How to Deal With Burr Comb in the Hive
Honey bees do a remarkable job of building wax sheets of honeycomb for their home. In fact, they do such a great job that sometimes bees build comb in undesirable places (at least from the beekeeper’s point of view). We call this “burr comb” and it can be a big problem. Luckily, there are some things beekeepers can do to reduce the amount of excess comb in the hive.
Do You Have Burr Comb in Your Hive?
Burr comb and bridge comb are simply extra bits of honeycomb that is built in places that beekeepers do not wish.
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These wax structures make hive inspections more difficult. Yet, the bees do not think them unnecessary – as they do not do things without a darn good reason.
Normal Comb Construction
Honey bees are the only insects that produce and shape wax for their home. The beehive contains many sheets of honeycomb. And, each sheet contains thousands of beeswax cells.
These cells are used by the colony for storing food such as pollen and honey for later use. Some areas of the comb are used for raising young bees. They will become the new workforce for the hive.
Worker bees are constantly monitoring the condition of the honeycomb structure. They build new comb where it is needed and repair any breaks. If they need an opening to make travel around the frames easier – they will chew out a hole.
Wooden frames (or sometimes plastic) inside the hive are used to hold the comb. Most beekeepers use either beeswax or plastic foundation in the frame.
The purpose of putting foundation in frames is to encourage bees to build wax inside these removable frames.
After several years, it is common for a beekeeper to rotate out old brood comb. Comb rotation helps to keep a healthy environment inside the hive.
Is Your Bee Space Wrong?
The most common reason for a excess burr comb is an error in “bee space”. The early beekeeper responsible for bringing the idea of bee space to our attention was Lorenzo Langstroth.
Our modern hive design is the work of Rev Lorenzo Langstroth. He and other early bee researchers noticed that bees built their honeycombs using a special method of spacing.
Each sheet of comb would be about 3/8” apart- this became known as “bee space” because it gave the bees just enough room to travel between the combs.
The classic Langstroth hive is designed with the concept of “bee space” in mind. However, most hive parts are not cut to strict specifications. The size of boxes or frames may vary just a little bit from one manufacturer to the next.
With mixing and matching of hive parts, even boxes built to precise measurements can be off by a bit. This results in bees having a bit too much space here and there which they don’t want to waste. They will attempt to fill that space with extra wax.
This is one reason is important to keep bee space in mind when building your own hives. If you don’t follow the recommended measurements, you will have more problems with burr comb.
Where Can You Find Burr Comb?
Burr comb can show up in some weird places but some areas of the hive are more likely to have extra wax. One of the most common places a beekeeper will find this type of wax is on top of frames.
When the measurements between the bottom of the frames in one box and the top bar of the box below is off. Worker bees attempt to build a few cells of wax in the extra space.
Is this a really big problem? No, it is mostly an inconvenience. However, it is a good idea to remove the burr comb during inspections. If for no other reason, it makes future inspections difficult and the hive parts become more stuck down.
Another reason to use your hive tool to scrape off burr comb is pest control. Excess wax gives Small Hive Beetles or other honey bee pests a place to hide.
Beetles and Wax Moth larva may be able to hide from patrol bees in the tight confines between boxes. Here they lay eggs and try to get a start in your hive.
You may also find burr comb in extra space between the frames and inner side of the hive wall. Sometimes this will be a small amount that causes no problems.
I rarely scrape excess wax off the inside walls of hive. There are times we should let the bees do what they want – that’s good beekeeping. But, remove any large amounts of wax that would prevent good management.
Beekeepers Contribute to Excess Comb
No beekeeper is perfect and we sometimes make mistakes. Hive frames are designed to be pushed firmly together – any extra space can be divided on the outer sides.
Failure to push all of your frames close together at the end of an inspection can result in messy comb between the frames.
Did you forget and leave a frame out of the hive box by mistake? Oh no, that’s not good but it does happen. In fact, I have done so myself when I had many hives and too many things on my mind.
In this case, it is best to correct the situation quickly. Remove any extra wax the bees may have started and place a frame in its place.
Remember, your bees will use all of the available open space for comb construction. Check to ensure you have the correct number of frames in each bee box of your hive.
Bridge Comb and Cross Comb
In addition to extra wax located on the top bars, we sometimes find bridge comb or cross comb (brace comb).
These are sections of comb that connect 2 frames together. This is the most dangerous type of excess wax. It can cause comb to be torn from the frames during hive inspections.
This can occur in any hive but is seen more often in hives with new plastic foundation. Sometimes, the bees attempt to add another sheet of wax in between the frames.
Bees often build this sheet instead of building out wax cells on the foundation itself-which is what we want to them to do.
When using any new foundation in the hive, monitor the comb building progress to ensure your bees are building comb properly. If they are getting started wrong – remove the misplace wax. Hopefully, they will build correctly next time.
Removing Burr Comb in the Hive
As you perform routine inspections, clean up bits of excess wax. This can be accomplished by gently smoking the bees down. Then, use your hive tool to scrape the top bars.
Realize that the bees will most likely build it back if your bee space is off. And, that’s okay. Bees will put wax in places you find undesirable-it happens.
I would not replace my equipment or go to any extreme measures. Clean it up when you see it. The longer you leave the extra honeycomb in place the bigger mess it is to clean.
Why is Burr Comb a Queen Killer?
Another reason burr comb is undesirable is the risk involved for the queen bee. She will lay eggs in these sections of misplaced comb.
As you clean away the comb, it is possible that the queen will be in there. She can be damaged or killed in the process of removing frames for inspection or discarding extra wax.
Comb with Drone Larvae
It is common to find bee larvae or brood in comb between the boxes. This is very upsetting to many new beekeepers. In most cases, this bee brood will be drones.
Drone bees are needed by the colony. However, they are usually located on the outside perimeter of the brood nest because they are not as valuable to the colony as female worker larvae.
It is always sad to think that our actions resulted in the death of any bees. However, take advantage of the opportunity to look inside broken brood cells.
Do you see any mites? Varroa mites prefer drone brood. Any time you expose drone brood take the time to look carefully at the white larva for reddish spots. If you see mites, it may be past time for a varroa mite test.
Burr Comb Around Queen Cage
It is also common to find some burr comb constructed around the queen cage of a new package bee install. This is not a problem. Just remove the excess comb when you remove the queen cage from the frames.
What to do with Extra Wax?
You might be tempted to casually throw the extra wax on the ground. This is not the best practice. The aroma of honey and wax attracts more pests to your bee yard.
In fact, that excess wax is valuable. You can save the small pieces of comb in a container and eventually you will have enough to clean and make a small beeswax craft project.
Finding burr comb in your hive is not a big problem. This common issue can be handled easily with routine hive maintenance.
Remove excess wax while the problem is small and always check carefully to ensure the queen is not in danger.
Using beekeeping equipment that is standardized and true to size will reduce the amount of extra burr comb built by bees.