Types of Comb and What They Tell Us About Our Bees
While it is true that every piece of comb that honeybees build typically has the purpose of holding either brood or food stores, the comb location tells the beekeeper a bigger story. So, learning to read the types of comb, what the comb is showing, and not just the brood patterns, will go a long way toward enabling the beekeeper to manage his bees promptly.
Brood comb, which harbors the tiny larvae and pupae of the developing honeybees, will be located within the center frames of each colony. The attentive beekeeper will notice changes in the size of the brood pattern as the colony expands and contracts brood space depending on the season and food availability. Brood frames also contain varying amounts of honey and pollen on the outer edges of the comb to enable nurse bees to more easily feed developing brood with shorter trips to the food pantry. However, in times of heavy brood production, it’s not uncommon to find entire frames covered in brood with food stores relegated to individual frames. Other times, minimal brood may be present with little to no food stores, suggesting supplemental feeding is likely in order.
While honey and pollen often share the same frames as brood, any extra food stores get their own combs on the frames situated to the left and right of the brood space and within any honey supers placed above the brood chamber. During heavy nectar flows or when pollen is in abundance, bees will often fill frames closest to the brood space with pollen, with the outer frames filled with honey. When either flow is not as heavy, outer frames most often contain a mix of both honey and pollen.
When combs such as this appear within the brood chamber, and nearly all are full, the comb and the bees tell you they have ample food stores and can raise the maximum number of bees for that specific time of year. Provided all other factors such as available brood space, overall health, and queen rightness are in order. As the brood chamber gets close to being filled with brood and food stores, bees will then store nectar still coming in from the fields in any honey supers the beekeeper has applied in anticipation of a honey harvest.
However, when colonies become crowded, and the flow is heavy, beekeepers often encounter burr comb in odd spaces. This is especially true during heavy nectar flows such as spring and fall flowering or when syrup is applied too heavily. Bees may place comb anywhere the bees find a suitable place for honey storage. Yet, they often build comb inside empty internal feeders and along any wall with ample space between the last frame and the wall to build another row of honeycomb. Another favorite of the bees is attaching comb to the underside of the outer lid when a spacer or shim is left in place too long, as the bees do their own thing to build a honey super where they believe it should be — attached to the lid. When filled with nectar or honey, this out-of-place comb most often suggests the beekeeper did not provide ample storage space in a timely fashion. When this occurs, it is a good idea to check for swarm cells, as these colonies often feel cramped enough to swarm.
Other times, bees construct burr comb to fill spaces violating the ⅜” bee space, strengthen the comb, and keep things inside the hive — such as frames and free-formed comb — from moving. Also referred to as brace, bridge, or cross comb, these smaller sections of burr comb may or may not hold honey, nectar, pollen, or even brood, depending on its specific purpose. My favorite is when I run out of deep frames and place a medium frame inside the deep brood box. The bees quickly discover the difference in sizing and promptly set about building comb for drone rearing along the entire bottom edge of the medium frame, extending its length until it matches the same length as the deep frame next to it.
When utilizing foundation-less frames, cross comb is common as bees often build perpendicular to the top bars rather than parallel along the starter strip, creating a mess for the beekeeper to straighten out. Still other times, bridge comb is placed along the tops of the frames to ‘bridge’ the gap between the outer cover and the frames (although this is also possible when running out of space for honey storage, so check further to determine which is the cause of this type of burr comb). Other times burr comb is intended to meld frames or free-formed comb together as a brace to keep them from moving.
While it is virtually impossible to prevent the production of all burr comb, there are a few steps to take to reduce the amount of burr comb present. Always do a quick check at the end of each inspection: push frames tightly together, promptly remove shims and empty feeders, ensure space between the last frame and the wall is minimal, and place inner covers in the correct orientation for the season where applicable. Another tip is to remove any burr comb present at each inspection with the hive tool; however, many believe this is disruptive to the colony and prefer to forego this measure. This is one area where beekeeping practices differ from beekeeper to beekeeper, so experiment with how much burr comb you are comfortable allowing within your own colonies and then set up a routine to maintain that environment.
Understanding the various types of comb and how bees utilize each type of comb within the hive is just one element of keeping bees healthy and productive all season long. Take time to discover how the bees use their comb and learn to interpret what the comb and the bees are telling you.
Your bees will thank you for it.
All photos credit: Kristi Cook
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.