Foundationless Frames Can Mean Lots of Drones

I’m not so worried about all the dead drone pupae I found outside one of my hives for the past two days. It was spooky and gross and unnerving, but it’s much less alarming now that I know what’s most likely going on.

Brood comb mixed with honey comb on a foundationless frame. (Sept. 16, 2010.)

I introduced some foundationless frames to my hives when I added the second deep. The results were fantastic. Fully-drawn comb full of honey. Beautiful. What I didn’t know is that bees that haven’t drawn natural comb before, will start off building drone comb, as shown in the above photo taken earlier today during a full hive inspection. I found two foundationless frames with large sections of drone cells, and on at least one frame, most of the drone cells appeared to be recently emptied.

Some info I got from

    Bees will naturally raise about 10-15% drone brood. In a hive where only worker foundation is used, the bees are always squeezing some drone brood here and there… Given a totally empty frame, they will try to make up for the lack of drone comb all at once. If the beekeeper removes this comb and puts another empty frame in its place (in an attempt to keep the drone population down, and perhaps to remove varroa), they will again draw drone comb. Instead, if the drone comb is migrated towards the outside of the broodnest and an empty frame is added, they will eventually start to draw brood comb… and nothing is more beautiful than fresh, freely drawn comb.

So now I know that it’s normal for bees that have just been introduced to foundationless frames to start off drawing drone comb. I assume the drone population will eventually level out. They’re all going to be dead in a week or two, anyway, when they’re kicked out of the hive for the winter and their old cells are used for honey stores.

So that’s one mystery solved. But why would so many of the drone larvae pupae get discarded from the hive?

I looked around online and found part of my answer at (which I may sign up to soon). Someone on the forum noticed a large number of what appeared to be dead drone pupae outside the hive entrance, just like we’ve seen for the past couple days. Some of the responses were informative…

September 18th, 2010: I’ve rewritten the next two paragraphs.

Originally I thought the drone pupae got hit with some relatively harmless chalkbrood. Foundationless frames initially produce more drones than conventional frames. That means there’d be more drones around to be affected by the chalkbrood. Therefore, more drone pupae discarded in the clean up. Another possibility was water getting into the hive and chilling the brood. Hygienic worker bees will clean out any cells that have been damaged, whether the damage is from disease, cold or from a silly beekeeper banging the frames too hard. But none of the above explains why only drone brood would be affected. A possible explanation:

Sudden cold snaps — like the cold snap we had last week that lasted a few days — can trigger worker bees to chew out the drone pupae to make room for winter stores. Fall is the time of the year that drones are kicked out of the hive anyway, so what’s the point in the colony nursing more drones that will only get the boot as soon as they emerge from their cells? As mentioned in one of the comments for this post, bees are pragmatic. They don’t mess around when it comes to the survival of the colony. If for any reason cells need to be cleaned out, drones (and their pupae) are always the first to go because drones are not vital to the survival of the colony going into winter. I did a full inspection of the hive shortly after discovering the dead drone pupae, and as far as I could tell, there are more than enough drones around to mate with a late-season queen if need be, and the colony is in good shape. So there was really no need to keep most of the drone pupae around. It’s a cruel world, but the bees know what they’re doing. They’re just getting ready for winter.

Foundationless honey comb. (Sept. 16, 2010.)

The colony looked healthy during my inspection — the bees and the comb look great. I saw brood comb and honey all over the place. I noticed two frames still haven’t been drawn out (one with foundation, one without, both on the edges), so there’s still plenty of room for the population to grow. And there was so much honey, I’m seriously thinking about adding a honey super for a couple of weeks to prevent the queen from becoming honey bound. But I don’t know. I hope to have a conversation with Aubrey at Paradise Farms this weekend so I can sort out everything I need to do with our bees for the next six months. This beekeeping racket is tricky business.

P.S., Read the comments for further details on how all this played out.

December 23rd, 2010: I recently learned through a comment 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.

January 24th, 2011: I found a well-informed article at Honey Bee Suite about this topic: Foundationless colonies raise more drones.

