Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Swarm Prevention. I talked about knowing when to stop feeding to prevent swarming and all kinds of good stuff. I also said something like this:
In a standard Langstroth hive with foundation, all the foundation usually has worker-sized cells imprinted on it, so the bees tend to build worker brood comb on it, not drone comb. That leaves the queen with nowhere to lay drone comb, so she’s forced to fill the space between the boxes with drone comb — drone comb that is a big ugly mess to clean up in the spring.
That’s why I insert at least one foundationless frame into the brood nest of every colony. Given the choice to build comb however they like it, if they’re short on drones (and they usually are in a Langstroth hive full of plastic foundation), the bees will (usually) fill the foundationless frame with drone comb instead of gunking up the space between the brood boxes with it.
I added such a foundationless frame to my one colony that’s in pretty good shape two weeks ago. Today I took a look at that foundationless frame and found this…
…naturally drawn out drone comb with freshly laid eggs inside most of the cells.
The wax is yellow probably because the bees have been collecting dandelion nectar and pollen for the past few weeks.
Click the image to see a much sharper close up view of the comb.
In my experience, it’s important to constantly feed the bees during the first year (in Newfoundland), but it’s also important to stop feeding them at a certain point in the spring so they don’t swarm. When I find drone comb gunking up the bottom of the frames in the spring, that’s my cue that the colony could potentially swarm. Queens can’t mate without drones. That’s why the first swarms usually coincide with the flight of the first drones. I could be wrong about all of this, but from what I’ve seen with my bees, it’s true. A colony won’t swarm without drones.
If the bees have two or three solid frames of honey in every box — enough to prevent them from starving — and drone comb is present, then I stop feeding. I don’t feed my bees if they have enough honey on their own anyway, and unless it’s a weak colony, I don’t usually feed past May 31st either because there’s usually enough natural nectar sources available by then (in my local climate), especially in the city of St. John’s that is heavily populated by maple trees. I also check my hives at least every two weeks until the end of June to make sure the queen has room to lay. Most beekeeping (beyond feeding) can be summed up with that one sentence: Make sure the queen has room to lay.
Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes, there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.
Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb and propolis that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier, more difficult and perilous for the queen.
Messier — because comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.
Difficult — because frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful maneuvering to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.
Perilous for the queen — because any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.
I’ll try to update this post in the future with more detailed photos that illustrate what I’m talking about. For now, though, here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.
Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
Chewing out and discarding drone pupae in the fall is a disgusting no-turning-back move for the bees. They’re absolutely done with drones for the next six months. I found these drone pupae today after two days of cold wind and constant rain.
See my Expulsion of The Drones video for more information on this lovely phenomena.
When I reverse the brood boxes, usually some time in April, I don’t just pull the hive apart and reverse the positions of the deeps. (That’s an easy way to squish the queen, by the way.) I set up an empty deep next to the hive and, if it’s warm enough, carefully inspect each frame before I move it into the new bottom deep. No heavy lifting required. But more importantly, this allows me to assess the strength of the colony going into the new season and make adjustments on the spot if necessary. I will add drawn comb to the brood nest if the cluster looks like it needs room. I will add frames of honey or pollen if the bees are starving for it. I will give them frames of brood from another colony if they’re weak. In short, I will take whatever action is required to get the bees started on the right path for the new season.
Then for the rest of the year, because I know exactly what condition the colony was in at the beginning of the year, I’ll be able to assess the strength of the colony without having to dig into the bottom deep and disturb the brood nest every time I do an inspection. Are the bees filling frames in the top box with pollen? Is the brood nest straddling the deeps? I can tell a lot from looking down into a hive where the brood nest has been working its way up from the bottom.
It’s more difficult when the brood nest has been working it’s way from the top down. It’s more work, at least for me it is. I usually end up having to lift the top deep, essentially separating it from the bottom half of the hive, and potentially splitting up the brood nest, so I can see what’s going on in the bottom, to see how much the cluster has moved down and so on. In my book, that’s too much work and too disruptive. It’s much easier and less disruptive to the brood nest — if it’s seated in the bottom deep — to pull out a few frames in the top deep and look down to figure out what’s going on — and I never have to lift a deep or potentially split the brood nest if its straddling the deeps.
That’s why I reverse the brood boxes on most of my hives sometime in April. It doesn’t necessarily reduce the chances of a swarm, but it gives me an excuse to carefully inspect and assess the strength of the colony and perform future inspections with greater ease and less disruption to the brood nest.
I could be singing a different tune by this time next year, or even this time next week, but for now, this is where my experience with reversing the brood boxes has led me.
I performed the first full hive inspection of the year yesterday. I also reversed the brood boxes while I was at it. Next year I plan to reverse the boxes shortly after the bees start hauling in pollen from the crocuses (instead of waiting until the dandelions bloom). Whether from dandelions or crocuses, if the bees bring in pollen at a steady pace for about a week, that’s my cue to reverse the brood boxes. Had I reversed them a few weeks ago, I might have been able to avoid the disgusting mess of scraping off drone comb between the frames of the top and bottom boxes. I could have avoided splitting up the brood nest too. Check out Honey Bee Suite for more info on reversing boxes.
It’s normal for a colony of honey bees to discard all the male drone bees before winter kicks in. Quoting myself: “Drones are male bees whose only purpose is to mate once with a queen. If they don’t mate, they just hang around the hive and get fed. All the drones are kicked out of the hive to freeze to death as winter kicks in because they’re useless over the winter.”
I knew I would eventually see a large number of dead drones outside the hive once the weather began to cool off. But I didn’t expect to see anything like this…
It’s been cold and wet for the past few days and I guess that was enough motivation for the queen in Hive #1 to say, “Clear out the drones!” I hope that’s all that’s happening. I hope they’re simply cleaning house and removing all the drone pupae before winter kicks in. I was expecting to see piles of dead drones outside the hive one of these days, but piles of dead pupae? It’s a bit sickening, don’t you think?
It’s a bit frightening too. In all the research I’ve done, I’ve never ever heard of anything like this happening. I hope all I’m seeing here is the annual cleaning out of the drones. A disgusting, unnerving variation of it, but nothing to worry about. I hope.
I’m calling the one and only local beekeeper right now to ask about it.
September 16th, 2010: See the next post for all the answers: Foundationless Frames Can Mean Lots of Drones.
December 23rd, 2010: I recently learned that our bees are a hybrid of Italians, Russians and Carniolans. Russian honey bees react faster — and more dramatically — to environmental changes. The cold snap we had at the time may have triggered a wintering response in the bees, which is natural for Russian bees because they stop rearing brood early in the fall anyway. Drones and drone pupae are discarded when the bees are preparing for winter. Everything I was freaked out about was probably natural behaviour for honey bees bred with Russian genes.
February 12, 2011: From page 76 of The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum: “If, during the season, a dearth occurs and food income is limited or nonexistent, the colony will, in a sense, downsize its population. They preserve worker larvae the longest and remove the oldest drone larvae from the nest first. They simply pull them out and literally eat them outright, conserving the protein, or carry them outside. If the shortage continues, they remove younger and younger drone larva.” That makes sense. All these dead drone pupae were discarded during the fall dearth.
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:
Here’s a half-drawn comb on a foundationless frame:
Now don’t tell me that ain’t way prettier.
Thirteen days ago, I added a second deep to one of my young honey bee hives and inserted four foundationless frames as an experiment. Six days later, I took a quick peek at one of those foundationless frames and found this:
Today, I took another look at that same foundationless frame — and look at it now:
But that’s nothing. Check this out: