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What is Brace Comb? – Issues with Comb

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Brace comb is one of the many types of comb (see bridge comb, cross comb) that is built in places beekeepers do not expect or want honeycomb to be built by honey bees. As its name suggests, brace comb is drawn by honey bees in beehives to support regular honeycomb from falling. It usually attaches to the sides of the beehive.

Brace comb can be built in any type of beehive but is usually more common in top bar and Warré hives. This is because Langstroth beehives have beehive frames whose sides present a barrier between honeycombs and brace comb that bees might draw. In Warré and top bar hives, there are no frames used, and so bees find it easy to draw comb onto the sides of the beehive.

Comb in unwanted places in a beehive is not entirely unusual in beekeeping. It is more of a norm than the exception. Every beekeeper encounters such honeycomb in beekeeping. Vigilance against unwanted comb is the best respite, you want to see it early and take care of it before it gets out of hand.

Why do Bees Build Brace Comb?

Honey bees build brace comb when they are afraid the other regular comb will fall off. The idea behind it is that by attaching comb to the sides of the beehive, it gets firmer. A beehive that is not level, that wobbles or with comb that is too heavy are the main reasons why bees build brace comb.

Honeycomb in the wrong places in a beehive is sometimes there because honey bees are prolific comb builders. They can draw a full frame with comb in 48-72 hours. A little brace comb is a breeze to them, when they are really set on building it. If you find unwanted comb in a beehive, investigate why it is being built before you rush to removing it. In this article we have detailed how to deal with brace comb, but your efforts will be in futility if you have not addressed the reasons why it is being built in the first place.

Wobbling Beehive

A beehive that is not well built can cause you brace comb problems. The same applies to a beehive that is on a stand that is not very sturdy. Strong winds hitting such a beehive cause it to wobble in place. When bees detect the wobbling, they are triggered to build brace comb. They do this to prevent the comb from breaking off the frame or top bar and falling.

Small animals and larger predators coming into contact with a beehive can also cause it to wobble or exhibit movement in place. If the contact is frequent or over an extended period of time, it can also result in honey bees in the beehive building brace comb.

Uneven Beehive

A level beehive across its width and length is best for bees to build straight comb. Any angle of lean, even a small one, causes bees to build comb that deviates from the intended plane. In Langstroth beehives, the comb is built in such a beehive will not rest on the frame. It is not as strong as it should be. With a large angle of lean, it can even miss the bottom bar of the beehive frame. Such comb is weak and causes the bees to build brace comb for it. You may even find the bees building brace comb for comb that has not yet filled the frame, if you have a large angle of lean in the beehive.

Too Heavy Honeycomb

The weight of honeycomb can increase rapidly in a short period of time. During late spring and early summer when there is nectar in abundance, bees will be making large amounts of honey and storing it in honeycomb. The net result is that honeycomb gets heavier and risks falling. If it is freshly drawn comb, the bees feel urgent need to brace it. They will do so at its bottom and on the sides.

Aid Communication

Honeybee communication has been observed to be facilitated by comb in the beehive. The transmission of vibrations through the hive gets reduced when beehive frames are used. To assist transmission of vibrations, bees sometimes build brace comb. This reason for building it is often overlooked by beekeepers – usually unknowingly. Such comb is often found along the bottom of the middle frames in brood boxes.

Issues with Brace Comb

Brace comb can be problematic for beekeepers intending to carry out beehive inspections. It attaches frames and honeycomb to the sides of the beehive such that they cannot be pulled out of the hive. Beekeepers have little value for brace comb since it does not hold any significant amount of honey or brood. In the end, it is quite a nuisance to deal with. Honeycomb may be soft and not very strong when it is newly formed, but it gains strength with time. Honey bees building brace comb do it with good intentions, but after some time it may not be very necessary or useful in the beehive.

Preventing Brace Comb

The measures we’ll discuss below will go a long way in prevent brace comb. However, even when you have done all you can to prevent it from being built, you might find that some has been built just the same. Well, that is a day in beekeeping, and your only choice is to remove the unwanted comb as appropriate. Honey bees will build comb where they want, when they want, if they want to. They can be pretty fast at it too, so make sure to check for irregular comb in every hive inspection. If you miss brace comb for a week or two, it may encourage the bees to brace up all the beehive frames and the comb on them, then you will really be stuck with a serious problem in your hands.

