Natural Comb

The Idea

Do different

My Wyoming top bar hive.

bees, in different shaped cavities, at different locations, build different kinds of comb?

To find out, natural comb images were obtained from 3 beekeepers scattered across the country.

  • cells were measured
  • broodnest structures observed
  • measurements were compared

Although the measurements varied somewhat, their distributions were remarkably similar. Comb length appeared to affect cell size. And all the colonies constructed a similar functioning broodnest.

The Details

Wyoming Bees Doing Comb Their Way

A top bar hive(tbh) is essentially an empty box with bars, or top bars, where the bees hang their comb. In a tbh, the bees build comb their way. It’s a great tool for natural comb observations. Here’s what I saw.


Natural comb is drawn fast and effortlessly. Tbh bees more than kept pace with my conventional hives and their drawn comb frames.

Comb building was so effortless that neither brood nor honey production lagged behind the standard hives. Producing sufficient comb is no problem when bees do it their way.

A tbh comb failed. Three days later I returned to document the failure. I couldn’t find which comb had failed. The bees built it back that fast.

Foundation slows the bees down. My conventional hives only drew 2 frames of foundation, while the tbh built comb equivalent to 20 frames.


Natural comb is beautiful. It has a complexity and visual texture that foundation based comb lacks. Colony development follows the comb’s advancing shape. So brood and pollen appear oriented toward the comb’s bottom, rather than the top. That’s an unusual sight for anyone who has worked with standard equipment. Natural comb is fascinating.


Comb building seems rather haphazard. But the bees collectively sense what is needed. Then they match colony strength and environmental conditions with colony needs.

Sometimes they need more storage. So, they shift their focus and build more storage comb. At other times, more brood comb is needed. So, they return to the broodnest core and work there.

When they are done, they’ve constructed a broodnest structure with the right comb, in the right place.

Cell Size

Natural comb cell size.

Worker comb gradually transitioned from larger worker cell size toward the top of a comb to smaller worker size at the bottom. It was unlike the more drastic transitions in cell size I’d seen before when bees rework foundation.

Parallel versus Straight Comb

Comb curving away from a starter strip.

Bees build parallel comb, but not necessarily straight comb. Bees curve the comb ends toward the hive’s front. The curvature increases in comb away from the hive entrance. Curved comb is stronger than straight comb. It may also provide some advantage with hive ventilation.

Brood Cell Measurements

I photographed the comb with a scale and used methods to decrease optical distortion. These photos were used to measure cell size. Cells were measured perpendicular to the cell walls. Areas of different cell size were delimited and contoured.

After contouring, a square grid was scaled and drafted for each photo. Squares were counted and totaled for each delimited area. And totaled for the entire hive.

Here are the percentages for each top bar. The hive entrance is near top bar 2. The composite results for the entire hive are in the total column.

Here’s the same data graphed.

It’s a good two dimensional representation of the hive structure. Colors toward the red end of the spectrum are drone and storage size cells. Colors toward the blue end of the spectrum represent worker size cells.

Drone sized cells occupy 18 percent of the broodnest. Large cell size made up about 60 percent. And small cell size about 22 percent.

There’s more small cell comb toward the hive’s entrance and none toward at the hive’s rear. Drone comb was mostly drawn on the hive’s right side, away from the entrance. Worker brood was generally drawn on the left side, nearest the entrance. Vertically, the larger cells were closest to the top bar. Cell size decreased toward the comb’s bottom.

These small cell bees raised worker bees in cell sizes that ranged from less than 4.6mm to 5.59mm. And drones were raised in cells from 5.25mm to 7.29mm

Ohio Bees Doing Natural Comb

David’s Ohio top bar hive.

David, a beekeeper in Ohio, sent me comb photographs from his tbh. This hive was started from package bees in March. They completed 26 combs by the first part of August. And they were working on a couple more near the entrance.

This comb was straight. Most frames had capped honey stored above the brood. Two combs were harvested, leaving 24 full sized combs for analysis.

I asked David how he managed his top bar hive. He wrote:

Yes this hive for some reason got a lot more attention than my other two. All of the Top Bars that were “thicker” were added. I also moved combs around. So if there was crooked comb, (defined as comb that interfered with my ability to remove the top bar cleanly) I would cut the comb, and in several instances, I replaced entire top bars. Then I would move completed bars and sandwich the new bars between the established comb in the hopes that it is straight. These new bars were of the triangle variety.

