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What is Cross Comb? – Issues with Comb

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Cross comb is a type of comb that is drawn by honey bees that connects two beehive frames. It is one of the many types of comb that are built in places where the beekeeper does not want comb to be built. Cross comb is a result of bees extending comb horizontally and the comb encroaching into the space of the adjacent beehive frame. It usually results in the comb of two frames joining.

Honeycomb in a beehive is used for brood rearing or storage honey. It is resource-intensive and only happens when very necessary. Comb is important for the success of honey bee colonies and thus the attention it receives from beekeepers. Additionally, beehive inspection and proper management are important for high yields of beehive products.

Cross comb makes beehive inspections difficult or nearly impossible. It also reduces the space available to bees to use in the beehive if it gets built across many or large areas of honeycomb. For these reasons, beekeepers are not happy with cross comb in their beehives. They aim to prevent the building of cross comb, or remove it when they find it already built.

In the drawing of comb in beehives, the use of foundation greatly helps to avoid cross comb. This topic is addressed in greater detail pertaining to its use to prevent cross comb in later sections of this article, but it is worth a mention at this early stage. Foundationless beekeeping is proposed to many beekeepers as a natural or organic way to go about beekeeping, but that’s a decision best left up to the individual.

For beginner beekeepers, it is sometimes better to use foundation in alternating frames in order to avoid cross comb. You can use either plastic or wax foundation. Arguments against the use of foundation in beekeeping are largely around the introduction of chemicals in the beehive. You can get around this challenge by sourcing only from reputable suppliers that sell clean foundation.

In the wild, honey bees show gradual and periodic renewal of comb. In the confines of a man-made beehive, this is sometimes not followed. It results in easy spread of diseases and low honey bee populations. The queen bee shows preference to laying eggs in fresh honeycomb over old comb. Regular replacement of comb in brood boxes should be done in a 3-year cycle in areas where diseases are not a problem. Where there is risk of disease, frequent changes to freshly drawn comb are advised.

How Cross Comb is Formed

Honey bees draw comb primarily to rear brood and store honey. Honeycomb also serves other purposes in the beehive such as thermoregulation and conducting vibrations for in-hive communication. Comb is built in a very vertical plane. Bees are influenced by gravity when drawing comb, thus the nearly perfect vertical plane of honeycomb. This comb building characteristic is observed in both wild bees and those housed in man-made beehives. Honey bees only draw comb when they need it. This is why a lot of comb is drawn in the warm seasons of the year, extending from late spring into summer.

Comb in beehives does not have a flat surface all the time. It bulges and varies in the depth of cells on the comb. Other times, large queen cells are built on the comb. Drone cells are also slightly larger than the cells for worker bees. Natural comb spacing is 30-32 mm apart. The usual depth of cells is 11-12 mm deep. Sometimes, comb bulges too much and intrudes into the bee space left between two adjacent honeycombs. If the comb bulges on two adjacent honeycombs, the bees may decide to join it in one or more places. This results in cross comb.

Errors in frame spacing can very quickly and easily result in cross comb being built. Poorly spaced frames cause improper spacing to be left between frames. This beekeeper’s mistake leads to bees building cross comb very often. Beekeepers carrying out hive inspections may place frames to close to each other and the bees join the comb on these frames.

Reasons why Bees Build Cross Comb

As with many other types of burr comb, cross comb is either a result of a leaning or uneven hive, improperly spaced beehive frames, and perceived weakness of comb by bees. Cross comb is found in any type of beehive if one or more reason to build it is found in the beehive. Beekeepers using Langstroth, Warre and Top bar hives have all found cross comb in their beehives.

An Uneven Beehive

A leaning hive makes honey bees wrongly interpret gravity and the plane in which they should build honeycomb. Fresh comb built when the beehive is leaning ends up touching comb in the adjacent frame in the direction of the lean. In most cases of such cross comb, the two honeycombs intersect at the bottom of the frame. Honey bees build comb from the top, towards the bottom.

If the lean is too severe, the comb may touch the adjacent comb closer to the middle of the frame than at the bottom. A previously level beehive can acquire a lean if its stand gets wobbly or sinks into the ground. The weight gain of the beehive during nectar flow is a common reason beehives lose their levelness as the added weight makes the platform on which the beehive is placed to settle into the ground.

