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Wednesday wordphile: bee space

Bee space is a passageway 1/4- to 3/8-inches wide (6-10 mm) that bees use for moving throughout the hive. In 1851 the Reverend L. L. Langstroth realized that spaces narrower than this were treated like cracks and filled with propolis. Spaces wider than this were treated like construction zones–bees donned their hardhats and filled the areas with burr comb.

Bees–being a little neurotic–like to have their passageways just large enough to fit through: no more, no less. And they never build tunnels through their comb. Every bee, following the unwritten rule, walks around the edges of comb to get to the other side.

Langstroth made good use of this information when he designed his now-famous hive. In order to make the frames moveable, he designed all the areas above, below, and around the combs to fall within the tolerance of bee space. He knew that if he could prevent the combs from being cemented to the hive–or to each other–the frames could be removed, inspected, and replaced.

Many other successful hives have been developed over the years, but they all rely on the concept of bee space to make them work. And as any beekeeper knows, you violate this rule at your own peril. Leave out a frame–or a top bar–for a week and you will have a mess on your hands.

Almost any time you find burr comb, brace comb, cross comb, or propolis seals mucking up the interior of a hive, it is due to a violation of bee space. One of the most common sources of error occurs when equipment purchased from different manufacturers is mixed. Although the pieces seem to fit, in truth, there is often enough difference to give the bees an opportunity for creative engineering.

Drones signal the onset of swarm season

I finally saw my first drone on Wednesday April 20. He made his appearance on the landing board of my busiest hive—just one day shy of a month later than last year. Although I went through the rest of my hives, he was the only fully-formed male I could find.

I did, however, find lots of drone comb filled with eggs, so I know the males are coming. Below is a piece of burr comb that had been built inside one of the feeders. It was built as drone comb—as burr comb frequently is—and each cell has a neatly placed haploid egg inside. Haploid honey bee eggs—those having only one set of chromosomes—are always destined to be male.

These signs tell me swarm season is just around the corner. Once the drones are in abundance, the mating frenzy will begin.


Drone comb filled with eggs.

Strange comb in strange places

Burr comb, bridge comb, and brace comb are all terms used to describe comb that is built in places that are reasonable to the bees but annoying to the beekeeper. Wherever honey bees find excess space in the hive—a space greater than about 3/8” (1 cm) wide—they will attempt to build comb.

It is a problem for the beekeeper because it glues things together and makes removing the frames very difficult. Many beekeepers make a habit of scraping away any burr comb when they see it and, if possible, correct the situation that gave the bees the extra space.

One way to reduce burr comb in the hive is to space the frames as evenly as possible across the width of the hive boxes. If you are using 10-frame equipment, for example, just equalize all the slots between the frames. This prevents having an over-sized space somewhere in the box that the bees will see as an opportunity. Another common place to see burr comb is below the inner cover, especially when it is installed incorrectly—with the rim facing down instead of up. And if you install a slatted rack upside down, the bees will fill in the area below the lowest set of frames.

If you find burr comb, just scrape it away with your hive tool after assuring that the queen is not on it. If you find a new piece of burr comb down in the brood area, hold it up to the light: you may be able to see eggs or larvae inside. Don’t leave the scrapings lying around the apiary, especially if they contain honey, because they may attract animal or insect pests that can become a nuisance. If you are thinking of making candles or some other beeswax product, just collect the burr comb for later use.


Burr comb attached to a frame. Flickr photo by Joe Deluca