18 thoughts on “Foundationless Frames Can Mean Lots of Drones

  1. I have another suggestion, I have seen this same thing in my hives on occasion. The bees are getting ready for winter. I saw lots of drone cells in a recent swarmed hives I have, it worried me a bit since there looked like to many drones. Upon later inspection I saw strange raged looking cells and drone pupa half exposed, then on a later inspection what I think was the same spot was filled with honey. What they do is pull out healthy drone larva and pupa, toss them and convert that space into storage. Then later in the season they will force most of the adult drones out of the hive in preparation for winter hibernation. This makes sense since the adults are already functional (for mating late queens), they get rid of the undeveloped drones because they wont reach maturation before hibernation. Bees are pragmatic creatures and thus are they so wonderfully adaptable.

  2. …they get rid of the undeveloped drones because they won’t reach maturation before hibernation.

    Those were more or less my initial thoughts too. I knew the drones would be getting the boot soon, anyway, and maybe the discarded drone larvae were just a part of the plan. As I mentioned in the postscript, I read that sudden cold snaps can trigger worker bees to chew out the drone larvae to make room for winter stores. And what you’re saying goes along with that. It makes sense. Judging from the full hive inspection we just did, I’d say there are plenty of drones already hanging around, and they’re not going to be around much longer anyway. So why bother raising more drones that will either get kicked of the hive immediately or won’t have time to fully develop before the weather turns cold?

    Seeing so many dead drone larvae was alarming, but chances are the bees know what they’re doing. That’s what I’m learning the most about beekeeping: the bees are in control.

    I’ll be keeping an eye on the bees this weekend. Then I’ll probably update this post one more time. Thanks for your feedback, Sam.

  3. It looked like your bottom board was soaking wet from rain? This might be why it was so gruesome, bees don’t like leaving lots of bodies around so they scatter their garbage, the wet was probably preventing them from moving the corpses very far. So many beekeepers are turned off of foundationless for this reason, they put an empty frame in their hive to try it out and get only drones.. So they give up. One reason the “Africanized bees” are so successful is because they are not prevented from making drones, drones carry the aggressive gene, so you can see how this would be a problem. Drones are also important if you want to make nucs and raise your own queens (by removing the old queen) since she will need a lot of drones to get the best strongest genes. I love talking about bees people usually have to tell me to stop =D Good luck though, what are your plans for overwintering?

  4. It looked like your bottom board was soaking wet from rain? This might be why it was so gruesome, bees don’t like leaving lots of bodies around so they scatter their garbage, the wet was probably preventing them from moving the corpses very far.

    Yeah, I think that was the case. We’ve had high wind and rain for the past week and I think the water go in through the bottom too. All the corpses just piled up. (I plan to switch to screened bottom boards for next year.) My bees seem to be very tidy. I usually see them disposing of dead bees by pulling them several feet away from the hive. The pooling water seemed to act as a barrier. Larvae soup. Yum.

    …what are your plans for overwintering?

    I’m undecided. I need to meet with a local full-time beekeeper soon, and I’ll just do what he tells me to do. All the research I’ve done on wintering bees in Langstroth hives is all over the map. Everyone seem to do something different.

  5. I think we should keep Sam around for his info. Seems like he could really help us newbies. And I’m more than willing to listen.

    On a side note I noticed the bees were discarding some workers. Must the same as what happended to the drones. Keep in mind they only had one frame to pull out wax and that was a week ago. A couple of afternoons the hive was quite busy harvesting but there wasn’t much smell of nectar comign off. I assume they were making wax.

    Also noticing a smal number of bees without much hair. I think those are older bees approaching end of age.

  6. The workers I wouldn’t know about, there is always some that don’t make the cut. As far as wintering goes A lot of beeks in my area use wood shavings packed around the hive, this absorbs moisture and insulates to prevents condensation inside the hive, another thing that would be good is a top and bottom entrance, I have seen top entrances created by flipping the inner cover over and using a notch in the lid then place the outer cover so it wont block the new entrance. A neat idea for insulating the lid is to use a deep super put window screen on one side drill some holes in the sides away from the screen then fill with wood shavings, you can put another screen on the other side and screen the holes to prevent mice from using it as a nest. This is basically a warre quilt, and can be placed directly on the hive without an inner cover so the screen is exposed to the frames, this gives water vapour an exit though the wood shavings and insulates at the same time, I have been thinking about how to incorporate this idea into my hives (since they are horizontal its a bit different). Whatever you do make sure that moisture can be moved away from the hive by your insulation, a bad thing to do is wrap the hives up tight with plastic, if you wrap them in a way that water can get out without soaking the hive then thats good! I’m crossing my fingers for my babies to make it through the winter =D

    • A neat idea for insulating the lid is to use a deep super put window screen on one side drill some holes in the sides away from the screen then fill with wood shavings…

      That sounds like it might work.

