Continuing my series on comb (see my post about burr comb), in this post I want to go into why your bees are building abnormal comb and what you should do about it. If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that burr comb refers to any comb in a place you don’t want it. If you haven’t been following along, well now you know too. I like to break the specific causes of burr comb down into two categories: beekeeper error and environmental conditions. Without further ado, let’s get into the weeds.
Unfortunately, you can trace a lot of the problems beekeepers have with their hives to the keepers themselves. There are a lot of reasons for this: not knowing any better, making honest mistakes, or being careless are some of the more popular reasons things go bad. This is also good news, though. Luckily for us, if beekeepers are causing a problem, that means you can solve it too. One example I used in my previous blog was an uneven hive (note: I’m mainly speaking to my experience with top-bar hives, but much of the advice also applies to Langstroth hives).
An uneven hive is leaning to one side, which means the frames inside it are leaning. Frames might not all lean at same angle, or might bump against each other or the hive walls, meaning there’s going to be distance between them. Distance that violates bee space and is ripe for some cross combing. The degree of tilt is almost irrelevant; bees work quickly enough to turn any kind of opening into a full-on comb construction site. When you’re doing your normal hive inspections, you might want to bring a level with you and check on things. You can either move an uneven hive to a flatter area or supported with blocks or tiles to level it out.
The other way beekeepers set themselves up for trouble with abnormal comb is not having the frames set up right. Mistakes happen. Maybe you took a frame out for inspection and never put it back in or put it back sloppily, so it doesn’t fit. Burr comb. Setting up your hive incorrectly so there’s extra space in between the top of the hive and the frames? That’s burr comb. These mistakes are fixable: make sure there’s an even space between frames during inspections.
We already covered what’s probably the most common environmental factor that can lead to burr comb, an uneven surface, but that’s not the only issue at play. That’s something you should scope out during your siting process. Other things are less predictable. For instance, what if there’s a storm and your beehive gets nudged by some falling debris? Or what if you set your hive up near a river and there’s a flood? In my last post I made a joke about dastardly prairie dogs undermining your hive’s foundations, but that stuff actually happens. Depending on the wildlife in your area, anything from deer to bears might set your hive off-kilter. These events aren’t particularly likely, but with millions of hives in North America, who’s to say yours isn’t going to be the one a boar decides to bump into? And you know what that could lead to? Burr comb.
The point of this post hasn’t been to turn you into a paranoid wreck who checks their beehive five times a day with a compass and protractor, but to let you know that sometimes this stuff happens. It might be your fault, or it might not, but either way, it’s your responsibility to fix. My final advice is pretty simple: Make routine inspection visits, check that you’ve returned all your frames to their proper place, make sure you assemble your hive correctly, and keep your eyes open for any abnormal comb. You follow that advice and more often than not you’ll spot any problems with burr comb.