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.