It’s enough to get me anxious just saying it out loud. Burr comb essentially means that I have not done my job as a beekeeper correctly, or that something is wrong inside my hive. Either of these answers are not something that I want to deal with when I open one of my bee hives. My bees work extremely hard to be as efficient as possible in their endeavor to maximize the amount of honey and honey bees in the hive. The presence of burr comb can lead to a lot of extra work for me and them. But before I go on a tangent about my ever expanding knowledge of what not to do when beekeeping, let’s talk a little about honeycomb and beeswax in general.
Honeycomb is a marvel of engineering. Darwin once wrote that it “is absolutely perfect in economizing labor and wax”. It is the foundation on which everything else in the hive is possible. Honeycomb is a home, storage facility, a womb for baby bees, food processing center and a hub for all the other activities of a honey bee. Honey bees are all about efficiency and maximizing use of space. Natural bee hives are generally in an enclosed area such as a tree hollow, and it’s not like they can just make an addition to their home when they start to run out of room. I’m not very good with math. My head starts to hurt after reading the instructions on a recipe, even a great honey recipe. Smarter people than I however have done an awful lot of research on the hexagon shape and its use by honey bees. They have concluded that it is the best possible answer to this problem of maximizing production in small spaces. Beeswax in general is also pretty expensive for a honey bee to create. It takes eight ounces of honey for a bee to create one ounce of beeswax, now that's what I call down cycling! So bees need to use as little as possible to get the greatest use of their resources, remember honey is also a food resource for honey bees.
Bees also need to be able to move through the hive and honeycomb easily. A giant cube of capped honey doesn’t help anyone, as there is no way to get to the center of the honeycomb. So bees create sheets of double sided honeycomb. In a wild hive, these are layered one after another in a line of almost like book shelves in a library. Bees rely on something that we know as the “Bee Space”. The simple explanation is that the bee space is the crawl space a bee need to access both sides of the honeycomb. Anything smaller than that space and the bees will seal it with propolis. Anything larger and the bees will create honeycomb and use it for storage. Langstroth Hives are constructed with this in mind and function on this principle.
So now back to the issue at hand. When I said earlier that the presence of burr comb meant that I had not done my job, this is what I was referring to. At Savannah Bee Company we mainly use Langstroth hives. We have a few top bar hives and I am currently constructing a Warré, but these are just projects. Langstroth hives make use of the bee space by using “frames” that are laid side by side. Honey bees use these as a guideline for where they are going to place honeycomb.
When placed correctly, the spaces between the frames are the exact size needed for bees to get between them, the "Bee Space". If however they are spaced incorrectly or a frame is removed and not replaced, then the bees will make use of this extra space and create what is known as burr comb. Burr comb connects either the frames together or a frame to the wall of the hive depending on where the empty space is. For beekeepers, this is a bonafide nightmare. Connected frames cannot be removed correctly and we have to first break the burr comb before we can pull the honey from the hive. This is not only time consuming, but also it's just not very much fun.
A few months ago, I did a bee garden tour for a group of Girl Scouts at our Wilmingtom Island facility. During the tour I placed a new super (bee box) on top of the hive and before I could put new frames in, one of the scouts was stung. I quickly capped the hive and took her inside. Fast forward about 3 weeks and I had forgotten to place frames in the hive. I went to check on that hive and found, to my dismay, that the entire super was full of burr comb and I was not going to be able to even get the cap off. I had effectively allowed my bees to create a ten pound brick of honeycomb that was going to eat up my Saturday. It took two people three hours in 100 degree weather, to remove my mistake. I had about an inch of standing honey in my shoes to go with my 10 lbs of honeycomb.
I suppose there is a moral in this story but I don't care to know what it is. I got a great story and a better understanding of bees as a result!
Submitted By: Usher Gay