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Should you encourage honey bees to build comb?

Honey bees are much more logical than humans. And humans, in general, are much more logical than beekeepers. Which means that honey bees and their keepers are often at odds, especially when it comes to building comb.

New beekeepers want honey immediately. They expect a new package of bees to drop everything and build new combs and fill them with honey. Right now. Today. Why wait?

But a new colony has other things on its mind, and it needs to do first things first. What you, the beekeeper, wants is not even on their radar. Nevertheless a common new-beekeeper question is how to force or cajole honey bees into building comb before they’re ready.

Building comb should come naturally

Unfortunately, there are ways you can actually encourage comb building. But should you? In my opinion, during your first year especially, it is important to build strong and healthy colonies before winter. In fact, the way I see it, beekeeping has only two seasons: there is wintering, and there is preparation for wintering. Anything else is gravy.

So right now, your bees are preparing for winter. Yes, they will need to store honey. But first they need to establish a home, raise young, feed the family, and defend the fledgling colony against diseases, parasites, and predators. Nearly all the food they collect goes into these projects, each of which requires lots and lots of energy.

The 3½ conditions

Two years ago I wrote about the 3½ conditions necessary for comb building. The article was in the context of fall beekeeping, but the principles are the same in the spring.

1. Your bees must detect a strong nectar flow—an influx of either real nectar or sugar syrup.

2. The colony must need additional space in which to store the new nectar. If they have space available, they don’t need to build more.

3. They need temperatures that are warm enough to work the beeswax.

½. The colony needs a supply of young workers that are about 2-3 weeks old. (This gets half a point because, under certain conditions, older workers can revert to wax production.)

In the first paragraph of this article I said that honey bees are more logical than humans. Many of us humans would build storage space proactively because we might need it sometime in the future. That may or may not prove to be a good idea. Honey bees don’t operate like that. Instead, they conserve resources and wait for a need to exist.

So basically, if your honey bees are not building honey comb, it’s because they don’t need honey comb. It’s that simple. When they perceive a need and conditions are right, they will produce it at an incredibly fast rate.

Doing it your way

If you don’t want to listen to reason and prefer to encourage premature comb building, you can give them foundation and feed lots of light syrup.  But remember, if your bees start to store the syrup, you will end up with sugar syrup in the honey. That may be okay for winter stores, but it’s not okay for honey that will be sold.

Some beekeepers color their spring syrup with food coloring so they can see which frames contain syrup instead of real honey. My own preference is to simply keep the honey supers off the hive until all feeders are removed.

Baiting is not recommended

What I do not recommend is trying to force your bees into the next super by baiting or pyramiding. Simply put, this involves taking a frame of honey from a lower box and putting it in the box above, and putting the empty frame below.

This might make the beekeeper happy, but it really doesn’t accomplish anything. You sometimes wind up with a column of honey in the center of the boxes, neither of which is filled out to the sides. Most often you have no more honey, you just have it in different places.

Baiting may give you bragging rights—“My bees are in their second box already!”—but if you harvest all that honey without recognizing you have empty frames in the brood box, the other guy will have bragging rights in spring. “At least mine made it through winter!”

A word about excluders

I’m repeating myself here. All the nonsense you hear about excluders comes from impatient beekeepers. When their bees don’t go through the excluder, they blame the excluder instead of realizing the bees are not ready to move up. The bees will move up when they are ready, regardless of the excluder.

If you believe your bees are being hindered by the excluder, you can give them a second entrance above it. You can use an inner cover with an opening, an Imirie shim, or you can drill entrance holes in your honey supers. In any case, the nectar carrying bees can go in through the top and the pollen-carrying bees can go through the bottom.

I was a latecomer to this method and I regret it. My honey production skyrocketed after using an excluder with both an upper and lower entrance. When you think about it, you get the advantage keeping the queen out of the honey, but the workers don’t have to struggle through the excluder while traveling inside the hive. The whole operation works more smoothly.

Bees do what they do

Honey bees in the modern world have many problems their foremothers didn’t have. Those problems include pesticides, diseases, parasites, and humanity all over the place. Give them a chance to handle their issues without forcing them to act on your schedule. You will probably get more honey faster if you stop trying to “trick” them into making comb. Just relax and let them work at their own hectic pace.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey bees on a frame. Honey bees build comb and fill it when they are ready, not before.
Honey bees build comb and fill it when they are ready, not before. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Peter Borst
Reply

> Many of us humans would build storage space proactively because we might need it sometime in the future.

