bee biology honey bee management

Foundationless colonies raise more drones

A reader in Romania wrote to say that he had decided to go foundationless in his Langstroth hives in order to avoid the chemical pesticides that are often found in commercial foundation. However, after he made the switch his bees began building much more drone comb than they had previously. He asked if there is a way to keep the number of drone cells lower.

The problem lies in honey bee genetics. Feral honey bees—that is, bees that have escaped into the wild and live without beekeeper interference—build comb that is approximately 25-30% drone cells. Higher and lower numbers have been reported, but this range seems about average.

This plentiful number of drones is good for bees from the evolutionary point of view. Most beekeepers, however, would be happier with fewer drones. With a lower proportion of drones you get more honey and more pollination service. Not only do drones not forage, but they eat a lot of the food that is ferried back to the hive by the workers.

Pre-stamped foundation lowers the number of drone cells in a managed colony. With pre-stamped foundation, a beekeeper may be able to keep the drone cells in a colony to 10-15%. This is a huge decrease from the 25-30% found in feral hives.

The 10-15% number is artificially low and, as most beekeepers have discovered, bees on foundation will start building drone comb wherever they can find a free space. They will build it in the form of burr comb, placing it between frames or under the cover. They routinely build it at the edges of worker brood and will sometimes climb up into the honey supers and build it there.

This hunt for more space is exactly why bees build drone comb in the bottom portion of an Oliver drone trap. Randy Oliver places foundation in the top portion and leaves the bottom portion empty. Almost miraculously, the bees do exactly what he intended—store honey in the top and raise drone brood in the bottom.

Any time you allow a colony to build free-form comb—such as in a Warre, top bar, or foundationless Langstroth—the bees revert to their genetically programmed proportions of drone brood. It is just a fact of honey bee life. So what can be done?

  • If your reason for going foundationless is to avoid chemical pesticides, you may consider uncoated plastic foundation. You can coat it yourself or not—it will work either way. But plastic itself contains chemicals that can leach into the comb. Some people can taste or smell it; others don’t seem to notice.
  • You may be able to purchase organic foundation. I have never seen it, but someone might be selling it.
  • You can buy a piece of equipment that allows you to stamp your own beeswax into sheets of foundation.
  • If you don’t want to use foundation at all, some beekeepers recommend removing a portion of the drone comb from the hive. Some bees seem to avoid storing honey and pollen in drone cells, so if empty drone cells are available, the queen will usually lay in them—producing even more drones. On the other hand, if the bees find the number of drone cells you left for them to be insufficient, they will just build more. Building new cells requires more energy than reusing old ones, so this technique can backfire.
  • The best answer might be to just accept more drone cells as a cost of going foundationless. Nothing is ever free: you gain something by having fewer chemicals in the hive and the price is having a bit less honey—not a bad deal.

Rusty

10 Comments

  • I found five foundationless frames of drone cells in one of my hives today. That’s 25% of the colony right there.

    I know there are ways to limit drones in a foundationless hive. One is to move the drone frames to the edges and eventually the bees will build worker comb starting in the middle. (That hasn’t worked for me yet.)

    The other method is to insert foundationless frames between two frames of worker brood comb. I may have to give that a go.

    I can understand why some beekeepers prefer using plastic foundation. It seems like a simpler route.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Could you tell me where I might find the equipment for making foundation with my own wax? We use organic beekeeping practices with wax imported from Europe, which is supposed to be much lower in chemicals, but making our own sounds like an even better option.

    Thanks!

    Sean

  • Hello.

    I used foundationless frames for 2 years. I had a lot of drone cells the first year, but then, I assumed this is due to the need of more drones in the colony. The “problem” came this year.

    For example, I had a hive with 7 built (worker cells) frames (which were built on cell printed foundation). I put 1 drone cells frame from last year, next to the brood nest (between brood nest and the frame with pollen and honey). And I put two foundationless frames, positioning them between the worker cell frames. I expected the bees to draw worker cells, and the queen to lay drone eggs on the drone cells frame, but they built another drone cells frames, and they ignored the frame with drone cells from last year (there were not eggs in there). I thought to myself, maybe they need more drones. I was very persistent, I was adding foundationless frames (in the second box), positioning the frames always between the worker cell frames, but the bees continued to build drone cells.

    The drone cells business ended when the main honey flow started. Then, the bees concentrated on building worker cells, no matter where I’d put a frame.

    My question is, what should I do next year in spring, in order to get them build more worker cells. I have about 60-70% of the frames from this year with drone cells.

    Not that I dislike a hive with lot of drones, but if this happens every year, I will end up with lots of frames without worker cells.. and every spring I will have slow build up, because every year they will start with the drone cells.

