Encourage Bees to Make Honeycomb

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Beekeepers hope to encourage the bees to make honeycomb swiftly. Comb construction in the hive is the result of the efforts of many bees. A lot of factors are involved in the rate of wax building for any colony. Can you help hurry the job along? Sometimes, yes.

Worker honey bees drawing comb on a new sheet of foundation in hive.

This guide aims to help the beekeeper understand the dynamics of how bees make wax into comb and the resources they need to do so.

Understanding Honeycomb Construction

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 or other cavities.

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.

How Bees Make Honeycomb

Bees produce wax from eight wax glands- located on the under-side of their abdomens. These glands produce flakes called “wax scales”. These small bits of wax are clear at first and then turn white as they harden.

Honey bees don’t have teeth but they use their mouth parts (or mandibles) to chew and shape each piece of wax. These are joined together to form sheets with thousands of cells.

Hexagonal Efficiency

Honey bees 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. And, the triple junction where cells connect make for an efficient strong structure.

Young workers are the best wax producers. They hang in chains near the construction area – we call this bees festooning. And, even though we are not sure why it happens – it is really amazing to see.

Factors that Influence Comb Building

Comb building within a beehive is affected by several different factors. Beekeepers who wish to encourage their bees to build comb faster must be aware of these influences.

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  • 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 out comb requires a lot of effort and energy to produce the wax (from the glands) and shape the comb. 

If they do not need the space, you will have a hard time getting them to fill the frames. 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. They normally have more young adult bees. And, they feel the need to have more honey stored for Winter survival of the colony.

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.

However, bees also need warm temperatures to work beeswax. An optimal 95° F (inside the hive) 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. Also, cold temperatures outside will mean that less food is being brought inside.

Requires A Lot of Food

Bees must consume large quantities of fresh food in order to stimulate the wax glands. Stored honey does not have the same affect on wax production.

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.

Worker bees on frame of newly built comb.

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.

Feed Your Bees

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. 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 swarms may also be fed to encourage faster comb building. This is especially true for the late season or Fall swarm, survival of is doubtful. But, extra feeding can tip the odds in their favor.

Feed for Wax Production

Not every feeding recipe has the same effect. Using a 1:1 sugar water recipe (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 honey flow is on we don’t have to worry about feeding right? Not on hives with honey supers on (we don’t want to contaminate our honey crop).

However, the importance of feeding bee colonies that are starting from scratch should not be overlooked.

With a bee feeder on the hive, bees can eat 24/7. They can feed inside the hive on rainy days, windy days, cool days and at night. 

Promote Good Populations

The majority of the hive 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 (maybe you had to requeen the hive) and there are few young adults?

While, young adults are the best wax producers, workers of any age can make beeswax. The older workers (foraging bees) can become wax producers- they just will not be as good as it.

Expert Tips

Ok, let’s say your colony populations are good and strong and you have nectar coming in (or you are feeding). Are there other tips to keep in mind to encourage the bees for efficient honeycomb production?

  • time of year
  • baiting bees up to new box
  • use swarms
  • be patient
Beehive crowded with young bees.

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

If a colony seems reluctant to move up into a new box of foundation, you may try “baiting up”. Take a frame of full honeycomb from the bees’ super and exchange it with a frame of new foundation in the new box.

This can encourage the bees to move up into the next box. No harm in doing this.

However, keep in mind, if you performed mite treatments with that frame in the hive – you may not want to consume the honey (depending on the treatment used). Beekeepers that use this method should go back in a few weeks and switch them back.

New wax cells on fresh comb with workers.

Use Swarms to Produce Comb

If you catch a honey bee swarm, 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.

Be Patient

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. 

Sometimes, we can help nature along but you can’t force it. When your colonies have the conditions and resources they need – the bees will build the comb needed.

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.

Significance of Drawn Comb

Let’s look at just a bit of beekeeping terminology here – in reference to a word that causes some confusion among novice beekeepers – drawn comb.

Also referred to as “pulled comb” or “drawn-out comb” – do not mistake the word with “drone bee” (male bees).

What is drawn comb? This term is used to describe the sheets of honeycomb found inside a beehive. Usually within removeable frames. Comb in this state is ready for the bees to use.

Drawn comb is valuable both to the hive and the beekeeper. It represents the output of a lot of energy and resources.

The first season’s work is especially challenging for new colonies that begin with nothing. If you have a few frames of drawn-out comb to give them, it is a big bonus.

Fresh honeycomb cell made on frame in beehive.

New Comb for Healthier Hives

When we look into the specifics of what is honeycomb – you can better appreciate the amazing talent of these insects.

Comb is used for rearing young and food storage: bee bread (pollen),and a lot of honey stores for Winter.

Encouraging bees to make honeycomb is not always used for a new colony. There are other reasons the beekeeper may want the colony to kick up wax production. 

The pitter patter of thousands of little feet stain the wax. Pesticides and other chemical residues are brought back to the hive and are absorbed by the wax.

Having fresh comb in the hive promotes healthier bees. 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.

Beeswax honeycomb is edible and people love it. Sales of comb can be a viable part of honey production – increasing the profits a beekeeper makes.

FAQs

Why are my bees not building comb?

A honey bee colony must have a good population of young bees, plentiful food (nectar – 1:1 sugar water) and a need for space for efficient comb construction. If any of these are lacking, your bees will be slow to build honeycomb.

How fast do bees make honeycomb?

A strong colony with plenty of food and young workers can drawn out a shallow super in a week to 10 days. But, it may take up to 2 months.

The amount of time it takes a colony to produce a frame of honeycomb is impossible to calculate. There are too many variables involved.

Will a queenless hive draw comb?

Yes, a colony without a queen will draw comb as long as the population and food resources are there. They may not need it for bee brood but they will still store honey.

Does feeding bees sugar water help them make comb?

Yes, a constant supply of 1:1 sugar water stimulated comb building in the hive.

Does using a queen excluder stop comb building?

A queen excluder is a screen that is used to keep the queen out of the honey collection supers.
Beekeepers can argue for days on end about queen excluders.

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.  

Will bees build comb on an empty frame?

Yes, bees will build honeycomb in empty frames but unless you use a small strip of foundation as a starter strip – they may not build it inside the frame as you wish.

How to get bees to build comb on plastic foundation?

Many beekeepers, brush a light coat of beeswax on plastic foundation prior to placing them in the hive. This practice along with a good feeding plan helps encourage comb drawing.

Final Thoughts

It is important to remember that we manage the bees but we do not control them. All of the needs of the colony must be met before we can expect them to perform at optimum levels. Colony differences exist too – some bees build wax faster than other. Give your bees what they need and hope they make enough wax for you to have some excess beeswax you can use.