The point with honey bees is that they actually use the incoming energy source (carbohydrate) to make the wax (hydrocarbon). Without the incoming food source they would have to deplete their reserves to build comb that they don’t yet need.

PLB

Simon Prepadnik
Reply

What about circulating old comb out. I was taught to remove a third of old comb each year so they have no comb older then 3 years.

And that comb building delays their need to swarm.

Rusty
Reply

Simon,

First of all, I don’t know if comb building delays swarming. I do know that comb building is accelerated during a heavy nectar flow, and that bees often resist swarming during a heavy flow. Maybe that’s all related.

Old brood combs should be rotated out on a schedule of a few years to keep diseases from building up, but diseases are less likely a problem in honey supers where no brood has been raised, which is another good reason for excluders.

Ray
Reply

Cutting straight to the nitty gritty as usual Rusty, thanks. I love your style and direct presentation of good advice. I am 3 years in and I finally realized this year that the best course of action is just to take a step back, enjoy my beekeeping and let the bees worry about the rest. If they make me some honey, lovely, if they don’t then I’ve still had the enjoyment of the beekeeping!

Craig
Reply

There used to be a saying about it taking three frames of honey to draw a frame of comb… or something to that effect. There’s probably more than a bit of truth to that.

I think the disconnect here is due to the differences in how humans and bees do things. If bees need something done, the whole colony will just fall into line and get it done right now. Like building comb when it’s needed.

Contrast that with humans trying to add lanes to a road. We spend years planning and arguing about the details of adding one lane to the road and by time it actually gets done, we’ve probably already outgrown it and need two more lanes.

It’s not just that bees are more logical, they’re also far more efficient.

Lloyd Seested
Reply

So here is something I learned from someone I cannot name. Working with him this year/spring, he sets each of the honey supers above the queen excluder back about 3/8”. Tthis does the following according to him: it gives the foragers access to the super and those above so the foragers don’t have to come in at the bottom and work their way up and it aids in ventilation. I asked about rain, said it just goes down the front board. I’ve done it and it’s amazing to them coming in those supers. The others girls come in the bottom.

Rusty
Reply

Lloyd,

I’ve seen this done as well. I still prefer entrance holes in the supers which, in my opinion, are easier for the bees to defend. The foragers still have easy access and don’t have to travel through the hive, and rain is a non-issue. But, it’s definitely an option.

Granny Roberta in nw Connecticut USA
Reply

I laughed when I read your opening paragraph because I had just come in from giving two hives thin syrup because I want them to draw out some comb. (Now. Fast. Please.)

This despite the fact that the most optimistic math I can come up with says their population is going to be declining for another week at least, since I only released their queens two weeks ago, and I should be content if they’re putting all their energy into brood rearing, not comb production.

Sometimes you gotta hit the beekeeper over the head. Again and again.

ET Ash
Reply

Rusty… I not certain logical is the word I would use here. Certainly humans are sometimes rational but more often rationalizing. Bees on the other hand seem to be driven by biological programing < I wondered why you did not mention that comb building also tends to be seasonal in nature? Lastly I would suggest in many ways bees are better economist than people… meaning they tend to adhere to the fundamental assumptions of economics more so than humans. And nice little suggestion both on baiting and on excluders.

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

I thought that the conditions I listed (strong nectar flow, warm temperatures, lots of young foragers) implied seasonality. But maybe not.

As for logical, I have a (bad) habit of anthropomorphising, but it helps me picture situations. I plead guilty to taking literary license, but I’m likely to continue.

ET Ash
Reply

Perhaps I should rephrase my own comment Rusty and suggest proper timing in the appropriate season is critical. A lot of new beekeepers here in the south toss on new boxes of fresh foundation and frames on advice given by folks who live much closer to the Canadian border that the Mexican border. Quite understandable they do not understand the difference in flow as you move from the equator to the Arctic circle and quite frequently do not see how important timing is relative to the flow they should expect at their location. Here (central Texas) a week late in tossing on boxes is the difference between a new box of foundation and the bees being in the trees.

Bill Castro
Reply

The first thing I tell every new and existing beekeeper is if they are keeping bees for honey, they are keeping bees for the wrong reason!!! We should want to keep bees for the love of it, to study the bees, and spend time learning from them. After all, honey is BEE FOOD!!!

