Beekeeping Basics/ Honey Bee Biology

Beespace and Burr-comb,

If there’s one essential rule to modern beehive design, it’s that a beekeeper must respect the bee space. I’m not talking about ambiance here. Bee space refers to the area between frames and other parts of the hive in which the bees crawl.


Cross-section of a Langstroth Hive. Illustration by Sarah Plonski

It’s super important because any space that’s too small for a bee will be filled in with propolis and any space that’s unnecessarily large will be filled in with comb. The specific measurement of bee space is approximately 7-9mm.

You have to admire the bees’ efficiency. They make use of every spare millimeter in the hive, but ask any beekeeper who’s accidentally left too much room in the hive even for a few days, and they’ll tell you what a pain it can be. This is a mistake that I made a few days ago. After installing a new package, I left a few frames out of the hive. Mere days later, I returned to the colony to release the queen, and found to my amazement and annoyance, quite a bit of comb built up in places that I didn’t particularly want it.


Burr Comb built on the inner cover

The name we give to to this unruly comb is burr comb, which simply refers to any comb not built in the intended framework. This comb is often very delicate, with beautiful small cells. It is heart breaking to cut away, but if you leave it there the bees will build more comb around it, and soon you won’t be able to inspect your hive without tearing it apart, which sets you back to the beekeeping dark ages.

Did she just say beekeeping dark ages? Yes. It may sound silly, but there was definitely a dark age of beekeeping. In those days, bees were kept in hollowed out logs or woven skeps, which had to be cut apart in order to harvest honey – this usually meant the bees had to be killed prior to harvest. It also meant that a beekeeper could not inspect his or her hive for signs of pests or disease. This pretty much reduced the art of beekeeping to burglary and murder.


The awesome drawing of Jason was borrowed from Doug Saquic. <a href="">See more of his work</a>

Until an amazing little concept called “bee space” was discovered. Bee space is a measurement of space between frames and other parts of the hive – enough space that bees can move comfortably around the hive, but not so wide that the bees start filling it with burr comb. Designing the hive with bee space in mind made removable frames realistic, since the bees wouldn’t just seal them together with propolis or burr comb. This meant beekeepers could more carefully monitor their bees’ health, and forgo the barbaric practice of murdering all of their bees prior to harvesting honey.

That is, unless you forget to put the frames back in your hive and the bees go rogue and build burr comb everywhere – then you might want to murder them. Otherwise you can simply to remove the burr comb with your hive tool. This wax can be saved and used for candles or to dip equipment, or you can use rubber bands to bind it inside of a frame and return it to the bees. This method is great because it makes everyone happy. The beekeeper gets her tidy hive, and the bees get to keep their comb.


Burr Comb that has been placed into a frame, held in place with rubber bands.

For even more information on Bee-Space, Check out this exhaustive article by Dave Cushman:

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    My 5 Worst Beekeeping Mistakes, and How To Avoid Them | Sarah Plus Bees
    May 27, 2015 at 9:58 am

    […] bees quickly filled it in with a mass of burr-comb. Actually, I did this with four hives all in the same yard, and it took an entire day to cut it […]

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