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When you really think about it, a honey bee colony in itself is mind-boggling. It is a self-sufficient unit with tens of thousands of buzzing bees grouped into various categories, with each given its unique role within the colony. Honey bees carry out all manner of tasks that are essential for the survival of their colony. One such task is the building of honeycombs. While honey bees will do so naturally on their own, there are things that beekeepers can do to encourage bees to build comb more quickly. In this article, we will be discussing how we can encourage bees to build comb.
Once built, honeycombs are used over and over again by the bees, and this is very advantageous for them. Nonetheless, plenty of work and energy is committed to building new combs in the beginning. A new colony in particular has a lot to do before the hive is up and running. Wax production in particular is a hurdle for the bees. It takes up a lot of energy. As a beekeeper you tend to be excited during onset of spring since it is time to enjoy the fruits of your labor, but have you ever considered helping your bees make it easier to build and build the combs? Well, this is possible. You can be part of the honey-making process too. You should not only encourage new colonies to build combs, but you also have to support already established colonies.
Reasons to Encourage Honey Bees to Build Comb
There are times when the bee colony is weakened for a number of reasons. Firstly, instances where the bee colony is split in order to create a new colony. In this case, the bee population is tremendously minimized, forcing the bees to work much harder at building combs and feeding the colony. The few number of bees that remain post swarming have to work much harder compared to the larger number that was there before.
Secondly, swarming may also pose a serious threat to the bee colony. An established colony may become greatly reduced in number due to swarming. It is at this time that it also proves wise to support the bee colony in building the combs. Swarming is common in late summer and this is a time when the cold months are near. The bees will then be forced to build new combs and fill them with food as fast as possible.
The Making of Honeycomb
The honey bee secrets wax from the pores on its abdomen. This accumulates as flakes on the body which is then chewed up. This process will be done independently or as a team. While chewing, the wax is mixed with saliva until it is soft and moldable like clay. This will then be used to make the hexagon-shaped honeycomb.
The honeycomb is naturally U-shaped, with a wider top and a narrow bottom. Honey bees are able to make perfectly-matching cells, and it is only in exceptional cases where the combs are built in the wrong place. When this happens it becomes a challenge to tear apart the frames. The wax used for making the honeycomb cells remains in its solid state and will rarely melt. This can be explained by the temperature regulation undertaken by the bees. The fanning motion used by the bees help ensure the wax retains its natural state even during extremely cold weather. When temperatures are too high, some of the bees will leave so as to minimize the heat within the hive.
Wax has to remain within the optimal temperature where it is usable. If it becomes too warm, the wax will melt and become unusable. On the other hand, if it becomes too cold it will turn brittle and become impossible to mold. Fortunately, bees are able to regulate the temperature and this ensures wax remains in the required state.
The Comb Building Problem
One of the biggest conflicts between the beekeeper and honey bee colony is the comb building problem. The beekeeper is driven by the desire to produce excessive honey, since that means more profits. However, the bees are not obliged to produce excess honey without a reason. Naturally, they are driven by changes in seasons and the colony needs. What this means is that more combs will be built when a colony is much bigger and food demands are high. The onset of hardier seasons means that food reserves should be in plenty. Therefore, the bees will begin to draw combs faster and store more food as they prepare for the months when nectar and pollen are scarce.
With that said, it becomes much easier for the beekeeper to comprehend the comb building process in the honey bee colony. It however does not mean that it is impossible to induce bees to draw combs faster. Honey bees can indeed be encouraged to build combs.
How Fast do Bees Usually Build Comb?
The honey bee is one of the most organized insects alive. All activities within the hive are pre-determined and bees work based on their plan. It is however, in most cases, the beekeeper who interrupts this natural plan of the bees. If you observe a honey bee colony when in operation you might think they are programmed robots that undertake assigned roles. This is not far from the truth, bees are extremely organized and that is why they may thrive no matter the colony size. Honey bees are categorized into various groups which include: queen, worker bees (females), and drone bees (males). The worker bees make up a bigger portion of the honey bee population. Also available within the hive are the eggs, larvae, and pupae. For more on this, read our article on Understanding the Honey Bee Brood Nest.
