When a beekeeper sets up a new hive, a lot of care is taken to help the bees get off to a good start. A major goal is getting bees to build comb as fast as possible. A lot of factors are involved in the rate of wax building for any colony. Can you help hurry the job along? Sometimes, yes.
What is Drawn Comb in a Beehive?
Draw comb is the term used to describe frames in a beehive that are filled with honeycomb. This “drawn comb” is valuable. It gives a new colony a big boost in setting up a home.
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The season’s work is especially challenging for new colonies. These hives begin with nothing. Even if the beekeeper provides starter foundation sheets there is still much work to be done.
Foundation serves as a guide to help the bees build their honeycomb straight and inside the wood frames. However, the colony still must construct a lot of comb and thousands of individual cell. This takes weeks of work.
New Colonies often Start with Foundation
Are you are a newer beekeeper using a new hive? If so, your bees are starting fresh with no completed frames of honeycomb to use.
Commonly beeswax foundation is installed in removable wood frames. Though, some beekeepers use plastic foundation too.
A common beekeeping question is how do I encourage the bees to build comb faster. Is there anything we can do to help the process along? The answer is yes.
Why Bees Produce Honeycomb
To understand how to help our bees, we must understand the process of how bees make beeswax and construct honeycomb.
When we look into the specifics of what is honeycomb and how bees construct it – you can better appreciate the amazing talent of honey bees. Comb construction requires the effort of many worker bees and it takes some time – even in the best circumstances.
New Honeycomb for Healthier Bees
Sometimes, it is not only new bee colonies that we want to kick into wax production. There are other reasons beekeepers want to encourage bees to make new honeycomb.
One good hive management technique is 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. All of these substances are absorbed by the wax.
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 you might want to encourage your bees to make more comb is for the honey harvest. People enjoy eating honeycomb too.
Producing fresh honeycomb can be a viable part of honey production. Honey in the comb sells for much more per pound than liquid honey.
Why Your Bees are Not Drawing Comb
Why are my bees not making comb? This is a common question in beekeeping circles. Sometimes we are just being impatient but it is not unusual to feel that the bees are just being really slow producing wax.
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 optimum comb building.
- the colony needs more comb space
- they have enough adults to generate heat and produce wax
- abundant food available – incoming food-not stored honey
Bees Build Comb When They Need It
Honey bees are not lazy. But, they are not wasteful either. Drawing comb 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. This is why comb production is more difficult as we head towards Winter and the nectar sources are sparse.
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.
Comb Production Requires Heat
During Winter, bees eat honey and create heat in the brood nest. In this way, they are able to keep the brood nest at the desired temperature range. And protect, themselves from freezing.
Bees also need warm temperatures to work beeswax. An optimal 95° 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.
The young worker bees are the best wax producers. They 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.
Building Comb Requires A Lot of Food
Bees must consume large quantities of food in order to stimulate the wax glands. Honey is metabolized in fat cells to produce wax.
Stored honey does not have the same affect on wax productions. Most beekeepers agree that is the incoming fresh nectar or 1:1 sugar water feeding that encourages the colony.
All of these conditions must be met for optimal comb building. The colony must have a need for more space, have warm enough temperatures to work wax and have abundant food coming in to the hive.
Strategies to Encourage Faster Comb Production
We have to work with the natural tendencies of our bees. However, there are some things we can do to give our colonies the resources they need to produce comb. When practiced in the early or mid-season, they may be successful in your apiary.
Feed Colonies to Boost Comb Production
While we all understand that plant nectar (honey) is the very best food for bees, most beekeepers will feed bees at some time. This is a perfectly acceptable practice and is not intended to replace natural food.
In many regions of the country, new hives benefit greatly from supplemental feeding. If you are in a region with a short Summer, feeding bees sugar water may help that new colony get off to a better start.
Hive splits or bee swarms may also be fed depending on the time of year and available nature nectar. Both of these small bee families are beginning from scratch and need to produce a lot of wax.
This is especially true for the late season swarm, survival of the swarm is doubtful. They have a lot of work to do. But, extra feeding can tip the odds in their favor – especially if you live in a region with a long Fall season.
Sugar Water Ratio for Wax Production
Feeding bees 1:1 sugar water (equal parts of cane sugar and water) stimulates wax production. This strength of sugar water is most similar to plant nectar.
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 24/7.
For the most benefit, feed your colonies with some type of inside feeder. Hungry bees can feed inside the hive on rainy days, windy days, cool days and at night.
Be prepared to feed an ample amount because just a jar or two will not do. Think in terms of gallons not quarts. Choose a larger feeder or use several jars at one time.
Building Comb Requires Plenty of Young Adults
In a honey bee colony, the majority of the population is made up of female worker bees. Workers have many responsibilities in the hive.
An interesting fact, making beeswax is the primary job of young adults. Most of the honeycomb in your hive will be built by bees that are between 10 and 18 days old.
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 best wax producers, but workers 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.
How Fast Do Bees Make Honeycomb?
How long does it take bees to make a frame of drawn comb? The amount of time it takes a colony to produce a frame of honeycomb is impossible to calculate. There are too many variables involved.
The number of bees in the hive – especially young adults of prime wax producing age is a primary factor. Temperature plays a role in the efficiency of comb building but most importantly we must consider incoming food.
Honey bees build – draw out -or make honeycomb from wax produced by glands on their body. Being a Southern woman, 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.
Does a Queen Excluder Prevent Comb Building?
A queen excluder is a screen (usually made of wire) that is used to keep the queen out of the honey collection supers.
Her thorax is slightly larger than the worker bees’ thorax. They can pass through the screen and usually, the queen cannot.
Beekeepers can argue for days on end about queen excluders. Are they are a good thing or the worst thing ever? 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 queen excluder to work with no problem. I doubt that having an excluder is a deterrent to comb building.
Extra Comb Building Tips
Some simple ideas to keep in mind when you feel that your colonies are not filling out their boxes as fast as they should.
Chose the Optimal Time of Year
Getting your bees to draw out foundation (or 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.
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.
Baiting Bees Up to 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.
Use Swarms to Produce 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 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.
Keep a lot of Young Bees in the Hive
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.
Sometimes we beekeepers think our colonies should be building comb when they seem reluctant to do so. At times, a colony will build comb very fast. Other times, it seems to take forever.
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. Beeswax is important to the colony and we like it too.
If you have excess beeswax after honey harvest, it can be used for many fun beeswax projects. This is another reason to help the bees along in their honeycomb making endeavor.