Is Comb Honey the Same as Honeycomb?

Sort of, but I’m going to say no.

So what’s the difference between honeycomb and comb honey? Why do beekeepers call it “comb honey” when everyone else calls it honeycomb?

Well, for one thing, honeycomb refers to a type of comb, whereas comb honey refers to a type of honey.

A frame of empty comb, what most beekeepers call “drawn comb.” The bees can fill this comb with pollen, nectar (which becomes honey) or the queen might eggs in the comb.

Comb full of pollen.

At first glance, this frame might look like “honeycomb,” but closer examination shows some brood in the middle of all that honey. Click the images for a better view.

Comb honey. Nothing but honey and beeswax.

Honey bees produce wax. From that wax they build a variety of comb. Think of comb as rows and rows of Mason jars, but made of beeswax instead of glass, and lids or caps not made of metal but from beeswax too. What the bees decide to put in those jars — those honeycomb-shaped jars — determines what we call them. Sort of.
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When Bees Won’t Draw Out Comb on Plastic Foundation

I’ve always heard about how honey bees won’t draw comb on plastic foundation, but I didn’t experience it in a big way until this summer. I had three nucs set up in deeps that I wanted to expand into medium supers because I want to try on the all-medium-super beekeeping game and see if I like it because I know I don’t like lifting 40kg deeps full of honey (about 100 pounds). If I was a seniorish citizen with back, hip or leg problems, or just a regular human being who wasn’t in the mood for any heavy lifting in their beekeeping, I’d consider switching to all shallow supers. For now, though, I’ll see how it goes with mediums.

Waxless plastic foundation and a foundationless section the bees had no problem building on.


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Nucs That Caused Bulging Honey

I noticed bulging honey (video link) in all three nucs I installed last week. And by bulging honey, I mean comb the bees built past the width of the frame. Here’s an extreme example from one of my honey supers two years ago:

IMG_0383-thick-comb

Bulging honey is great for a honey super where I want as much honey on each frame as the bees can manage. I deliberately space out the frames so the bees will draw thicker comb on it. But bulging comb of any kind is not what I want to see in the brood nest.

The brood frames can’t be spaced evenly against each other when bulging honey gets in the way. (Have I just coined a phrase, bulging honey?) When I installed my nucs, the frames of bulging honey created uneven spacing — and extra space between the frames. The bees want to fill in that extra space and they often do so with bridge comb, which breaks apart and makes a mess in the brood nest whenever I need to inspect a frame.

Bridge comb caused by having too much space between the frames. (July 22, 2016.)

Bridge comb caused by having too much space between the frames. (July 22, 2016.)

I took a quick look at one of the nuc hives today and already noticed bridge comb. What a pain.
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Foundationless Frame in The Brood Nest = Less Messy Drone Comb

Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Swarm Prevention. I talked about knowing when to stop feeding to prevent swarming and all kinds of good stuff. I also said something like this:

In a standard Langstroth hive with foundation, all the foundation usually has worker-sized cells imprinted on it, so the bees tend to build worker brood comb on it, not drone comb. That leaves the queen with nowhere to lay drone comb, so she’s forced to fill the space between the boxes with drone comb — drone comb that is a big ugly mess to clean up in the spring.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after an inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

That’s why I insert at least one foundationless frame into the brood nest of every colony. Given the choice to build comb however they like it, if they’re short on drones (and they usually are in a Langstroth hive full of plastic foundation), the bees will (usually) fill the foundationless frame with drone comb instead of gunking up the space between the brood boxes with it.

I added such a foundationless frame to my one colony that’s in pretty good shape two weeks ago. Today I took a look at that foundationless frame and found this…

Natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

…naturally drawn out drone comb with freshly laid eggs inside most of the cells.

Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

The wax is yellow probably because the bees have been collecting dandelion nectar and pollen for the past few weeks.

Click the image to see a much sharper close up view of the comb.