    Gregory

    • Gregory,

      That’s exactly why beekeepers often prefer foundation: it’s easier to get what you want. The drones are always going to come in early spring, just before swarm season starts, because the colony wants the maximum number of drones before virgin queens begin to fly. You can try reversing what you did this year. In other words, put the drawn drone comb near the center of the nest where they are sure to find it and put the foundationless frames on the outside of the nest. It sounds backward, but it might be worth a try just to see what happens.

  • Can anything be done? Of course, it can.

    A review of history will help here. Foundation was invented around 1875, and the self-spacing side-bars of Julius Hoffman, although invented earlier than 1890, were not widely adopted until that time.

    Modern beekeeping has always been an industry-led activity, and when self-spacing side-bars became popular, in order to make manufacturing simpler and hence more profitable, a one-size-fits-all spacing was adopted by manufacturers which was a compromise between the narrow spacing of brood-combs and the much wider spacing which rendered honey-combs more efficient.

    However, this spacing has never been ideal for either purpose. Hence the Hoffman self-spacing frames we see today will work reasonably well provided that foundation has been installed within them, which effectively dictates to the bees the type of comb which is to be drawn.

    To run foundationless successfully, it is therefore imperative that an appropriate style of frame be used – that is, one in which the inter-frame space may be adjusted in some convenient way. My own frame top bars are fitted with 20mm x 3mm wood-screws solely for this purpose.

    In order to draw-out 100% worker-comb, frame spacing is set at 32mm. It is only when the comb is fully drawn-out that the spacing is enlarged to 34 or 35mm. Should you consider this advice to be fanciful, I would refer you to The British Beekeeper’s Guide Book, T.W.Cowan, 20th Ed., 1911, a copy of which may be sourced from the Internet Archive.

    On page 62 Cowan writes: “The frames in the two lower storeys should be placed 1 1/4 inches from centre to centre, which will prevent the rearing of drone-brood …”. This advice is repeated several times (four, if memory serves) within the text.

    Hope this helps,

    Yours,
    ‘Little John’

    • John,

      I don’t see where you’re going with this. I understand that the width of the space between frames would limit the depth of cells and might coerce the production of worker brood over drone brood. However, you say, “It is only when the comb is fully drawn-out that the spacing is enlarged to 34 or 35mm.” If you wait until the comb is fully drawn, the bees would have already made some cells the proper width for workers, say about 5.1 cm across, and other cells would be wider, say about 6.4 cm across, for drones. So what happens to these larger cells that are appropriate for drones but too big for workers?

  • They don’t exist.

    “If you wait until the comb is fully drawn, the bees would have already made some cells the proper width for workers, say about 5.1 cm across, and other cells would be wider, say about 6.4 cm across, for drones. ”

    You don’t appear to understand what I’m saying – if combs are drawn-out at narrow (32mm) spacing, the bees will NOT draw-out drone-sized cells. This is not theory or conjecture, but what is seen in practice by those of us who run foundationless apiaries successfully.

    This was a technique employed in the days before the use of foundation became widespread. The reason for then opening-up the frames to 34-35mm spacing is to enable bees to work more comfortably ‘back-to-back’ within the resulting wider inter-comb space.

    You can of course retain the 32mm spacing if you wish, as successive generations of bees raised in foundationless combs will eventually revert (regress) towards a more natural size – circa 5.0 mm or thereabouts.

    Needless to say, it is a sensible practice that every 8th or 10th comb be drawn-out at around 35mm spacing in order that a drone-cell comb (which is usually 100% drone comb) be created.

    I’m not “going anywhere” with this – I’m only advising you of what works in practice, and what has been known to work in practice for well over a century.

    I do have a theory about WHY this works – based on bees using cues around them (as well as using their bodies as constructional templates) which together determine the behaviour which results – but it’s only so-much conjecture.
    ‘best.
    LJ

  • While I’m hammering on the keyboard…

    There are two other perfectly straightforward ways of getting 100% worker comb drawn-out:

    The first is to give bare frames to full-sized colonies immediately AFTER the drones have been kicked-out of the hives in late summer when the rearing of drones is no longer ‘on their agenda’.

    The second method – which is the one I employed for many years before discovering ‘the 32mm trick’ – is to give bare frames to nucleus colonies where drone-creation is not yet their ambition. I used to set-up five-over-five stacks for this sole purpose and kept feeding them bare frames along with a continuous supply of sugar syrup. By keeping the colony on the small size and by regularly removing most of the newly-drawn comb, their requirement was constantly that of needing more worker comb – hence that is what was drawn. The use of sugar syrup renders this to be a very economical method of getting new combs drawn, the expense of which is otherwise one of the most common negative criticisms of foundationless beekeeping.

    FWIW, I make it a practice to pull a small number of combs shortly after they’ve started to be drawn-out – around a ‘quarter-drawn’ is fine. Such combs are ideal for queen-rearing using a simplified form of the Miller Method, which I much prefer to use when creating early queens due to our unpredictable British Spring temperatures.
    ‘best
    LJ

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