Natural comb is more than just a place bees hang out on and store their food in. It’s an integral part of the honeybee superorganism.
The nest structure enhances the colony’s functional needs as they change throughout the season. With natural comb it’s:
- the right size bees
- on the right size comb
- in the right location
- using the right resources
When bees are forced to exist on something other than a natural broodnest, a price is paid in colony health.
Bees vary in size seasonally. This seasonal variation is controlled by genetics. And is influenced by nutrition, cell size, and the bee’s age. Bees are smallest during early spring, larger at midsummer, smaller again in late fall and increase in size over the winter.
Comparing the broodnest structure with seasonal bee size, the average cell sizes used to rear worker brood mirrors the natural change in average bee size. Smaller spring and fall bees are raised in the broodnest core area with its smaller cell size.
Bees actively detect and remove diseased and mite infested pupa from brood in the broodnest core. Brood rearing is confined there, in the early spring and late summer. At those critical times, the colony effectively concentrates and rids itself of broodnest pests with the least amount of effort. Over 95% of the natural mite fall shows bite marks during these periods.
Nest Function and Form
In late winter, the bees are located on the broodnest smaller cell size core area near the hive entrance. It’s the ideal situation:
- their food is above and behind them
- pest detection/removal is facilitated
- broodnest heat is conserved
- scarce water, food and thermal resources are shared with more but smaller bees
- hostile foraging risks are minimized
Bees will still raise smaller spring bees in larger cells, but I suspect thermal efficiencies are lower than when the bees do it their way. And brood that’s cooler:
- takes longer to hatch
- is more susceptible to chalkbrood
- is probably stressed
Now capped honey and pollen are consumed out of the larger sized cells surrounding the broodnest core area. And foraging resources become more available. The broodnest expands.
There’s less risk now and the colony can afford to use more resources raising larger spring bees, in larger sized worker cells. What’s the advantage to larger sized bees? No one knows. It’s never been studied. But there must be an advantage or queens wouldn’t be so eager to move beyond the small cell sized broodnest core.
Soon drone cells on the broodnest periphery, are liberated as expansion continues. Drones raised there will mate with virgin queens when colonies swarm about a month later.
Now, broodnest expansion reaches its natural limits. And if all has goes well:
- vigorous spring bees replace the old overwintered bees
- food, water, warmth are abundant
- hive populations are at a maximum
- the colony prepares to swarm
Before swarming, The bees:
- pack the broodnest with fresh nectar or diluted honey
- raise queens in new queen cells
- diminish other colony activities
The hive is filled with a bees and brood of all sizes/kinds. It’s the optimum mix for survival.
Backfilling the broodnest restricts brood rearing allowing departing bees to fatten up. And it provides a ready fuel source for the swarm’s departure.
Queen cups are built and sealed along comb margins. The virgin queens hatch. Then the colony swarms.
After the swarm departs, the remaining hive population can easily care for the reduced amount of open brood. And the cells used to fuel the departing swarm are clean and empty, ready for the new queen to lay eggs in.
Resources are replenished as the late summer/fall flows arrive.
Drone cells and larger worker size cells are filled and capped above the core area. After the swarm departs, there’s not much need for additional drones. And this places the winter stores above and behind the broodnest core. The fresh nectar is placed in larger cells and wider spaced combs where its high moisture content is easily reduced and turned into honey.
If more resource are available, the broodnest is packed and the honey storage area is filled. Packing the broodnest restricts brood rearing to the smaller cell size core area. There, broodnest pests are again concentrated, detected and removed.
The cluster size shrinks. And young bees with less brood to rear, and no need to gather or process additional stores, fatten up for winter.