Most tbhs are managed this way.

So, I repeated the same measurement process as done for my Wyoming tbh.

Top bar 1, in David’s hive, is located at the hive’s rear, farthest from the entrance. Here are the results from David’s hive.

Here’s the same data graphed.

Top bar 28 is near the hive entrance. Top bar 0 is the total or composite for the entire hive.

The cell sizes and comb construction seen in David’s hive are similar to those seen in my top bar hive.

Lusby’s Bees Doing Natural Comb

Barry’s Illinois top bar hive.

Barry, a Illinois beekeeper, also sent me comb photos. He built an interesting tbh. Its shape approximates a catenary curve. It’s wide, deep and has a large volume. The top bars are reinforced with a slat and wire.

He stocked the tbh with a small cell colony split. These bees, called lusbees, were originally obtained from Ed and Dee Lusby in Arizona. They have since cross bred with his local stock.

Several deep, small cell brood frames were screwed to top bars inside the tbh. These frames were removed once the bees had drawn enough natural comb to sustain themselves.

His management style was completely laissez faire. Once the bees were established, he left them alone to build a natural broodnest. The hive was opened a few times and preliminary comb photos were taken.

So, I did it again. Measured the comb like before. Here are the results, in percent, from Barry’s hive:

And the graph.

The hive entrance is near top bar 6. Top bar 13 consisted of two small pieces of comb intertwined with top bar 14. That comb is included with top bar 14 measurements.

Feral Bees Natural Comb

Joe’s Pennsylvania feral hive.

Joe Waggle sent me a photo of a feral hive inside a wall. This tall, narrow cavity had a different shape compare to the other tbhs.

Unfortunately, this photo wasn’t composed for comb measuring. It wasn’t scaled. And, all comb wasn’t visible.

But the cavity was narrow, about two combs wide. So, I had a view of half of most of the comb. This feral hive had enough representative comb, with enough resolution to measure.

Joe had measured the smaller cells at the bottom of the comb. They consistently measured about 4.9mm per 10 cells.

So, I located the smallest cells at the bottom. Using these cells, a ruler was scaled and pasted into the photo.

Because this shot wasn’t composed for comb analysis, there are more considerations:

  • there is more camera distortion
  • his taller comb had more irregular curvature
  • some curved comb was harder to measure
  • additional comb extends below the photo,

So, I did it again. For the last time, I hope. 🙂

I measured Joe’s comb. And rounded the result.

Measurement Comparison

It’s interesting to compare the composite measurements.


These measurements are in the same range except for the smaller cell comb in David’s hive. It’s easy to conclude that David’s large cell bees didn’t build much small cell comb. But, I saw the same gradual decrease in cell sizes that I saw in the other tbh combs. There was one big difference. David’s comb was much shorter because his hive was shallower.

Maybe large cell bees, in David’s tbh, built less small cell size comb simply because they ran out of vertical space. Not because they couldn’t construct it. They did construct about half the amount the Lusbees did. What do you think?

Barry’s Lusbees drew out less small cell comb than either Joe’s or mine did! Now that’s a surprise for fully regressed bees 😉


Thanks Joe for the feral comb photo. Joe works with feral bees and runs a feral bee group at Yahoo.

Thanks David for the photos. It’s no small task to work a tbh, with it’s fragile comb and work the camera. Before you’re done, there are buzzing bees, hot comb and a sticky camera. And as BerkeyDavid, he’s a frequent contributor at Beesource.

Thanks Barry for the photos. Barry runs Beesource, the super center of beekeeping sites. And he lets me bounce my wild and crazy ideas off him. Now there’s a friend. Here are his comb details and top bar hive photos.


