Foundation is NOT Drawn Comb!

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At this time of year, I constantly seem to trip into 2nd season or even 3rd season novices trying to treat foundation and drawn comb as equals; and I explain that they are like nickels and quarters, while both are coins, they are not the same.

The quarter would NOT fit in the nickel slot of a pay telephone, and the nickel only has 1/5 the value of a quarter.

If you put one frame of foundation in between two frames of drawn comb, what a mess you will have; the drawn comb cells will be extended in length so that they overextend the width of the top bar or end bar, and the foundation cells might be so shallow they hold little honey and maybe no brood. Some have been told that it is easier to extract frames that are supered 9 to a super rather 10 to a super; and hence they put only 9 sheets of foundation in a super and wonder why the bees sealed the frames together with burr comb and brace comb, or even built shallow depth comb on the foundation facing each other with a separate comb built in between.

Then there are those that follow advice gained by bee researchers of putting supers in place all at one time rather than adding another super when the first one is half full, but seem to FORGET that they must use all DRAWN COMB and not foundation.

We have heard of Queen Excluders being referred to as Honey Excluders. Well, excluders may be just that if you place a super of all foundation on a queen excluder and expect the bees to come up and draw that foundation into comb before they decide to swarm.

Thoughout my years of teaching beekeeping, most people are sick of hearing me refer to drawn comb as: A beekeeper’s MOST VALUABLE POSSESSION. Yet many of them don’t take good care of it and it becomes ruined by wax moths or other reasons; and then they try to make a direct replacement or interchange with foundation.

When the foundation has holes eaten through by the bees, drawn into strange shapes, or the bees swarm rather than drawing foundation, guess who gets the blame? Of course it is those stupid bees or that LOUDMOUTH lying instructor, but never this beeHAVER who thinks he knows everything.

Bees have to eat about 8 pounds of honey to get the energy to produce 1 pound of wax. Further, and most IMPORTANT, bees cannot be made to draw foundation without a nectar flow being in progress.

Their genetic makeup, ordained by THE ALMIGHTY, programs them to “perform upon need” not on the basis of “planning ahead”. The only need of comb that bees have is for brood and for stores (pollen, nectar, and honey).

Further, just because the calendar says April 1st, the bees are not going to build comb on some day in mid March to store that nectar that is supposed to arrive on April 1st, but they wait until they smell it and taste it before they will build comb to store it.

Rev. Langstroth has been posthumously credited with “discovering” or “defining” BEESPACE as that 1/4″ to 3/8″ area that bees will leave open while filling any other smaller or larger space with comb.

Hence, when we beekeepers desire to have comb built exactly in a place selected by us (not the bee), we, too, must be guided by these BEESPACE parameters.

Hence, having said all of that, now I will detail some DO’s and DON’Ts:

  1. NEVER mix a sheet of foundation in with drawn comb.
  2. ALWAYS draw 10 sheets of foundation in a super, NEVER 9 sheets.
  3. Always keep used dry drawn comb protected from wax moths, dampness, heat, accidentially bumped or knocked down, etc. for use next season.
  4. Research has shown that bees make more honey and swarm less if several empty supers of drawn comb are put on a colony ALL AT ONE TIME rather than putting supers on one at a time as the nectar flow continues; but you CANNOT do this using foundation.
  5. Since bees will NOT build comb until they have need of it, and they find no excuse to go through a queen excluder; when supering with foundation ONLY, put a super of 10 frames of foundation on top of the brood chambers and carefully inspect it at least weekly for frame drawing and perhaps the queen and eggs.If you find the queen in that super or several drawn frames with nectar, move the queen down into the brood chamber, put a queen excluder in place and then plan on adding another super of foundation on top of the first one when the first super is 50-60% filled with nectar, and a third super of 10 sheets of foundation when the 2nd super is 50-60% filled, etc.
  6. It is SMART to catch a swarm, install it in a hive of 10 frames of foundation and a gallon of 1:1 sugar syrup and the bees, HAVING GREAT NEED OF COMB FOR EGGS AND NECTAR, will draw out that foundation rapidly and beautifully provided you continuously feed 1:1 sugar syrup.

When the bees have drawn about 6-7 frames, add a second story of 10 frames of foundation and continue the feeding of 1:1 syrup. After securing much drawn comb, you can destroy the bees, give them away, or unite them with another hive, and PROTECT THIS NICE DRAWN COMB as if it was diamonds.

1:1 sugar syrup serves as an “artificial nectar”, and it MUST BE AVAILABLE in rain or windy non-flying weather or a dearth of nectar if you expect to get COMB BUILT from foundation.

1:1 sugar syrup is 1 pound of sugar dissolved in 1 pint of water.

There is “good” foundation, and “lousy” foundation. The most significant attributes that foundation should have are ease of installation in a frame, strength particularly during extraction, and will bees replace damaged comb.

Plasticel Foundation by Dadant excels in these attributes; whereas Dadant’s DuraGilt, once damaged stays permanently beyond repair. ALL wax base foundations, except when used for comb honey, MUST be supported by wires or frame end clips, and always protected from dropping.

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

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