Does adding a foundationless frame to the outside of the brood nest prevent swarming? I don’t know. I still think the #1 method for preventing swarming is the give the queen space to lay by adding drawn comb, replacing frames of honey with drawn comb if necessary. Second is to give all the bees that emerge from the brood frames space so the hive doesn’t get congested with too many bees. The pheromones from the queen and from the open brood don’t circulate well around a congested hive. The worker bees get swarmy when they can’t smell those pheromones. Third, give the rapidly-growing population of worker bees something to do. That’s another reason why I toss in foundationless frames. The bees in a crowded colony usually want to fill in that space as quick as possible. They will eat honey to make wax so they can build comb to fill in the empty space. Eating honey frees up space for the queen to lay. Then the new comb will give the queen more space to lay (probably drones). So in a perfect world all of these things balance out so the hive doesn’t get gunked up with drone brood between the boxes and the queen has enough room to lay so swarming isn’t triggered. In a perfect world.

Uncapped Syrup Creates Moldy Comb

A beekeeper on the island of Newfoundland recent said:

    I fed my bees sugar syrup until it was too cold for them to take any more of it, which isn’t always the smartest thing to do because even though the bees are able to store the syrup, they may not have time to cure it (evaporate most of the water from it) and cap it like they would with honey during warmer weather. Subsequently, as in my case, the ole beekeeper discovers a top third deep filled mostly with uncapped syrup — or as we like to say in the real world, moisture. Not enough moisture to drip down on the bees and kill them, but enough to dampen the frames and allow some mold to grow.

I wholeheartedly agree with that beekeeper. He seems like a smart guy.

Uncapped sugar syrup → moisture → damp → moldy comb. (Nov. 7, 2015.)

Uncapped sugar syrup → moisture → damp → moldy comb. (Nov. 7, 2015.)


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Benefits of Frequent Hives Inspections

July 2019 Introduction: I still probably dig into my hives more than I should. My constant curiosity may have made me a pretty good beekeeper when I started, but it’s more likely a liability these days. I should just leave the bees alone most of the time but I don’t.

There are many arguments for and against hands-off beekeeping. For new beekeepers just starting out, for the first year (except for winter), I’d dig into those hives at least once a week. Minimum. Even if it’s just to refill a frame feeder and look down at the bees without pulling out any frames, every chance to stick your face inside a hive is a learning experience. And by you I mean me, because that’s what I did when I started and I know it put me way ahead of the game compared to other beekeepers I know who took a hands-off approach. I know hands-off beekeepers five or six years in who still can’t tell the difference between a queen cup and a drone cell. That’s not good.

I still look in my hives about once a week, but I don’t often dig deep into them. I rarely, if ever, dig into the bottom deep of a hive past the month of May. One thing I don’t do as much as I should is check for swarm cells. I do, but I don’t go crazy with it. I know beekeepers who dig down into the bottom of their hives every seven or eight days after the month of May to check for swarm cells. They see it as standard hive management, and I understand that, and I probably should do it myself, but I really don’t like disturbing the bees that much. I’ll roll the dice and leave the bees alone if I don’t think they’re likely to swarm. In my experience, the colonies that have been the most robust and have made the most honey for me are the ones I was able to leave alone. All summer long they look they could swarm any minute, but they don’t, and they make truck loads of honey for me. People don’t talk about this enough, but managing bees so they come very close to swarming and make tons of honey instead — it’s not easy.

So I guess there’s a time to dig into the hives and a time to leave them alone. Working out that fine balance may be the foundation of good beekeeping.

Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes, there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.

Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier. Comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.

Regular inspections also allowed me to remove the super glue known as propolis. Frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful manoeuvring to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.

Regular inspections and cleaning up the frames make things less perilous for the queen. Any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.

