There are definite
benefits (covered elsewhere) in replacing old brood combs over time,
but unless making honey is not a major goal, replacement
should be done a little at a time, and with moderation. The rule of thumb for most experienced
beekeepers in North America is that bees can handle 10% new foundation
without seriously reducing the honey yield. That number can be
stretched to 20% in strong hives in a good year.
Honey prices are up, and we are
seeing the usual flush of hopeful newcomers who think they can start
colonies on foundation -- without using any drawn comb -- and get a
decent honey crop.
Below are some graphs that show the
sacrifice involved in drawing more than a small amount of foundation
each year -- and other things...
In most things, new is better than
old, but there are notable exceptions. I'm told old whiskey, old
cheese and old wine bring premium prices. This also applies to
beekeeping equipment -- within reason.
New hives -- once assembled by the
beekeeper -- still need a lot of work by the bees. Making
wax and being short of drawn comb puts pressure on bees, and they
usually make much less surplus honey when started on brand new
equipment. Wax production requires robust bees, a steady supply
of feed, warm conditions and other less understood factors. In
experimenting with wax production, there can be exceptional years that
are very successful. This can fool a beekeeper into taking a
bigger chance the next year, with disastrous results.
Honey Production in
N. Alberta Packages (3 Years of Data)
Graphs 1,2,4 & 5 courtesy
from his PowerPoint presentation about comb
(highly recommended for conferences)
Looks here as if using foundation
costs about 40 pounds of honey, or $100 CAD per hive at current
What this does not show is that
these are results obtained by expert beekeepers. Starting bees
on foundation can be fraught with perils for bee-ginners. One
couple I know started with 25 packages on (wax) foundation, and half
of the colonies died in the first week!
Established colonies take care
of themselves, and packages started on fully drawn brood combs --
especially combs that have some honey and pollen properly located in
them -- do much better than packages installed on bare foundation.
Of course, the results vary with the
region and the season. Consider the next graph which was
generated right here in central Alberta. It looks much worse than
the previous one: 60 pounds less honey for hives started on
foundation, compared to drawn comb! (And all these
colonies were given drawn comb when it came time to put on the supers)!
Here's an experiment done in the spring
of year 2000, right here
on our farm at Swalwell, Alberta:
40 package hives (in five groups)
were started on either
a full box of black Permadent in
a full box of white Permadent in
a full box of black Pierco
one-piece plastic frames
a full box of white combs, or
a full box of normal dark brood
After they had completed their first
box, they were given a second box, the same as the first.
After that, an excluder and boxes of
DRAWN COMB were added as supers as required.
The production was weighed and
tabulated as the season progressed.
With a forty pound crop, the bees on
foundation would not even pay expenses, at normal honey prices, and the
hives on drawn comb would make over three times as much honey --
120+ pounds -- and a good profit. The hives on comb were
also much easier to handle, with less coddling required to ensure they
did not starve.
What many people forget is that the
first half -- or more -- of an average crop is required to pay expenses.
Only after that, is there money to pay loans, the labour of the owner,
and allow for expansion. The profit comes only after expenses are
paid and a small increase in production can double the profit.
Conversely, a small decrease in yield can wipe out any hope of profit.
| - Expenses
10 20 30 40
50 60 70 80
90 100 110 120
Honey Yield per hive in lbs >
Moreover, unless the year is
exceptional, and the bees are evenly strong, from one hive to another, a
lot of foundation will be left un-drawn (See the next graph). As a
result, the second year may not be much better.
Here is the amount of each
foundation drawn as time passed in the above experiment.
(Of course the hives with drawn comb had 18 drawn combs).
Interesting note: The
number of cells drawn above was roughly the same, since Pierco
plastic frames have roughly 20% more cells per frame due to slightly
smaller (more natural) cell size and reduced top and bottom bar area.
BUT... What if the
drawn combs are too old and full of drone comb? Seely 2002
Some drone cells, especially around
the edges of the brood area are unavoidable, and maybe even beneficial,
but here is the effect on honey production of having four drone combs in
a double brood chamber, compared to hives without much drone brood.
Adony: The frames were
placed on positions #3 and #7 in each of a two box brood nest, first
thing in the spring. Also to note, among the colonies where all the
drone brood was removed, the bees built patches of drone comb on
approximately 5 worker frames by the end of the year. See the
I read the paper, and my main
criticism is that he added solid drone combs at positions 3 and 7 (see
diagram below). IMO, this is not the way I find drone comb in my
hives when the bees make it. Usually the drone cells area round the
periphery, and not complete frame-sized slabs, so I wonder how applicable
these results are. To me, this arrangement is artificial and
restricts the area available for worker brood, especially considering
that -- as we have covered here before -- the amounts of egg laying and
worker brood Seeley reports (elsewhere) as being normal in his area are
much higher that what I have seen in my experience.
Adony's presentation, from which I borrowed four of these graphs, is
about comb replacement, and the experiments were conducted in hopes of
proving that comb replacement on a large scale, as practiced in parts
of Europe, would not have a high cost. I have taken the liberty
of using some of his content to show how beginners can run into trouble
trying to start with only brand new equipment in hopes of avoiding bee
diseases. IMO, this is a rather idealistic notion* which
originates from equipment, foundation manufacturers and dilettantes.
While bee diseases are something to consider, other than a bad case of
AFB with scaly comb, diseases can be managed. What a bee-ginner
cannot survive, often, is a very small crop and difficulty with the
bees originating in insufficient drawn comb, since beginners often
already start with an idea of potential honey crops which is
unrealistically high. Moreover, the wintering success of colonies
on new comb is often poor the first year. That double whammy --
small crop and winter loss -- can wipe out a newcomer.
I get calls from
people who think that starting on 100% foundation is a feasible way to
start a commercial operation. It is not. When I first
started out, I, too, thought this would be a good idea. I
wrote to Dr. Don Peer and he took the time to disabuse me of that idea,
and I am eternally grateful. If there is a serious plan to make
money, at least 80% of the 5 standard supers of comb should be fully
drawn when starting out. Otherwise, there is a real risk of
hitting one of those years when bees simply will not draw foundation
and also the real possibility of voiding any crop insurance that is
am passing on the advice. Comb replacement -- on a carefully
considered schedule -- is a good idea, but the economic cost can
be too high if it is done to excess or by inexperienced beekeepers.
The merits of
comb replacement are real, but the topic is complex. In
particular, seasonal variations from year to year will make the
practice risky. Success one year may make the idea look good, but
the next year might be a disaster.
Drawn comb is
more productive -- sometimes by a factor of three -- and much less
risky. That's my only point here.
* That's not to say
that the idea of replacing older combs is not a good idea. Every
beekeeper culls malformed or broken combs constantly, and the bees do
tear down and rebuild comb. With increased use of chemical
miticides, comb replacement will become a very important practice,
since coumaphos, in particular, builds up fast and has bad effects on
bees, and can leave residues in honey and wax if not handled carefully.
Studies have proven
conclusively that AFB, chalkbrood, nosema and other diseases can be
quite drastically reduced by comb replacement (or sterilization by
electron beam radiation). The radiation solution will not remove