Comb curving away from a starter strip.

Managing comb keeps top bar hives workable. To manage top bar hive comb, a beekeeper must know how to:

  • cut comb
  • make comb corrections
  • get straight workable comb
  • space comb
  • adjust comb thickness
  • rotate comb

Natural broodnests appears messy, especially compared to frame and foundation based ones.

Not all comb will be:

  • straight
  • centered on a top bar
  • of even thickness
  • fully drawn out
  • free of burr and brace comb
  • without attachments

Closer examination shows that in a natural broodnest, function dictates form.

A natural beekeeper’s goal is to maintain it’s structure while providing non-destructive access. It takes  work.

Cutting Comb

Cutting comb is the most common and efficient way to keep a top bar hive workable.

Horizontal cuts, in new, hot or heavy comb, always cause comb failure. When cutting a comb, do the vertical part first. Then transition to the horizontal by making a smooth, curved cut without square corners.

Don’t think a horizontal cut is ok because a comb is light weight or small. Bees often shift hive activities. When that happens, bees can suddenly hang from or fill a light weight, previously cut comb, causing it to fail.

Comb Corrections

Comb corrections manipulate intact comb. They are effective when done early and often.

Before correcting a comb, decide whether to cut a comb or correct it:

  • it’s easy to cut and salvage unworkable comb
  • marginally workable comb can be rotated into the honey storage area and harvested later
  • offending areas can be cut out
  • is saving a comb worth the risk of a comb failure?

When a large, new or heavy comb, needs work, do not correct it. Cut it. The bees easily and rapidly replace the comb. Trying to cut large, new, heavy comb with horizontal cutting guarantees failure.

Curved, light, small, and new comb can be corrected. Cut the offending part’s attachment free at the top bar. Then the curved comb is bent back into alignment. And a small portion of comb is squished to hold it in place.

I’ve corrected comb this way. And the bees rebuild straighter comb. But the bees built curved comb for a reason. And a curved comb often needs several corrections before an acceptable straight comb results .

Straight Workable Comb

Rotating an empty top bar, between several straight broodnest comb, is an easy way to get straight comb. It’s a delicate process and is disruptive if done too fast or too extensively. When done wrong, the bees draw out complete sheets of drone comb. Or they will bridge the open space with cross comb.

Slowly moving the broodnest toward away from the entrance and inserting empty top bars in front of the broodnest also works. This disturbs the broodnest less. But the bees will re-orient toward the displaced broodnest and draw storage comb when done too fast.

Comb Spacing

Bees build different kinds of comb with different spacing. Broodnest comb, near the entrance, is spaced a 1 1/4 inches. Combs get thicker and comb spacing increases away from the entrance. The comb’s midrib will drift about 1/8″ per top bar, toward the rear of the hive.

Once this process begins, several top bars eventually become unworkable. But by the third or fourth top bar, combs occupy two top bars. After that, things get messy.

A wider spaced top bar is needed as combs become thicker and wider spaced. At the first sign of drifting comb, insert spacers, or use a wider top bar. If the comb is a mess, move it to the rear of the hive.

Like all comb corrections, it’s best to make changes early and often until the problem is solved.

Comb Thickness

Bees scavenge wax from one broodnest comb, thicken, and backfill adjacent broodnest combs as winter approaches. These bulges usually consist of sealed honey near the top bar. If a bulging comb is a keeper:

  • brush the bees off
  • cut off the excess thickness with a serrated knife

If the comb is marginal:

  • move it into the honey storage area
  • harvest it at the end of the season

Comb Rotation

Natural colonies don’t live forever. They live, die, and are scavenged. It’s a cleansing process that disperses accumulated pathogens and toxins. It gives the next generation a healthier start.

But, for a beekeeper that’s a problem. Natural processes requires empty hives. And it just takes way too long!

Fortunately, beeswax is a pathogen and toxic sink. Replacing old comb with new comb approximates the natural cleansing process without loosing the bees. There are two basic ways to rotate comb:

  • a few combs per year
  • the entire broodnest every few years

Few Combs

To rotate a few combs, insert a few empty top bars between broodnest combs. Then move the oldest brood combs into the honey storage area for harvesting. There are some advantages:

  • less broodnest disturbance
  • easier to get straight comb drawn between good combs
  • old broodnest comb doubles as honey storage comb
  • few comb corrections need
  • much less work for the beekeeper
  • very efficient comb use

And some disadvantages:

  • new combs can be infected or contaminated by the old combs
  • doesn’t produce a break in brood rearing
  • doesn’t separate the bees from the comb

Entire Broodnest

To rotate out an entire broodnest, shake the bees into a new hive. And let them start over from scratch. There are some advantages:

  • no toxin or contamination carry-over from the previous hive
  • equipment can be revitalized
  • a shakedown has a cleansing and revitalizing effect on the bees
  • it’s a better approximation to natural cleansing processes

And some disadvantages:

  • shaking bees is disruptive
  • requires extra equipment
  • initial frequent comb corrections
  • requires feeding

Initially, I preferred rotating a few combs at a time. Now I prefer to switch out the entire broodnest.