Planning for Care in Honey Bee Management

From Bee Craft: November 2009

Ken Gorman

Some philosophical thoughts based on a close relationship with the natural world


Ken reflects on the importance of the bee space

This includes my feelings for the bees for which I care. When we offer bees a home in the form of the movable-frame beehive we take on a responsibility for their well being, as well as the pursuit of our own aims and interests, examples of which are the hobby aspect, the harvesting of the honey crop and relaxation.

Manipulating and handling the bees is central to this care. Feral colonies site and construct their nests in a free way, building combs in a certain orientation and pattern, storing food, rearing young, defending the home and ensuring the survival of the colony, all without human intervention.

When we place the bees in a movable-frame hive we are attempting to modify their actions, leading to our harvesting a crop of honey in an efficient manner. If we do not manage the colony satisfactorily and thoughtfully, for example if we undertake careless, slipshod inspections or no inspections at all, then we are being negligent and failing to carry out our duty of care. Poor practice causes bee deaths and prompts a colony to become more defensive. If we permit the brood nest to revert to a more natural state, surfaces become heavily propolised, brace comb builds up and the combs become gnarled and dark, with the consequent build up of pathogens and medications.

It then becomes increasingly difficult to separate boxes and remove frames during inspections. Reassembling a hive in this condition is fraught with danger of crushing bees.

Before the arrival of the varroa mite, feral colonies could survive year after year, building, in some instances, large nests. Areas of comb would be extended in times of plenty, occupying more of the available space.

In winter, wax moth might destroy a portion of the nest, only for this to be rebuilt in the following spring. Disease, poor weather or the failure of a queen to mate following swarming could result in the death of a feral colony. The combs would be consumed by a variety of intruders, leaving a cleared space to be re-occupied by an incoming swarm, probably the following season.

In a managed colony, failure of the beekeeper to keep to a programme of comb renewal means that the colony is forced to use comb for brood rearing long past its optimum condition.


Correct spacing is vital to reduce the brace comb between top bars


I have kept bees since 1947 and have used several patterns of hive and different systems of management. I began with National hives when a boy and graduated to Deep Langstroths when I began to build up a sideline commercial outfit in 1981, at that point joining the Bee Farmers’ Association. I was able to take early retirement in 1990 and commenced fitting out colonies in National hives again, running the two patterns of hive side by side.

I currently still manage over 100 colonies in Nationals. I found the best all-round hive to be the Deep Langstroth -the Jumbo. Compared with the Nationals, the bees always built up faster into large colonies and tended to commence queen cell building later in the season. The brood chamber was large enough for any queen to lay to her full potential and always contained sufficient stores for wintering at the close of the season.

With increasing age it became more difficult for me to lift supers weighing up to 60 pounds from full height colonies in summer. Like many beekeepers it was my practice to work alone until recently. Brood chambers could only be lifted safely by bracing the box against the knee. This was not easy or comfortable, so the Jumbos were gradually sold on, the last of them several years ago.


When working American-pattern hives there was never a decision to be made about the frame type for the brood chambers, except whether to have split or one-piece bottom bars. Hoffman self-spacing frames were standard. There were no grooves in the side bars, so even when using wired foundation some additional in-frame wiring was necessary to keep comb faces straight and parallel.

Compare this situation with British Standard designs. We are in a hopeless muddle, with up to eight different hive types listed in catalogues and four types of brood frame, as well as a multiplicity of spacers, ends, converters and castellations. The appliance manufacturers will need to keep supplying the many patterns of hive to meet customer demand.

I don’t feel that it is too important which type of frame is used in the supers, although I find the Manley shallow ideal for extracted or cut-comb honey: it is self-spacing, sturdy and the uncapping knife is parallel to the face of the comb as it is passed down the face of the woodwork. The comb face protrudes beyond the wood just the right distance for a good cut. The following year the bees will only need to build out a small depth of comb to restore the bee space.


Bottom bars which causes disruption during manipulations


Ah – the bee space! I was taught that bees will propolise a gap less than a quarter of an inch (6.5 mm) and build comb in a space greater than three-eighths of an inch (10 mm). The space between the edge of a frame and the inner surface of the box is set at five-sixteenths of an inch (7.5 mm).

As long as frames are assembled exactly square, using a set square to check, or a special assembly jig, and the box has been assembled correctly, problems won’t be encountered.

Often frames do become propolised to the inner face of the brood box. Something’s wrong if this happens and it causes real difficulty lifting frames during colony manipulations. Having purchased second-hand equipment in the past, I have often found it necessary to knock boxes apart and reassemble them correctly.

It’s the space between the faces of the frame woodwork where there is often even more of a problem; to be specific, with the DNi frame. This is a simple rectangular shape with no protrusions but which requires the fitting of funny little clips to maintain spacing. Where else in the beekeeping world is this done?

Try this: place two DNi frames side by side, with spacers fitted (be they plastic, metal ends, Yorkshire, Hoffman adaptors etc); look at them end on and slowly rotate through 360 degrees. Do you see a correct bee space?

I’ve just carried out this exercise and what did I find? The space between the top bars and between the side bars is five-eighths of an inch (15 mm) and the space between the bottom bars (narrow type – oh yes, there is more than one type), is three- quarters of an inch (18 mm).

This is an invitation to the bees to build comb round the edges of frames – and they will! Yet what do I read in one catalogue. ‘We would recommend the use of DNi frames on narrow plastic ends in the brood bodies.’

Look further down the page and you can find information for the DN2. This has a wider top bar. I quote again – ‘wider top bar to prevent brace comb.’ Then why would you buy the DNi?

The DN4 is another option -back to the narrow top bar, however, and Hoffman self-spacing side bars. Finally we arrive at the DN5: wide top bar, Hoffman, self-spacing side bars and, from my supplier, I always ask for wide bottom bars. The result is that when I cany out the rotation exercise outlined above, there is a correct bee space on all facing surfaces, as the accompanying photographs show, with a resulting decrease in, or in fact an almost complete absence of, brace comb.

Why should all of this be an issue? I am concerned with comb manipulation during -routine inspections. The more propolis and brace comb that is built, the more difficult the manipulations become and the greater the danger of squashing bees. This is a source of alarm pheromone release, together with spores of nosema if they are present in the colony.


There are cost issues. In my supplier’s catalogue, DNi are listed at £9.95 for ten and DN5 are listed at £14.25. As ever, you get what you pay for. Over the past five years I have converted completely to DN5. The frames are sturdy and easily cope with boiling in washing soda solution when being sterilised every few years, after cutting out the old comb.

They handle well and sit tight during transportation of hives. At the conclusion of the manipulation of the brood nest, the hive tool can be placed between the side wall and the end frame and the whole set of frames cranked together to tighten everything up and restore the original spacing. This is not possible when using plastic spacers.

When I first commenced keeping bees in the late 1940s we used frames with a saw cut in the top bar; it was a utility frame designed for economy in timber use. The foundation was pushed into the saw cut to secure it. The saw cut was a cosy home for the larvae of the lesser wax moth. Eventually it was phased out of production.

The time has come to give notice for an end of production of the DNi, the DN2 and DN4. Only the DN5 frame meets the demands of the bee space. In addition, tens of thousands of frames should have been burnt years ago; too old, too propolised and too contaminated.

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