Comb

The Idea

Tbh comb must be managed to keep a hive workable. The goal is to allow the bees as much comb building freedom as possible while maintaining non-bwguyestructive access for the beekeeper.

To manage tbh comb, a beekeeper must know how to:

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

The Details

At first a natural broodnest appears rather messy, especially when compared to a man-centric broodnest of frames and foundation. Upon closer examination it becomes obvious that in a natural broodnest, function dictates form. And that coupled to an intricate broodnest structure is the colony’s welfare.

As a result, properly managed tbh comb will appear messy. 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

But the natural broodnest structure will be maintained while still allowing non-bwguyestructive access. It takes a little work. But it’s the best of both worlds, for the bees and the beekeeper.

Cutting Comb

Cutting comb is probably the most common and efficient way to keep a tbh workable.

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

Don’t think a horizontal cut is ok when a comb is light weight. Often bees shift their comb drawing focus. When that happens, many bees can suddenly hang from a light weight, previously cut comb and cause it to fail.

Comb Corrections

Comb curving away from a starter strip.

Comb corrections involve manipulating intact comb. They are easiest and most effective when done early and often.

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

  • unworkable comb can be easily cut out and salvaged by the bees
  • marginally workable comb can be rotated into the honey storage area and harvested later
  • offending areas of a good comb can be cut out
  • is saving a comb worth the risk of a comb failure?

When comb corrections are needed and the comb is large, new or heavy, cut out the entire offending piece of comb. The bees easily and rapidly replace it. Trying to salvage comb with horizontal cutting is just too risky.

Curved, light, small and new comb can be redirected by cutting 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, until the bees can attach it permanently. The comb pictured above is a prime candidate for this procedure.

I’ve done corrected comb this way and the bees rebuild straighter comb. But this process must often be repeated before a workable comb results.

Straight Workable Comb

It’s easy to get straight workable combs once a tbh has similar comb.  It is obtained by rotating an empty top bar between several straight broodnest comb. This is a delicate process and is disruptive if done too fast or too extensively. If done incorrectly, the bees draw out complete sheets of drone comb. Or they will bridge the open space with cross comb.

Slowly moving the broodnest toward the hive’s far end and inserting empty top bars in front of the broodnest also works. This disturbs the broodnest less than inserting empty top bars into it. But, if done too fast, the bees will re-orient toward the displaced broodnest and draw storage comb.

Comb Spacing

Bees build different kinds of comb. And they space them differently. Broodnest comb, near the entrance, is spaced a 1 1/4 inches. Combs get thicker and comb spacing gradually increases as the broodnest transitions into the honey storage area. The combs midrib will drift about 1/8″ per top bar toward the rear of the hive.

Once this process begins, several top bars, with drifting comb, will remain workable. But by the third or fourth top bar, combs will transgress top bar boundaries and can’t be worked without damaging comb. After that, things get messy.

A wider spaced top bar is needed when the combs become thicker and wider spaced. At the first sign of drifting comb, insert spacers, or use a wider top bar, or move the drifting comb into the honey storage area.

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

Comb Thickness

When the bees switch their focus from swarming to winter survival, they build thicker broodnest combs that often extend into adjoining comb space. 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 who wants to keep his equipment full of bees, the natural cleansing process is a problem. It requires empty hives. And it just takes way too long!

Fortunately, beeswax is a pathogen and toxic sink in the hive. Periodically removing it and replacing it 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

Rotating a few combs involves inserting a few empty top bars between broodnest combs. Then moving an equal number of the oldest brood combs into the honey storage area for harvesting at the end of the season. 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

Rotating out an entire broodnest involves shaking the bees into a new tbh and letting 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.

-bwguy