Some Biological Aspects of Honey Bee Colonies in Relation to the Age of Beeswax Combs

Thursday 1 April 2021

New comb versus old comb…which is better for the bees? A well discussed and debated topic in the beekeeping world! In this week’s blog, we will discuss how the age of comb impacts colony function, especially relating to brood production. Keep reading to find out what a recent study observed in brood and honey production when colonies were provided with comb of varying ages, from foundation to 4-6 years old comb. 

Happy Easter long weekend everyone!

Some Biological Aspects of Honey Bee Colonies in Relation to the Age of Beeswax Combs *

Beeswax combs used in honey bee hives, like most things, change over time. But the question is, do these changes positively or negatively impact the functioning of honey bee colonies? Although older dark comb makes it easier for the beekeeper to spot eggs on a frame, recent research suggests that these older combs compromise certain aspects of colony function and productivity. This study explored the effects of comb age (foundation, 1yr old, 2yrs old, 3yrs old, and 4-6yrs old) on:

  1. Worker and drone brood production
  2. New worker and drone body weight, and
  3. Worker population

Interesting results are presented from the observations of this study:

  • Higher worker brood production & lower drone brood production in colonies on newer combs versus colonies on older combs
  • Higher newly emerged worker and drone weights in colonies on newer combs versus colonies on older combs
  • Greater reduction of worker population in colonies on foundation and in colonies on older combs versus colonies on newer drawn combs

Considering these observations in context of some of the more detailed aspects of colony function helps to provide possible explanations for the results of this study. Compared to newer combs, older combs often have a greater proportion of irregular cells as a result of transforming worker cells into drone cells. In comparison to newer combs with lower proportions of drone vs. worker cells, this accumulation of drone cells in older combs decreases the production of worker brood and increases the production of drone brood.

In addition to drone cell accumulation, as wax combs are reused for brood rearing and food storage, there is also a continuous accumulation of wax, propolis, and debris from brood development (i.e., shedding cocoons) within cells. Due to this accumulation, comb cells become smaller with age resulting in the production of workers and drones with body weights lower than workers and drones reared in cells on newer combs with less accumulations. In the specific case of drones, a decrease in drone size results in a decrease in both drone longevity and sperm quality.

In addition to a decrease in drone longevity, older combs may also reduce worker longevity if there is an accumulation of toxic contaminants in the wax. This scenario leads to a greater reduction in the worker population of colonies on older combs compared to colonies on newer combs. An accumulation of contaminants on older combs may also alter the unique cues that a colony uses for recognition promoting more frequent drifting of foragers that belong to colonies with older combs. A greater reduction in worker population is also suggested for colonies provided with foundation instead of drawn combs. This may be explained by the exhaustive physiological requirements of worker bees involved in the task of wax production and building combs from foundation. However, this effect on the worker population of colonies housed on foundation is halted once combs are built, as the results from this recent study suggest. Since all foragers are workers, honey production correlates directly to worker population size, however, is also impacted by brood production, worker lifespan, productivity of individual workers, and also the proportion of drone cells in the combs of a colony’s hive.

As is typical in honey bees and beekeeping, there are many aspects of colony function that impact how a colony responds to challenges and how these challenges affect the colony. As comb increases in age and gets to be “old comb”, the challenge of maintaining maximal and even sufficient colony function and productivity also increases. Thankfully, research studies, such as this one, provide valuable information to help beekeepers better help their bees!

* Mohammad Abd Al-Wahab Abd Al-Fattah, Yasser Yehia Ibrahim & Marwa Ibrahim Haggag (2021). Some biological aspects of honey bee colonies in relation to the age of beeswax combs, Journal of Apicultural Research (full text available online).

Wishing everyone an extra sweet Easter long weekend!

(illustration credit)

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