Perceived Weakness of Comb

Perceived weakness of comb makes bees want to support it. What starts as brace comb becomes cross comb when it touches the comb next to it. Honeycomb that is freshly drawn is not very strong. It can bend and even tear if it is heavy. High temperatures also make comb weak in the beehive. Incomplete honeycomb drawn on frames without foundation in Langstroth beehives, and that drawn in Warre and top bar hives is free-hanging. Bees may perceive it as weak and make efforts to lend additional support to it. Overall, Langstroth beehives have the best support for honeycomb due to use of beehive frames. The comb is supported down the sides when it is being drawn and at the bottom when it is fully drawn.

Improperly Spaced Frames

Improperly spaced frames interfere with bee space left between frames. In Langstroth beehives, the beehive frame is the guide that honey bees follow when building honeycomb. Frames that are too close to each other easily result in cross comb. The comb that is drawn on one frame intrudes in the space for comb on the next frame.

When the next frame is drawn, the comb may touch the previously drawn comb on the next frame. If the space between frames is too wide, honey bees may build comb that is projecting from the surface of the straight-down honeycomb. Since this projecting comb must reach the required cell depth of 11 – 12 mm, it can end up touching the comb on adjacent frames.

Non Removal of Queen Cells

Queen cells built when bees are raising new queen bees are sometimes on the surface of existing comb. They are larger than all other cells in the hive and cannot easily fit in the honeycomb if it is to remain without a large bulge. Once queen bees have emerged from the cells, honey bees do not usually tear down the queen cells. The cells remain projecting on the surface of honeycomb and can touch adjacent honeycomb. Bees may then fill the space around such cells with more honeycomb, resulting in a thick blob of cross comb.

Repurposing Honeycomb

The repurposing of honeycomb in the beehive is a common occurrence. This must be understood alongside the fact that brood comb is less bulky than comb in which honey is stored. When comb is used to store honey, a single bee space is left between adjacent honeycombs. For brood comb, two bee spaces are left between honeycombs. When repurposing brood comb to honey storage comb, honey bees carry out depth-wise expansion of the comb. This can result in sheets of honeycomb coming close to each other in the beehive if the beekeeper had brought in frames of already-drawn honeycomb.

Issues with Cross Comb

While bees do not have problems with cross comb, beekeepers do. Hive inspections are an important part of beekeeping and are hampered by cross comb. In hive inspections, cross comb poses a risk of causing damage to honeycomb. If you are not aware that there is cross comb on the frames, it is very likely that the cross comb will tear comb from one of the joined frames. This is because beehive frames are removed from the beehive one by one when doing a hive inspection.

Harvesting honey and other beehive products are another time when beehive frames are removed, and cross comb can cause damage at that time too. Chunks of comb fall off the frame, containing honey, pollen or brood. Adjacent frames joined with cross comb both suffer the damage. Before pulling off frames during harvesting, nudge them slightly to feel if they are joined with adjacent frames. It might make more sense to pull out the two joined frames and avoid damaging the comb, than pull out the frames one-by one and have the comb on both frames damaged if they are joined by cross comb.

In Warre and top bar hives, cross comb poses the same challenges as in Langstroth beehives. This is despite the beehives not making use of frames. The top bars found in these beehives are removed for harvesting of beehive products and in hive inspections. When one frame of a pair joined with cross comb is removed, tearing of honeycomb on the bars occurs.

Damage to comb when it is time to harvest from the beehive may be an acceptable loss at a small scale. Extraction of beehive products such as honey often requires you to uncap the honeycomb. If the cross comb does not damage much of the comb, you can take the loss without a big dip in the yields of beehive products you get from the beehive. It is however a bigger problem when cross comb is built and causes damage to honeycomb at a time when honey bees need it very much.

Some Pointers:

  • In spring and summer, honeybees are either rearing a lot of brood to raise the population of the colony, or storing nectar and honey in honeycomb. This is the period when a lot of comb is built in the beehive because the honey bees really need to.
  • If there is too much damage due to cross comb, the hive will not grow large enough, and not all the honey that could be stored will be stored. The beekeeper will not lower yields at the end of the beekeeping year as a result of this.
  • Damaging comb at this time is the major reason beekeepers want to avoid cross comb, and deal with it as soon as it is spotted.

Preventing Cross Comb

Preventing cross comb is a priority achievement for every beekeeper. In reality, you are going to encounter cross comb at some time in your beekeeping journey. You can however stave off the problem for some time, and have it only occur to a minimized extent. To prevent cross comb from occurring, you must make sure that all factors that contribute to its formation are absent in your beehive.

When you notice cross comb early, you should correct it by nudging it back into place. A small cut along the top of the comb allows for subsequent gentle nudging of the honeycomb. After you are done, make sure to strengthen the connection of the comb to the bar or frame using a hot object.