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14 Responses

  1. David Heaf says:

    You wrote above: ‘I photographed the comb with a scale and used methods to decrease optical distortion.’
    What were these methods? I’ve tried by photographing comb placed 3 metres from the camera to minimise parallax and using the maximum optical zoom available to improve resolution for digitising cell edge lan-bWarks. 50 mm calibration bars on the comb seem to measure about 1% larger at the edges of the comb compared with the middle.
    Seeley and Griffin (in press) used a dissecting microscope with an eyepiece graticule, but I don’t have access to one. Any measuring technique advice welcome.
    Also, do you know of a peer reviewed paper in an apiological journal showing Apis mellifera worker natural comb cell size distribution of a range similar to that shown in your photo at the top of this page? Mark Winston in ‘The Biology of the Honey Bee’ reports the size range as 5.2-5.4 mm or 5.2 +/- 0.05 mm (p. 81).

    • -bW says:

      Hi David

      First determine the degree of precision you need for your measurements. Then you can build a wooden rack that holds the comb vertical and the camera at a fixed distance centered on the frame. Then you can determine what kind of calibration problems occur. And if it will cause any errors with the degree of precision your measurements require. There will always be some kind of distortion with a curved lenses.

      And some cameras are much worse than others. It’s often easy to think more megapixels will compensate for smaller, highly curved lense. I’ve found that’s not the case. You just get more megapixels of distortion. 🙂 It seems the size of the lense is almost everything.

      Experiment with and without your zoom. Some digital cameras use an optical zoom and some do it with algorithms. The Canon A40 I used at that time worked best closer to the comb without any optical zoom. I shot at maximum resolution. And the amount of distortion was well within the precision I needed. Measurements were taken across ten cells and ranges of cell size were contoured out on the comb photos. Individual cell sizes weren’t used, so I didn’t need that level of precision. Check and re-check your measurements until you are confident they meet your requirements.

      If you need additional precision and a rack is used, scales could be located at various spots. Or a wire/string grid could be build so that that it would set in front of the frame and would be skewed to properly scale for any distortion.

      Even better measurements can be made by hand and using the photos as a means of recording the data. But even our eyeballs have some of the same distortion problems. 🙂

      I’ve actually tried scanning comb before photographing it and that introduces a whole new bag of problems. But now cameras with significantly better resolution exist. And I wouldn’t mess with this approach.

      Let me know what you find.


  2. Bernhard says:

    Other thoughts on small cells.

    What I have seen is, smaller cells can be found in comb that is higher than 30 cm and topbar length of 30 cm. If you stretch the topbar to plus 40 cm and shorten the comb’s height, this results in less smaller cells.

    So I was bewildered by that and tried to find out, what is the difference.

    And this are the thoughts: The comb while being drawed/build by the bees, roughly show a catenary. See:

    So the basic idea is, if you shorten the topbar and increase the height of the comb, the lower end of the catenary narrows – thus producing smaller cells by “pressure” of the outer sides.

    Let me sketch it:

    There are at least two catenaries – one through the length (yellow) and another through the diameter (violet) of the comb. (Which would explain, why 32mm comb spacing produces more smaller cells.)

    So what happens in modern bee hives – which are designed for the beekeeper’s needs – is, that lower comb height will produce bigger cells because of the lower catenary. (Presumably. :wink:)

    The catenary is not the only cause, because wax has to be warm to form smaller cells, which can only be done in a hot cluster of bees. Foundation prevents proper clustering. As do frames, which cause lower temperatures. So without frames, foundations and shorter topbars (not below 30cm) but increased height of the comb – there should be more small cells.

    Just thoughts…


    • -bW says:

      Hi Bernhardt

      Some interesting ideas. I’ve noticed that the bees can sense when a comb needs attachments to the sidewall. They don’t attach it otherwise.

      Somehow they sense the stress or deformation. Maybe they can sense those changing strains in the lower parts of the comb and work with them.

      Very interesting -bW

      • Francis Saucy says:

        Hello Dennis,
        I’m trying to understant how the bees build their combs. Would you be kind enough to send me some high resolution pictures of the combs you measured?
        Best regards

      • -bW says:

        Hi Francis

        What to learn about comb building? Then you’ll have to let the bees do it their way. And watch them as unobtrusively as possible. It’s a process that is so dynamic that substituting even the best photos for the experience just won’t do.

        A decade ago I sent out batches of those photos showing the details of my work. I hoped that they would form the basis for others detailed observations. Well, that didn’t happen. In fact, I think sending them out had the opposite effect. The pictures were substituted for the experience! So, I stopped sending them out.

        As my beekeeping focus changed, I discarded the bulk of them.

        Sorry -bW

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