Ensuring a Level Beehive

When you do not want to have to deal with brace comb, make sure to have your beehive level and on a stable platform if you are using a hive stand. A hard surface is great for supporting your beehive. You should periodically check all your beehives for levelness. If you find one that is no longer level, take steps to rectify the problem. It only takes a minute or two to add something under the hive to restore it to levelness. For suspended top bar hives, adjust the suspending wires so that the beehive is level.

Ensuring Correct Spacing

Too much space next to comb can cause bees to build brace comb. This does not happen often if your beehive and all its parts are built to the correct measurements. Excess space next to honeycomb, or around comb, affects the way bees work with the space. They rarely leave any space larger than bee space in the hive unused.

  • This is what is avoided by following the concept of ‘bee space’ in modern beekeeping.
  • Unfortunately, bees do not understand the human concept of bee space and the need for neat rows of honeycomb and frames. If they detect the need to build brace comb and the space to build it is available, they build it – as long as they can still find their way to all sections of the beehive.

Using Langstroth Beehives

One very major decision you can make to better prevent brace comb, is to use Langstroth beehives. These beehives make use of frames that hold honeycomb in place. There is little risk of the comb falling, so bees are less motivated to build brace comb. Additionally, the wooden sides of the frame present a barrier between comb, and whatever brace comb that bees want to build. They largely find it unnecessary to build brace comb in Langstroth beehives.

With Langstroth beehives, make sure you use the right depth of frames for each beehive box in your beehive stack. The boxes too should be of the right measurements in depth. If frames leave more than the right bee space under them, you are likely to find that your honey bee colony has built comb under the frames, usually on top of the frames in the box below the shorter-than-should-be frames. Although it happens, it is not often that you find the bees having drawn comb under the short frames.

The presence of beehive frames in Langstroth beehives allows for another major preventive action you can take in a beehive to prevent brace comb being built. Beehive frames can be used with foundation and wires to give honeycomb additional support and strength. This is an option that is not available with Warré and Top bar hives.

  • The strongest foundation when it comes to giving honeycomb support is plastic foundation. Wax foundation with wired frames comes second.
  • If you use wax foundation without wiring the frames and embedding the wires into the wax foundation, you will not be helping matters in any significant way.

Removing Brace Comb

Brace comb is removed from the beehive using your hive tool or other sharp knife. Cut the comb away and use it as you use the beeswax you regularly harvest from the beehive. If the brace comb contains honey, you can mash the comb to extract the honey.

Sometimes, you might see the brace comb in your beehive as necessary when the comb it is supporting is freshly drawn. Give the comb a week to get firm and then remove the brace comb.

Every once in a while, you might opt not to remove brace comb. When you are using top bar hives that are modified to give them extra depth, you do not want to remove brace comb. If you do, the drawn comb on those frames may come crashing down, costing you honey bees, honey or bee brood, and costing the bees their time and wax resources. Worse, such falling comb could injure or kill your queen bee, and then you have to rush around finding a new queen bee for the hive or waiting until the hive brings up a new queen bee. The profits that this costs you will be significant by the end of the year.

In Warré Hives

In Warré hives too, the above scenario applies. Warré hives have no frames, so comb is drawn hanging down top bars. If bees feel that they need to support it, it might be wiser to just let them keep the brace comb they have built.

In Langstroth Hives

In Langstroth beehives, it is okay to remove brace comb. The frames of Langstroth beehives keep everything in place quite well. If you have taken additional steps to wire your frames or have foundation in them, then brace comb might be entirely unnecessary in your beehive. Cut it out if you are sure that your beehive is level, not wobbling, and that comb will not break off top bars and fall.

Preparing to Remove Brace Comb

While dealing with brace comb in a beehive is a rather easy task, you should be well prepared for the activity. It involves opening the hive to the box where the brace comb is, removing some frames, and cutting out the comb. You should have the following with you to get through the job with no hiccups:

Protective gear

Wear your beekeeping suit or the protective clothing of your choice at all times when working around bees. It keeps you safe from bee stings, thus allowing you to go through the process of removing brace comb uninterrupted. The protective gear should include gloves, a bee suit and veil for your head and boots to protect your feet.

