My "natural" broodnest arrangement
I thought I would share some of the results and changes I have made to my comb arrangement based on my observations of the most successful feral hives in terms of size of broodnest and volume of honey stores that I have cutout in the last two years:
I use a frame configuration as follows (I custom make my frames for a 1-1/4" frame spacing which gives me 11 frame deeps):
F D H F H F H F H D F
F = foundationless frame
D = green plastic drone frame
H = HSC (Honey Supercell frame)
When I start a package I hang the caged queen from the center foundationless frame. With an existing hive, I will gradually exchange the frames to transition them to this arrangement. I find that this arrangement adequately mimics the natural nest arrangement I see in the cutouts. The bees do a very good job of drawing the foundationless frames centered between the fully drawn plastic comb. The bees will naturally start their broodnest on the frame from which the queen is hung and the desire of the bees to keep their broodnest contiguous seems to be stronger than their desire to reject the plastic HSC frames and so far I have had 100% acceptance of the plastic comb (I also mist the HSC with dilute honey, which I am sure helps a lot). Once the bees fill the first deep, I can place a second deep of all foundationless frames either above or below the first deep. Above for a hive with an upper entrance, below for one with a lower entrance, this is important because the bees like to have the broodnest starting pretty close to the entrance, and it insures that the second deep gets drawn out as broodnest expansion instead of honey storage. As long as I am careful to be sure that they are aligned exactly with the fames in the first deep, they will draw them perfectly. When they fill both deeps I have a hive with a very close approximation of a natural brood nest and only uses 4 HSC frames, this reduces my HSC requirements by a factor of 5. When I have fully drawn wax brood frames available I will substitute them for the other non-center foundationless frames which gives them a huge boost since they only have to draw the center frame.
When I super them, I put on a 9-frame shallow over an Imre shim which gives them both an upper and lower entrance. I arrange the frames in the super so that they are spaced a little wider on one side and gradually come into alignment with the deeps on the other edge. It seems that they naturally know that this is the honey storage area and will draw the foundation in the super out to wider combs very nicely on the wider spacing and I never have any brood in the super. The space in the Imre shim lets them transition to the wider spacing by allowing them to draw small amounts of drone comb bridges between the top deep and the first shallow, this also gives me a chance to monitor the varroa levels in the drone comb when I break the bridges during inspection or super exchanges. I have also discovered that with this arrangement the 7 center frames in both deeps will be void of the "honey cap" and the top deep will have brood from top to bottom of the frames with brood transitioning to pollen and honey stores on the outer edges of the frames and about 2/3 -3/4 of the way down the bottom deep frames. This requires that I leave them one shallow super during the winter, and together with the outer frames of honey and pollen in the deeps, it seems to give them ample stores for winter.
I came up with this arrangement when I noticed that most the cutout broodnests would turn their combs a little as they transitioned them into the wider and more spaced out honey storage combs, usually at the rear of the nest. My arrangement approximates a vertical version of what I have observed.
This will be my first year with a couple of hives fully converted to this arrangement. I will let you know how well they do at the end of the flow, but so-far, they are a good bit ahead of the other hives in filling the supers (most of the others have not even gotten to the point of putting on the first super, which may or may not be related to their lack of this arrangement).
"The UNKNOWN, huh? That would be SNORBERT ZANGOX over in Waycross."