Giving bees another job

Mary O’Riordan says when the honey crop has been removed, there is usually a huge population of bees in the hive, so it is a good time to get some comb drawn.    

When the honey crop has been removed, there is usually a huge population of bees in the hive, so it is a good time to get some comb drawn.

When I started beekeeping, I had a mentor who used to say, “there are thousands of bees just idling around, so we will give them some work to do”.

By that he meant foundation frames — these can be made by the beekeeper using simple frames and insert sheets of foundation — foundation is a thin sheet of beeswax impressed with the hexagonal pattern of honeycomb which gives encouragement to the bees to draw out the sides of the cells for brood and storage.

Foundation can be bought in sheets and may be attached to the frame in two ways, either by using ready wired foundation or by wiring the frame and then embedding the wire in the wax afterwards. Ready wired foundation is the simplest and is the method used mostly by beekeepers.

The frame is assembled, leaving out one half of the split bottom bar, the foundation is slid down the groves in the side bars until it fits tightly into the top bar, then the other part of the top bar is put in place, all the parts are nailed or tacked catching the wire loops of the foundation.

The beekeeper can put 11 of these frames, (and foundation sheets of pressed wax), into a clean brood chamber, which is then put over the existing brood chamber with the huge population of bees.

The bees, when fed, will draw out 11 beautiful frames of comb. In September and into November there is the chance of a big flow of nectar from ivy which helps as well, and is a big bonus — the aroma around the apiary at ivy time is just gorgeous.

The drawn comb can be used at this time of year for nukes (nukes are usually 5/6 frames), which are then being transferred into brood chambers, (11 frames) or they can be used in the spring for nukes carried over the winter. Clean drawn comb is an important asset to the beekeeper.

Beeswax is produced by worker honey bees (the females), in the beehive. Young two-year-old worker bees secrete beeswax from six special glands located on the underside of their bodies.

As the bees get older they lose this ability to produce wax. In order to produce the wax, the bee has to consume large amounts of honey and pollen. The worker bees have to use around 13kg of honey to make 1kg of wax.

The wax is secreted in the form of small scales the size of a pinhead and about 1,100 scales are required to make a gram of wax. The scales are subsequently moulded by the worker bee using her mouthparts (Mandibles). The wax scale is removed by one hind leg and transferred to the mandibles by the two front legs where it is thoroughly masticated before fixing it to the comb and moulding it in place.

It is said that removing, masticating and fixing one scale takes about four minutes, so it is estimated that 66,000 bee hours are involved building 77,000 worker cells using 1kg of beeswax.

Is it any wonder that beekeepers consider drawn comb as such an important asset? And great care is taken of it until it is put to use in the hive — where the queen will lay her eggs in the lovely clean cells that are such an amazing piece of architecture.

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