Buying Used Bee Equipment
It is risky to buy used beehives. You run a gamble of purchasing comb that is contaminated by American Foulbrood disease. If you put new bees into this equipment, they will catch this terrible disease. Sometimes this occurs when you buy from a hobby beekeeper who may not have recognized the disease. He kept bees for years and was disease free, so he was fine. But then the bees got sick and died, and he didn't understand why. So he gets discouraged and sells the remnants. Or you may get equipment from someone who knows very well they are diseased, but doesn't care that he is defrauding you.
At any rate, if the comb has not disintegrated, or been destroyed by wax worms, you can usually protect yourself quite a bit, by a careful examination for scale in the cells of the brood area. You can tell where brood was raised, because the wax will be darker than other areas of the comb, usually to the center and low parts of the frames.
First, take a good smell of the comb. Some people (like myself) find that foulbrood has a strong, obnoxious, urea-type odor. Others can't smell it. And, of course you may have to distinguish it from the smell of fermented honey, mouse pee, wax worm frass, and mold.
Then take a frame of comb that was in the center of the brood area. Hold it in good strong light, so that you can see the bottoms of the cells. I hold the frame out in front of my face, near horizontal, but slightly toward upside down. This allows sunlight to shine directly on the bottom of the cells. By bottom here I mean, not the rib of the comb, but the part that normally is the lowest, as the frame is usually placed in the box.
Each larva that gets the AFB disease will slump down into a flake or scale that sticks to the bottom of the cell. Now larvae with European Foulbrood disease will also slump down in a similar fashion, but they will not be glued down. You can take a toothpick and easily dislodge an EFB scale. EFB is not nearly so serious a disease. A good strong hive should be able to clean it up. A hive that breaks down with European can be requeened and will usually clean it up with no further problem.
But AFB scale will stick and you will break the comb before you can dislodge this scale.
On the left you see the general picture of an infected comb. It looks greasy, and many of the caps are perforated at random. Some of the caps are sunken. All the brood is dead, and it has dried for some time.
On the right you see a closeup of AFB scale. In some, particularly on the lower part you can see the remnants of the tongue in the center. Remember that the comb is oriented upside down to its normal position, so the light can highlight the scales. This scale cannot be picked loose, without breaking the comb.
Do not use any comb with this kind of scale in your hives. You may render the wax, if you wish, then burn the remnants of the frames and wax. It may be more economical in the long run, to just burn the comb along with the frames. It is difficult and expensive to sterilize the frames. The hive boxes, covers and bottom boards can be salvaged, if you thoroughly scorch all surfaces that bees have contacted. You should burn away the surface layer of wood.
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