Smoker

To keep bees pacified, beekeepers use smoke in and around the beehive when opening up the hive. For quick jobs, you may not need to use the bee smoker, but it is recommended that you have it nearby and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. Some beekeepers keep the smoker lit and within easy reach while others set everything such that they only need to light the smoker quickly and it is ready for use.

Clean surface to place beehive boxes on

Removing brace comb requires you to open up the hive to access the box or boxes of concern to you. Have a clean surface with you on which to place beehive boxes and parts such as the top cover when you remove them from the main beehive stack.

Bee brush

Bees may be on frames and on the brace comb you intend to cut out. Use a bee brush with soft bristles to gently remove them from the surfaces on which you will be working. It avoids injuring or killing bees as you work to remove brace comb. Injured or squashed bees release a smell (pheromones) that can make the hive very aggressive, which in turn will make you take more time doing the job.

Hive tool

A hive tool is the best equipment for removing brace comb. The hive tool helps you pry out frames and open up the beehive with ease. You may use a sharp knife to cut comb if you are not very conversant with the use of the sharp-edged side of the hive tool.

Comb container

Have a container in which you will hold the brace comb you remove from the hive. The container should be wide so that putting comb in it is easy. It is also better if the container has a top to cover it after comb is placed in it. Open comb attracts bees – something you do not want happening since it requires you to take additional time and work at removing the bees from the comb. Open comb can also attract predators of honey bees such as yellow jacket wasps to the apiary.

Use and Disposal of Removed Brace Comb

Brace comb is made using beeswax, as any other comb in the beehive. It even features cells that may contain brood or honey. When you remove it, you have to decide how you are going to use it or dispose it. Since it is regular beeswax, you could store it and put it to your normal uses of beeswax. If you sell your wax, just melt down the unwanted comb and sell it off. If you make candles, go ahead and use it to make candles. There are also many other useful ways to put beeswax to use, including making soap and as an additive in cosmetics products.

In the high season when bees are in need of resources for quick setup and expansion, taking beeswax from the beehive might not look very good to the beekeeper. In early spring, honey bees are building comb and increasing their numbers in readiness for the coming nectar flow. If you feel that your honey bees need the beeswax from brace comb, then you can give it to bees to reuse in the hive. Place the comb in the beehive and bees will tear it down while using it to draw comb elsewhere in the beehive.

Keep away from Predators

The one thing you should not do with brace comb that you have removed from the beehive, is leave it lying around in the apiary or near any beehives. Comb has the potential to attract some very nasty pests and predators of honey bees. Ants will be drawn to the comb, same as bears if there are any in your area. The comb gives off a smell that attracts these unwanted intruders to it. After they get to the comb, they might find out that there is a beehive full of more comb and honey nearby. They will attack your beehive and cause a lot of destruction. If you have no use for removed comb and do not want your bees to reuse it in the beehive, discard it far from the apiary.

A Final Word

Brace comb is built by honey bees to support honeycomb in the beehive. It is only built when bees are afraid comb will break and fall in the beehive. It is one of the major types of comb built in places the beekeeper does not expect. The other types of such comb are cross comb and bridge comb. Collectively, they are all called burr comb.

When bees build brace comb, it usually attaches to frames and the inner surfaces of the beehive cavity. This could be the beehive box in Langstroth and Warré hives or the sloping surface in top bar hives. When it is built and attached to honeycomb in the beehive, it makes it difficult and dangerous to remove beehive frames and top bars. It is best to cut it away from regular honeycomb before you attempt removal of beehive frames or top bars for inspection or harvesting of beehive products.

Preventing brace comb from being built is easy. It requires the beekeeper to take steps and put in place measures that are inexpensive. These steps and measures should be incorporated into your beehive maintenance and management procedures. You can encounter brace comb in your beehive at any time in beekeeping, even with newly installed honey bee colonies. Both beginner and experienced beekeepers can prevent honey bees from building brace comb, and can remove it if any is built in the beehive. Use the information, guidelines and tips in this article to keep your beehives free of unwanted comb.

Have you ever had troubles with brace comb? Let us know what it was like in the comments below.

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