The speed at which the combs are built will depend on colony size. The larger it is, the easier it is to get the work done. The number of individuals available within the honey bee colony at any given time varies based on seasonal changes. A colony can harbor up to 80,000 bees, especially at the peak season. At this time the worker bees work tirelessly in collecting pollen and nectar as they prepare for winter months. The population declines as the seasons become tougher. This means that the comb building takes a shorter time when the colony is at its largest and vice versa when the colony population is at its smallest.
Honey bees produce wax for building the combs when they need it. At times they build the comb much faster and in other times they take much longer to do so.
A younger worker bee population are the most productive when it comes to the production of wax and building of combs. These are the bees that are 10 to 18 days old. The wax glands usually excrete liquid wax which when dried turns to scales or clear flakes. These wax flakes are picked by the worker bee and builds hexagon cells using its legs and mouth.
All worker bees are capable of producing wax and building the honey combs. This can be noted whenever there is a drop in bee population for a number of reasons. For instance, queen problems can result in decline in the population of young worker bees. The older bees would then be forced to become wax producers. While they can get the job done, they’ll be a lot less efficient at it than younger worker bees.
There is a direct relationship between good beeswax production and good comb building. Comb building relies solely on the beeswax produced. This therefore means that, a better production of wax will translate to quick comb building. The female worker bees are responsible for the production of the beeswax. This is made possible by the organs at the lower side of their abdomen. In total there are 4 pairs of glands that produce wax in the worker bee. The other bees such as the queen and drone are not endowed with these glands and thus perform other duties within the beehive.
How Long does it take for Bees to Draw Comb?
As we have mentioned, the goals of the beekeeper will in most cases differ with that of the honey bee colony. The main motive for most beekeepers is to get excess honey from the beehive, to sell for profit. The bees on the other hand desire to multiply in numbers then swarm. They are also driven by the urge to keep sufficient amounts of honey for the colder winter months when they have to content with staying indoors.
It takes so much effort for the honey bees to draw a single comb. Remember the bees are never lazy and neither are they wasteful. They have to commit a lot of time and energy into producing wax and shaping the comb. They will only do this when they deem it necessary. This may explain why sometimes the beekeeper might find it hard to get them draw comb.
As stated above, a larger honey bee colony will draw comb faster when compared to a smaller colony. This can be explained in two ways: first is the fact that a larger colony is made up of younger worker bees. These are more energetic and work faster. Secondly, a larger colony is driven by need to collect and store more food for the huge population. Otherwise it proves impossible to make it through the colder months when nectar and pollen is scarce. The need for more food stores is what drives the bees to draw combs faster.
How Long does it take Bees to Draw out a Frame?
Several factors will affect how fast a frame can be drawn by the bees. These are explained as follows:
It goes without saying that well fed bees are much stronger and productive and will take a shorter time to draw a frame. The seasons of plenty is the best time when the honey bee colony builds up comb and store surplus food for hardier months.
Number of bees
They say numbers never lie and this will apply to the honey bee colony. A larger number of bees mean more foragers at disposal. This also means a healthier queen that can produce more eggs to sustain a strong bee colony. It also means that the strong colony can defend itself from invasion. Such a colony is able to draw a single frame much faster. Food reserves will also be abundant for such a colony.
Age of the bees
Worker bees are most productive during their early stages of life. At this time their wax glands are at peak. Remember, comb and frame construction relies on the availability of wax. It therefore means that a younger bee population will draw a frame much faster than an older group of bees.
Comb building can never be possible if the ideal temperature level is not maintained. Bees use wax when building combs and this is brittle when subjected to cold temperatures. There might be a higher population of younger bees that produce required amounts of wax. However, the wax produced cannot be usable unless the right temperature is in place. The ideal temperature level is 95 degrees F and this means it is not possible to make combs during cold seasons.
Time of the year
The honey bee colony is highly dependent on seasonal changes. Bees rely on water, nectar, and pollen for their survival. This means that an abundant flow of these foods will result in more comb construction which means faster frame building. The bees will natural focus on comb construction and food storage during the nectar and pollen flow. Once colder months come in, the colony will rely on food reserves. This is why it is wise to provide supplementary feed to the bees whenever possible. Never wait for the tough months so as to supplement food.