      I still don’t know what I’m going to do.

  7. Thanks Sam, both Phillip and I are both concerned about over wintering. While my area my be a little colder, Phillip will experience more moisture and freeze and thaws cycles.

    Either way Newfoundland winters can will be trying on the bees.

  8. 10am. Just took another quick look at the hive. They’re still pulling out drone larvae, but not as much. Another creepy result are the wasps feasting on the corpses. The most wasps I’ve seen around the hive so far.

    We finally have some sun today. It’s great to see orientating flights again.

    Sam, I saw your bee’s winter wrap on your blog. I hope it works out for you. Winter is definitely my biggest concern now.

  9. Yea winter is the worst time of the year for bees highest risk of death. I’m lucky I found a guy that sells big bags of cedar shavings for a dollar (just about cost) same guy I get my wood for the hives from. If you can’t find shavings glass insulation would work if you wraped it around the hive then a sheet of plastic, this plus a top entrance and that “hive hat” and you should be fine. The goal is not warmth but shelter so keep the wind and condensation off the cluster inside and your gold, only other worry is food stores.

  10. I have been told to wrap the hive in felt paper leaving both a reduced bottom entrance and top entrance for air circulation to allow mositure to exit. On top of that I was going to put Cladmate foam on 3 of the four sides of the hive for December, January and Feburary to insulate the walls a little more. The one side left open would be facing south-south-east to maximize daytime exposure. The only thing I have left to do is come up with some solution for the top of the hive.

    On a side note. I checked my hive on Sunday. The last frame to be filled in the hive is still not touched. Almost all of the other frames are capped. That being said the bees will soon be forced to make some wax on that hive soon. I amy look into putting a bordman feeder on in a week or two. The bees were busy on Sunday pulling in a lot of pollen and nectar but the season is coming to an end soon. We may get another 2 – 3 weeks at best, adn that is only when the weather is good.

  11. My big concern at the moment is Hurricane Igor. We’re going to get nailed by the tail end of it with up to 150mm of rain starting tonight. I meant to patch up my leaky shed roof over the weekend, but didn’t have time. Now I have to put on some temporary plastic sheeting to hold us over until Wednesday.

    The bees won’t bees won’t be moving for a while, so I’m putting boards on a slant above the entrances to keep the rain out. Then I’m hoping for the best.

    We were planning to inspect Hive #2 today and remove the double-spaced frame feeder, but that’ll have to wait until Wednesday now. Hopefully they’ll be able to fill in the last two frames over the next few weeks (weather permitting).

    I’ve removed the medium honey super from Hive #1. It was housing two Boardman feeders. I’ll put the feeders back on after the hurricane has passed. I want to minimize any chance of rain getting in. I might duct tape over any crack between the brood boxes too.

    The sun should be back by Wednesday. The temperatures don’t look so good, but with sun on the hives, I hope they’ll be a little bit active.

  12. You don’t want to feed to late into the season because the bees might extend their brood cycle to far (I know they do this in the spring, they start early, if you feed before a flow you have to keep feeding until a flow) With the hurricane I would be more worried that the wind would knock over my hives, make sure they are well secured. Gl with the weather, I’m seeing adult drones getting kicked out now so it will be cold soon, idk how cold of course =D It might be worth building custom bottom boards that are sloped to let water run-off.

  13. I was just talking to my friendly full-time beekeeper. He said he couldn’t see anything wrong with the dead drone larvae, and he said he’s never seen anything like it before. That’s when I confessed to putting in a few foundationless frames as an experiment (and it was an experiment, because I didn’t know if it would work — I’m glad it worked). I mentioned how a colony will first build drone cells on a foundationless frame, which he said made sense. I said the drone larvae were probably getting the boot because winter is coming and the colony won’t waste any resources on drone larvae that will get kicked out as soon as they emerge, so they’re getting discarded now. He said that makes sense too.

