Comb. It’s one of the most important parts of a successful beehive. In fact, honey bees make the vast majority of a hive’s interior out of comb. In a very real sense, comb is the bedrock of a beehive’s entire operation. Like any other part of beekeeping, how you deal with comb can make or break your beehive. In this post I’m going to go over comb basics (what it is, how it’s made, what bees use it for) and what to do when it breaks. Keep in mind, I’m writing this based on the Beepod Vented Top-Bar Hive, so explanations and skips are going to skew in that direction.
Comb is the hexagonal construct that honey bees use to make their hives. Got that answered pretty quick, huh? Going a little deeper, worker bees make comb out of beeswax, which honey bees produce from specialized glands. They take the beeswax and form it into the familiar six-sided shape, and then build more and more of them to expand the hive. Beeswax is a really interesting substance, but the long and short of it is that beeswax is very malleable under the right conditions and bees are very adept at molding it to fit their needs. In top-bar and wild hives, bees naturally build out their comb in a rough “U” shape. The comb is thickest at the top of the bar (for stability) and thin at the bottom (to reduce the weight).
Now that we’ve got the comb basics down, let’s jump to the why-do-I-care part of the question: How do bees use comb? The obvious answer, based on what we’ve gone over, is to build their homes. But it’s not like bees spend their leisure time chilling in little comb cells. No, the real function of comb is even simpler. Honey bees use comb for storage. To store what? Everything. That’s a little hyperbolic, but not by a lot. The first thing that probably popped into your head when I started talking about comb was honeycomb, and if so take 5 BeeBucks from me (note: BeeBucks are not redeemable). Bees do store honey in the comb. That’s why beekeepers put frames in the way we do. You can take out a single frame and collect honey without interfering with the rest of the hive.
Besides honey, bees also use comb to store their brood. Individual hexagons of comb are called “cells” and brood cells start their careers when the queen bee lays an egg in them. From then to whenever the bees break free of their cell after pupating (anywhere between 15 to 24 days depending on the type of egg) the cell is their home. They sit in their cell and grow while the older workers feed them honey and pollen, the latter of which is also stored in comb. Alongside these uses, bees also make bee bread in comb. Like I said before, comb really is the backbone of bee society. Which is why it’s so annoying when it breaks.
This is the section where I explain why I said “when” instead of “if” in the introduction. To put it simply, sometimes comb breaks. There are a million reasons for this, but the ones I want to focus on today are cross combing and improper comb handling. Both are common, especially with new beekeepers.
Burr comb is any comb that’s out of place. Bees have basically two responses to construction problems in the hive: build more comb or slather the issue with propolis. Since bees don’t like wasted space, the area between frames might end up looking wasted to them if it’s either too wide or thin. If you don’t have the distance just right (3/8 of an inch or “bee space”) your industrious worker bees will connect the two frames with burr comb. This is cross combing. The issue here is that cross combing defeats the whole purpose of having frames! If you can’t take out each frame individually you aren’t going to get the most out of your hive. Cross comb can put too much weight on frames and make them collapse, or you can break the comb when you’re trying to pull the frames out. Either way, broken comb.
Mishandling is a less pervasive issue and should become less of a problem the more used to maneuvering frames you get. The main idea is to always keep the comb pointed toward the ground along the vertical axis. You want the thinnest part of the comb pointing toward the ground. Here’s a good example. If you try to hold it out flat the weight of the comb will be too much for it to handle and it will snap right off. Once the comb breaks, it’s on to the next section.
The first Q you want to ask yourself when thinking about repairing comb is whether it’s worth it. Let’s say a small comb snaps off. If there’s just honey in there, that might not be worth the trouble of reattaching to the frame. In that case you can just extract the honey and process the beeswax into any manner of things. Now if it’s a frame full of brood? You’ll probably want to save that. One thing to make sure of, though, is not to leave discarded comb lying around near the base of the hive. This can draw pests and predators to your hive that you’d rather avoid.
Once you decide on saving broken comb, your next step is choosing a method. There are probably as many methods as there are beekeepers. Some people use the hair clip technique, others use skewers, the list goes on. At Beepods, prefer to use plastic ties. The process isn’t too terribly complicated. You push zip ties through the comb and attach them to one another above the frame. That way the zip ties diffuse their pressure across enough of the frame to keep from ripping through. Tighten the comb against the frame and the bees will take care of the rest. They’ll get to work reattaching it themselves, and when they have, all you need to do is snip the ties to remove them.
Of course, like all problems with your hive, the best treatment is prevention. Things happen, but they happen a lot less if you’re careful and know what to look for. During inspections look for any comb that seems to be creeping a little too far across the gap between frames. Cut off the burr comb and push the rest back into place. You also might want to reorder your frames to keep suspicious combs away from each other. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and, well, they say a lot of things, but this one is pretty much on the money. Be vigilant, treat your comb with care, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be better off. Sometimes things just can’t be helped, and accidents happen to everyone, but help when you can and plan for when you can’t.
Comb is cool! I know that’s not the biggest takeaway here, but the more I learn about bees and the deeper I look into all their particular habits the more I’m struck by just how neat they are. Worker bees just make beeswax. By themselves, all they need to do is eat. They just make it, and that’s fascinating. Okay, done nerding out. What I really hope this post did was explain some of the deeper mysteries of comb. Bees use it to store everything from honey to baby bees, they like to build it across frames (naughty), and you can repair it if you’re careful. Hope this helps! if it did, there are always more tips, tricks, video tutorials, and even full on courses available as part of the Beepods Member’s Area