Navigate / search

Drowning in drones

Several beekeepers with foundationless frames have reported finding large number of drone cells in their hives. In some cases, the new brood is 25% to 50% drones.

While colonies on foundationless frames always have more drones than those on preformed foundation, the number of drones can seem out of hand. And indeed, vast amounts of hive resources are going to raising these bees who give nothing in return. Instead of having workers out there collecting honey and raising more workers, you have hundreds of drones lazing around, waiting to be fed.

The first thing you should do is make sure the queen is laying at least some worker brood. If so, the queen is probably fine. If you see no worker brood—or at least none in a clear pattern—you may have an infertile queen that needs to be replaced. Although not frequent, it does happen from time to time.

If you think the queen is okay, you can try moving the drone brood to the outside of the brood nest and inserting new frames near the center of the nest. It is usually best not to remove the drone frames completely (unless you are doing it for mite control) because the colony will just expend more energy in an effort to replace it.

One thing to remember is that most drone brood is raised in early spring just before and during swarm season. It should taper off after that. You may just have to be patient for a few weeks. As the season progresses you should see a greater and greater percentage of worker brood.

Some beekeepers use a queen excluder just about the hive entrance to keep the drones from returning to the hive where they take up space and use resources. The problem with this is that newly hatching drones are unable to leave, so it is necessary to remove the queen excluder every few days to allow the newly­-hatched drones to exit.

Another thing you can try is using a pre-stamped piece of wax foundation as a starter strip to encourage worker-sized cells. If you have a proper saw, you can even cut starter strips from plastic foundation.

Remember, there are many reasons that beekeepers developed pre-stamped foundation. One of them was to keep down the number of drones. If you go foundationless, you will always be faced with a higher proportion of drones and a lower yield of honey than a beekeeper using patterned foundation. Every method has its pros and cons.

Rusty

Comments

Phillip
Reply

“The first thing you should do is make sure the queen is laying at least some worker brood. If so, the queen is probably fine.”

I found a single frame of well laid capped worker brood in the middle of the top box recently — on plastic foundation. Then five frames of drones — on foundationless frames. The other frames were full of honey and pollen.

“If you think the queen is okay, you can try moving the drone brood to the outside of the brood nest and inserting new frames near the center of the nest.”

By outside the brood nest, do you mean the edge of the brood nest or the edge of the box?

“One thing to remember is that most drone brood is raised in early spring just before and during swarm season. It should taper off after that.”

I hope so. I got talked into going foundationless almost immediately after I got into beekeeping last year, mainly because I love the look of natural comb and I don’t want to get into extracting, and I was led to believe foundationless is better for the bees. But I’m in it for the honey too. I’ve put a lot of work into caring for my bees. I want to get paid and I don’t want the drones eating up my pay cheque.

“You may just have to be patient for a few weeks. As the season progresses you should see a greater and greater percentage of worker brood.”

Our season is so short in Newfoundland, I’m concerned that if all the foundationless frames continue to produce drones, there won’t be enough bees to raise worker brood and produce honey of any significant amount. I was told on the beesource.com forums that drone comb will be back-filled with honey after the drones emerge, and then everything will balance itself out. I’ll have to watch and see. Going foundationless is certainly a learning experience.

“Another thing you can try is using a pre-stamped piece of wax foundation as a starter strip to encourage worker-sized cells. If you have a proper saw, you can even cut starter strips from plastic foundation.”

Hmm. Does this work? I have plenty of plastic foundation I can cut into starter strips. It doesn’t matter to me if the top 3 inches of the frames in the brood boxes are plastic foundation. I have no intentions ever cutting out comb from the brood chamber.

I was also told by some beeks at beesource.com that placing an empty frame between frames of worker brood will produce another frame of worker brood. The basic hypothesis is that whatever an empty frame is surrounded by, that’s what the bees will build on the frame.

Rusty
Reply

“The basic hypothesis is that whatever an empty frame is surrounded by, that’s what the bees will build on the frame.”

That may be true, but the bees weren’t surrounded by drone comb when they decided to build drone comb–they were just empty frames. Still, it’s worth a try.

Phillip
Reply

Letting the bees do whatever they want to do might be worth a try too, as long as the queen has room to lay.

I have two nucs on order for this summer. I’m tempted to experiment with them. One hive all plastic foundation. The other all foundationless from the start (instead of the mixed up hives I have now).

Phillip
Reply

I got word from a well-known foundationless Langstroth beekeeper informing me that all the drone-prevention methods are pretty much bunk. The bees will build worker brood after they’ve met their quota of drones, and that’s it. The old drone comb will be backfilled with honey or torn down and rebuilt into worker brood. In others words, the bees know what they’re doing better than I do. I might move drone comb away from the direct centre of the brood nest. But other than that, I’ll let the bees work it out, which often seems to be the best policy. Not always, but often.

Rusty
Reply

Like I said above, “You may just have to be patient for a few weeks. As the season progresses you should see a greater and greater percentage of worker brood.”

Bees will be bees.

Phillip
Reply

I didn’t believe you the first time. And I wanted to clarify that all my theories from my first comment are wrong. I look forward to seeing how everything balances out in the hive in the coming weeks.

Rusty
Reply

Oh, so now the truth comes out!