I never use excluders. In my opinion it is another unnecessary gadget. I do see that it can be a useful tool in some cases for experienced advanced beekeepers, but I find it best for beginners to not use one and first study how the bees behave and work out their hive and local conditions. Our entire apiary of nearly 100 colonies is all unlimited brood chamber. The queen can go where ever she wants and lay whatever is needed in whatever volume the colony wants. Strong reliable nectar flows will kee the brood nest in the lower supers as the top boxes get filled. If excluders are improperly used and managed, a beekeeper will put more swarm pressure on the brood nest by limiting the amount of space in the brood chamber for the queen to lay eggs. Brood chambers can also quickly become honey bound from over feeding or heavy nectar flows. Once the colony senses the shrinking brood nest, the race to swarm quickly goes off. In some cases, a colony may abscond once the brood nest becomes completely clogged and they see no hope of reestablishing the nest.

Beekeeping is a lifetime of learning, adapting, and trying new methods to see what works best for the conditions and areas we keep our bees in. Try not using an excluder…you might wonder why you bought one to begin with!!!!

Bill Castro

Bill Truesdell
Reply

Interesting discussion on the BeeList about using 1:1 or 2:1 syrup. Randy Oliver ran a trial and showed there was not much difference between the two for foundation buildup. I had my mentees (I mentor three beekeepers) feed 2:1 and no issues with fine buildup of foundation with package bees.

Saves trips to the hive. I use 2:1 whenever I need to feed, which is not very often.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I don’t use either 1:1 or 2:1, rather I take some sugar and add some water until I like the way it looks. As far as I can tell, none of it matters. But if I write that in a beginner article, people get paranoid and suspicious.

Mike Quattro
Reply

Is there a problem starting new packages on drawn comb or should let the bees make new comb?

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

Of course drawn comb is better, but not everyone has it available.

Daniel Stacey
Reply

I am a first year newbie and started my packages in mediums on drawn comb and my only issue is that I had one queen take of so fast she has six out of the nine frames pack with capped brood that will hatch this week and no place to lay. I saw this last week and knew that she need space but I only had deep boxes with foundation, so I put it on in hopes of them moving up, checked them today they had not move up and could not find no queen and I now have three capped supersedure cells. So I am not sure what happened, but I was not expecting it to happen that fast where as the other hive has about five frames of capped brood out of ten ready to hatch and still has a couple of frames left to lay. So be watchful things can move fast.

Bill chandlee
Reply

Is there a preferred location in/on the honey supers for the upper entrance?

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I think the only place to avoid is the hand-grip. I made a template for mine, so they are always in the same place and line up. Mine are two inches down from the top and three inches from the right. But that is completely arbitrary.

Bill Truesdell
Reply

Actually, I don’t us 2:1 either but fill a quart/half gallon mason jar to the bottom of the turn with sugar and add boiling water to fill. Keeps the sugar from inverting and still gets good concentration without measuring/weighing.

ET Ash
Reply

There is some rational that brood up comb works better than comb from non brood area of the hive in the brood nest. After a while the old comb does get a bit of residual brood pheromone and some folks believe this kind of comb encourage brood rearing early. Personally I would only change out or replace old comb if I feared it was capturing some chemical contamination. There is now some evidence that some of the early miticides represent their own problem when it comes to wax contamination. I do believe upper entrances are a good idea and almost essential if you use queen excluders (which I do). My preference is to use building shims to create upper entrances above the queen excluder… this also has the side effect of reducing congestion in the brood nest.

AramF
Reply

I hate to not add a link to my claim, but I read an article recently that claimed that building comb is one of the factors affecting ability of the colony to overwinter. I do not know the dynamics of it, but potentially generating wax is stressful, kind of like rearing young, wearing off the workers’ body.

Reto
Reply

Considering that comb building is done mainly in spring, and a spring/summer bee has a life expectancy of ~50 days, how would this affect the bees going into winter some +/- 120 days later?

Eddy Radar
Reply

I’d be amazed if I could “make” my bees do ANYTHING!!

frances I Moore
Reply

Ha Rusty, great talk on the bees thanks. Rusty I do not use queen excluders I have tried them and the bees filled up the brood boxes so I use the non restricted brood area method she does not go but so high and In my inspection I move all brood down this helps with swarming tendencies I like the idea of the holes in the honey suppers I will try that next time thanks

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