How to Encourage Honey Bees to Build Comb
Spring arrives and we beekeepers are so very excited. We are anxious to have the bees fill our boxes with delicious honey. Are you are a new beekeeper using a new box with only foundation? If so, you are probably wondering if there is anything you can do to encourage honey bees to build comb!
Individual cells of beeswax must be constructed to hole eggs, larva, brood and food. Of course, bees use the comb over and over for years. But a new colony is starting from scratch.
It is not only new Spring colonies that we want to encourage with wax building. Mid-Late Summer swarms are under pressure to get their honeycomb build out before cold weather.
Our honey bees have a plan. We have to learn how to work with their natural tendencies.
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How Fast Do Bees Build Comb?
Producing beeswax is a vital part of the honey bee life experience. Bee want to build (or draw) comb when they need it. But, sometimes we beekeepers think they 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. These workers are the bees that produce beeswax. On the underside of their abdomen, each worker bee has 4 pairs of wax glands.
Queen and drones do not have wax glands.
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.
What if you have lost a brood cycle because of queen problems etc. and there are no young bees in the hive? Adult 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.
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!
Why Are My Bees Not Building Comb?
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 used to keep the queen out of the honey collection supers.
The purpose of this item is to keep the queen bee out of the honey 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? I’m just not going to go there in this article.
But I will say that in all my years of keeping bees, I have only had 1 colony that seemed to not want to go through the excluder. As far as building out comb, I doubt having an excluder is a big issue.
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.
Honey Bees Build Comb When They Need It
Let’s remember that the goal of the bee colony and the goal of the beekeeper is not always the same. Most beekeepers desire excess honey production.
Honey bee colonies feel the urge to grow in population and possibly swarm. Then, they want to produce enough honey for Winter.
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.
We can encourage honey bees to build comb by feeding them well. This is especially 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. Usually, 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 the method bees use for surviving 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.
Honey Bees Need Plenty of Nectar
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.
5 Tips to Get Bees Drawing Out Comb
#1 Time of Year
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
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. Do not feed until the whole super is drawn out – that will be a mess.
#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 were planning to have to build comb. 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.
#5 Young Workers Are the Best For Building Comb
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
- Feed Bees Correct Sugar Mixture
- Bait Up to Encourage Expansion
- Use Swarms to Build Comb
- Maintain A lot of Young 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.
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