Jeff
Reply

Need some workers Phil? I can spot you a few….. 🙂

Phillip
Reply

No way, man, I have faith in my bees. (They better not mess it up.)

I’ve got a full inspection of both hives scheduled for Sunday. The camera will be rolling. It should be interesting.

I should probably feed them since they’re putting so many resources into producing drones. Maybe a little sugar boost will get them over the hump.

Anyway, I’m keeping the faith.

Adrean
Reply

I have exactly the situation you describe in this post… lots of drones and drone cells and a spattering of worker brood. This is on a new package with an Italian queen that I installed a month ago (I’m a newbee). The only difference is that I’ve found some swarm cells on the bottom of one bar of drones.

I’m requeening (I may not have chosen to do this, had I found and read your post first 🙂 ), as I’ve already purchased a mated queen. Hopefully this doesn’t set the colony back too far.

Any thoughts on the swarm cells? I know it’s speculation, but does it sound more like I had a poorly mated queen to begin with, or did I jump the gun on taking action…

Thanks for all of your posts, lots of knowledge to be gained here!

Rusty
Reply

Adrean,

It sounds like they are getting ready to swarm. Are there lots of worker bees or just drones? A month isn’t very long, though. Are you sure they are swarm cells and not supersedure cells?

Adrean
Reply

Thanks for the reply!

Not 100% sure, but the cells were hanging off the very bottom of the drone comb, so I assumed. I also thought there wouldn’t be enough workers to make a successful swarm and have worried that this colony is going to be really weak or gone soon.

I ended up finding 2 Queens in the hive, the original marked queen and a new smaller unmarked one. I offed the unmarked queen yesterday, then happened across the marked queen today. Instead of killing her, I moved her and a bar w/ good brood and a bar with new comb and some eggs to a nuc. I’d like to prove that she is not laying right before I am rid of her. I also was thinking that if the hive was trying to swarm, this action may have helped with that…?

I ‘think’ the hive is queen-less now, aside for my new caged queen. I hope to re-queen with her this week… not sure if I should expect to see more swarm or supercedure cells now…?

If it sounds like I’ve made some poor choices in handling this, I’d love to hear about it. I’m looking back now and wishing that I’d not gotten rid of the unmarked queen; and thinking that I am preemptively queen-rich with the caged queen. I feel a little like I’m flying by the seat of my pants!

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Adrean,

One thing to consider is that drones are most prolific in the spring when mating is going on. Secondly, you will always have more drones in a hive that doesn’t use foundation, such a top-bar hive. Whether or not they were going to swarm or supersede the queen is hard to say, but once you killed the virgin, it changes the dynamic. Don’t be so worried about the number of drones: they are an essential part of the process.

Do you have a second hive or a nuc? You could use the old queen to start another colony.

Adrean

Thanks Rusty!

I actually ended up doing just that. I have a nuc retrofit to take a Boardman feeder, so I pulled some mixed capped brood and a new comb with some eggs and a little honey into it with the old queen. Hopefully she’ll prove to be a perfectly good queen and I’ll have 3 hives this year that make a strong start into winter.

I’ll be uncorking my new queen’s cage today. We’ll see how this progresses, and I’ll be a little more careful about reading up on what I’m seeing before making snap decisions.

Thanks again!

Adrean
Reply

Sorry… forgot to answer a question.

I would guess that I was seeing 60% to 40% worker to drone. This is a top bar hive with only about 6 bars of full comb built. Not a whole bunch of bees in total.

Raul and Amber
Reply

Hey Rusty!

I did my first real hive inspection today. Finally got up to 70+ degrees. Everything seems to be going good. I didn’t use smoke or anything since they don’t have honey yet and didn’t want them to eat what nectar they had gotten. It went well without it. In my excitement i didn’t look too closely though but took a few of photos.

They are building comb on four top bars. Two bars are almost fully drawn out. Two are just starting. It is yellow?! Like the color of turmeric. (Could it be yellow pollen getting on the wax?) Not white like I have seen on so many videos. The comb was full of nectar with a little bit of pollen. Didn’t notice brood, but we weren’t moving bees out of the way either.

Anywho. Started looking at the photos and it seems we have drones already? We are not bee identity experts but boy they have big eyes. Now we fear our queen died or is not fertile. Anything we should look for? I was thinking of waiting a week to check on them again.

Thanks in advance,

Raul

Rusty
Reply

Raul,

Vibrant yellow wax is not unusual. Some years I get it, some not. I think it has to do with both pollen and diet. Not to worry.

Yes, drones have big eyes that seem to meet in the middle of their head. All the better for finding women. Since your bees are building natural comb, you will have lots and lots of drones. Maybe 25-30%, if I recall. What you need to look for is some worker brood. My guess is that your queen is fine, but next inspection, just look for worker brood. It will appear almost flat across the top surface, not bumpy like drone brood.

Raul and Amber
Reply

I did read that in your previous posts. We were just worried maybe the queen had died and a worker started laying. My wife read about them doing this.

Next hive inspection in a couple days!

Kelsey
Reply

Have you ever seen a hive build drone comb perpendicular and between 2 frames on a foundation frame? I tried my best to make sure there was no gap between the 2 frames. I wonder if they are doing this because the cell size is more for workers?

Rusty
Reply

Kelsey,

It happens all the time. Just cut it away and move on.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website