Honey bees build comb in the beehive and in the wild too. The comb they build is usually straight downwards and only extends sideways to a uniform wideness. Sometimes however, they may build comb that is not straight downwards. It may extend sideways and join more than one frame in a beehive. This is called bridge comb – honeycomb that is built in a way that is not expected in and joins two or more frames at the top or bottom. In addition to this, you might find honeycomb built in other wrong places in the beehive. Other types of unusual honeycomb in beehives are brace comb and cross comb, and they are all collectively called burr comb.
What’s the Deal with Bridge Comb?
Bridge comb makes beehive inspection problematic for beekeepers because it causes comb to be torn from frames. It takes bees a lot of effort, time and resources for honey bees to build comb. It is unproductive to damage already built honeycomb and beekeepers therefore should avoid the creation of bridge comb as much as possible. This applies to both conservationist beekeepers and those who are in beekeeping for profit making.
Removal of already-built comb is quite wasteful on the resources that bees have used up and can set back the hive many days. Furthermore, in beekeeping operations that are aimed at making profits, the beekeeper that has to remove a lot of comb in order to rectify the problem of bridge comb, can have low honey yields for the year. This is because the bridge comb might have been built at the cost of honeycomb being built elsewhere in the beehive. The comb that is removed has to be replaced later and this costs bees time that they would have used to make honey.
Modern beekeeping employs a concept called bee space when it comes to how the beehive is structured and comb is built. It is based on the discovery by Rev. L.L. Langstroth that bees do not build anything in spaces that are between ¼ inches and 3/8 inches. If a space is smaller than bee space, it gets filled with propolis or comb is built in it. In the wild, there is not a lot of emphasis on bee space by honey bees. However, in beekeeping, comb is easy to work with when it is built in a straight-down fashion.
The Langstroth beehive is the one that makes most use of the bee space concept. It requires honey bees to build honeycomb on frames only. The honeycomb should not go beyond the depth of the beehive frame, or be wider than the space defined by each frame in a Langstroth beehive. On the other hand, the Warre hive and top bar hive have a degree of freedom that allows for honey bees to build comb. As a result of this, bridge comb presents the most problems in Langstroth beehives.
In top bar hives, bees rarely build comb touching the sides of the hive and do not have access to the top of the beehive frames. Occurrence of bridge comb is thereby not very common in top bar hives. However, it is possible for other types of comb to be built in places where the beekeeper would rather not have any. Beekeepers with Langstroth beehives therefore have to exercise more vigilance than those using other types of beehives.
A Human Concept
Bee space is a human concept, one that honey bees may not pay a lot of attention to. As long as bees can find their way around the beehive, they are comfortable. They may thus build comb in any place they find available, even when beekeepers are not very pleased by the building of that comb. Both beginner and experienced beekeepers should recognize that bee space may be ignored by some bees in the beehive, and focus their attentions towards removing bridge comb when they find it, and preventing its building in their future beekeeping.
Why do Bees Build Bridge Comb?
A number of reasons can lead to the creation of bridge comb in beehives. The problem is seen more in Langstroth beehives than in top bar hives. Warre hives also have instances of bridge comb being made.
You should note that honey bees are prolific honeycomb builders at some certain times of the year. Their urge to build comb in any space available is what leads them to building bridge comb. With adequate measures taken, you are in a better position to avoid it. If you find honey bees have built bridge comb, you should not panic or blame yourself;, it happens in many beehives, to many beekeepers. It is very likely that in your beekeeping journey, you will frequently encounter bridge comb at least once or twice every year.
Placement of the Beehive
Beehive placement is one of the major factors that influence building of bridge comb by honey bees. A beehive that is placed in a manner that makes it not level in one or more dimensions – length and width – is likely to have bridge comb built in it. This is because gravity has a lot of impact on how bees will build their comb. They often want to build comb downwards and perpendicular to the ground. Levelness helps guide the building of comb that follows the plane of beehive frames.
Beekeepers should not blame themselves too much if bridge comb is built in the beehive. Sometimes, you may do everything right and still find that it has been built. If you are sure about the levelness of the beehive, and still find bridge comb inside it, just take steps to remove it and encourage bees to build straight comb down the proper plane of the beehive frames.
