Hives

Beeswax comb

Beeswax comb is constructed by worker bees for the storage of honey and to raise bee brood. Comb consists of six-sided horizontal cells for honey storage and to raise workers and drones. Special vertical cells, starting as cups, are used to rear queen bees.

Bee space

Honey bees precisely space parallel combs; beekeepers maintain proper bee space (3/8 inch) through the use of frames. Natural comb and comb constructed by feral beesferal bees:
a wild, non-managed nest of honey bees, as in a tree
may not remain in a single orientation but will still exhibit parallel construction with combs spaced at bee space. Narrow spaces (<3/8 inch) are closed by bees with propolis while larger spaces are filled with either combs with deeper cells (cells used for honey storage but not usually brood cells) or by addition of additional beeswax comb in the extra space as bees seek to restore proper bee space.

Proper bee spacing of nine drawn comb frames om a 10-frame box; this convention makes removal and inspection of frames easy; photo by Robert Snyder
Bee space with frame (second from left) left out by mistake; colony with supplemental protein patty; photo by The BeeMD photo collection
Parallel bee comb illustrating bee space built from cover of water meter box; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Cross comb in hive box lacking enough frames; photo by: James E. Tew
Bees building cross comb in a box lacking frames; photo by The BeeMD photo collection
 

Combs lacking a single orientation (cross comb) make colony inspection more time consuming, messy, and results in less inspection for disease. Use of too few frames or neglecting/forgetting to completely fill hive boxes with correct number of frames during expansion of colony populations is a common beekeeper error. The bees will seek to fill in such voids with comb. Such “extra” comb needs to be removed and the space re-filled with frames containing drawn comb or foundation.to restore removable frame condition (see Beeswax comb outside of frame).

Poorly built comb often is a consequence of drawing comb when there are too few resources or the colony is not expanding. Spring is the best time to draw comb. A strong nectar flow is a strong impetus to draw comb and bees may put extra comb between frames, between boxes, or in unwanted space during this time. When foundation or plastic foundation frames are used, bees will sometimes build comb perpendicular to the desired comb arrangement. Such comb must be cut out and wax processed; bees will not reuse such wax.

When foundationless frames are used, the bees may not align their combs with the top bars, leading to cross comb. Top bar and Warré hives may frequently have such misaligned cross comb constructed. In both instances it may not be difficult or impossible to remove combs to inspect them. Skeps, bee gums (log hives), and box hives have fixed comb that is not removable; it is not possible to inspect nor perform basic managements with such colony domiciles.

NOTE: Keeping bees in hives with non-removable frames or cross combs is illegal in some states. Sustainable and legal hives require removable combs for proper disease inspection by apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
inspectors and beekeepers. Consult state apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
laws to determine if your hives are subject to removable comb laws or regulations.

Resources - Bee space

Blackiston H. 2021. Measure for the 'Bee Space' in Your Beehive. For Dummies. Accessed 2023. https://www.dummies.com/article/home-auto-hobbies/hobby-farming/beekeeping/measure-for-the-bee-space-in-your-beehive-170795

Borst P. 2015. Taking measure of Bee Space. American Bee Journal. 155(8): 869-872. https://bluetoad.com/publication/?m=5417&i=264842&p=44&ver=html5 and https://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=264842&article_id=2051666&view=articleBrowser

Connor LJ. 2015. Beeswax. American Bee Journal. Accessed 2023. https://americanbeejournal.com/beeswax/

Burr comb on top bars enable bees to access box above. NOTE Apivar mite control strip between second and third frames; photo by: Dewey M. Caron

Burr or brace comb

Bees may build extra comb on top or bottom bars between boxes. This comb, termed burr or brace combbrace comb:
see burr comb
, serves as ladders from one box to another or to anchor combs securely (as in brace combbrace comb:
see burr comb
). When spacers are used between boxes (for mite control products for example), or there is extra space at top of the colony beneath the covers, the bees may construct comb to fill the space and anchor frames. Sometimes cells of this comb will have brood, especially drone brood, or include honey stores. Proper spacing between boxes helps reduce the amount of comb but might not eliminate it entirely. If boxes and/or frames from more than one manufacturer are used or when homemade equipment is constructed, slightly extra bee space might lead to heavy burr or brace combbrace comb:
see burr comb
construction.