With that said, if all are perfect for the bees, it will take 1 to 2 weeks for a strong colony to draw a out all the frames in a honey super. In fact, some colonies can take less than a week even though this happens rarely.
How to Encourage Bees to Draw Comb Faster
There are many strategies to employ if you desire to compel bees to draw comb faster. A popular one is proper feeding. Well-fed bees are in a better position of not only building solid combs but also establish a strong colony. Normally, bee feeders are removed when they are no longer needed. However, if you really want to speed up the comb building process, you can consider using a feeder even when natural nectar is plenty. After the bees have drawn out all the frames you can then remove the feeder.
Some of the ways to encourage bees build comb include the following:
Plenty of Nectar
Beeswax is the main ingredient for building combs. The bees will be able to produce plenty of wax after consuming large quantities of honey. The honey is converted into wax by the fat cells. Pollen also plays an important role when it comes to the production of wax and ultimately combs. Worker bees will consume plenty of pollen during their first days of life. This pollen is used for the development of fat cells. In the absence of a natural source of pollen, pollen patties can be utilized.
Key to note also is the festooning process in bees. This refers to the way younger bees hold on to each other and hang in chains when building the combs. Plenty of honey is required for them to do this. If the beekeeper is not careful, he or she might interrupt the construction process when inspecting the hive.
Proper feeding will ensure the bees produce large quantities of honey and wax required for building more combs.
Honey bees are highly responsive to temperature changes within the hive. Colder months are the most challenging for them since they consume plenty of honey so as to be able to generate heat required for survival. The bees naturally regulate the temperature within the brood nest. As earlier mentioned, the beeswax is required for building combs and during cold months, warm temperatures are required in order to make the wax usable.
The optimal temperature for molding wax is approximately 95 degrees F. When temperatures drop substantially, it becomes almost impossible for the bees to build comb. When it is too cold it comb will not be a priority since less food is brought from outside the hive. The colony will only rely on food reserves and it becomes impractical to build combs at this time.
As the beekeeper it is important to understand the changes in seasons and its effect on your beekeeping enterprise. Different seasons affect how easy it becomes to get bees draw out foundation. The peak season for comb building is spring. At this time the bee colony is driven by nature into building more combs in order to increase the hive population and possibly swarm. It therefore becomes so much easier for the beekeeper to get the bees to draw combs during spring.
It is therefore wise to ensure most of the frames of foundation are utilized earlier in the year and a few kept aside for later use. This does not mean the bees will not draw comb during other seasons. It only means that the bees are more active when it comes to drawing comb during spring unlike other seasons. It is still possible to get the bees to draw comb faster using other strategies.
If you have ever picked a swarm of bees in order to introduce it into a new box, then perhaps you noticed how fast they can build combs. A honey bee swarm will always be one of the best ways to encourage bees to build comb. The workers of the swarm are always ready to establish a new colony and get settled into their new home.
Swarms seem supercharged when it comes to building combs, since they leave their old home with wax glands primed. Once they land on the new hive, they will draw comb and continue for as long as they are fed. You can take advantage of this and have the bees draw a few extra frames which you can utilize later.
The right sugar mixture will encourage wax production which is crucial for building combs. Make use of a feeder even when nectar flow is at its peak. The bee colony will use the feeder at all times, night or day. Proper feeding is greatly advised especially those who do so in order to encourage comb building.
The proper ratio of sugar to water that will stimulate natural nectar is 1:1 sugar/water. If this is adhered to religiously, bees will build new combs much faster. Bees tend to conserve the stored honey and will never consume it in an effort to build new combs. New food sourced outside the hive will encourage bees to build new combs, since more combs have to be created in order to store additional food. Apparently, it has been established that the bees are not stimulated by stored honey to build new combs. It is important to note however that honey produced from sugar water is not very good. Therefore feed with sugar water when a foundation super is added. This will help the bees get started and not rely solely on the sugar water in making the honey.
