It’s the birthright of bees to build comb

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Honeybees build comb. It’s part of what they do. It’s part of who they are. And being, as it is, actually exuded from glands on the undersides of their bodies, the honeycomb that bees build is literally part of them. Comb is literally part of the super organism that is a honeybee colony.

It’s a bit strange, therefore, that for the last 150 years in western beekeeping some have come to see the comb as separate to the bees – something you can replace with pre-made wax, or with plastic, even, without noticeable ill-effects for the colony. But within a wholistic approach to beekeeping, natural, bee-made comb is central. Here’s why.

Underside of comb from a wild colony

When left to build their own comb from scratch, as practiced in Warré and many other forms of natural beekeeping, the bees use the comb for many things.

To start with, they vary the cell size depending on what they’re building the comb for – honey storage, to lay eggs for worker bees in, to lay eggs for drone bees in, or for pollen storage.

Comb as cupboard, nestling bed, and pantry…

Comb in our Warré hive showing both capped and open brood cells (baby bees), with pollen cells above the brood, and capped honey above that… all according to the bees needs that season
An open frame from Belinda’s Warré hive, showing brood cells at bottom beneath glistening uncapped and capped honey cells
An open frame from our Warré hive showing multicolored pollen being stored in the majority of cells, representing the local nectary within a 5km radius of this point

Bees also vary the cell size of their comb according to the season, accounting for climactic variation and a range of other intangibles.

In a natural comb hive, the the comb is a direct representation of the nectar wealth of the region, giving a true reflection of the season to the beekeeper. Also, bees in natural comb hives build only as much comb as they can monitor; the resulting high bee-to-comb ratio controls pests such as Small Hive Beetle and other diseases.

Comb as long-range weather forecast and disease protection…

The comb is also a central part of the hive’s communication system. Bees communicate in part by causing vibrations through the comb, as part of their ‘dance communication’, with the round and waggle dances being the best understood thus far by humans.

When building their own comb, this communication system works optimally as there are no plastics or pre-made foundation to disrupt the vibrations.

As you can guess, there is a huge amount of communication that goes on inside a hive of 80,000 bees, and, like with other communities, good communication is vital to survival and long-term colony health.

Comb as telephone, comb as community communication fabric…

Underside of Belinda’s Warré hive box, with the bees rounding off the base of each comb – photo by Cathy Xiao Chen

Allowing bees to renew their comb on a regular basis is an imporntant part of colony health, as the renewal of comb prevents the build up of serious disease pathogens such as American Foul Brood. In conventional bee management, the comb is re-used from year to year, which leads to build up of disease pathogens and environmental toxins.

Harvesting whole comb (and not returning it to the hive after harvest) ensures that each season the colony has the opportunity for comb renewal, which keeps the colony healthy.

Comb as natural, non-toxic home…

Capped and uncapped virgin comb, which the bees place above the brood nest for honey storage and thermal mass…

Lastly (and most deliciously), beekeeping with a hive where the bees draw their own comb means that periodically the beekeeper gets to harvest great slabs of the most incredible honeycomb which can be eaten whole, or crushed for healthful, raw honey, using simple tools.

In world honey centers like Turkey, honeycomb is eaten whole almost as commonly as it is eaten from the jar, in chunks with yoghurt. The comb can be swallowed or spat, and many different types of honeycomb are sold – virgin honeycomb, post-brood honeycomb that has seen a cycle of baby bees followed by honey storage, pollen filled honeycomb and more.

Honeycomb as super-charged, life-giving food, for both humans and bees…

Tim (and bee) with a frame of capped honeycomb ready for harvest
Showing students a Warré hive frame
Virgin and post-brood honeycomb from our hives, two very different (and delicious) edible combs…

As we ramp up through Spring here at Milkwood Farm, we still have precious stores of Warré honeycomb from last season, in all the colors of the rainbow, which is brought out occasionally as special treats, and during our Natural Beekeeping courses.

As the heat builds and the eucalyptus start flowering, I’m excited to know that our bees are busy in their 2 (and soon to split to 4) hives, building fresh comb for their babies and for the summer to come.

We’re honored to be stewarding their colonies, and allowing them their birthright, to build comb as they think best for this season…

See Tim Malfroy’s excellent webpage on Wild Honey for further insight into the benefits of comb renewal, and check out the post Natural Beekeeping Resources: best beekeeping books for our favorite in-depth resources on beekeeping, bee behavior and the fascinating world of this super organism.

>> All our posts about Natural Beekeeping are here

Thanks to Tim Malfroy for his input on this post.

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6 responses to “It’s the birthright of bees to build comb

  1. “Allowing bees to renew their comb on a regular basis is an imporntant part of colony health, as the renewal of comb prevents the build up of serious disease pathogens such as American Foul Brood. In conventional bee management, the comb is re-used from year to year, which leads to build up of disease pathogens and environmental toxins.”

    I completely agree that new comb is good for bee health, but how often comb is changed in a conventional hive is up to the beekeeper rather than an inevitable consequence of the hive design. I have a conventional hive but change the brood combs each year, as do many other beekeepers I know locally.

    Lovely photos of the comb, really gorgeous colours.

  2. Do you try to prevent swarms or allow them? On a narrow urban block I’d not be popular with swarming bees but feel it vital for the health and genetic diversity of my colonies. (All theoretical at this stage.)

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