Producing wax and constructing the honey comb is second nature to a worker bee. It’s also a necessity for the survival and productivity of the colony. The comb is the residential structure that allows the bees to cluster for thermoregulation. Comb is used for raising brood, curing nectar into honey, and storing honey and pollen. It also allows the colony to organize the resources for maximum efficiency, at least until we open the hive and start moving frames around.
There have been more than a few times my bees refused to accept my gracious invitation to draw out frames of brand new foundation. I thought my logic was sound and the opportunity to expand was mutually agreeable, but instead they opted to swarm, or in some cases, malinger in a stubborn malaise of indifference.
In these cases, I typically fall back to my default response and ponder what message the bees are trying to convey, often with the grand illusion that I’m sharp enough to pay attention to their signals. While the lack of comb drawing activity frustrates me, I find the need to revisit the basics of honey bee biology and contemplate what bees do and why they do it, as well as why they won’t.
Is there a recipe for success?
In some respects, a colony’s unwillingness to draw out comb becomes a diagnostic tool. It tells me something is not quite right, otherwise the bees would be hustling around filling in every nook and cranny with comb.
On occasion, there are some colonies where the conditions line up and everything falls neatly into place. I’ve found a rather elusive set of five, highly inter-related and intra-connected circumstances in which problems and challenges can be greatly minimized, irrespective of one’s experience.
My most productive hives that give me the least amount of grief are:
- the strong colonies with a robust population of bees,
- enjoying negligible mite loads,
- headed by young, productive queens,
- foraging on a diverse mixture of floral sources with a generous nectar flow,
- in an area where the likelihood of encountering pesticides and pollutants is minimized.
When the colony is firing away on all cylinders, beekeeping is quite enjoyable and almost effortless. These are the dots that line themselves up and comb building is simply not an issue.
When comb building is lacking, I can usually find one or more of these conditions are likewise lacking. If the colony isn’t healthy or feeling optimistic about its future, the bees won’t be in the mood to invest the time and energy into expanding. Then the question becomes how to fix the underlying problems that show up in the colony’s reluctance to draw comb.
A first response
When a colony balks at drawing out foundation, the consensus of beekeepers rallies around the advice, “You need to feed them a little sugar syrup.” I have mixed feelings about the universality of this suggestion. First, with natural nectar available, some colonies will decline your generosity. Though not personal, beekeepers have responded to this affront by adding various enticements such as scant amounts of vanilla, anise, lemongrass, even chamomile tea.1 Second, if the bees take the syrup, it does not guarantee they’ll build new comb. If existing empty comb is available, there is no need for drawing out new comb.
Comb is a metabolic investment. It requires a great deal of calories from nectar and honey. The colony also needs a reason to draw out comb, such as when they sense a need to accommodate more cells for brood rearing or when the volume of incoming nectar needs additional storage space. Merely feeding the colony sugar syrup may not be sufficient to motivate the bees to work harder. The colony may be satisfied with what they have, kind of like me. With my three children grown and out on their own, I have no need or desire to invest more money into adding bedrooms and bathrooms to my house.
Further, if you’re going to feed, it takes a lot of feed to trigger the colony toward drawing out new comb. It also takes a lot of young bees. Producing wax is a function of the younger worker bees in their second and third weeks of age. More importantly, workers need to consume pollen in the first 5 to 6 days of their life. The protein in the pollen is needed for the development of fat cells where the honey is later metabolized and converted into flakes of beeswax.2
Additionally, these young bees draw out comb more aggressively when the population is packed tightly into a hive body. Now we’re skirting the conditions that trigger swarming.
A mistake I’ve made many times is giving a colony a super with frames of foundation. The bees ignore it and act like they don’t know what to do with all that open space. Eventually, with feeding or if the nectar flow accelerates with an increasing population, the bees will see the need.
In beekeeping, there is a season for everything and a reason why the bees behave the way they do. A first-year beekeeper called me in September. She had started with a nuc in the spring. At the time she reached out to me, she had a strong colony that had filled two brood boxes. Per the instruction and advice she received in her initial classes, she opted to leave all the honey for the bees. Her question to me focused on preparing her hive for the anticipated honey harvest the following season. She asked, “Can I add a super now and get it drawn out for next year’s honey crop?”
I applauded her for her proactive approach but said it would be a waste of time as the bees would likely ignore the super, more so with a super containing frames of foundation. She countered with, “Even if I feed them sugar syrup?” My response detailed the seasonality of the colony, how the colony expands during the spring and contracts in the fall. They would likely take the syrup but store in under the super in the brood area. As the queen begins to reduce her volume of egg laying, more cells in the brood nest become available for nectar storage, a process we call backfilling.
She came back with, “Would it hurt to try?”
I had to admire her optimism, so I said, …