Here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)


Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
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Combs of Pollen and Nectar

This is Part 2 of some hive inspections I did yesterday. It’s a 3-minute video that, among a few other things, shows what frames of pollen and nectar look like. Again, this may not seem like the most scintillating thing on the planet, but it would have been helpful had I viewed videos like this when I started. By the end of my first summer, I needed to know the difference between frames of pollen, nectar, honey, worker brood and drone brood, and there was no one around to show me what was what. Knowing that I was on my own partially motivated me to write this blog. Before I post anything, I usually ask, “What would I have liked to have known when I did this for the first time?” (Even if the first time was only two days ago.)

Part 1 of the video: Making Room for the Queen. There is no Part 3. I thought there would be, but there isn’t.

Thick Combs of Honey (Slight Return)

I posted some photos a couple days ago of what is probably the thickest combs of honey I’ve ever seen in any of my hives. Here’s the video:


(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)

It’s not the most instructive video, but if it sparks the imagination of anyone curious about honey bees or beekeeping, that’s good enough for me. If I can instruct at the same time, well, that’s a bonus. The 1:50 mark in the video, for instance, shows how the bees begin to build comb by festooning. My explanation in the video isn’t the most articulate. I’m so used to beekeeping alone in silence, I felt awkward talking. Festooning is not a well-defined phenomena anyway, so my bumbling explanation kind of fits.

Now here are some things this situation has me wondering about…
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Thick Combs of Honey From a Hive in The Shade

June 2019 Introduction and a few fun facts: I got more honey out of this hive than any single hive I’ve ever had. This hive was set up in a wooded area under a big ole spruce tree where it got maybe three hours of sunlight a day, about two hours in the morning and one hour in the late afternoon. The rest of the time it was in the shade. Many people believe that honey bee colonies do better when their hives are in full sunlight, and they probably do, but a colony with a healthy robust queen under any conditions can put up a pretty good fight. To anyone who has been discouraged from getting into beekeeping because they can’t keep their hives in full sunlight, don’t believe the hype.

The bees in one of my hives are making the thickest combs of honey I’ve ever seen.

IMG_0383-thick-comb

I usually put 10 frames in a honey super, but I had to knock that down to 8 frames just to make room for the ridiculously thick honey comb these bees are building.
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What is Cross Comb?

Ever pull out some frames to discover the bees have built comb perpendicular to the frames and every which way? I have. It’s called cross-comb and it’s a mess. Here’s my first look at it from late July:

Cross comb (July 23, 2013.)

Cross comb (July 23, 2013.)

Cross-comb, from what I’ve read, is usually the result of a hive that isn’t level, specifically when it’s tilted, even a little bit, to the left or the right. Bees follow the pull of gravity to build comb straight down. That’s pretty much what they’re up to when you see them festooning:

Honeybee festooning. (August 21, 2010.)

Honey bees festooning. (August 21, 2010.)

The bees don’t care about the frames or foundation inside the frames. If the frames or foundation happen to be parallel to the Earth’s gravitational pull, then the bees will build straight comb that fits conveniently on the frame just that way we humans like it. If not, the frames — and the foundation in the frames — only get in the bees’ way and you end up with cross-comb.

Cross comb (July 23, 2013.)

Cross comb (July 23, 2013.)

That’s why the ideal positioning of a Langstroth hive is level from left to right — to prevent cross-comb — and slightly tilted up on the back so that any moisture that happens to collect inside the hive will pour out the front entrance and not pool inside the hive.

Bubble Level (Android app)April 5th, 2014: I used to carry a carpenter’s bubble level with me whenever I set up a new hive (the hives can shift over winter as well, as I learned today), but these days I use a Bubble level app on my cell phone. (I happen to have an Android phone, but I’m sure similar apps are available for other types of smart phones or devices.) There are many free apps to choose from and, for me, I’d rather have an easy-to-use app already on my phone if it means I don’t have to carry around another piece of equipment when I’m tending to the bees.