Using Foundation

It’s worth considering going the extra step and providing a guide on the plane in which honey bees will build their comb by using foundation in your beehive. However, the use of foundation is only possible with Langstroth beehives. By their design, Warre and top bar hives are for foundationless beekeeping. As a result, cross comb is a bigger problem in top bar and Warre hives than in Langstroth beehives. When you do not want to use a lot of foundation in your beekeeping, it is right to alternate foundation frames with foundationless frames.

Ensure Hives are Level

In addition to using foundation frames, you should rectify leaning hives. Use a level to set the hive right as soon as you notice things are not right. Periodic checks for levelness are important so that you do not get ambushed by cross comb. The hive gets heavier or lighter depending on the season. These changes in weight over the seasons can cause a lean to develop.

Wobbling is the other factor you should address to prevent cross comb.  Make sure that your beehives are resting on stable and sturdy platforms. The legs of your hive stand should be inspected for strength every once in a while to ascertain its strength. If you notice any problems, make the necessary adjustments, changes or repairs to restore the sturdiness of the stand. Suspended top bar hives in windy areas may have no defense against wobbling. A windbreak is recommended so that the beehive does not swing too much in the wind and influence honey bees to build cross comb.

Remove Queen Cell Remnants

The remnants of queen cells that can cause cross comb to be built should be removed from the beehive. As soon as queen bees emerge from the cells, cut out the queen cells from honeycomb. This is especially important for the queen cells that are on the flat surface of honeycomb that faces other adjacent honeycomb.

Use the Standardized Equipment

The right equipment and parts of beehives should be used in beekeeping. The measurements of beehive parts should be very strictly adhered to. Errors that result in smaller or larger measurements affect how bees use the space in the beehive. If you have smaller space left than bee space, they will seal it with propolis, and if you have excess space they will build comb. In a beehive box or cavity as in the top bar hive, excess space will mean improper spacing of frames and top bars. The end result will be comb that is built along the wrong planes, or joined in some places using cross comb.

Regular Hive Inspections

Frequent monitoring for cross comb is your best bet against it. You are able to notice it in its early stages before it becomes a big problem. Look out for cross comb during hive inspections and remember to monitor all the factors that can cause cross comb to be built in the beehive. You have the options of correcting cross comb when you notice it early, or removing it altogether.

Removing Cross Comb

Highly developed cross comb leaves you no option but to remove it. A hive tool is the best equipment to remove it from the beehive. Use the hive tool to cut the comb, gently splitting the comb to part it and allow the frames to be independent. You will inevitably cut through cells with brood or honey, but that should not worry you too much. When the comb has joined in large areas, you have to remove chunks of the honeycomb from the frames involved.

Honeycomb chunks that are removed when dealing with cross comb should be kept for use as regular beeswax. You can also leave them in the beehive to be reused by the honey bees in building honeycomb within the beehive. If you have to throw away the comb, discard it far from the beehive so that it does not attract predators of honeybees to the beehive.

Prepare well for cross comb removal since it may take you more than a few minutes to remove it completely in the beehive. Wear protective equipment and make sure to bring your smoker in case you need to calm the hive. A container for collecting removed cross comb is also important to bring to the hive when you are removing it.

After removing cross comb, check for the possible reasons it was formed. If the beehive has problems causing the cross comb to be drawn, rectify them. This includes checking for queen cell remnants, levelness of the beehive, wobble and frame or top bar spacing among others. It helps to avoid future drawing of out of place comb so that it is not a persistent problem for you.

A Final Word

Comb in beehives is drawn by bees to help them store honey and for holding their brood. It is drawn on beehive frames in Langstroth beehives, and on bars in Warre and top bar hives. Comb in its best form is built in a straight down plane in sheets. Errors in comb formation result from influence by various factors that the beekeeper can control.

In the wild and in beekeeping, comb that is not in straight-down build can be drawn by honey bees. It serves various purposes including supporting other comb. Cross comb can be deliberate by honey bees or as a result of erroneous comb building. It impedes working with the beehive in beekeeping. However in the wild, cross comb is not a problem for honey bees.

The use of movable frames and top bars in beekeeping is important for better beehive product yields. Movable frames and top bars require hive management and inspections carried out frequently. Cross comb hampers these hive management activities despite it being natural for honey bees.

Cross comb is best prevented from being built. When you fail at prevention, you must remove it so that it does not impede your hive management. Use the information and tips in this article to keep your beehive free of cross comb, and to address it when it is built in the beehive.

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

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