Demystifying Drawn Comb: Beekeeping Essentials

What is Drawn Comb?

Wooden beehive frames hold panels of honeycomb built out by bees to store honey and brood. The wax comb consists of thousands of hexagonal cells in neat rows on both sides of each frame. New equipment includes blank frames with only a thin wax foundation sheet. So how does this foundation become the full, capped honeycomb that beekeepers harvest? The process is called drawing out comb, and understanding it helps new beekeepers get started.

bees making honey in a beehive

Foundation Sheets

Frames designed for removable comb include a flat sheet or strip of beeswax centered in the frame as a foundation guide. This thin, pressed wax sheet contains a visible hexagonal pattern with impressed bottoms. The basal impression provides a template for the bees to build cells from. The hexagonal pattern directs the geometry and orientation of the bees’ cell construction. Foundation comes plain or embedded with vertical wires for structural reinforcement. It serves as the starting point that stimulates bees to elaborate comb.

Cell Construction

Honey bees have an instinctive drive to build comb. They consume honey to secrete beeswax from glands on their abdomen. This wax is molded into perfectly symmetrical hexagons using their mandibles as tools. The walls of each cell slope at precisely 120° angles to create the fundamental comb cell. Beeswill rapidly build out from the foundation, elongating the cells downward into the characteristic comb shape. The initial layer of cells on each side serves as the framework from which they can continue expanding the comb pattern horizontally.

beekeeper smoking out bees

Filling the Frames

As the comb grows downward from the foundation, bees fill cells sequentially with nectar, pollen, or brood. The queen lays single eggs into each cell prepared for reproduction. Adjacent cells store pollen collected from flowers for feeding larvae. Farther cells get filled with nectar from foraged plants. Beeswill work to fully draw out every available cell in the box. A blank wooden frame placed between built-out combs also stimulates rapid comb drawing as they strive to fill gaps in the nest structure. Given resources, healthy colonies will quickly transform foundations into bustling comb.

Capping Over

Once cells are filled with ripened honey, bees seal them via capping. Worker bees produce a moisture-laden wax to seal off full honey cells. This liquid wax gets sculpted into a small domed cap over the cell opening. The cap acts as an impermeable moisture and air barrier helping preserve the hygroscopic honey. Bees may leave cells uncapped if nectar flow is sporadic and moisture levels fluctuate. But during a strong, steady bloom, every cell with cured honey will get fully capped over as the final step of comb drawing. A frame is considered 100% drawn when every cell holds brood, food stores, or wax capping on both sides.

bees harvesting honey

Benefits of Drawn Comb

Fully drawn comb offers advantages over foundation only frames:

  • Bees accept it immediately with no building lag time.
  • Cells store 29% more honey compared to new wax comb.
  • The cocoon lining helps bees develop faster and healthier.
  • Thicker comb and cell walls make frames stronger and less fragile.
  • Darker old comb signals a high-quality nest site to scout bees.
  • It prevents bees attempting to build wild comb in unused spaces.

For these reasons, once bees have fully drawn a frame, it becomes a valuable asset to the hive. Drawn comb should be carefully preserved rather than melted down after harvest.

When to Add Foundation

Beekeepers can strategically time adding undrawn frames:

  • On newly hived packages or swarms to motivate quick nest building.
  • In early spring to provide room for brood rearing and food storage.
  • Before major nectar flows to anticipate increased space needs.
  • Into hive bodies with fully drawn comb to entice expansion.
  • During routine inspections to systematically replace old comb.
  • When splitting strong colonies to lure the divided population.

With a feel for the colony’s needs and rhythm, additional frames stimulate productivity rather than go ignored.

The wonder of watching blank wax transform into cells teeming with life never ceases to amaze beekeepers. As bees work to draw out the comb, the keeper also gets “drawn in” to the marvels of their industry and instincts. The geometric comb remains a timeless symbol of honey bees’ ingenuity and harmonious order. In fulfilling their sole mission to build comb, bees reward us sweetly.