Beekeepers sometimes find that their bees are not drawing out comb on new frames - in other words, they are not creating hexagonal wax cells on the new foundation frames placed in the hive. No cells, no honey.
It’s good to understand why and how bees draw out their comb, and for a much-expanded lesson on this, check out a blog by Charlotte Anderson, a Master Beekeeper in South Carolina.
But in brief, let’s talk about the Why: Bees draw out comb from a desire to create space for honey storage, because they want to feed a growing population and/or to see the hive through the winter. The more the population grows, the more storage space is required and the more the combs are drawn out with wax cells. It takes a lot of effort to draw out the comb, so if the bees do not see the need, they won’t do it.
Next the How: Young adult female worker bees (10-18 days old) are the most efficient, though their older sisters can step in if necessary. Liquid wax excreted from glands under their abdomen turns to wax flakes which are then moulded into the hexagonal cells. The bees start building cells at the top of the frame, and work down. The queen and drones do not have wax glands.
What factors encourage bees to draw out comb? First, there must be a need for additional comb construction, primarily driven by the presence of a rapidly-expanding population.
Second, bees need an adequate nectar flow, whether foraged or supplied by the beekeeper. Eating stimulates comb and honey production. There may be a high nectar flow in summer, but a pail feeder on the hive in the late summer/fall when natural nectar is finishing allows the bees to eat at night and on stormy no-fly days It also keeps the large summer foraging population busy before they die off in the fall. This encourages comb-building as the bees need somewhere to store their honey. Frame feeders in the spring serve the same purpose and are popular as the bee cluster next to the feeder heats the syrup.
Third, the hive needs to be warm enough for the bees to work with wax and to manage brood nest temperatures (ideal is about 35 C). Again, having plenty to eat is what keeps the hive warm, winter and summer.
Are there ways to encourage bees to draw out comb? There are several management options, the first being to ensure the above three requirements are met in the spring, (preferably by July 1) when hive populations are growing rapidly. Install foundation frames as early as possible, and keep a few drawn-out frames for emergency use later in the summer.
New food over and above the stored honey supplies stimulates the bees, so a feeder with a 1:1 sugar-water ratio is effective for a short time when adding a foundation super. Encouraging bees to move up into an empty super can be done by placing a full honeycomb in the super, replacing it lower down with a foundation frame. (see our video) If you can catch a swarm, those bees will waste no time building comb. Another trick is to place foundation frames in the box that has the most young adult female worker bees.
Here's a quick checklist if your bees are not drawing frames out:
You need a critical combination of factors for the bees to build comb. If you remove one condition then there’s no building. There must be sufficient need and space, plus population large enough that there are spare bees to stay home, plus warmth and food
I hope this information is useful to you, and welcome any comments or questions you may have. You will also find more information and all the equipment you need at Hiveworld.ca.