Highways for Hives: The Marvel of Bee Space

Highways for Hives: The Marvel of Bee Space

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Every beekeeper knows about bee space, the specific gap within a hive (wild or domestic) that bees won’t fill with either comb or propolis. For bees, these spaces are their little superhighways. The discovery of these roads shook the beekeeping world to its foundations and made the modern beekeeping industry possible.  

So just for fun, let’s dig a little deeper into bee spaces.  

Before the breakthrough of discovering bee spaces, beekeeping was a dicey endeavor. Bees have been closely associated with humans for thousands of years across many cultures, including Rome, Egypt, China, and Greece. Primitive hives were made from anything from clay pipes to twisted straw (“skeps”) to hollow logs (“gums”) to crude boxes. Bee “forests” were also managed in which a sustainable amount of honey was harvested from wild colonies each year.  

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But the universal issue facing early domestic and commercial beekeepers was the cruel destruction of the hives (and sometimes the colony) in harvesting the honey. This was due to the bees’ practice of using propolis to glue shut any openings and building honeycomb directly to the side of their enclosure. To harvest the honey, the hive had to be broken into, and the comb scraped or cut from the side of the clay pipe/twisted straw/hollow log enclosure, which invariably destroyed the insects’ living quarters.  

Sometimes the disrupted bees could be artificially housed in a standby home (especially if the harvester was able to locate the queen and place her in a new location), but just as often, the colony was destroyed. It was an aggravating situation for beekeepers and presumably for the bees as well, which is why the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth literally changed the beekeeping world with his discoveries.  

Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth was a Congregational pastor forced to retire at an early age due to ill health. After leaving the ministry, he focused some of his retirement efforts on commercial beekeeping using the apparatus available at the time (squat wooden boxes with parallel bars inside, which acted as top support for separate combs).  

Langstroth was frustrated by two particulars of beekeeping. One, the bees attached their brood combs to the walls inside the hives, which meant he must slice the combs free from the hive’s walls to harvest them. And two, since the hive’s cover lay directly on the comb bars, the bees naturally glued the bars to the hive cover using propolis. Merely opening the hive was an act of destruction, and harvesting honeycomb was devastating.  

So Langstroth set out designing a better and more humane hive box, something that would allow him to inspect the hive, remove the honeycomb, and otherwise give assistance without undue damage to the bees, the comb, or the honey.  

In the process of fiddling with redesigning the hive to keep the bees from using propolis to glue the top to the bars, Langstroth discovered the critical “bee space.” Any space larger than 3/8-inch will be filled with comb. Any space smaller than 1/4-inch will be filled with propolis. The “bee space,” therefore, is between 3/8-inch and 1/4-inch and is what the bees use to navigate around their colony. (Modern standards use 5/16-inch for precise building guidelines.)  

Langstroth’s other revolutionary design idea, of course, was the development of suspended, removable frames, which allowed honeycomb to be removed without damaging the hive or destroying the colony. Bee space plays a part in this design as well. The bees will link the frames with more comb if the frames are too wide apart. Too close together, and the frames get caulked with propolis.  

Langstroth did not set out to learn about bee biology so much as he wanted to solve these two thorny issues. Yet his discoveries were the beginning of understanding how genuinely wondrous honeybee behavior is.  

Bee spaces are literally hive highways. They provide the most efficient layout of a colony. It explains the fascinating layering visible inside wild colonies, where every space not needed for movement or honeycomb (for useful spaces) is caulked over with propolis (for useless spaces).  

Remember, bees didn’t evolve to live in tidy Langstroth hives; they evolved to live in any cozy, protected location they could find, most often tree cavities or rock crevices. Bee spaces give a colony the best bang for their buck to fill the nest while still allowing efficient movement within the dark interior to fulfill the functions of the hive (building comb, rearing brood, etc.). Propolis seals the hive against moisture and pests and helps the bees regulate interior temperature. Comb, of course, is used to raise brood, and store pollen and honey.  

“In natural nests, corridors of this height are found along the edges of combs, where they function as passageways between the two sides of each comb,” notes Dr. Thomas Seeley in his charming book Lives of Bees. Bees are in this for themselves, not us.  

The overriding preoccupation in wild colonies is efficiency and economy. Bees don’t want to spread out and make spacious open areas to stretch their wings in the bee equivalent of parlors or living rooms; they want to pack their tree cavities or rock crevices to maximum capacity with brood, pollen, and honey. (This also accounts for the hexagonal shape of the comb cells; there is no wasted space.) Bee spaces are simply a means to an end; a way to move around the comb while doing their duties, maintain a high level of colony hygiene, and deter predators.  

Interestingly, despite centuries of close association with honeybees, it evidently didn’t occur to anyone to examine wild colonies and use the natural layout to structure domestic hives. This, again, is why Langstroth’s tinkering was so groundbreaking. In modern hives, incorporating bee spaces allows the bees to be more efficient since they don’t have to waste time and effort building extra comb to fill open areas or gluing small spaces with propolis.  

If beekeepers fail to adhere to Langstroth’s discovery, they’ll find their hives filled willy-nilly with gently meandering comb built to the bees’ specifications. “If the bee space is violated, the resulting mayhem of a beehive that is glued all over inside, filled everywhere with combs, and can’t be inspected with ease, is a beekeeper’s nightmare!” writes Matt Wheat. “Forcing the hive open and removing the glued frames destroys the carefully built honeycombs and annoys the bees. It’s also quite messy because honey will spill from the broken combs.”  

So bee space is the bees’ solution for hive efficiency. It allows the insects to move, work, communicate, build, and store. Highways for hives. Isn’t nature amazing?  

PATRICE LEWIS is a wife, mother, homesteader, homeschooler, author, blogger, columnist, and speaker. An advocate of simple living and self-sufficiency, she has practiced and written about self-reliance and preparedness for almost 30 years. She is experienced in homestead animal husbandry and small-scale dairy production, food preservation and canning, country relocation, home-based businesses, homeschooling, personal money management, and food self-sufficiency. Follow her website http://www.patricelewis.com/ or blog http://www.rural-revolution.com/.  

Originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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