Thick Combs of Honey (Slight Return)

I posted some photos a couple days ago of what is probably the thickest combs of honey I’ve ever seen in any of my hives. Here’s the video:


(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)

It’s not the most instructive video, but if it sparks the imagination of anyone curious about honey bees or beekeeping, that’s good enough for me. If I can instruct at the same time, well, that’s a bonus. The 1:50 mark in the video, for instance, shows how the bees begin to build comb by festooning. My explanation in the video isn’t the most articulate. I’m so used to beekeeping alone in silence, I felt awkward talking. Festooning is not a well-defined phenomena anyway, so my bumbling explanation kind of fits.

Now here are some things this situation has me wondering about…
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Why I Like Foundationless Frames: Reason #1

Drawn and partially-drawn comb look much prettier on foundationless frames. Here’s what some partially-drawn comb looks like on a frame with black plastic foundation:

Partially drawn frame from Hive #2. (August 28, 2010.)

Here’s a half-drawn comb on a foundationless frame:

Now don’t tell me that ain’t way prettier.

Video of Natural Honeycomb

This is the first video I’ve posted that shows what it’s like to pull out frames full of bees. It’s a short video of my recent full inspection of Hive #1, showing off some foundationless comb the bees built from scratch in 13 days.

I inserted four foundationless frames in the hive when I added a second deep. Two of the foundationless frames were fully-drawn and filled with honey and brood within 13 days. One frame was more than half-filled. The fourth frame, on the outer edge of the box, showed the beginning of some natural comb. Not bad.

Natural Foundationless Comb

It’s November 2018 as I continue to look back on these early posts and I have to say I like what I see. Even today, when I stick a foundationless from between drawn comb and come back a week or two later to see that the bees have fill up most of that space with comb — it’s a rewarding experience. The only thing that needs correction in this post is my reference to checkerboarding. Inserting empty frames between drawn comb, on its own, is not checkerboarding. See Checkerboarding for more information on what that’s all about.

The foundationless frames are working. YES! This is what it’s all about. This was the big moment of truth — and the bees did it. They had no problem building comb from foundationless frames.

I’ll quote myself on this: “Foundationless frames have nothing but a little strip of plastic or wood near the top called a starter strip. The bees hang off the starter strip and construct their comb like they would in nature, creating cells the size they want them to be, not the size that’s imposed on them by following the pattern on a plastic foundation.”

It’s argued that a colony is generally healthier when the honey bees are allowed to build comb as they would in nature — and this is about as close as it gets in a Langstroth hive. It’s part of the Backwards Beekeeping approach and it’s what got me hooked on beekeeping long before I had any bees. I just wasn’t sure it was even possible in the cold climate of Newfoundland. But now that I see evidence it can work, I’m inspired. I love it. These honey bees are incredible.

Honey bees festooning.

I added a second deep to Hive #1 six days ago because the colony had drawn comb on at least 9 of the 10 frames. They were ready to expand. I took about half the drawn frames, a mixture of brood and honey, and placed them in a second brood chamber, checker-boarding them using regular empty frames with foundation. I checker-boarded the original bottom brood chamber, too (that is, I placed an empty frame between all the frames with drawn out comb), but those empty bottom frames had no foundation, only a waxed starter strip and some wire between the frames to provide extra support for the comb. Theoretically, the bees would build comb first by festooning — that’s when the bees hang off each other in a chain to determine the straightest line down on which to build the comb. Honey bees have been festooning for millions of years. There’s no stopping them now.

Honey bees building natural comb.

The bees built straight through the support wire like it wasn’t even there and they’ve already begun to fill the comb with honey — and it’s only been six days. All the comb they’ve drawn out will eventually join up and fill the frame. So as long as the warm weather holds up, I’m not worried about Hive #1. I’ll keep feeding them and then I’ll check them again in a couple weeks, but I think they’re doing great. Next summer when I can hopefully harvest some honey, I’ll go with foundationless frames for the honey supers too. That way when the honey is capped and good to go, I’ll just cut the comb right out of the frames and extract it by following the crush-and-strain method.

To be continued…