Fake honeycomb fools the bees

Dr. Herbert Drapkin, a Los Angeles surgeon, has done something for the honey industry that was thought to be impossible. He has developed an inexpensive plastic honeycomb that the bees accept as readily as they do the natural product they make themselves. This means that the bees, with a ready-made house, will have more time to make honey.

The accomplishment could revolutionize beekeeping and propel the industry into the 21st century, some beekeepers say.

Artificial combs have long been seen as a boon to beekeeping. They have been made before but proved too expensive, too flimsy, or totally unacceptable to the bees. Finally, in 1976 Dr. Drapkin -- a surgeon who also has a degree in agriculture, experience in the extrusion industry, and a modest apiary on his 33-acre orange grove near Bardsdale, Calif. -- tried his hand at creating one.

He was soon able to develop a high-density polyethylene product so close to the real thing that bees, notoriously sensitive to anything artificial, appeared not to notice the difference. The problem lay in the cost. Finally, the number of manufacturing steps was reduced so that the combs now come in at a relatively modest $3.35 apiece for relatively small numbers; $2.35 for a hundred or more.

The advantages of the artificial comb include:

More honey. In making their own combs bees consume between six and eight pounds of honey for every pound of wax they produce. In addition, the seven to 10 days bees in a new hive spend making comb can now be used to make honey, produce young, and get the colony off to a quick start.

Durability. The artificial combs are strong enough to be given a 10-year guarantee. Where the annual replacement rate for wax combs can range from between 15 to 20 percent, the nine years of trials with Perma-Comb, as it is called, suggest a less than 1 percent annual rate.

Because the plastic can withstand considerably higher temperatures than wax, there is no danger of meltdown during extremely hot weather, a factor that proved important during tests the Peace Corps conducted with the new combs in Tunisia. The plastic combs are also immune to attack from the wax moth, whose larvae eat natural honeycomb.

Cleanliness. Because the Perma-Combs will not warp at temperatures below 220 degrees F., they can be readily cleaned and sterilized in boiling water.

Faster and more complete honey extraction. While the Perma-Comb is designed to work with all kinds of conventional bee equipment, its strength and heat tolerance mean that it can be used in ultrahigh-speed honey extractors, capable of 900 revolutions a minute (normal comb will break at speeds greater than 400 r.p.m.).

Information on the new combs is available from Perma-Comb Systems, 22543 Ventura Boulevard, Woodland Hills, Calif. 91364.

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