Beekeeping Basics

Drawn Comb is Gold

- June 1, 2020 - Meghan Milbrath - (excerpt)

beehive frames with bees

In April I wrote about methods for swarm control. I’ve been giving a ‘live’ version of that article all over the country — talking to bee clubs through zoom to make sure beekeepers everywhere aren’t going to lose their valuable overwintered bees to the trees (or to their neighbor’s soffits). After every talk, the main question that I get has been, “What do we do if we don’t have drawn comb?” This question amazes me, because I can’t believe how many beekeepers are making it through their first (and sometimes second or third years) without learning one of the most important lessons of beekeeping: Drawn comb is gold. If you don’t have drawn comb, your main goal should be to get your foundation drawn as fast as possible. If you do have drawn comb, one of your top priorities should be to keep your drawn comb safe.

Why is drawn comb so important? We all know that bees need comb for every key function in the hive: They raise young in the brood comb, they communicate on the comb dance floor, they use the comb to pack tightly in a winter cluster, and of course they use comb for processing and storing honey. Having drawn comb in the hive means that the bees have space to perform all their essential duties. Until there is comb, the colony cannot function completely. This is especially obvious in spring, when the key essential duty of a colony is to raise brood — an overwintered colony is focused on growth and needs maximum space for brood rearing. However, during this time flowers begin to bloom, and the foragers start to bring in nectar. Without the space of drawn comb, the foragers are forced to put the nectar into the brood nest. Every cell that is filled with nectar is a cell that cannot be used for raising brood. Even if the backfilling is not sufficient to cause a swarm, it will slow down brood rearing, reducing the workforce that will be available to keep the hive functioning over the next few weeks.

It is important to be prepared with drawn comb because honey flows are transient and limited. If we miss a good nectar flow, it is over, we miss it, and we don’t get a second chance from those flowers. If we want the bees to be able to live off of the food resources in their environment and to make us delicious honey, we need to ensure that they have somewhere to put all the incoming nectar. When a house bee takes a full crop of honey from a forager and there is no honey comb for her to deposit it in, she will be forced to use cells in the brood nest as described above, or will have to digest it, making her unavailable for more work, and making the nectar unavailable for future use or harvest. Good beekeepers will keep extra supers of drawn comb on strong hives during the honey season, ensuring that there will always be room for every drop of available nectar, and all available incoming food resources are stored.

It is essential that beekeepers prioritize drawing comb their first year. It is a common mistake is to assume that comb just happens naturally. Many beginners think that you add your package or nuc to a hive full of foundation, and the bees just get to work drawing comb. If the colony is slow to draw comb, the beekeeper complains that the colony is “not taking off,” and usually blames the queen. What they don’t understand is how unnatural their situation is, and how dependent comb building is on the environment. In nature, the only scenario when a colony has to build a lot of comb is after a swarm (and not all the time if a colony moves into an abandoned cavity). When a colony is preparing to swarm, there are a lot of actions taken to ensure that the new colony will be set up well to draw lots of comb. First, the bees only swarm naturally when there is warm weather and a nectar flow. Even more importantly, the swarm will be full of bees of the right age for wax building. When you install a package or nuc, the weather is usually not warm, there is often no nectar flow, and who knows the age structure of your bees? Most beginners are asking their bees to draw lots of comb with the conditions that are not good for drawing comb.

If we want our unnatural new colonies to draw comb, we have to help them by creating the ideal conditions for wax building:

Lots of carbohydrates. Wax building uses a lot of energy. In building comb, a colony will consume 6 -7 times the weight in honey of the new wax produced.1 So for every pound of wax produced, the bees will use about 6 lbs. of honey, or between 1-2 lbs. for every frame.2 This means that the bees need to have constant feed. A heavy nectar flow is best, but in the absence of a good flow or in a small colony, a beekeeper can feed syrup. Since bees need the energy, heavy syrup (2:1) can be used, and a feeding stimulant that uses lemongrass oil can be added to attract the bees. The most important thing is to keep the feeder full. Don’t make the common mistake of feeding the occasional jar and refilling once it is empty. Use a large feeder that can hold at least a gallon and has a large surface area so the bees can take the feed in quickly (like a bucket, frame feeder, top feeder, or multiple mason jars). A single pint jar in a Boardman feeder at the entrance won’t cut it.

Warmth. Anyone who has worked with foundation knows that wax becomes brittle and unworkable in the cold. Similarly, bees need warmth to work the wax into comb. Ideally, we will be drawing comb during a warm season. Regardless of the outside temperature, however, the brood nest will always be warm. Beekeepers who need to draw out comb should make sure that there is always foundation above and directly adjacent to the brood nest. As soon as that comb has been partially drawn, it can be moved to the outside of the box, and another frame of foundation added in its place. Moving the partially drawn frames to the outside does two things: It prevents the bees from tunneling straight up the hive (only paying attention to the center frames), and it always keeps the frames that need to be drawn in the place where it is the best for the bees to work (right above the heat). This method can also be used in horizontal hives, adding a top bar or new frame in the space between the honey frames and the brood nest.

Good timing. Bees are only likely to draw comb when they are in a period of growth. In northern states, the colony builds during the early warm season, and then shrinks back down before  ….