Improperly Built Frames
Another reason is when you have improperly made beehive parts. Some manufacturers may make parts of a beehive that are not of the exact measurements that go into your beehive. Such improperly built parts can lead to honey bees building bridge comb. They leave wider spaces than bee space as required in beehives and trigger honey bees to build comb where we don’t want them to. The most affected beehive parts by this factor are beehive frames and beehive boxes. If any of them are of the wrong measurements, they will most likely lead to bridge comb being built. You should make sure to use parts that are up to standard in your beehives all the time. If possible, it is best to buy beehives and their parts from a single manufacturer if you are not building the beehive and its parts yourself.
Issues with Bridge Comb
Honey bees building bridge comb in a beehive have no problems with it. To them, it is just comb for them to use for rearing brood or storing honey. Beekeepers, however, face a number of challenges which we will discuss below.
Difficulty Inspecting Hives
Bridge comb makes beehive inspection difficult. The comb often joins together parts of the beehive that should ideally stay apart. Pulling out frames and other beehive parts becomes difficult since it is attached to something else in the beehive. This is not too bad when two frames are joined as when a frame is joined to the sides of a beehive box by comb.
Risk to Bees
The second issue that bridge comb presents in a beehive is posing a risk to bees. Freshly built honeycomb is not strong; it bends easily and breaks when bent beyond a certain point. This is why it is important to lift beehive frames vertically upwards without leaning them sideways. It is especially important when working with frames without wires or foundation. When the beekeeper tries pulling out a beehive part such as a frame with bridge comb on it, the comb may break and falloff. The falling comb is likely to injure or kill bees in the beehive. Losing beehives is not an intention of beekeepers anywhere. Squashed bees may in the beehive cause the other honey bees in the colony to get very aggressive and swarm the beekeeper.
Delays in Production
Bridge comb causes unnecessary delays in production. The time taken by honey bees in building this comb could be better spent building honeycomb in the proper places within the beehive. This wastage of resources and time results in reduced yields of beehive products – especially of honey. Bridge comb that is removed can be put to use in the normal ways that the beekeeper uses beeswax harvested from the beehive, but it reduces the yields of of honey that would be possible from the beehive.
Time and Energy Consuming
Inevitably, bridge comb is removed from the beehive by the beekeeper. It may be reused in the beehive or taken away to be used for other purposes. The time that your honey bees had put into making the comb goes to waste. Additionally, brood in the comb very often dies once you remove it from where bees know to feed the brood. This is also an outcome that is not very pleasing to beekeepers.
Preventing Bridge Comb
Preventing bridge comb is necessary to avoid the issues and risks that it poses in the beehive. There are various methods available to you as the beekeeper. The Langstroth beehive is one of the best beehives due to its use of bee space. It ensures that all spaces within the hive are well defined to be either suitable for building of comb or not. But even then, improper use and preparation of any beehive can cause comb to be built in unwanted places.
Ensure the Beehive is Level
We have already seen that it is important to make sure the beehive you are using is level. This reduces the impact that gravity has on bees building comb at a slanted angle. If the beehive is level, the bees will build comb along the plane defined by the frames in your beehive. In some instances however, comb is built under some beehive frames and not under others. Such comb is not easy to prevent since it results from what can only be called the overzealousness of honey bees.
A second measure used by beekeepers to prevent bridge comb from being built, is using foundation in their beehive frames. The foundation clearly communicates to bees where they should build comb. Foundation can be either plastic or wax. Wax foundation is used as it is. Plastic foundation requires you to coat it with some beeswax so that the bees can build honeycomb on it. Some beekeepers have an aversion to using foundation in their beehives. When a lot of bridge comb is built and it becomes inevitable that they have to use foundation frames, these beekeepers may alternate foundation frames along with foundationless frames.
Today, there are plastic frames that come with foundation available to beekeepers to purchase. If you find such frames are available and have no problem with using plastic in your beehive, you should go for them. They give great strength to honeycomb and work very well at preventing bees from building bridge comb.
Wax foundation is the preferred solution for beekeepers that have a problem with using plastic foundation, but still want to use foundation in their beekeeping. Wax foundation requires wiring of frames and subsequent embedding of the wires in foundation. These are things that are relatively easy to do, and they all go a long way in helping prevent bees from building bridge comb.
Simply being vigilant is another useful measure against the building of bridge comb in beehives. Summer is a great time with food resources in plentiful supply. Bees build a lot of comb in summer. Some of that comb may be unwanted. It is necessary that beekeepers carry out frequent checks for bridge comb in summer so that they can notice it in its early stages of being built and remove it. Another time to be very vigilant is when you have recently set up a new beehive, such as after a hive split or after installing package bees.
