Q & A with a Natural Beekeeper: How does natural comb impact production of honey?

From Chris:            Kevin, thank you for your wonderful website! I have just ordered 5 packages of bees I will pick up in the spring from a beekeeping operation in my state. I am working with another local beekeeper who keeps 15 hives on my farm because of my blackberries and cover crops. He uses plastic foundation, and I expressed to him my desire to use empty frames and he said it was not feasible or cost effective. We sell this honey along with my produce, and it’s how I make a living. So my questions are:

Q: How does using natural comb affect the rate/frequency of harvest? Will cutting out all the comb at once leave the bees starving? Or do you only cut some at a time? How long does it take the bees to draw out new comb?

Thank you very much for any info you can provide!

Hi Chris,

First, Welcome To Backyard Ecosystem. The rabbit hole is deep. There may be no turning back. You might want to take the blue pill instead.*

A: Natural Comb increases the rate of production because creating space in the brood nest throws the hive into overdrive.

I am not a commercial beekeeper, and will never be one. I am not suggesting that you cut out all the existing comb at once. That could set the hive back months. I am suggesting that you rotate the frames up and out two frames at a time. You introduce new frames in the brood chamber and you harvest capped off honey from the top box. You could experiment with doing this four or even six at a time. If I were to try it I would never be creating more than three spaces in the brood box and three in the top box. For a commercial beekeeper that means they have to go in the hive far too often.

I am not in this for money, I am in this for the future of humanity. Without pollinators we are in a pretty bad place. We seem to be experts at exterminating pollinators of all kinds.

My advice to commercial beekeepers is to:
1) Stop selling honey except as an artisanal product. Corn Syrup from China labeled as honey is underselling you at every grocery story.
2) Wax is worth more than honey these days. My way produces a constant stream of used and fairly uncontaminated wax.
3) Sell pollination, to chemical free farms. With chemical free bees.

Number three is easy for you, since you are only concerned with your own farm, if you run the farm and the bees chemical free you will do fine. Any other way is going to leave you without bees sooner or later, once there are no bees we are all going to be very, very hungry.

I am glad that you are interested in what I have to say. I really thought all the commercial beekeepers would have to kill all their bees before they start paying attention to what I have to say. I applaud you for being concerned and looking for another way.

Let me know if you want me to come open a hive with you sometime. You will be appalled at how slowly and smoothly I work. I can barely get through three hives in an afternoon. But I know my bees and they know me. The hives I work are healthy and they produce like there is no tomorrow. I let them actually consume what they produce. I don’t steal it and feed them sugar water. Or corn syrup labeled honey. I take what they can afford to part with without forcing supplemental feeding.

My total ongoing costs are zero. My start up costs are the cost of an all medium box hive and empty frames. How much is it costing your friend every season on a per hive basis to dump in chemicals and buy nucs to replace losses? In the long term I am going to win, but I am not trying to make a living at this either.

I am sorry I don’t have any happy answers. I wish I did. I wish I had a way to do this commercially that would stop the death spiral of more supplements and more dead bees. I really do. Maybe you can figure out something that I am missing. The only way you are going to find out is if you stop pumping chemicals into the hives and if your agricultural partners stop pumping chemicals into their fields.

I would love to hear from you. Thank you for your questions.
-Kevin

*Gratuitous Matrix reference

Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That's how we're gonna be -- cool. Critical is fine, but if you're rude, we'll delete your stuff. Please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name and do not put your website in the comment text, as both come off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch and Tim Ferris for the inspiration)
  • Chris

    Kevin, thanks for addressing my concerns. Earlier this week we opened up our hives and found that we had lost HALF of our hives over the winter, despite feeding the bees lots of sugar. As I’ve been pondering your method of beekeeping it has raised a few more questions I was hoping you might address.

    1) my beekeeping mentor is stressing to me that I should feed the bees sugar immediately upon putting them in the hive to help them get established. Is there ever any situation in which feeding sugar is okay, or is it strictly a no-no?

    2) when I place my bees into the hive for the first time, should I have all the frames be empty or just one or two in the middle, and the rest with temporary foundation so that they will build straight comb? Or will all empty frames with the wooden starter strips be enough to encourage the bees to build straight? If they start building crazy comb how should that be handled?