    He also said he heard from another novice beekeeper on the island who described the same thing, but he doesn’t think that guy went foundationless. So that’s a mystery.

    I mentioned that the colony otherwise looks healthy and he said even two or three hundred discarded drone larvae won’t make any difference to the health of the colony. He said if the hive otherwise looks fine, then it’s probably nothing to worry about.

    And that’s good enough for me. (I always feel like a child when I talk to him. Even my voice becomes child-like. I don’t know why. Funny.)

    Anyway, I’m going to try to hook up with him sometime after the storm this week to talk about wintering bees. He doesn’t know when he’ll be free, but we’ll see. Then I’ll order everything I need for the winter and next spring.

  14. I’m having my first serious second thoughts about taking the foundationless route with our bees. I realize that foundationless means more drones than with conventional frames, but I just quickly inspected the frames in the top box of one of our hives, and FIVE of the frames were full of drone brood. I assume the drones will emerge and the comb will be filled with honey instead. But I don’t know.

  15. Checked mine the weekend and one side of one frame is full of drone brood. I was really suprised as I am using foundation yet the bees are set on building that many drone.

    In light of that I only did a top box inspection. The queen was not visible but you could see new eggs. I assume she had moved back down to the bottom box again as you can see the comb between the top and bottom box on one set of frames. I switched out 4 frames from the top box (without brood) and installed new frames with just the bare foundation. Then I placed the drawn frames from below up top on the 3rd brood box with a frame feeder to encourage wax production to draw out more comb. I hope this works. My goal is to get the young bees to draw out some comb for the split/nucs.

    I assume that if the bees want to make drone comb then the hive must be fairly healthy and it is still only May. We still have 6 – 7 weeks yet compaired to where we were last year when we recieved the nucs. All the comb is drawn and the numbers are well on the way to where we need to be.

    Phil, I should bring in 4 or 5 frames of brood/honey and pollen to make a walk away split. You’ll have the drones to make a fertilized queen. he he he…..

    • “Checked mine the weekend and one side of one frame is full of drone brood. I was really suprised as I am using foundation yet the bees are set on building that many drone.”

      I wish that’s all I had in my hive, though I’d say yours in normal. The hive will create the most drones during the swarming season, which is now.

      “Phil, I should bring in 4 or 5 frames of brood/honey and pollen to make a walk away split. You’ll have the drones to make a fertilized queen.”

      I have honey bee stud farm on the go here. I’m not sure what to do.

      The feedback on the forums I’ve posted to suggests that I move the brood comb to the edges of the box. The queen supposedly will only lay worker comb in the middle of the hive, not drone. I have my doubts about that, because the queen lays wherever there’s an empty cell, and if the cells are drawn large, the queen lays drones in them.

      The other recommendation is to place foundationless frames only between two frames of worker brood. Surrounded by frames of worker brood, the bees will only fill in the empty frames with more worker brood. That seems to make more sense to me.

      Though I gotta tell ya, I’m not looking forward to doing this. It hate disrupting the colony, and any kind of rearrangement of the brood nest is a huge disruption.

      I was stunned to see so many frames full of drones. But I was also told that the comb will be back filled with honey once the drones emerge. If that’s the case, this colony will have loads and loads of honey in the brood box this winter.

      I might be talking to Kirk Anderson of the Backwards Beekeepers about this soon.

  16. I got this message from a foundationless beekeeper who, from what I can gather, knows more about foundationless beekeeping than anyone I know:

    “They will make drones anywhere they can by whatever means they can until they meet their quota. Then they will build worker brood. They will not only build it between two worker combs, and not only build it from a small cell strip, they will tear down comb if they have to and rebuild it.”

    So basically the bees are an unstoppable force of nature and they will do whatever they need to do. Don’t mess with the bees.

    I might move some drone brood out of the middle of the hives, away the exact centre of the brood nest. Other than that, I’ll let the bees sort it out.

    This first year of beekeeping, mostly flying blind on our own, seems like one hard learning experience after another. The most fundamental lesson, which was lesson #1 for us but we keep forgetting, is let the bees be bees. Not that they should be thrown in a box and ignored except for harvest time (probably not a good idea in my particular urban locale), but the key seems to be finding the balance between making sure everything is okay with the bees and leaving them alone to work it out.

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