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Wednesday wordphile: bee space

Bee space is a passageway 1/4- to 3/8-inches wide (6-10 mm) that bees use for moving throughout the hive. In 1851 the Reverend L. L. Langstroth realized that spaces narrower than this were treated like cracks and filled with propolis. Spaces wider than this were treated like construction zones–bees donned their hardhats and filled the areas with burr comb.

Bees–being a little neurotic–like to have their passageways just large enough to fit through: no more, no less. And they never build tunnels through their comb. Every bee, following the unwritten rule, walks around the edges of comb to get to the other side.

Langstroth made good use of this information when he designed his now-famous hive. In order to make the frames moveable, he designed all the areas above, below, and around the combs to fall within the tolerance of bee space. He knew that if he could prevent the combs from being cemented to the hive–or to each other–the frames could be removed, inspected, and replaced.

Many other successful hives have been developed over the years, but they all rely on the concept of bee space to make them work. And as any beekeeper knows, you violate this rule at your own peril. Leave out a frame–or a top bar–for a week and you will have a mess on your hands.

Almost any time you find burr comb, brace comb, cross comb, or propolis seals mucking up the interior of a hive, it is due to a violation of bee space. One of the most common sources of error occurs when equipment purchased from different manufacturers is mixed. Although the pieces seem to fit, in truth, there is often enough difference to give the bees an opportunity for creative engineering.

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  • I’ve only ever seen foundationless combs, but I see holes in combs all the time. Here’s a picture of a comb with a hole in it. Maybe in top bar hives, since the bees can’t go up and over top bars, that’s why I’ve seen these “tunnels.”

    • Hello Kitty,

      I’ve been told that bees will not build tunnels through comb. So before I wrote this post, I did some reading and found this in The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (p.150):

      Honey bees, of any subspecies, do not build a passageway through a piece of comb. Whenever a person accidentally or purposefully cuts a hole through a comb, or a piece of foundation, it is almost always repaired and replaced with new comb. Around the edges, where the comb is joined to the inside of a tree or building, peripheral galleries or passageways are located. Both queens and workers walk around the edges of the comb as they move from one comb to the next.

      I have seen holes above the spot where two foundationless combs have come together on one top bar, but I always just assumed the bees hadn’t yet finished connecting the two parts.

      I have also seen bees put holes in foundation–especially in the winter–and I always assumed they were taking the wax away and using it for some other purpose. In other words, they were using the wax but not actually building passages.

      So your observation puts a whole new spin on things. I like your idea that the top bars are such a rigid barrier that the bees decided to drill through the comb beneath it. I didn’t see any tunnels in my top-bar hive when I was shaking the swarm two weeks ago but, then again, I wasn’t looking for them. I’ll have to look more closely.

      I think I will punch some holes through both the top-bar combs and some Langstroth combs and see what happens. You’ve got my curiosity up and running.

      Can anyone else weigh in on this?

  • Is that what you call it . . . creative engineering . . . .
    They are creative . . . and active . . . .

    I believe top-bar design just lends itself to allowing them to construct, or creative engineer, with the occasional hole . . . .

  • I’ve liked bees since I was five and wanted to know what it felt like to be stung and picked one up off of a dandelion to find out. And now, you have told me why I am attracted to them: bees are “a little neurotic.” You had me chuckling on that one.

  • Bee space is one of the concepts I wish I had been better about when I started beekeeping, and even wish I was better about now. It makes such a big difference when it comes to examining a hive.