Remove burr or brace combbrace comb:
see burr comb
if the comb interferes with frame removal or is "in the way". Excessive, compulsive removal (constantly scraping the top bars each time the hive is opened for example) can lead to stings and sometimes defensive bees or cooling of brood nest (due to time necessary to remove the burr combburr comb:
comb built between frames, between boxes, or in spaces where the bee space is not maintained. Often used to rear drones, as a ladder to go to another hive box, or to fill in space that is greater than bee space.
).

Burr comb on top bars when box above it was removed. The whiting is new comb built with strong nectar flow; photo by The BeeMD photo collection

If the comb is removed do not discard it on the ground as it may lead to pests like skunks; gather the removed pieces to use to make beeswax products.

Resources - Burr or brace comb

Connor LJ. 2015. Beeswax. American Bee Journal. Accessed 2023. https://americanbeejournal.com/beeswax/

Carter A. n.d. What is Burr Comb and How to Control it? Beekeeping Insider. Accessed 2023. https://beekeepinginsider.com/what-is-burr-comb/

Honey storage combs

Honey is a concentrated sugar solution of two simple sugars, glucose (dextrose) and fructose (levulose). Honey is collected as nectar, a sugary plant secretion of sucrose and often several other complex sugars, from flowers or extra-floral nectaries of flowering plants. Different nectars have characteristic floral flavor, color, and sweetness characteristics. Honey, by definition, only comes from honey bees.As nectar is ripened it is consolidated in beeswax cells and when fully ripened (moisture reduced and sugars converted), the cell is cappedcapping:
the covering that bees add over comb cells containing fully ripened honey or to cap brood that has reached the pupal stage; bee bread cells are not capped
with fresh beeswax.

Additional sugar sources, such as sugary sap from plants (cut sugar cane stalks for example) or refined cane or beet sugar syrup fed to colonies by beekeepers are also converted into honey by bees. Sugar water honey from refined sugar is less aromatic and lacking in plant compounds.

On rare occasions it is possible to observe an unusual honey color. Collection of syrupy materials such as syrups from maple, candy manufacturers (M&M factories for example), or Maraschino cherry packing facilities might yield green, red or other colored nectar or honey. Foraging bees may also collect honeydew, a term for the excretions of plant-sucking insects such as scale insects, aphids, and spotted lanternflies. It too is ripened into honey. Sometimes honeydew honey is marketed as pine honey or forest honey.

Drawing foundation; cells in center filling with nectar before fully drawn. Photo by Dewey M. Caron
Frame of fully ripened and capped honey; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Ripening green-colored honey, source unknown; it’s not floral nectar; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Nectar ripening, and capping started; photo by The BeeMD photo collection
 

Bees sticking their head into cells outside the brood area are likely processing nectar into honey. The bees expose droplets of nectar at their mouthparts as a bubble, sucking the droplet into their crop, and producing a new bubble outside to hasten ripening. They will put droplets of ripening honey in cells to expose more surface to the warm ripening temperatures at the top of their hive, and then consolidate the droplets, eventually completely filling a cell and putting a wax cappingcapping:
the covering that bees add over comb cells containing fully ripened honey or to cap brood that has reached the pupal stage; bee bread cells are not capped
over it when fully processed.

Both a physical and a chemical change occur in conversion of nectar to honey. To change nectar into honey, the bees (1) convert the nectar sugars to the two principal sugars of honey and (2) evaporate most of the water from the nectar. All of this is done in beeswax combs of the beehive. Ripening nectar may be called ripening nectar, unripe honey, green honey, or ripening honey. When fully processed, the individual beeswax cells of honey are covered with a beeswax cappingcapping:
the covering that bees add over comb cells containing fully ripened honey or to cap brood that has reached the pupal stage; bee bread cells are not capped
(capped honey cell). Prior to full ripening, the ripening nectar may drip out of cells if the comb is held vertically. In colonies with an insufficiently strong worker population honey may crystallize in cells or it may ferment and bubble from a cell and run down the frames. See Fermented honey.

