When a beekeeper sets up a new hive, a lot of care is taken to help them get off to a good start. A major goal is getting bees to make honeycomb 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.
How do Bees Make Honeycomb?
It is rather amazing to consider that the interior of most honey bee colonies begins as an empty space. In nature, bees build their own wax honeycomb inside hollow trees etc.
May contain affiliate links. Read my privacy and affiliate disclosure policy for more info.
Young female workers have eight pairs of wax glands on the under-side of their abdomens. But, they must consume a lot of honey in order to produce wax. The glands produce tiny flakes of wax called “wax scales”.
These are joined together to shape the wax into many hexagonal cells. Bees use their mouth parts (mandibles) to chew and shape each piece. Each unit begins as round circle shapes because the workers use body heat to form the cell. The finished cells will be in a hexagonal pattern.
Honey bee colonies make beehives with hexagon shapes because that is the most efficient way to get many cells in a limited space. This requires less wax to get the job completed. The triple junction where cells connect make for an efficient strong structure.
In managed hives, beekeepers normally provide wooden frames with foundation (wax or plastic). These serve as a guide to help the bees build their honeycomb straight. However, even with the aid of foundation, the colony still must construct a lot of comb and thousands of individual cells. This takes weeks (or months) of hard labor by colony members.
Let’s look at just a bit of beekeeping terminology here. The word is “drawn comb” sometimes called “pulled comb” or “drawn-out comb”. This is not the same as a “drone bee”. Drones are the male bees in the colony.
Drawn comb is used to describe frames in a beehive that are filled with full sheets of honeycomb. Except for perhaps adding a wax capping, the bees are finished preparing this frame and cells are ready to use.
Drawn comb is valuable. It represents a lot of energy and resources and gives a new colony a big boost in setting up a home. The season’s work is especially challenging for new colonies. These hives begin with nothing.
Why Bees Produce Honeycomb
When we look into the specifics of what is honeycomb and its construction – you can better appreciate the amazing talent of these insects. Comb construction requires the effort of many worker bees and it takes some time – even in the best of circumstances.
These honeycomb cells provide a place for many colony activities. Some are used as brood cells and contain developing young or brood. Others function as a storage area, storing pollen- or bee bread, and a lot of honey stores for Winter.
New Honeycomb for Healthier Hives
Sometimes, it is not only new colonies that we want to kick into wax production. There are other reasons beekeepers want to encourage bees to make honeycomb.
The pitter patter of thousands of little feet stain the wax. Pesticides and other chemical residues are brought back to the hive by foragers. All of these substances are absorbed by the wax.
Having fresh comb in the hive promotes healthier bees. For this reason, we want our colonies to make some new frames of comb occasionally. One good hive management technique is to enable the hive to have new comb every 5 years or so.
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 honeycomb 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. In fact, a pound of beeswax is more valuable than a pound of honey.
New Colonies often Start with Foundation
Are you are a newer beekeeper using a new hive? If so, your colonies are starting fresh with no completed frames comb to use – much the same as a wild colony. Your beeswax foundation is installed and you are ready to see things start happening.
But, my goodness they seem to be taking their time. Is something wrong? A common new beekeeper question is to ask “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 Your Bees are Not Making Comb
Why are my bees not making comb? Sometimes we are just being impatient but it is not unusual to feel that the hives are just being really slow producing wax.
What should you do-if anything? First, you need to understand the dynamics of the hive. We need 3 major conditions to be met for optimum comb building. If any of these are lacking, your bees will be slow to build honeycomb.
- the colony needs more comb space
- they have enough adults to generate heat and produce wax
- abundant food is 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 build out comb. This is why comb production is more difficult as we head towards Winter and the incoming 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 workers are the best wax producers. They hang in chains near the construction area. We call this festooning behavior and even if we are not always sure why it happens – it is really amazing to see.
It 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 Promote Comb Building
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 make honeycomb faster. When practiced in the early or mid-season, they may be successful in your apiary.
Feed Colonies for Build Up
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. It has a different effect on the bees than stored honey.
But wait – if a honey flow is on we don’t have to worry about feeding right? Not on hives with honey super on but for new colonies -that’s a different thing. If you have a feeder on the hive, the bees can eat 24/7. 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.
Good Population Young Adults
In a honey bee colony, the majority of the population is made up of female worker bees. 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 few 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. A strong colony with plenty of young bees make honeycomb the fastest.
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 frame that has new foundation.
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.
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.
FAQs about Bees Making Honeycomb
The amount of time it takes a colony to produce a frame of honeycomb is impossible to calculate. There are too many variables involved.
A very strong colony with plenty of food and young workers can drawn out a shallow super in a week to 10 days.
A queen excluder is a screen (usually made of wire) that is used to keep the queen out of the honey collection supers. She can not pass through the grid.
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 that did not want to go through the excluder. All of the other colonies have gone through with no problem.