Failed Comb

The Idea

It's best to harvest failed comb.

It’s best to harvest failed comb.

Properly managed tbh comb seldom fails. But comb can fail when:

  • handled improperly
  • a tbh is moved too soon after being worked
  • a tbh is worked and it’s too hot

Mishandling induces stress on a single comb. It’s failure doesn’t endanger the colony. As the colony can easily replace the failed comb which can be salvaged. It’s no big problem.

A more serious comb failure occurs when a tbh is moved immediately after being worked. Failed comb inside a tbh that’s being move rattles around and causes additional comb failures. Much comb can be lost but the colony usually survives.

Comb that overheats and fails when a tbh is worked when it’s too hot, is serious. It’s a warning that more comb failure is imminent. And it’s too late for a beekeeper to do much to correct the problem. The colony will probably be lost.

The Details

No Problem

Combs can fail for many reasons. They can become physically stressed by:

  • removing top bars without cutting all the attachments
  • cutting attachments the wrong way
  • poor top bar handling techniques
  • handling new, heavy comb too soon

When a comb is physically stressed it is the only comb at risk. The failure of a single comb posses little risk to the entire colony.

When a comb fails this way, don’t worry. Bees easily construct natural comb. Damaged comb is quickly repaired or replaced. And failed comb can easily be salvaged:

  • put the comb containing honey in a container at the hive’s far end
  • the container must be large enough to contain all the honey
  • honey will be moved back into the broodnest
  • combs without honey can be set on the bottom board
  • sealed brood will hatch
  • don’t set sealed brood comb flat on the bottom board and trap emerging bees
  • open brood gets cannibalized
  • stored pollen is infrequently worked, especially in a dearth
  • empty salvaged comb is sometimes used to temporarily store incoming nectar
  • make sure the bees can get to all comb surfaces
  • when the comb is empty, remove it

To avoid mishandling comb check out my comb page.

Trouble

Comb can fail when a tbh is moved too soon after work it. The bees need time to re-attach combs that were cut free of their attachments. After all, they attached the comb for a reason. And it’s usually because the comb needed reinforcement.

A heavy comb, free of attachments, can break off its top bar during a rough or bumpy move. Then it rattles around in the side the hive causing other combs to fail. Many combs can be lost this way. But most of the bees usually survive.

To avoid this trouble, don’t work a tbh just before moving it.

Disaster

What more can I say! It was too hot, the comb too new, I tarried and the colony suffered.

The worst kind of comb failure occurs when a tbh is:

  • not preparing for hot weather
  • worked when it’s too hot

These kinds of failures always put the entire colony at risk.

When a comb fails because a tbh was worked when it’s too hot, the failing comb isn’t the end result. It indicates all the colony’s combs and the colony itself are at the greatest risk. And there’s no ready solution.

Collapsed overheated comb is the precursor to a catastrophe:

  • honey flows down the bottom board
  • the bees retreat toward the entrance
  • ventilation is lost
  • other hot, weak combs fail
  • this process continues until all the combs have fallen like Dominoes

When the first overheated comb fails, the temptation is to quickly get the broodnest back together, and the hive buttoned up so the bees can cool things down. But:

  • simply moving or touching worked comb now can cause it fail
  • it takes hours or longer for bees to re-establish normal hive activities after a hive is disturbed
  • additional comb failures won’t be noticed until honey runs out the hive entrance
  • honey running out an entrance indicates a hive is doomed

Leaving an overheated hive open allows a beekeeper to monitor and handle additional failed comb. But it isn’t a better solution:

  • all worked comb will continue heat up and probably fail
  • failed combs draws robber bees risking a bee war
  • a beekeeper gets to watch the colony perish one comb at a time as a hive can’t be left open and unattended

Some other solutions might involve using ice or driving all the bees from the hive, saving the bees while loosing the comb. But why get to this point?

Always prepare a tbh for hot weather. And when it’s too hot just stay out. Check out my heat page.

-bW

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6 Responses

  1. tina says:

    My husband and I are new to this, we somehow had a swarm take up residence in our tbh that we figured we’d have to wait until next year to buy bees for as the first swarm we were given rapidly died or left willingly. So now we have this massive colony that seems to be super happy, working like crazy! But all I have read says you can’t have a brand new colony and not maintain it to make sure there is no cross-combing etc.

    So I told my hubby we needed to get into it today and check it out. this would be our second time since we noticed them 3-4 weeks ago. It has been in the 80s, closer to the 90s the past few days and our tbh is pretty much in the sun, but surrounded on 3 sides by scrub oak bushes. I’ve been confused as to how much sun they need, the info out there is pretty inconsistent. We live in Castle Rock, Colorado (Denver Metro area).

    So today we got into it, tried to separate the bars as I thought I had read to do, and put empty bars between the combs they had formed. There were easily 4-5 large combs perfectly formed straight! We are guessing it is a healthy hard-working colony, not aggressive!. BUT there was one bar that had 2 combs on it near the entrance and I had read to not be afraid and to rearrange combs as early as possible to make them even stronger once the bees fix them after I take them off and reattach them.

    Well now your site has me absolutely afraid that we have harmed our bees? Not only did the 2 combs that I used the tool to slowly shear off at the bar refuse to reattach, but they dropped and fell apart with honey dripping everywhere. Then when we kept trying to reattach them to the bars and quickly get them placed back they dropped to the bottom of the tbh. There was no way those combs were going to reattach to the bars. So we had honey all over and bees getting all sticky and some even seemed to be drowning in the honey (which I was able to pull them out and hopefully they lived?) and now we have a bunch of comb at the bottom of the tbh full of honey.

