traps that I put in and around apiaries, using some beeswax in the mix helps to attract scout bees to the boxes in my experience.

Summary of why you “Wax On”

  1. Bee safe
  2. Durable
  3. 1 step
  4. Beauty of the natural wood
  5. Pathogen control

Hopefully this is helpful for the beekeepers looking for ways to finish their woodware. I will be writing a post on the waxing process later this year, thanks for reading.

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