New vs. Used Bee Equipment

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)

Szabo 1983

Graphs 1,2,4 & 5 courtesy Adony Melathopoulos
from his PowerPoint presentation about comb replacement
(highly recommended for conferences)

Looks here as if using foundation costs about 40 pounds of honey, or $100 CAD per hive at current prices.

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 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 wood frames

  • a full box of white Permadent in wood frames

  • a full box of black Pierco one-piece plastic frames

  • a full box of white combs, or

  • a full box of normal dark brood comb.

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.

The Moral?

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.

Drawn comb        
   | - Expenses - | - Profit  ----------------------------->
0    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.

Comment from  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 original paper

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.

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10
 1  2  3 4 5  6  7  8  9 10

Note:  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 whA. m. melliferay -- 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 purchased.  Bummer!

Consequently, I 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 miticides, though.

A Beekeeper's Diary