Use Standard Equipment and Components
Using standard equipment and beehive parts is the best measure to prevent bees building bridge comb in beehives. Beehives such as the Langstroth beehive, with all components built to exact dimensions have all spaces at the correct size. Bees build their comb in the expected places without any wayward comb being built. If your beehive parts such as the queen excluder do not fit, you should get one that does or make modifications to the part. Using parts that leave gaps and spaces around them where it is not desired can lead to bees building unwanted comb.
Bridge comb that is not yet too developed can be re-aligned onto the proper plane. On the beehive frame, make a small and gentle cut where the comb meets the frame and nudge it into the proper plane. If the comb is not too old, it is can be nudged back into alignment by gently pushing it into line. The bees will continue building comb on the right plane along the frame if you do this in the early stages of noticing the unwanted comb.
Removing Bridge Comb
When you find bridge comb in a beehive, it is best to remove it immediately. It is easier to deal with it before it gets too much developed and problematic. A hive tool does the job of removing it very well. If the comb is attached to delicate surfaces or you need precision cutting, a thin sharp knife can be used instead. If you do not remove bridge comb, it ends up making beekeeping very difficult for you. Experienced beekeepers may have ways of getting around the challenges presented by bridge comb, but beginner beekeepers have nothing to gain from allowing it to persist in the beehive.
A lot of caution and carefulness should be applied when removing bridge comb. Honey bees can use comb for either brood or honey storage. They may also have pollen stored in the cells of the bridge comb. You have to make a decision about what to do with it and whatever is in the cells of the comb. Brood on the comb will die if removed from the beehive, and honey stored in the comb would go to waste when you remove it.
It is especially important that you inspect bridge comb and remove any bees crawling on it. The queen bee is quite important to a honey bee colony. If you remove her from the hive during your bridge comb removal activities, the entire hive suffers. Brush bees from the bridge comb before cutting it out or scraping it off surfaces in the beehive, so that you avoid the risk of removing the queen bee. In addition to the queen bee, all other bees in the beehive are important too. They have useful functions in the beehive to carry out. Bridge comb is usually formed at a time when the beehive needs all the labor force it can have. Removing bees from the beehive at that time is therefore very deleterious to the ability of the honey bee colony going forward.
Delaying Bridge Comb Removal
When you do not want to destroy comb that is already built in the beehive, you can leave bridge comb removal for later. The circumstances under which you should allow this to happen include:
- When you are a conservationist beekeeper and not aiming at high honey yields per beehive per year. The bridge comb you leave in the beehive does not affect your honey bee conservation efforts. Conservation beekeeping can work as long as honey bees can find their way around the beehive even with the presence of unwanted comb.
- If bridge comb is formed in the brood boxes of your beehive stack, and the bees are working well with it. There is sometimes no need to destroy the comb, so beekeepers allow it to remain for use by bees in brooding. This is a consideration many beekeepers make when it is spring and the bees really need to increase their numbers rapidly. If the bridge comb has already been built to a large size before discovery by the beekeeper, removing it will cause loss of a large number of brood in the honey bee colony.
Bridge comb that is not removed immediately once it is found, should the beehive is removed later. In brood boxes, it can be removed when there is less use of the comb for brooding. Conservationist beekeepers too, can wait to remove the bridge comb in the cold seasons of the year when bees are not using it.
Reusing Bridge Comb
Bridge comb removed from beehives can be used in many ways. The comb is essentially beeswax, so you should use it for your usual beeswax products. However, honeycomb is a very useful resource in the beehive. It takes a lot of resources and energy to make wax, so some beekeepers opt to reuse the wax from removed bridge comb in the beehive. They place the comb in the beehive so that honey bees tear it apart and reuse it. This is alright as long as the comb is left in the beehive, in an area where it does not cause inconvenience to bees or the beekeeper. Honeycomb that has been removed as part of bridge comb should not be left lying around in the apiary. It can attract pests, predators and parasites of honey bees to the beehive.
A Final Word
Honey bees are prolific builders of honeycomb in beehives. In any beekeeping operation, bridge comb leads to problems in beehive maintenance. It can also lead to reduced accessibility to some parts of the beehive for honey bees. For easy working with beehives, take measures to prevent bridge comb from being built and rectify the problem as soon as you see it, if it occurs.
Have you ever had troubles with bridge comb? Let us know what it was like in the comments below.