Understanding Bee Biology and Behaviour
To have the greatest chance of successfully getting your bees to draw good even beeswax comb from your beeswax coated plastic frames, plastic foundation, or beeswax foundation, it is essential to understand both bee biology and bee behaviour. As a beekeeper, we want our bees to build deep even beeswax comb which they can then use for rearing brood, storing pollen and nectar, and of course storing honey that will be easily uncapped and extracted. Ultimately the bees will do what the bees want to do. but by understanding the biology of the bees and their behaviour at different times of the year and under various circumstances we will have a better chance (no guarantees though) of getting the bees to draw those wax-prepped frames.
Bees produce wax from glands under their abdomen. These glands mature in worker bees from about the age of 10 days. Once the bees graduate to being flying forager bees (at about the age of 20 days old) the wax producing glands start to atrophy--that is the wax glands slowly become non-functional. Point 1. You need young to middle aged bees in the hive to get frames drawn.
It takes a considerable amount of honey and nectar consumed by the bees to make beeswax. It is estimated that 6 to 8 kilograms of honey is needed to make 1 kilogram of beeswax, so making beeswax uses up a lot of resources. Naturally the bees won’t make beeswax comb unless it is absolutely essential to do so. Point 2. There must be a lot of honey in the hive, or a lot of nectar (or sugar syrup) coming into the hive before the bees will make beeswax.
The collective beehive mind is “intelligent” and geared to survival and reproduction. Because of Points 1 and 2 above, if the bees can take beeswax from one place to use in another place, they will do this in preference to making more beeswax. So if you put into the hive wax coated frames or beeswax foundation at the wrong time, the bees may strip the wax off the frames or cut holes in your beeswax foundation, to use the wax where they need it. Point 3. Bees given beeswax by the beekeeper when the hive is short of young bees, or short of honey or nectar, will remove beeswax from the waxed frames or foundation, and use it where they think it is needed.
Under what circumstances and situations are the bees most likely to draw comb?
Firstly, when the hive is expanding and the numbers of bees is growing the bees are likely to draw comb. In this situation the queen needs lots of clean comb in which to lay. A good queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day in the spring. That is almost one full side of a full depth Langstroth frame! So the bees will work to ensure the queen has space in which to lay. If there isn’t sufficient drawn comb in the brood nest, and there is plenty of honey or nectar, and there are growing numbers of young bees, the bees will likely draw comb. Point 4. In the spring and summer with a good laying queen and nectar (or sugar syrup) coming in, or available, the bees will likely draw comb in the brood nest.
Secondly, when a queen leads a swarm out from the hive, in order to survive the bees must draw comb quickly. Before the swarm leaves the parent hive, the bees planning to leave the hive with the old queen will gorge themselves on honey and take it with them. This is because they will need the carbohydrates to make beeswax and comb quickly. For the swarm to survive, the swarm queen must start laying as soon as possible and she needs comb in which to do this. The swarm bees are geared up to draw comb once a suitable new hive site has been found and populated. Point 5. Good sized healthy swarms readily and quickly draw comb.
Thirdly, when a honey flow hits and the bees are frantically foraging and bringing in nectar, the bees need to store it. The objective being to store enough food to last the hive through the coming winter and next spring until the next summer, the likely time when the next big honey flow will come. Point 6. Bees will draw comb in which to store nectar and honey if there is insufficient drawn comb in the hive to handle what is arriving.
Let’s review our points:
Point 1. You need young to middle aged bees in the hive to get frames drawn.
Point 2. There must be a lot of honey in the hive, or a lot of nectar (or sugar syrup) coming into the hive before the bees will make beeswax.
Point 3. Bees given beeswax by the beekeeper when the hive is short of young bees, or short of honey or nectar, will remove beeswax from the waxed frames or foundation, and use it where they think it is needed.
Point 4. In the spring and summer with a good laying queen and nectar (or sugar syrup) coming in, or available, the bees will likely draw comb in the brood nest.
Point 5. Good sized healthy swarms readily and quickly draw comb.
Point 6. Bees will draw comb in which to store nectar and honey if there is insufficient drawn comb in the hive to handle what is arriving.
So considering the points about bee biology and behaviour here are some tips to give you the best chance of your frames well drawn.
Tip 1. Don’t put undrawn frames in the hive in the winter, or any time that the bees are unlikely to draw the frames as they may strip the wax preparation from the frames.
Tip 2. Ensure your hives have healthy young queens that will lay prodigiously.
Tip 3. Once you see the queen laying a lot, put one or two wax-prepped frames in the brood nest close to where the queen is laying. If it is still a long time until the honey flow hits, feeding a light sugar syrup (1 part sugar to 1 part water by weight) will encourage wax production and comb to be drawn.
Tip 4. If you capture a swarm, house it in a nucleus hive, or standard hive, filled with clean wax-prepped undrawn frames. Feed prodigiously with light sugar syrup. Check the hive regularly, removing clean drawn frames and replacing with clean wax-prepped undrawn frames, until the bees’ urge to draw frames stops.
Tip 5. As the season progresses, there will periodically be small honey flows. Try adding a honey super of clean wax-prepped undrawn frames to the hive as these flows hit, but ensure the hive is a strong one with lots of young bees. Check the honey super at least weekly to see if the frames are being drawn, and if not, remove the honey super. Do NOT feed sugar syrup coming into the honey flow season, as we don’t want to adulterate the honey made from floral nectar with sugar syrup.
Tip 6. At some stage one of the “small” honey flows will become a strong one. By checking your honey supers regularly you’ll discover the strong flow and that is the time to get a lot of wax-prepped frames drawn. As the bees fill the honey supers, add a new super of clean wax-prepped undrawn frames UNDER the filled honey super and on top of the top brood box. This is called “Under Supering” and though it may be a bit less convenient than just putting each new super on top of the hive, Under Supering has been well documented to encourage frames to be drawn and filled with honey quickly.