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The 3½ conditions necessary for comb building

It is autumn. Your bees are busily backfilling empty brood comb with fall nectar, but you would like them to build more comb so they don’t completely choke the brood nest. So far, the empty frames you provided are being ignored and you see no sign of new comb. How can you get them to build more?

In order to build comb, your bees must secrete wax. And to secrete wax, three-and-a-half things must occur all at once.

The 3½ things

1. The bees need a strong nectar flow. Honey bees need a plentiful source of nectar (or light syrup) to stimulate their wax glands.

2. The bees must be completely out of shelf space. In other words, the bees are accumulating plenty of nectar but they have no place to store it.

3. The temperature in the hive is warm enough for the bees to work the wax.

½. There is a plentiful supply of young workers, especially those around 2–3 weeks old.

Now let’s take a closer look

1. It seems that nectar (or a light syrup that mimics nectar) is ideal for stimulating wax production. Many beekeepers use 1:1 syrup as a comb-building stimulant, others prefer an even lighter syrup of one part sugar to two parts water (1:2). This works fine, especially in the spring. But the heavier syrup we usually feed in fall (2:1) doesn’t do much to stimulate comb building. Instead, the bees prefer to store it.

2. Still, if there is no place to store the food, they may decide to build some comb. But remember, waste is not tolerated in the natural world, so the bees won’t build more comb than they need. Instead, backfilling existing cells will be their preference. The brood nest is shrinking anyway, so that space isn’t being used. And by the time the queen is ready to increase egg production, those cells will be empty again. So from the bees’ point of view, filling in those empty spaces makes a lot of sense.

3. Beeswax is brittle stuff, especially in the cold. So even if the bees begin to secrete wax scales, they can’t work it unless temperature in the hive is warm enough to mold it, around 95 degrees F. In the fall and winter, it may be too cold to work the wax except in the center of the cluster where it’s not needed.

1/2. Why half? While it is true that maximum wax production occurs in 2- to 3-week-old nurse bees, if the need arises, foragers can revert to secreting wax to tide the colony over. But older workers are not as efficient at wax production as younger bees, and you can almost hear their objections: “You want me to do what?”

While young workers are certainly preferred, when push comes to shove, the older workers can do the work regardless of their job description. But it won’t be as fast or efficient, and the second they have enough, they stop. After evaluating what is ideal against what is possible, I gave the requirement for young bees half the weight of the other three.

You may have to accept it

If you are wondering why your colony is not building wax combs, run through this short list. You can easily figure out why comb building is not happening, although it’s hard to do anything about it. In my experience, fall comb building has been associated with strong fall nectar flows. Otherwise, the bees make do with what they have.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Shahn Knights
Reply

My queen is no where in sight. There are significantly less bees over the past 2 weeks. What do I do? Start over in the spring?

Rusty
Reply

Shahn,

The number of bees in a colony decreases during fall, and the colony stays small until late winter or early spring. I don’t know how many fewer you are seeing, but from your description, it sounds normal.

AramF
Reply

Shook swarm and syrup. That will give you all the comb you need, while slowly destroying your colony, which no longer can raise young brood for the winter. I did a shook swarm in later July and I gave them ONLY dipped in wax plastic foundation frames with syrup. They reworked a lot of dipped wax and of course contributed some of their own. I got some really nice perfectly drawn frames out of it. Probably close to 15 full ones and 5 party drawn ones in a 3 week period.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

Your example fits the model exactly: 1. a source of nectar (in this case syrup) 2. no place to store it (only dipped foundation) 3. warm temperature (July) and 1/2. plenty of young bees (a shook swarm is mostly nurse bees).

David Newman
Reply

Great article! After reading your article I thought of the BroodMinder I purchased after reading your article about it. I just received the free updated model. The hive I put it in oscillates between 88 to 99. Average humidity is 55%. I’m in the middle of a huge goldenrod/aster/japanese knotweed flow.

Supers are filling fast. This will be my best year ever. Cheers.

michelle
Reply

Thanks for this! I have a lot of empty frames in the upper hive body of one hive and would feel much better if they would fill it. I’m in the midst of harvesting honey. Normally I just put everything out for them to clean up and accept the frenzy that takes place. Since I would like a specific hive to benefit should I water the honey from containers, etc. down and feed it to them inside the hive?

Rusty
Reply

Michelle,

Why not put the the frames back in the hive for clean up? You can take them out once the work is done. I usually put the box of empties over an inner cover with a central hole. It will only take a couple of days.

michelle
Reply

Great idea! That’s what I’ll be doing. I’d never thought of putting a box on top of the inner cover. Thanks for the tip!

Carol
Reply

This is right on topic for me. One of my hives seem to have little room for the queen to lay eggs. She seems to be grabbing every odd cell she can find on the frames that have any drawn comb. Much of the comb is filled with pollen, honey and nectar. And many other frames are empty of comb. Are you saying that it might be advisable to feed light syrup this time of year in a case like this?

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

You could try it if having more drawn comb is really important to you. But depending on where you live, it might be better not to stimulate a lot of brood rearing at this time at this time of year.

