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.
Honey Bee Suite