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Bailey Comb Change

This page is credited in full to Dave Cushman who created it. His voice is expressed in black colour text and any additions or comments in blue belong to myself. Credit: Dave Cushman’s website.



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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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…

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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