Frame Spacing in Beehives

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One thing beekeepers learn early is the importance of proper frame spacing in beehives. Honey bees build their comb in the hive to strict specifications. Their specifications – not ours. Frame spacers are simple yet effective tools that help us beekeepers maintain order in the hive. Whether you are just starting out, or an experienced beekeeper-understanding how and when to use frame spacers in your hives is a useful skill.

Beehive super box with metal frame spacer installed.

When you first become a beekeeper, you learn about the basic parts of a beehive. However, they are many accessory items you can add. Some are greatly helpful – some are a waste of money because you will never use them. Ah.. the joy of beekeeping!

Understanding Frame Spacers

Using the standard Langstroth hive as an example: most boxes are designed to hold 10 frames (though 8 frame hives are becoming more popular.) Modern frames are designed so that when you push them closely together – they maintain the proper space between sheets of comb that bees prefer.

What Are Frame Spacers?

Frame spacers are tools used to maintain optimal spacing between the frames in a beehive – when you want to use fewer than the normal number of frames. By design, a 10 frame hive holds 10 frames securely but what if you want to have 9 frames instead?

Types of Spacers

  • Metal/plastic strips
  • Frame spacing tool

The most common frame spacers are thin metal strips – (or plastic). They have evenly spaced notches where the top bars of the frames fit snuggly.

This ensures that each frame stays a precise distance from its neighbors – even when you are moving boxes around.

There is also a “frame spacer tool” available in metal or plastic. This tool is used by the beekeeper to manually space the frames. A good option-but the frames are not held in place and you have to remember to do this after every beehive inspection.

Each type of spacer has its advantages, and the choice of which to use often depends on the specific needs of the hive and the preferences of the beekeeper.

Importance of Proper Frame Spacing

Why does proper frame spacing in the beehive matter? We are keeping bees in manmade hives with removable wood frames.

This makes hive inspections possible without tearing up the honeycomb. Inspections are necessary for healthy productive colonies.

Reduce Unwanted Comb

Bees rely on specific spatial arrangements within the hive during comb building. Frames that are not placed the proper distance apart will result in unwanted burr comb, cross-comb and other challenges.

This is wax comb in unwanted places or even attaching two frames together. A mess for the beekeeper and dangerous for the bees during inspections – the queen might be squished between two combs.

Bee Space is Preserved

Bees naturally leave a specific space between two sheets of honeycomb (about 3/8”). This bee space allows them to travel quickly to different parts of the hive and perform essential tasks: such as feeding bee brood, tending to the queen, etc.

Properly spaced frames help ensure that straight uniform comb is constructed within the frame-allowing a travel highway for busy worker bees.

Hive box with frames push together, another box with installed 9 frame spacer.

Reasons for Using Fewer Frames

There are certain situations when a beekeeper may choose to use fewer frames in a hive box than the standard recommendation. The best reason (and the one I adhere to) is making the honey harvest easier.

Increased Honey Storage

Using fewer frames in the honey supers (9 instead of 10) encourages bees to build deeper comb. Hexagonal wax cells that are deeper and filled with honey. Remember, the concept of bee space.

A box designed to hold 10 frames that is only filled with 9 evenly spaced frames – results in deep cells. The bees still want to maintain their (bee space) between the comb. With frames farther apart, they must build the wax out farther.

This approach often leads to more honey stored in a box and the bees have one less frame of comb to build out.

But most of all, when it is time to uncap frames and extract the honey, the job is much easier because the wax caps protrude farther from the end bars. They are easier to cut open.

Frame of drawn comb from a honey super.

Why I Don’t Recommend Them in the Brood Boxes

Frame spacers can be used in beehives with any box sizes: deep, medium or shallow. I only use them in the honey supers that I plan to harvest. I do not recommend them for brood boxes or medium or shallow suppers left for use by the bees.

Why? I don’t see the point. I am not harvesting honey from the boxes designated for my bees. By removing a frame, I am removing thousands of individual cells the colony could use for brood rearing, storing bee bread, etc.

By maintaining standard frame spacing in my basic hive configuration, I am free to move frames from one colony to another if needed. There is no need to worry that this fat frame of comb needs to go in a hive that did not have spacers previously and wont fit. But that is your choice – do what you think best.

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How to Use Frame Spacers

Installing fixed frame spacers is a straightforward process, you need the spacers (I use metal frame spacers), some small nails and a hammer.

Choose the Right Spacers: Beekeepers do some “creative” things with equipment. Make sure you buy what you need. Most common are: 9 frame spacers to fit a 10-frame hive – or – 7 frame spacers to fit a 8 frame hive.

Know the dimensions of your Langstroth hive. The two thin strips must fit in frame rests on the short ends of the box.

Prepare the Hive: Before installing the spacers, remove all frames from the hive box. Clean the interior of the hive box by scraping away any bee propolis, wax, splinters etc.

Attach the Spacers: Align the strip with the top edge of the frame rest. Secure the spacers with small nails or screws. This can be a pain in the hinny so prepare your nerves. One small nail in each end is usually enough.

If you are like me, in a few years you will find yourself ripping some out so you can use them as a food super box for the bees!

Insert the Frames: Place the frames back into the hive box, ensuring each frame fits snugly into the notches or spaces provided by the spacers. Check that the frames are evenly spaced and parallel to each other.

Metal 9 frame space tool being used to align frames in a hive box.

Using the Frame Spacer Tool

Not my favorite tool but using the frame spacer tool is fairly straight forward. Place the required number of frames in the box.

Insert the tool down over the top bars to evenly space the frames. Any areas of left over space (due to different manufacturers) should be divided on each side.

FAQs

Do beehive frame spacers require maintenance?

No, frame spacers do not require much maintenance once properly installed. You should check them each season to ensure they have not bent – and it is a good idea to use your hive tool to scrape away large deposits of bee propolis.

Does it matter if I use metal or plastic spacers?

Metal frame spacers are inexpensive and durable – they last for years. However, plastic spacers work just as well.

Should I put frame spacers in every box of my beehive?

Most beekeepers do not use frame spacers in the brood box (or food supers) of the beehive. But, you have that option if you choose to experiment.

A Final Word

Don’t despair if you have no frame spacers for your hives – you don’t have to use them. In fact, many folks that adhere to natural beekeeping don’t even use whole frames. However, if you want to make the extraction process easier – adding some frame spacers to your honey boxes is a great idea.

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