Baiting up in New Boxes
A honey bee colony that seems difficult to move into a new box can be encouraged to build new combs through baiting. This is simply a way of picking up a honeycomb full of honey, and placing it in the new box in the place of an empty foundation frame. This will attract bees into the new box.
You can do this whenever possible but just be conscious that the honey from the replacement frame should not be consumed if it had been treated for mites. A sure solution would be to later on switch back the frames when the bees have fully occupied the new box.
Make use of Young Worker Bees
A honey bee colony that is made up of more young worker bees take a shorter time when it comes to building combs. They prove to be essential when it comes to hive splits or re-queening. Young worker bees produce plenty of wax and this is important for comb building. You should therefore utilize this. Place empty frames in boxes that have younger worker bees.
This is one of the simplest techniques you can use to draw combs faster. It simply means utilizing a stronger colony through swapping. You can take heavy foragers from a stronger hive to a weaker one. What this means is that you check out hives that draw combs faster and those that seem to take longer. Once you have identified poor performing ones, you change locations for the hives. This should be undertaken during sunny days. Large foraging teams that power stronger colonies will draw combs faster.
How to Encourage Bees to Draw out Plastic Foundation
To ensure you have a better chance for the bees to draw out plastic foundation, requires some knowledge of honey bee biology and how they behave. Wax is an important part of comb building. The bees can never build combs without wax. This wax is produced by the glands located under the abdomen. At age of 10 days, worker bees produce plenty of wax and when they are 20 days old the wax glands wane.
Plastic foundation is available in sheets that are inserted into frames. Other plastic frames come as complete frames. They come in different cell sizes, have varying cell depths, can be coated with beeswax, or made of plain plastic. They tend to be easy to fit in or use and are less susceptible to damage when compared to wood or wax frame. Though plastic frames offer more advantages, the bees tend to dislike them when compared to wood and wax. And it’s easy to understand why – it is not natural.
Earlier versions of plastic frames did not appeal to bees but current ones have been getting relatively more attractive and with a little support you can get them drawn within a shorter time.
With that said, here’s how you can encourage honey bees to draw out comb on plastic foundation:
- Spray the plastic foundation with sugar water. This will help encourage the bees to draw out the foundation.
- You can also melt beeswax and use this to re-coat the plastic foundation. This will attract bees to it.
- Place plain wax foundation next to undrawn plastic foundation. Since the bees prefer the beeswax foundation, they will focus on these until they are fully utilized after which they will draw the empty plastic foundation.
- There are situations whereby all undrawn plastic frames are used in a super. In most cases, the bees will build what is referred to as brace comb. This refers to the process whereby the bees will link two frames together. The bees may also ignore the plastic foundation and build a new foundation just a few steps away from the plastic. If this happens, you should shake them off these frames and remove the unwanted beeswax. Use this to spray over the plastic foundation. This will encourage the bees to draw out the plastic foundation.
Issues with Bees Building Comb on Top of Frames
Honey bees are intelligent insects and nothing will ever happen in the hive by chance. The phenomenon where bees build comb on top frames is just too common and this will happen for a number of reasons.
- Whenever the space between the frames and the lid is in excess the bees will utilize this space. This might be attributed to the fact that bees will utilize every resource available and this includes any idle space. The ideal space between the lid and upper frames should always be kept at 3/8 inches or less.
- Another reason that might drive the bees to build comb on top of the upper frames is when all boxes are used up and there is no more space to use. They will then be forced to build frames on top of frames.
- In some instances there might be an empty frame but the bees will still overlook this and build comb on top of frames. This might happen based on where the frame is located. At times, the bees might dislike a frame based on where it is located. To resolve this, you need to switch the empty frame with another so as to encourage the bees to come in.
We can all attest to the fact that we love the bees and we desire to help the bees in every way possible. However, at times we are driven by the need to have more honey instead of considering the welfare of the bees. In this regard we end up controlling the bees instead of managing them. The best way to encourage honey bees to build comb is by working hand-in-hand with their natural tendencies. Bees should build combs when they need to and are ready. It will only be much better if you work together with bees in building the combs.
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