Natural Honey Comb

I harvested two medium supers of honey from two hives last year. The weather last summer was the pits. This year I harvested about four medium supers of honey from maybe four hives. This summer’s weather was incredible. I could have had truck loads of honey, but three colonies swarmed on me, two queens failed and so on. T’was a difficult year. A year that made me realize what I like about beekeeping and what kind of beekeeper I want to be. Here’s a hint: I like bees, not beekeeping. For instance, I like seeing this kind of thing when I pull out a frame:

Partially drawn, partially capped comb. (Oct. 02, 2012.)

That’s a partially drawn frame of honey comb I saw while harvesting the last bit of honey from my hives today. I only took about five medium frames in all. Most of the honey, like the capped honey in this frame, was left behind for the bees.

Foundationless honey comb. (Oct. 02, 2012.)

For each of my seven hives, I moved the honey super above the inner cover (with a queen excluder underneath), so the bees will move the remaining honey down into the brood chamber. That way they should have enough honey to get through the winter and I won’t have to feed them syrup before winter kicks in.

The beginnings of honey comb. (Oct. 02. 2012.)

April 2019 Postscript: As it turns out, the decision to give my bees only honey instead of topping up the hives with sugar syrup was a bad call. It resulted in one of my giant colonies starving to death over the winter. A death of a colony will happen to every backyard beekeeper sooner or later. I take it in stride when something bad happens these days, but the first one was the hardest. Thankfully, I’ve haven’t had a healthy colony die on me over the winter since.

Fresh White Honey Comb

I took a brief peek at one of my monster hives with honey supers on it yesterday and found several frames well on their way to being filled with honey. I know some experienced beekeepers discourage new beekeepers from going foundationless in their honey supers because the chances of the bees making a solid crop of comb honey aren’t great, but I can’t help myself. I love it when the bees build natural comb like this:

Some fresh comb in a honey super. (July 2, 2012.)

My honey supers have a combination of foundationless frames, frames of drawn comb from last year (with and without foundation), and frames with untouched foundation.

Fresh comb in a honey super. (July 2, 2012.)

Apparently the bees are attracted to the smell of drawn comb. That gets them to work in the honey supers more eagerly. I put foundationless frames between the frames of drawn comb because the bees are generally compelled to fill in empty space. My methods may not maximize honey production, but the maximizing approach can take the fun out of beekeeping. That’s not my game. And it’s hard to argue with results like this:

Partially capped honey (July 01, 2012.)


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A Pretty Strip of Comb

I got into the whole foundationless “natural beekeeping” kick mostly for aesthetic reasons, not necessarily well thought out reasons. I’m fascinated by the behaviour of honey bees, especially how they build and organize their hives when they’re given free reign to do whatever they want on foundationless frames. But had I known that the large number of honey-hungry drones produced by foundationless colonies could result in little or no honey harvest during the first year, I would have passed on the whole thing.

It’s like spending a year and a half working and saving up to go on the fishing trip of a lifetime, and then not catching any fish once you get there. The season isn’t over yet and anything could happen (I’ll be overjoyed to get even a single medium super full of honey), but if I could go back and do it right the first time, I would follow the example of what works for beekeepers in Newfoundland (instead of trying to follow beekeepers out of California), and I would save the foundationless hives for another year after I’d already had some success with conventional hives.

A strip of natural honey comb less than a week old (July 24th, 2011).


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Architecture of Honey Comb

Here’s a quick video of the drone comb I pulled one of my hives yesterday with some commentary about the architecture of the comb. I point out the drone eggs too.

I call this post “Architecture of Honey Comb” even though it’s drone comb because, as far as I know, there’s no difference between the two. Both drone comb and honey comb have large cells, and drone comb is supposedly backfilled with honey once the drones emerge, anyway, so they’re virtually the same.

Natural Drone Comb

I decided to pull this natural drone comb today because the frame doesn’t have any support wire, which would have made the comb a prime candidate for snapping off the frame someday.

2019 Postscript: I don’t put wire in my foundationless frames anymore. Wires might prevent the combs from flying to pieces in an extractor, but I don’t extract foundationless frames, so that’s not a problem. The bees usually do a good job of securing the comb to the frame on their own.