Mylinda Hicks
Reply

Can you feed in a pinch marshmallows in winter if they have not stored enough honey? Some people use it in queen cage for packages. Rusty what do you think?

Rusty
Reply

Mylinda,

Because of their consistency, marshmallows work great in queen cages. But for winter feed, they have too many ingredients. I think it is best to stick with plain sugar.

Mylinda Hicks
Reply

Thank you Rusty appreciate the help.

Loralei
Reply

Rusty,

In looking at my colony, it appears that the brood is mostly in the top super. I’ve been flummoxed to see such a decrease in brood production (got my colony June 15 of this year), & was so grateful to find some answers among your previous posts. Now my question is whether to manipulate the structure frame by frame, to create an ideal, brood in bottom box situation, with pollen then honey, etc. or do I just swap the top and bottom boxes? I’m currently using a 2 box langstroth hive, & live in Delta BC.

Rusty
Reply

Loralei,

I assume you mean your brood in in the upper of two brood boxes. If so, I would just get rid of the empty brood box and consolidate all the brood in one box, and then put your winter stores above that.

Loralei
Reply

Update…. I was able to chat with a local beekeeper, & just swapped my top and bottom boxes.. am now looking at possibly moving them into 1 box over winter.. ah, decisions, decisions! ! Looking forward to joining a local club, & learning more.

Willa Powell
Reply

I’m a first year beekeeper, and hadn’t given this question much thought until after I’d harvested several frames of honey. I also have a Flow Hive (TM) box which was harvested. I put empty frames in place of the harvested frames and left the Flow Hive frames in place for a while after the honey was drained. The bees cleaned the cap wax off the plastic Flow Hive frames and used that to begin building new comb on the empty frames.

Rusty
Reply

Willa,

Yes, I find returning wet frames to the enclosed hive is the best way to clean them up, as long as robbing doesn’t become a problem.

john w zone 5
Reply

When do you close up a screened bottom board in winter? When the nights are below 50 degrees? Did you or anyone with multiple hives ever close some screened bottoms and leave others open all winter to experiment?

Rusty
Reply

John,

Personally I leave all screened bottom boards open all the time, except for the few days when I’m monitoring mite drop. Of course, I live in zone 8. But I know of at least one beekeeper in Massachusetts who does the same thing. Don’t know the zone.

To me the outside temperature is not as important as the size of the colony. Big ones give off more heat. Fifty degrees F is really warm. I wouldn’t consider closing up even a medium-size colony until the 20s.

David R
Reply

Great article thanks.

Selina
Reply

I was wondering if you would be able to share any insight about the common perception that if the bees have to build comb then there will be less honey produced. I have read that bees need 2-8 kg of honey to make 1 kg of comb (and 1/2 kg of wax in comb to hold 10kg of honey), as well as young bees produce wax flakes, and that wax goes to waste if they don’t have a place to build comb. So I’m curious to know if letting the bees build comb isn’t as good for honey production, or maybe as long as they have some place to store nectar, having some empty frames for comb building isn’t going to hurt anything. We’ve been doing crush and strain the last couple of years, so our bees mostly have to build their comb from scratch in spring. This year, we are building an extractor so we can have straight comb to put foundationless frames between for comb honey.

Recently we took off the super from 2 hives to treat them for mites. After the treatment, we put their super back on with 2-3 empty and unbuilt frames in addition to some of the original uncapped frames. A week later, it was time for treatment and we removed the supers again. On the one hive, the new frames were untouched, while the second hive has built comb on half the frames. Both hives seem to be bustling with bees and had a lot of capped brood (so presumably lots of young bees) on last inspection. We are in the middle of golden rod season. Based on your information, I guess that the hive with the new comb is running out of storage, and the hive that didn’t built anything new is backfilling!

Rusty
Reply

Selina,

Of course a lot of food energy goes into comb building. One reason extractors are so popular is that you can reuse comb from year to year which saves the bees from having to re-build each spring. The result is more honey production.

That said, comb building is a natural and normal process and a large and healthy colony can both produce both. What it comes down to is your own goals. For instance, I produce comb honey. This means my bees have to rebuild their honeycomb every year. I don’t see this as a problem because comb honey is easily sold for high prices. The price more than offsets the lower production. The first thing you have to decide is what you hope to accomplish with your colonies. Then you manage for that outcome.

Next, I wouldn’t worry about two colonies behaving differently. It’s like two families behaving differently: it just happens. They have different genetics, they forage in different places, they have different queens. It would be unusual if they behaved exactly the same. Remember too that honey bee colonies are unpredictable, and the only way to know what is going on inside the hive is to look.

Selina
Reply

Thanks for your response! I love comb honey, so do plan to keep having bees produce new comb every year. The extractor will mostly let me put empty foundationless frames between extracted frames, so hopefully the bees will built straight comb between them!

We look inside the hives every couple of weeks, still don’t have a clue what’s going on ;).

Bonnie Clagg
Reply

Hi. Just installed my first package Monday. I’m using black plastic foundation. I’m seeing white around the edges of the cells. Is this them starting to build nests?

Rusty
Reply

Yes.

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