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.
Honey Bee Suite