    I’m too new to even know what was inside the comb or if anything had been developed inside them or what sizes they were etc. I can barely understand the difference between that yet, but I do know that nothing seemed capped anywhere and it was all white everywhere.

    So my question is, did I destroy our colony? I’m sick now thinking that our good intentions may have doomed them? They seemed to be doing wonderfully and I thought we were helping them to have a successful future. But I didn’t read that I was not supposed to move around the bars and now I’m confused as to whether I rotated the bars and put them back the opposite way they were, or whether I put them in the wrong positions etc. I’m trying to learn it but there is so much to learn and when I get out there my anxiety kicks up and I forget some of what I read and what to do!

    Also, do I need to get back in there and remove the fallen comb? I didn’t know what to do and just left it all. I hate to get back in there and cause any more stress to them. I don’t think the other comb is going to fall down, I think the ones that fell were because I purposely took them off to reattach them, the others seemed nice and sturdy. But if it gets more hot, will they then fall?

    I normally go up to Wyo yearly to get my honey (I was born in Cody) and we recently moved to 5 acres so we are excited to begin our own honeybees but I’m just sick to my stomach thinking I had this perfect opportunity and I ruined it today??

    Thanks so much for any advice, input, suggestions you have!!

    Tina

    • -bW says:

      Hi Tina

      Sorry! It’s a sad experience that every beekeeper learns sooner or later. In our efforts to ‘help’ the bees we often do more harm than good. With more experience, the good will generally prevail. But even after decades, every beekeeper still gets their ‘come upings’ from time to time.

      For your situation, is honey running out the entrance. Or, are the bees still flying? Can they ventilate the hive?

      If the entrance is useable, give them some time to clean things up. And then go back in and try to make the comb workable for you. Do it when it’s not too hot. And be sure you are working comb the right way.

      If not, the hive is in big trouble and is probably dead by now. Immediately give them a useable entrance. Removing an empty top bar and propping up the lid will work. If they resume flight/normal activities, they will probably recover if the queen is still alive. Give them time to recover.

      Tina, I hope all goes well for you and your bees. In the interim, check out:

      Failed Comb
      Heat
      Working
      Comb

      If the colony is dead. It’s a sad day. But it’s not the end. This season’s hope, though delayed, will revive again. Next year, a new season will begin. And life in all it’s natural wonder and joy will prevail. Clean up the mess and try again.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s instances like these that make one a better beekeeper. And to get those lessons, they must be experienced personally.

      Tina, let me know how things work out for you.

      -bW

      • tina says:

        I was out there a little while ago and they were all coming back from a hard day of work so I’m hopeful that they will make it through it. No, there is no honey coming out, I don’t think they had made enough to have it pour out of the opening. I just imagine it dripped down to the bottom and I’m now I’m worried about ants finding their way to the good stuff since I saw a few crawling up the leg of the tbh.

        There is a partial comb that seems dried up inside the entrance sitting up against the hole and I’m sure it was not that way when we left it the other day. Can the bees move the comb? I was worried at first but watched as plenty of bees came flying up and went inside, they just had to go in slower than normal to move past the comb. I’d say it is blocking maybe 2/3 of the entrance but wasn’t keeping them from getting in.

        I worry about them getting a breeze though. I may go out tomorrow with a stick and just carefully move it a bit over so the entrance is opened more.

        I appreciate your response and will keep up my questions!

      • -bW says:

        Hi Tina

        Great news! And it sounds like you have a good plan.

        -bW

  2. tina says:

    We just checked them and they are thriving! They seem to be building like CRAZY!! they aren’t aggressive at all and are just building away and each time we look there is so much more comb being built and for the most part it is nice and straight! We were able to take the comb that had fallen onto the bottom and it is still nice and cooler outside so we stuck it all up on a bar hoping the bees might rebuild it and reinforce it etc. as it stuck up into the bar nicely.

    Now we just don’t know how long to wait and check again. One of the combs they had started attaching it to the side of the tbh and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen, but otherwise I’m not sure they need any help from us. There is pretty much an empty bar (or not because we are running out of empty bars) between most of the combs with no more room to expand if they use all the bars.

    So far so good!

    • -bW says:

      Hi Tina

      I’ve never had much luck re-attaching comb. When a comb needs work, the bees will sometimes move enmasse to that comb.Their additional weight can cause a poorly attached comb to fail. I consider the risk of re-attached comb failure greater than its worth. When things are going right, the bees can easily replace a fallen comb.

      When a comb fails, I placed horizontally at the back of the hive. I’ll lean it up a little so the bees can have access to both faces. And if there’s honey that can drip out of it, I’ll put the comb in a container to keep it from flowing down the bottom board and making a mess.

      After awhile, the brood hatchs and the bees will salvage the rest. Then I remove the empty comb at my convience.

      Comb attachments? The bees make them when the comb needs them. Consider them an asset. Just be sure to cut them before moving/removing a top bar.

      And cut them the right way. Don’t use a hive tool or apply any downward force. Use a long serrated bread knife. Start from the bottom. Gently and slowing work your way upward through the attachments. Let the knife feel like it’s melting its way through the attachments as you slowly withdrawn the knife. Don’t saw through them.

      And don’t scrape the attachments off the hive body. Leave them intact. They are an asset. The bees will quickly reattach the comb when it’s returned to the same location in the hive, making a much stronger comb.

      Tina, sounds like you have some good bees and are having a great experience. Thanks for the note.

      -bW

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