Why Not Manage Drone Cells?
This letter is about drawing ideal worker combs. Have you ever wondered why bees draw drone cells in our 10-frame equipment where they chose? Some of it is phenology, but most may be how we manage the hives.
Are communication gaps found in natural colonies? Or are they the product of our management? How do we achieve the ideal combs? One answer is to go in a different direction first, by ensuring that there is sufficiently managed, full drone cell frames in our hives. One full frame seems minimal. The colony must produce drones, it’s in their DNA programming! Introducing drone cells in our controlled location and timing works in the beekeeper’s favor.
Humans learn by memes and example. Common examples are, the queen makes the decisions, magnetic north is true north, and the sun rises from the east. Wrong ideas limit our useful knowledge. We know life has three stages: to survive, to feed, and only then to reproduce.
Charles Darwin changed how we view the world. Langstroth’s moveable frames allowed many insights on how we manage bees. I believe we overlooked one aspect of drone cell management. For over 40 years I asked professional beekeeper clubs and bee inspectors how to reduce random drone cell problems in the brood nest. Most often the response was to remove, cut out the drone patch and return the frame to the hive. It did not matter where I put the frame, they drew it back as drone comb even above an excluder.
Many a letter could be found in the early journals about random drone patches that created difficulties in maintaining and manipulating the frames. What about hive splitting and other managements? When drone patches are moved to other locations the bees chew down the two adjacent combs. Chew down to the midribs for the drone head space, ruining also those two additional frames. Those first two adjacent chewed frames are now prime location for new drone cell drawing! Four good frames now ruined. The drone frames should be made wider, but are not found in the market.
Every year I placed in nice worker combs, only to have the bees chew down and make more drone pattern. Unwittingly I ruined a lot of combs based on others’ advice. No one told me about the bees’ phenology. I failed to find it anywhere in the literature.
I don’t claim these insights. There will be drones, it’s in their DNA! Quoting Ayn Rand, “To command nature, you must obey nature.” Suggested in “Wisdom of the Hive” by Tom Seeley, 25% of the brood nest is drone. But his nest was a different size, a natural cavity, not our 10-frame equipment! How many drone cells are required in 10 or 20 brood frames? Is there an upper limit?
Where should the drone frames be placed? Downstairs, #3 or #7. If placed elsewhere, the bees will fill with honey after solstice, making management more difficult.
I do recommend drone cell frames for mite control, but be sure to replace the original frames back in the original hive after processing. It is so much easier to work a hive where the main frames are ideally worker cells. When fully drawn drone frames are present, the bees draw foundation better in the brood chambers. Natural beekeeping (in 10-frame equipment) lets the bees put drone cells where they want, but it is better if you control the drone cell location and numbers.
Plant and animal science has a term, phenology, to describe growth stages — from sprouting, to leaf, to bloom, to seed, etc. Insects are likewise. Here I like the label “bee economics” to describe all honey bee activities from first swarm to second-year swarming, wasting no resources. After finding a suitable cavity, the colony draws out exclusively worker cells first, until the nest reaches a certain critical mass — about equivalent to 4-5 frames in 10-frame equipment. (Use of this knowledge can be used to draw out worker cells in damaged frames with small clusters where drone frames are included. Putting damaged comb in larger clusters always results in patch drone cells, even above excluders.)
Once they exceed this critical point of population growth, the colony will start drawing drone cells (in droning season). With “bee economics,” it is cheaper to raise 10,000 drone DNA packets than to throw a single swarm. Some factors critical for drone cell production are time of year, cavity size, and nectar flow. (A 2-frame mating nuc will draw drone cells. Why? I do not know.) Most drone cell production occurs from late spring to summer solstice. After that, the colony shifts back to honey storage to ensure surviving the coming winter, thus reverting back to drawing worker cells.
Now all we need is for a Ph.D.’s research to document the stages of phenology (in 10-frame equipment) to confirm this is a knowledgeable tool.
Only fully-drawn worker combs should be inserted in the brood nest, unless you have no other choice. The best worker comb is drawn about the brood nest during a nectar flow. Stored honey is more important to survival than excess bees or empty drawn cells. But only by inserting a drone frame in the brood nest can we hope to maintain prime worker frames.
At the end of the nectar flow, I have witnessed bees chew and move wax from undrawn foundation areas to cappings. This salvaging of wax and moving it is more economical than producing additional wax scales. The bees will even strip wax off of undrawn coated-plastic foundation. Frames with so-called “communication gaps” are the results of foundation combs not being fully drawn before being inserted into the brood nest. These combs are not structurally as strong as fully-drawn comb, and the voids become prime areas for making future unwanted drone cells during the next nectar flow. This the why of using only fully-drawn frames in the brood nest, unless you have no other choice.
Why don’t you want random drone patches in your hives? First the ease of working the hive. Second, queen survival; one cause of queen loss is rolling and crushing bees when removing frames, being blind to drone patches on that first frame being pulled for inspection. (For some reason during the droning season, I find the queens are strongly attracted to drone cell areas.) I scribe a code on my top bars, telling me where patches are located for future removal.
Controlled drone frame management can reduce culling of combs. It makes mite trapping possible. Also, frames of drone brood can look shotgunned, while worker brood appear normal, flagging a high mite load or other symptoms.
Fully-drawn worker combs force the colony to raise queen cells exposed between brood chambers, not hidden in the communication gaps. Nice combs in nucs sales also make happy buyers — word gets around.
Like to add a little mystery and fun? In your first extracting super, above an excluder put a blank frame in the 5th of nine combs. The bees will move up to prep drone cells for the queen to lay in, but since she can’t go through the excluder they will build them into beautiful cut-comb honey.
Chester Ferguson, Jr.
Overwintering success in Ohio prison
Dear Mr. Makovec,
I want to thank you again for the American Bee Journal and the books you sent me to help get a beekeeping program going. I have learned a lot. Here at TCI we had 4 hives until yellow jackets took out two of them. We can’t get to the hives without supervision; the staff member that was working with us had gotten injured and has been off work since the end of summer. We do have staff support here for our bees. However because of the injury we were late in winterizing our two surviving hives. We thought we were going to lose them because of that.
Last week we had a day that was in the 60s and I was able to get someone to take me out to the hives. I knocked on the hives and didn’t hear anything. I opened one up and did not see any movement. I was disappointed, thinking that we lost the surviving hives.
So I started the paperwork to get an okay to purchase a package and start over again. In here it is a long process. Anyway today, St. Patrick’s Day, 70 degrees, I was able to go out to get some frames and boxes to get ready for a package. To my surprise, I was greeted by some of my brown and yellow friends. There were three of us out there and we were so excited, we opened up both hives and found activity. They both had plenty of pollen and honey. Then it dawned on us the bees were flying around us and we didn’t have our bee suits on. We unwrapped the hives as the bees were landing on us and crawling on us. To me that was a better experience than putting the packages in the hives.
It was because of what I learned in your books and the Bee Journal that brought the hives through the winter. I just want to thank you.
You know of all the places that I have written to for information, you were the only one to …