I find how bees use comb to be one of the most interesting things about beekeeping. The fact that people outside the industry often call all comb “honeycomb” makes sense; after all, honey is the most recognizable bee product that people are familiar with. To me, the truth about how bees use comb is a lot more fun and nuanced than just a honey storage system. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a huge part of it, but the way honey storage interacts with brood and pollen storage is where the juicy stuff really starts. Today (as a continuation of my comb management series), I’m going to cover what bees store in their comb, how you can tell the difference, and what that means for your beekeeping.
Note: Most of the information in this post is based off working with a top bar hive, but it should be applicable to other beekeeping systems as well.
In top bar hives, your bees are likely to store it towards the back, away from the entrance. From the viewing window, you might also notice that frames near the back of the hive seem to have more brace comb (comb that’s built on the side of the hive to support the frame’s weight), this is because honey is much heavier than brood or pollen. You can use your Beepods hive tool to break this off when you’re doing your inspections or harvests. Honey bees store two kinds of honey in honeycomb: capped and uncapped. Ideally, the difference isn’t in substance but rather the state of the honey manufacturing process. Capped honey can also be “wet” or “dry,” though the distinction is purely aesthetic.
Bees make honey by taking nectar and passing it through a line of worker bees who mix it with chemicals in their bodies before placing it in a cell to finish its transformation. Then, they beat their wings over the proto honey to evaporate any moisture out from the mixture. Once the honey is properly “dry,” worker bees will cap the cells with beeswax to keep the honey from absorbing water from the atmosphere. Honey lasts indefinitely, but only if it’s properly stored. Uncapped honey can ferment, or suck in too much water and become a viable home for bacteria and other growths. How long it takes to cap honey depends on a ton of factors, from the humidity to how many bees are working on it. When you’re harvesting, capped, cured honey is what you’re looking for.
This is the big one. Honey bees make honeycomb, fill it with honey, beekeepers extract the honey, and we mix it with mango hot sauce and put it on our ham and swiss sandwiches. Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, honeycomb is the most famous kind of comb, and, for the most part, the easiest to talk about. This is the kind the cereal’s named after. Comb that bees only use for honey storage will have the lightest coloration in the hive. The honey itself can be a wide range of shades, ranging from light to dark, but the comb it’s stored in is usually light. You should also be able to recognize the capped honey itself. Dry capped honey has a white wax covering and wet capped honey has dark wax, but neither affects the taste or quality of the honey.
Bees use comb to store pollen, too. Kind of. It’s less of them storing the pollen, and more of them using comb as the laboratory for their mysterious bee alchemy. Pollen is the protein in a honey bee’s balanced diet of basically just protein and sugar. For a long time, the belief was that bees added honey to pollen and let it ferment to create bee bread, but recent research suggests honey bees actually prefer to eat bee bread within a day of mixing it together, suggesting bee bread fermenting is something of a side effect of making pollen digestible to bees rather than the process’ intent.
Either way, bees use comb to store pollen as it turns to bee bread. Since pollen doesn’t store well, it takes up less space in the hive than honey. It’s coloration will vary based on what plants your bees collected the pollen from, but generally it will be darker and more colorful than the comb that stores honey. Unlikely mature honey and certain stages of brood, honey bees won’t cap honey with wax. Protein is most crucial to larvae, so the comb that’s storing pollen will be near the brood.
Bees use comb to store baby bees! Of course they aren’t really “baby bees.” Insects, aside from some exceedingly rare beetles, don’t give live birth. What bees store in comb is the eggs, larva, and pupae. We call this group the brood. Their life cycle starts when the queen lays eggs in comb cells. A healthy queen will lay one egg per cell, and any other pattern is a warning that your hive may be queenless. At this stage, the eggs are tiny, and you might need to hold your honey up to the light to see them in the cell. Bees hatch from eggs as larvae. And look, I think bees are cute as all get out, but larvae are basically just little fat worms.
Workers feed them royal jelly, or “brood food,” and grow at a prodigious rate until the nurse bees cap them, and they go onto their penultimate for of pupae. These are basically little translucent bees, but with all the recognizable parts like wings, stingers, etc. Once they finish growing, which takes a different amount of time depending on what type of bee they are, the fresh adult bees will leave their cells and get straight to work. This process makes an indelible mark on the comb where it occurs. Before and after the brood hatches, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between capped honeycomb and capped brood cells.
The real boon when it comes to identifying brood comb is the brood. Before nurses cap the pupae, you can just see the developing bees inside. Eggs may be small, but the upside is you won’t be mistaking them for anything but an empty cell. Once the larvae start slurping down brood food, they’ll be easily visible. The tricky part comes when workers cap them. Luckily, there are a few simple ways to tell capped brood apart from capped honey. For one thing, brood caps have air holes so the growing bees can breathe, while honey caps are solid. They really don’t look all that much alike; while capped honey has more of a lid, capped brood has almost a dome put over the cells. Plus, the cap is much rougher looking.
Comb that the colony has used for brood will develop a tell-tale black coloration. There are a lot of ideas for why this is, from extra foot traffic bringing in debris, to cocoons being too sticky to remove, and even excess bee poop not being cleaned out. The latter has been widely debunked, but nevertheless, the darkening of comb marks that bees hatched there. Bees use comb for storing brood over and over again, so to keep the cells sanitary they’ll cover it with propolis to trap any debris away from the next round of eggs, trapping the darker color.
These are the three main things bees use comb to store: honey, pollen, and brood. They eat honey and pollen, and the brood is the next generation of workers and drones. Since you don’t want to get baby bee in your honey, there are a plethora of techniques designed to keep the brood and honey parts of the hive separate. Depending on how involved you want to be in the internal workings of the hive, you can use things like queen excluders, or you can rearrange frames to encourage the queen to lay where you want her to.
Beepods Lab has an extensive library of beekeeping content to help you become the best beekeeper possible, including advice on how to handle your queen, tips on harvesting honey, and ideas about what to do with your leftover comb. It can also help you nail down whether you have the right ratio of honey-pollen-brood for a healthy hive, and you can use the Healthy Hive Tracking management software to keep all the data you gather from your inspections in one place and compare it to other hives.