    3)what do you do with the comb you pull from the brood box?

    Thanks again, and I apologize if these questions have been addressed elsewhere. Happy beekeeping. -Chris

  • Jay Tiernan

    Hi kevin- I was wondering if you have problems with the bees building queen cells because of space at the bottom of the foundation-free frames.( I find they have done that on frames when a space is left at the bottom.).. also, wondering the same about crazy comb building habits that occur in this situation too. Another Q: , What do you do for Mites, powder roll them occasionally with powdered sugar or something?

  • Hi Jay,

    I never had mites once I went foundation free and chemical free. The only time I ever saw a mite was as described in the post where one worker was grooming it off another who had just done a dance to let the others know she had a mite.

    If the bees are building queen cells, it is because they need a queen. Use them to make splits. They will fill in the whole frame quite rapidly and they will build the cells sizes that they need. Open spaces don’t trigger swarms, they trigger overdrive building and foraging.

    As far as minimizing crazy comb that is what the starter strip, rotating out just a few frames at a time, and carefull leveling of the hive is all about.

  • Hi Chris,
    1) I have no problem giving a new package or a fresh swarm some sugar water for a few days. As soon as they are building comb and foraging then the only thing you want to make sure they have around is lots of fresh clean water.
    2) I never use foundation anymore. The will get ninety percent of it right on just starter strips in a new hive. If I have some already filled frames, then I will slot the empties between them. This helps everything run straight. With a new hive from a package or swarm you want to give them a full frame or two if you have it anyway to give them a boost. Sometime I just cut out any odd comb. If the odd comb is only on two frames I just keep moving them up and out as a unit. and harvest them together once the are filled with capped honey. Odd comb just isn’t that common if you are careful, and you can deal with it case by case when you come across it.
    3)I move it out in stages toward the side of the box, then up to the next box. In the life of a frame as it moves out and up it might have several generations of brood, and a couple of generations of stores, then get harvested from the outside of the top box. This will almost always be pure capped honey. If not I can put it back in wherever I want it as long as I run all mediums.
    -Kevin

  • Shayne Vibert

    I’m a beekeeper and we give them certain medications and shit to prevent mites and different things that threaten the hives. One of the ways we give them the treatment powdered stuff is by giving it to them mixed with sugar. Is that bad? I’m straight up wondering I have no idea

  • Simrat Khalsa

    Thanks for sharing your chemical free bee experiences. I am of the same leaning, and will be weaning my new package hive off of feeding and foundation. It’s great to see this good, clear information out there. Thanks again!

  • Daryl

    Such a wealth of information here. One thing I hope you can advise me on though: I was given a swarm in a 10 frame deep super. I have added a 10 frame medium super (all foundationless).

    How would I go about removing the deep super over time? Up to now I added the super on the bottom, and I am about to add a third 10 frame medium super in between those two, with the expectation that eventually the deep super will be at the top of the hive and I can just remove it.

    Am I on the right track?

  • Sounds perfect, move them up and out!

  • There are always alternatives to chemicals. Even feeding sugar is a bad idea. Give them a safe clean home, let them build their own comb without using foundation, and let the bees be bees!

  • You are most welcome!

  • Beeny

    How do you extract the honey from an extractor?

  • Beeny

    If you must crush the comb to extract the honey, you lose all of that comb and the bees will have to rebuild.

  • I don’t, I cut and crush. But you can if you want to. It sort of misses the point which is getting old wax out of the hive.

  • You don’t lose anything. The point is to remove the old wax. I would suggest reading this post http://www.backyardecosystem.com/backwards-beekeeping/so-exactly-natural-comb-anyway/ to help you understand why this is so important.

  • Betty Karda

    I am new to beekeeping this year, I’ve got a Warre hive (8 foundation-less bars) with observation windows (which is awesome and addicting). I am just wondering if it is normal to have most of the bees (3lb package) clustered on one side of the top box. They’ve been installed since May 5, and while there is a very small comb visible on the opposite side of the cluster with a few bees on it working, I can’t tell or see if there is comb under the cluster.

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