Encourage Your Bees to Build Comb
Honey bees produce beeswax and build comb to establish their home. A lot of factors are involved in the timing of this essential process. A new colony has much work to do before Winter. When keeping honey bees, we often wonder how to get our bees to build comb faster. You can never have too much bee honeycomb on hand.
Spring arrives and we beekeepers are so very excited. We are anxious to have the bees fill our boxes with delicious honey.
The bees have a lot to do too, especially new colonies. New hives begin with nothing but the bees themselves. They need thousands of wax cells to raise young and store food.
Are you are a new beekeeper using a new bee box. Your bees are starting fresh with no completed frames of honeycomb to use.
Most new hives start out with frame of foundation. Commonly beeswax foundation is installed in removable wood frames. Some beekeepers use plastic foundation.
Foundation serves as a guide to help the bees build their sheets of straight and inside the wood frames.
A common beekeeping question is how to encourage the bees to build comb faster. Is there anything we can do to help the process along?
Why Bees Produce Honeycomb
The bees must produce beeswax to make honeycomb. A lot of beeswax is needed to create the thousands of wax cells in a sheet of wax.
These individual cells of beeswax must be constructed to hold bee brood, pollen and honey for Winter.
The honeycomb is the actual structure of the hive and must be in place for colony growth. Building comb requires the effort of many bees and it takes time.
A new colony is starting from scratch and needs to use a lot of energy for wax production.
Building New Honeycomb for Healthier Bees
But, it is not only new bees colonies that we want to kick into wax production. There are other reasons beekeepers want to encourage bees to make honeycomb.
It is a good practice to rotate out old comb in the hive. Over time, beeswax absorbs impurities.
The pitter patter of thousands of little feet stain the wax. Pesticides and other chemical residues are brought back to the hive by foraging bees.
Having fresh comb in the hive promotes healthier bees. For this reason, we want our bees to make some new frames of comb occasionally.
Many beekeepers give an established colony 2 new frames each year and rotate out the oldest frames of comb.
Another reason for bees to make comb is for the honey harvest. People enjoy eating honeycomb too. Producing fresh honeycomb can be a viable part of honey production.
Feed New Colonies to Promote Comb Building
While we all understand that plant nectar (honey) is the very best food for bees, most beekeepers will feed bees at some time.
In many regions of the country, new hives benefit greatly from supplemental feeding.
Hive splits or bee swarms may also be fed depending on the time of year and available nature nectar.
When we catch a bee swarm in late Summer, the survival of the swarm is doubtful. They have a lot of work to do and extra feeding can make tip the odds in their favor.
Feeding Bees Promotes Wax Production
Feeding bees 1:1 (equal parts of cane sugar and water) stimulates wax production. This strength of sugar water is most similar to plant nectar.
It is a common practice to feed this ratio of sugar water to colonies that need encouragement to build comb.
Hungry bees can feed inside the hive on rainy days, windy days, cool days and a night.
Be prepared to feed an ample amount because just a jar or two will not do. Choose a larger feeder or use several jars at one time.
How Fast Do Bees Build Comb?
Our honey bees have a plan. We have to learn how to work with their natural tendencies.
Producing beeswax is a vital part of the honey bee life experience. And you will find beekeepers using different terms for this process.
Honey bees build – draw out -or make honeycomb from wax produced by glands on their body.
You may hear the term “drawn” or “drawn-out” comb a lot. This means a sheet of beeswax that is complete with thousands of individual wax cells.
Being Southern, it took me a bit to understand that people were saying “drawn” not “drone”.
A Drone is a male bee and “drone comb” means something else entirely.
Sometimes we beekeepers think our colonies should be building comb when they seem reluctant to do so.
Sometimes, a colony will build comb very fast. Other times, it seems to take forever. The bees will be reluctant to build comb unless they need it.
And, just as important – the colony needs to have a good population of healthy young bees.
Building Comb Requires Good Beeswax Production
In a honey bee colony, the majority of the population is made up of female worker bees. Workers are responsible for making beewax.
On the underside of their abdomen, each worker bee has 4 pairs of wax glands. Queen and drones do not have wax glands-they have other jobs to do.
Young adult bees are the most productive wax producers. Most of the honeycomb in your hive will be built by bees that are between 10 and 18 days old.
Liquid wax is excreted from the wax glands (also called wax mirrors). It dries into clear flakes or scales.
The bee grabs the wax scale and uses its legs and mouth to mold the wax into hexagon cells. Isn’t that remarkable!
What if you have lost a brood cycle because of queen problems etc. and there are no young bees in the hive?
Young adults are the more productive but, adult worker bees of any age can make beeswax.
The older bees that have been working as foragers can become wax producers. They just will not be as good as it as their younger sisters.
Why Are My Bees Not Making Honeycomb?
This is a common question in beekeeping circles. Before I go any farther I want to address the issue of a queen excluder.
A queen excluder is a screen (usually made of wire) that is used to keep the queen out of the honey collection supers.
We do not want the queen to lay brood in the honey supers. Her thorax is slightly larger than the worker bees’ thorax. They can pass through the screen and usually, the queen cannot.
Does a Queen Excluder Prevent Comb Building?
Beekeepers can argue for days on end about queen excluders. Are they are a good thing or the worst thing ever?
I’m just not going to go there in this article. However, some beekeepers feel that using an excluder slows down comb construction.
I will say that in all my years of keeping bees, I have only had 1 colony with workers who did not want to go through the excluder.
