After my last post about managing your hive’s comb, I got a lot of questions about the section where I talked about burr comb. People wanted me to do some more in-depth coverage of it, so today I’m going to go over why your bees make burr comb and what you, as a beekeeper, should do with it. Follow along as I discuss bee space, hive pests, candle making, and more.
As I went over in my previous post, burr comb is the term for any comb your bees make that you don’t want. Ideally (and usually) worker bees build out comb in an arch from the top of the bar on down to something resembling a point. This is good because it’s an efficient use of space that still lets you inspect bars. Efficiency really is the watchword when it comes to bees. Honey bees make comb in a hexagon because it’s the strongest shape that uses the least amount of wax, forager bees tell each other where the best resources are so they don’t waste flight time on wild-flower-chases, and builder bees in the hive will fill any space that looks like it’s wasted with comb. Which leads us to one of the main topics you have to talk about when it comes to burr comb: bee space.
The concept of “bee space” has a long and storied history in the beekeeping world. Modern beekeeping traces its understanding of bee space to Lorenzo Langstroth, inventor of the Langstroth hive. He figured out that bees will build comb in any space larger than 3/8” with comb, and they will gunk up any space smaller than 1/4″ with propolis. The sweet spot between those two is called bee space, and its popularization revolutionized the beekeeping world. It’s the reason apiarists design hives with an even amount of distance between bars. Leaving bee space is the best way to keep your bee from making unwanted comb. The thing is, bees don’t care about making bars easy to inspect or collect from. Their only interest is making the most out of their limited space and producing enough food to last the winter. For them, burr comb is just new storage space.
Of course, the reason we as beekeepers dislike burr comb is much for the bees sake as ours. In service of the symbiotic relationship between bees and beekeepers, burr comb is a mess. Before the concept of bee space was perfected, collecting honey meant nearly destroying irregular hives and draining the honey from the debris. Not only does using bee space (and the regular bars it requires) make life easier for beekeepers, it also keeps more bees alive. All this is to say, if you spy burr comb, get rid of it. As quick as you can, too. Bees’ industriousness is a rightly praised quality, but it also means they compound any mistakes with frustrating rapidity. A nub of jutting comb quickly becomes cross combing, and that can make a hive impossible to inspect without a significant time investment to separate your bars.
Unfortunately, cutting away burr comb can be treating the symptoms rather than the root problem. Burr comb is a sign that bee space isn’t being adhered to. There are a couple things that can cause this that you’ll want to address. One of the more common issues is that your hive isn’t level. Even a slight incline will throw things out of whack. This is something that can change over time, too. Maybe the ground got soggy and caused a depression, maybe prairie dogs dug under one of your hive’s legs. Probably not the second one, but the point is, stuff like this happens, and that’s why regular inspections are so important. Your first step after removing any burr comb, assuming there’s not something obviously wrong like a broken bar, should be busting out your level and making sure the hive is even.
Burr comb happens because honey bees cannot tolerate wasted space, and changing environmental conditions can create a situation that you need to address. Avoiding burr comb is better for you and the bees. Also, as a note, it’s best not to dispose of burr comb willy-nilly. Leaving removed comb laying around near the hive can attract trouble, from pests, to predators, to thieves from other hives. Especially don’t leave any fallen burr comb in the hive structure itself. It can become a petri dish of everything you don’t want in a hive. Luckily, comb is made of beeswax, and can be used for a slew of useful endeavors. Gather up your comb, render it, melt it into candles, whatever strikes your fancy. You’ve headed off a potential danger to your colony – where you go from there is up to you.