To process honey, the wax covering needs to be removed (uncapping honey cells) or the comb crushed and honey drained from the wax. In their hive, bees uncap the cells and cappings drop to the bottom of the hive – they may accumulate over the winter period on the bottom board of the hive until house cleaning bees remove them to discard outside the hive. Beekeepers might clean the bottom board in early spring to help bees keep a sanitary hive bottom board.

Resources - Honey storage combs

Andries, K. 2012. Pictures: Colored Honey Made by Candy-Eating French Bees. National Geographic. Accessed 2024.  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/121011-blue-honey-honeybees-animals-science

Burlew R. 2022. Aqua-green honey for your dining pleasure. Honey Bee Suite. Accessed 2024. https://www.honeybeesuite.com/aqua-green-honey-for-your-dining-pleasure/

Bee bread

Bee bread may be the most conspicuous, certainly the most colorful, material found in beeswax comb cells. Bee bread is bee-collected pollen from flowers packed into beeswax comb cells. It is a powdery substance consisting of pollen grains. Pollen is the bees’ source of protein, minerals, acids, sterols, etc. It is required for rearing their young and for young adults for cell growth and to enable gland development.

Bee bread stores; dark cells are empty; photo by Robert Snyder

A forager collects thousands of pollen grains at flower anthers. The pollen is moisturized with nectar from their honey stomach and salivary gland secretions. Bees comb the pollen from their body hairs using their legs, and pack it into pollen baskets on their hind legs to transport back to the hive.

In the hive, the foragers scrape the 2 pollen pellets into a cell. Worker house bees then pack the pellets (by tamping down with their head) and mix it with nectar, honey, and bee saliva. The added saliva and enzymes result in probiotic bacteria and yeasts breaking down the protein into a form useful to bee digestion. The bees glaze cells filled with the converted pollen with a honey glaze.

Bee bread is stored in cells within the brood spherebrood sphere:
a spherical or oval-shaped area that is formed by extending across two or more parallel combs in the hive and is used by bees to rear brood; its size is variable depending upon colony population size and seasonal factors.
where brood is being reared and especially as a resource on frames just at edge of the brood spherebrood sphere:
a spherical or oval-shaped area that is formed by extending across two or more parallel combs in the hive and is used by bees to rear brood; its size is variable depending upon colony population size and seasonal factors.
or just above a brood spherebrood sphere:
a spherical or oval-shaped area that is formed by extending across two or more parallel combs in the hive and is used by bees to rear brood; its size is variable depending upon colony population size and seasonal factors.
on central frames so it is in easy reach of the nurse bees. It will have a large range of colors and nutritive value depending upon floral source.

Bee pollen and bee bread are antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-atherosclerotic, anti-inflammatory, and immunostimulating. They’re also full of antioxidants. They have been called a super food for human consumption. It would be tedious to collect bee bead from beeswax combs but trapping bee pollen off the legs of incoming worker bees is easily done with use of a pollen trap at the colony entrance.

Off season comb storage - brood combs in plastic bags following day to week in freezer; photo by Dewey M. Caron

Resource - Bee bread

Scott E. 2022. Bee Pollen and Bee Bread: Natural Superfoods. Best Bees. Accessed 2024. https://bestbees.com/2022/12/22/bee-pollen/

Comb, frame, and equipment storage

Drawn beeswax comb may be stored for considerable periods of time. Drawn comb that has never had brood reared in the cells (only used for honey for example) is not attractive to scavenger pests such as wax moth or small hive beetle; open-air storage (outside protected from the elements or in a well-ventilated enclosure) is sufficient.

Extracted super frames may be stored “wet” with adhering honey or “dry” without honey residue, following controlled robbing by adult workers of extracted frames. Wet frames may attract general scavengers such as ants, cockroaches, or mice.

Foundation or new plastic frames do not need special storage.

Drawn comb that has been used for brood rearing is highly attractive to small hive beetles, wax moths, stored product moths, and general scavengers such as mice, cockroaches, etc., so it needs special care. Drawn comb is the beekeeper’s most valuable resource. Brood frames may already harbor eggs or small caterpillars of wax moth or larvae of small hive beetle when removed from colonies. These scavengers can quickly destroy the structure of drawn comb making them unusable.

