Painting New Honey Supers For The Coming Season

Painting New Honey Supers For The Coming Season

It is barely spring here in the Creston Valley, and we’re just gearing up to go into pollination in the cherry orchards for which this place is famous. As I’d previously reported, we bought Swan Valley Honey last July and made the consequential leap of moving from the Vancouver area to Creston.

As we wait for the buds to emerge we still have a few weeks to get ready. The weather is still cool, and I am told by orchardists that this spring will be closer to normal than the past few advanced springs. So we’re using the time to check colonies, put on extra pollen patties to spur brood development and get ahead on some much-delayed maintenance. This week we’re slowed because of a last-gasp storm that dropped torrential rains on our farm and 30 cm of snow on Kootenay Pass. So, we spent the first days of the week indoors doing maintenance.

One of the jobs we’d left over the winter was to paint all the new honey supers in the back shop. Freshly-made by the previous owners but not yet put into service, the boxes have been stacked in tall rows waiting for a couple of coats of paint. Before the honey flow starts in June or July they also need to be fitted with a mixture of drawn comb rotated out from old supers and a few frames of new foundation.

Boxes So Old They Fall Apart

This job is made all that more urgent because we decided to retire a couple hundred ancient honey supers that were literally falling apart. The boxes, built for the original operator back in the 80’s, were so cracked and worn that the nails were pulling out of the ends. In many cases the only thing holding them together is the heavy coat of propolis the bees had collected over the years to seal up the drafty cracks.

Old and new boxes. The top box must be 20 years old and was never properly serviced. Even the honey frame inside is showing its age. Jeff Lee photo

The frames inside were also in pretty dismal shape; bowed, cracked, and in many cases of varying widths. We found they would get stuck in the equally ancient Maxant-Mraz 1000 uncapper we have since also retired. (We recently found out from Maxant it was one of only 10 such uncappers made.  It is now going to be a flower planter!)

In the past the bees had been allowed to use the honey supers for brood-rearing. As a result many of the frames were black with age and also needed to be retired.

We cleaned the propolis from just 10 of those old boxes and recovered two kilos of material! At about $150 a kilo that’s a lot of money tied up in those supers, even if they are otherwise destined for the burn pile.

The old Maxant uncapper. Ancient and tempermental, it had a propensity for getting jammed and breaking frames. Jeff Lee photo

On Rotating Out Old Comb

We have a policy of rotating out 20 per cent of our frames every year in an effort to renew stock and reduce the potential for disease.

How do you know which frames to get rid of? My friend Andony Melathopoulus, an associate professor of apiculture at the University of Oregon, left a crowd at a BC Honey Producers Association meeting in stitches recently by observing the first frames to ditch are ones  stamped with the names of dead beekeepers. Not surprisingly, we have a few of those in our stock. I don’t know if the beekeepers are actually dead, but I can tell you that the names we find in our boxes,  Stawn, Penno and VanHan among them, haven’t been keeping bees for donkey’s years.

To their credit the previous owners of Swan Valley Honey had recognized the need to modernize and also had been rotating out frames as fast as possible. They had built several hundred new supers and brood boxes. We also have in the back shop more than 1,500 new frames and foundation that were waiting to be installed.

Getting New Boxes Ready For Service

So the job this week was to paint the boxes.   Next month it will be to redistribute comb and then get all the boxes out for summer service. One of our long-term plans is to move back to rearing the bees in deep brood boxes only and reserving the honey supers just for honey collection.

I found almost everything I needed for the painting job in our various workshops. The Titan paint sprayer needed a new tip but otherwise works like a charm.  On the paint racks I found half a dozen five-gallon buckets of white primer, along with many gallons of mistinted exterior paint picked up at the local paint store.

On paints, bees and colours

The odd thing in our operation is that for the most part we don’t have any white hives.

Historically white is considered to be cleaner, brighter and less heat-generating for the bees. But science has also shown that bees need landmarks by which to orient.  A line of white hives can induce what we call “drift”. That’s when the bees from a middle hive mistake one closer to the end for their own. Over time the middle hive gets weaker and the ones on the end of the row get stronger.

We have a rainbow of beehives in our operation. The different color combinations help forages get back to their proper homes. Jeff Lee photo

Brother Adam, the famous Benedictine monk and beekeeper at Buckfast Abbey, identified this phenomenon on rows of hives placed out on heather.

So, it is more common now for beekeepers to paint various elements of their hives different colours and to place them in non-conforming configurations.  It helps the bees orient home better.

Beekeepers are also famous for being thrifty, and especially so about paint. Bees don’t care what color their homes are and in our yards you can find every colour from green to white to blue to pink. Just not black, and rarely red (which bees see as black.)

In this case we paradoxically decided to paint all the supers white, simply because we don’t have that color in our Jacob’s Coat of coloured equipment.

Preparation is everything

I cleared out a corner of the back shop last week to create a spray booth and draped it with the remains of old tarps shredded by the winter winds.

I also built a wheeled dolly on which to set stacks of boxes for painting. Turning the dolly with a toe means that I am always spraying into the corner.

Using a dolly to rotate stacks of supers makes it easy to paint into the corner and not get paint all over the rest of the shop. Jeff Lee photo

Having a place to put the boxes to dry without dripping on the floor is also important; another old tarp did the trick, on to which I placed bottom boards as drip trays.

Stirring paint may a boring job but it is also critically important, especially when using a powered sprayer. I used a large paddle attached to an electric drill to mix up the paint.

We use a good quality primer for all our boxes. It helps seal the wood and will give good adhesion for the top coat. A top coat of white semi-gloss finished the job.

Some beekeepers prefer to dip their boxes in hot paraffin wax. It does a fine job of sealing them and it also means you don’t have to go back and paint boxes years later.

But you can’t wax previously-painted equipment; it doesn’t adhere well. Our operation uses almost entirely painted equipment, so for us the die was cast.

Not 101 Dalmations, But Boxes

The job went quickly once preparations were done.  In a matter of three hours I had painted 101 honey supers with primer. The next day Amanda finished them off with the top coat.

 Amanda putting the second coat on the new honey supers. Jeff Lee photo

The boxes were stacked on the dolly in columns of nine. Holding the gun about 12 inches away, I moved from left to right and back again, overlapping each layer by half to ensure a good coat. For Amanda, this was the first time using a sprayer. She quickly got the hang of things.

We were careful not to spray the inside of the boxes, which should remain unaltered.

The messiest part of the job was moving the freshly painted stacks to bottom boards on the nearby tarps.  No matter how gingerly we handled the boxes we still managed to paint our fingertips. Latex gloves helped keep the mess under control.

Later this week we’ll go through the boxes and add nine-frame spacers to the insides.  Some of them already were equipped with eight-frame spacers but we prefer the extra frame.

Stacked in offset directions these freshly-painted supers won’t stick to each other very easily. Jeff Lee photo

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