Honey bees build sheets of wax honeycomb to make the structure of their home. 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. Having comb in inconvenient places can make hive inspections very difficult. 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?
Honey bees are the only insects that produce and shape wax for their home. The beehive contains many sheets of honeycomb.
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Each sheet of comb contains thousands of beeswax cells. They are used for storing food such as pollen and honey for use later. Certain areas of the comb are also used for raising young bees.
A colony of honey bees is constantly monitoring the condition of the honeycomb structure. They build new comb where it is needed and repair any breaks.
Most beekeepers use wooden frames inside the hive. These frames hold either beeswax or plastic foundation. We hope that bees build wax inside these frames.
Is Your Bee Space Wrong?
Modern hive design is the work of a beekeeper called – 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.
Our modern hive is designed with the concept of “bee space” in mind. However, most hive parts are not cut to strict specifications. Also, the size of boxes or frames may vary just a little bit from one manufacturer to the next.
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.
Where Can You Find Burr Comb?
One of the most common places a beekeeper will find this type of wax is on top of wooden frames.
Many hives do not have precise measurements between hive boxes. This results in worker bees placing excess pieces of comb 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 extra wax during inspections. If for no other reason, it makes future inspections difficult are the hive parts become more stuck down.
You will also find burr comb in extra space between the frames and inner wall of the hive. Sometimes this will be a small amount that causes no problems.
I rarely scrape excess wax off the hive walls. There are times we should let the bees do what they want – that’s good beekeeping.
How the Beekeeper Contributes to Excess Wax
No beekeeper is perfect and we sometimes make mistakes. 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 this case, it is best to correct the situation – removing the extra wax and placing 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 common wax located on the top bars, we sometimes find bridge comb or cross 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. Often this is done rather than 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.
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 off the excess wax.
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. As the bees continue to add to the wax, this makes boxes difficult to separate.
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 possible to have worker brood here as well but finding drone larva is the most common situation.
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 Comb?
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.
Final Thoughts on Burr Comb in the Hive
Finding burr comb in your hive is not a big problem. This common issue can be handled easily with routine hive maintenance.
Can you completely stop bees from building wax in unwanted places? No, not unless your hive components fit perfectly.
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.