Back deck brood and super comb storage; photo by Dewey M. Caron

Scrape frames with your hive tool first. Cull frames with a large amount of drone cells or that are very dark. Brood frames can be stored in a freezer or with chemical protection against wax moth using Paradichlorobenzene (PDB). If there are brood remains (such as from a PMS deadout or when honey frames containing some brood are harvested), they must be protected from small hive beetles. After 24-48 hours in the freezer, the frames (usually inside their boxes) can be stored in plastic bags. Directly bagging may not be adequate since wax moth eggs or caterpillars or beetle larvae might already be present. Check periodically to be sure an infestation does not get started.

Boxes, covers, bee tools, etc. can be stored in a dry space such as a garage, shed, or specific storage facility, or outside in covered stacks or under a tarp protected from moisture, weathering, and pests. The closer the space is to your hives, the better. You might first scrape equipment of burr/brace comb with your hive tool to remove beeswax and propolis before storage. With time, such items accumulate. This is especially true at the end of the summer, when all the gear you used on a weekly basis suddenly sits in one place.

Storing empty boxes, foundation frames, a spare smoker, bee veil, and hive tool in out-apiary might save time and an “extra” trip (when you “forget” one of these tools). Include smoker fuel and matches/lighter to start the smoker.

It’s important to clean your personal protective equipment before storing it for the season. Hand washing is the best way to clean your suit, hat, veil, and other pieces without damaging them.

Resources - Comb storage

Anderson C. 2023. How to Store Beekeeping Equipment. Carolina HoneybeesCarolina Honeybees:
Carolina Honeybees. Accessed October 2022. https://carolinahoneybees.com/
. Accessed 2023. https://carolinahoneybees.com/beekeeper-storage/

Conrad R. 2015. Storage issues: Tanks, honey, supers… Where to put it all. Bee Culture. Accessed 2023. https://www.beeculture.com/storage-issues-tanks-honey- supers-where-to-put-it-all/

Beekeeping Made Simple. 2020. 4 Ways to Store Frames of Drawn Out Comb Over the Winter. Beekeeping Made Simple. Accessed 2023. https://www.beekeepingmadesimple.com/blog/store-beekeeping-frames

Culling frames

Frames suitable for culling may appear as black beeswax cells, especially cells used repeatedly for rearing worker brood.

Freshly created beeswax comb is molded from white wax flakes secreted by worker bees. Bees walk on the surface cells and it begins to darken with traffic. Brood comb that is used for subsequent generations of bee brood becomes darker and darker until it appears black. The darkening is due to the cocooncocoon:
very thin, protective silk envelope which an insect larva or pre-pupa forms about itself by spinning the envelope while inside the cell, to change to the pupal stage
that sticks to the hexagonal walls of the cell.

Dark aged comb to cull; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Dark aged comb to cull; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Dark comb cells suitable for culling; photo by The BeeMD photo collection
 

It is recommended to remove or replace old brood comb by culling frames every 3–5 years. Do not allow bees to rear brood in comb intended for honey harvest, because darker cells can darken lighter-colored stored honey.

Bee bread stored in comb cells also leads to darkening of comb. Comb that is exclusively used for honey comb remains lighter in color.

Honey bees "entomb" cells of contaminated pollen to protect the hive against pesticides. By sealing off cells filled with contaminated pollen, bees appear to be attempting to protect the rest of the hive. "Entombed" pollen cells are identified as having sunken, wax-covered cells amid ‘normal’ uncapped cells; the cell covering is not the "typical" waxen cappingcapping:
the covering that bees add over comb cells containing fully ripened honey or to cap brood that has reached the pupal stage; bee bread cells are not capped
seen in honey or brood cells. Propolis as well as beeswax may be used to seal cells. If many entombed cells are found it would be best to remove and cull the frame.

Resources - Culling frames

Anderson C. 2023. Black honeycomb: what to do with it. Carolina HoneybeesCarolina Honeybees:
Carolina Honeybees. Accessed October 2022. https://carolinahoneybees.com/
. Accessed 2024. https://carolinahoneybees.com/black-honeycomb/

Carter A. 2022. What makes honeycomb dark? Beekeeping Insider. Accessed 2024. https://beekeepinginsider.com/what-makes-honeycomb-dark/