All of the other colonies have gone through the excluder to work with no problem. I doubt that having an excluder is a deterrent to comb building.
However, if you have a frame of finished comb to put above the excluder, it may help encourage the occasional colony that seems to be slow.
Why Bees Build More Comb
If you want to encourage honey bees to build comb, you have to understand the dynamics of the hive.
We need 3 major conditions to be met for comb building. Once these are addressed we can explore variables.
- the colony needs more comb
- they have enough adults to generate heat and produce wax
- abundant food available
Bees Build Comb When They Need It
Honey bees are not lazy. But they are not wasteful either. Building honeycomb requires a lot of effort and energy to produce the wax and shape the comb.
If they do not need the space, you will have a hard time getting them to draw (or build) comb.
A colony with a larger population will usually draw comb faster. Not only because they have more young bees but because they feel the need to have more honey stored. They need a larger pantry to store honey for Winter.
We can encourage honey bees to build comb by feeding them well. This is also true when a natural nectar flow is on.
But wait – if a flow is on we don’t have to worry about feeding right?
Well, if you have a feeder on the hive, the bees can eat during the night, on very windy days and days with rain.
Feeding will encourage your honey bees to build comb. This is because they need somewhere to put the honey.
Bees Need Warm Temperatures in The Brood Nest
We know that bees eat honey and create heat in the brood nest. This is how bees survive Winter.
And, they are able to keep the brood nest at the desired temperature range in the same way.
Bees also need warm temperatures to work beeswax. An optimal 95 degrees F is good for molding beeswax scales to form comb.
If the outside temperatures are very cool or cold, it will be much more difficult for the bees to build comb.
They even may not think the effort is worth it. Cold temperatures outside will mean that less food is being brought inside.
Building Comb Requires A Lot of Food
Bees must consume large quantities of honey in order to stimulate the wax glands. Honey is metabolized in fat cells to produce wax.
The worker bee has also consumed pollen in the first few days of her life to promote fat cell development.
Young workers engorge themselves with honey and hang in chains near the construction area. We call this festooning and it is really amazing to see.
If you have a hive that is building comb, be very careful when doing inspections. You may get to see this in activity in your own hive.
The need for abundant honey is another reason that feeding may encourage honey bees to build comb.
Our surplus sugar water will help keep the colony supplied with a constant source of food.
Now we understand the 3 major factors we must address to encourage honey bees to build comb.
They must have a need for it, have warm temperatures and have abundant food available.
Getting Bees to Make Comb
#1 Optimal Time of Year for Building Comb
The time of year can affect how easy it is to get your bees to drawn out comb. Spring is a time of natural buildup.
Colonies feel the urge to increase in population and possible swarm.
Therefore, getting your bees to drawn out foundation (of build comb) will be easier in the Spring.
Try to use your frames of foundation early in the year and save a couple of drawn out frames for later emergencies.
Is it impossible to get comb drawn out later in the year? Of course not. If the 3 requirements are met, bees will draw comb.
However, in my experience it is much more difficult to encourage honey bees to build comb after the first of July.
If I need frames built out, I push to get that done before mid-Summer.
#2 Feed Your Bees The Right Sugar Mixture to Encourage Wax Production
Feeding your bees will encourage them to draw out comb. Even if a nectar flow is on, most colonies will use the feeder at night or on rainy days.
If you are feeding your bees for comb building purposes, use a 1:1 sugar/water ratio.
This ratio simulates natural nectar and is more likely to result in new comb.
No, stored honey in the hive does not seem to have the same effect. It is new food coming in that stimulates the bees.
But you shouldn’t feed your bees when your honey supers are on, right? Right! Honey made from sugar water is not real honey.
However, you could feed your bees just a bit when adding a foundation super. This might give them a boost to get started.
Understand you may end up with a little sugar water in your honey super.
#3 Baiting Up to Encourage Honey Bees to Build Comb in New Box
If you have a colony that seems reluctant to move up into a new box, you may try “baiting up”.
You take a frame of full honeycomb out of the bees’ super and exchange it with a foundation frame.
This can encourage the bees to move up into the next box.
No harm in doing this. However, keep in mind, if you treated for mites with that frame in the bees’ section of the box you may not want to consume it.
Beekeepers that use this method should go back in a few weeks and switch them back.
#4 Swarms Love Building Comb
If you catch a honey bee swarm, that is a great opportunity to get new comb. The workers in the swarm are ready to build comb for their new home.
They will leave the hive with wax glands primed and ready to go! Once swarms get started drawing comb they will often continue as long as you feed them.
This may be an opportunity to get a few extra frames drawn out for later use.
#5 Young Workers Are the Best For Making Honeycomb
When you are making splits or requeening a hive, keep in mind that you need a lot of young workers to produce wax at a fast pace.
Put frames of foundation in the box with the most young workers to see the best comb production.
5 Tips to Encourage Bees to Draw Comb:
- time of year – Spring is best
- feed your bees 1:1 sugar water!
- bait up to encourage expansion
- use swarms to build comb
- maintain a lot of young adult bees
We beekeepers love our bees and want to do everything we can to help. It is important to remember that we manage the bees but we do not control them.
Our goal is to work with the natural tendencies of the honey bee colony.
If it is Spring, and you have a healthy hive of bees, they should build comb when they are ready.
And, it won’t hurt to make sure you keep that feeder full.
If you have excess beeswax after honey harvest, it can be used for many fun projects.