Topical Tips – End of Mar – “Bee Space” – by Malcolm Wilkie

Bee Space
When you first start beekeeping you are told about the importance of bee space. The concept of bee space was discovered by the Reverend Langstroth. He worked out that bees always left 8mm (or a little bit more – approx. = 3/8in) between the combs in their nests so that two bees could work back to back. This enabled him to build a box/hive into which he could put movable frames. The importance of movable frames was to allow beekeepers to split open the brood nest without killing the bees. Langstroth’s discovery was a huge step forward in beekeeping and allows a modern beekeeper to manage his bees.
Of course in theory it is not difficult to understand 8mm. However, in practice people forget about bee space. Where is bee space important?
Firstly it is important when building a flatpack hive. You have to follow the unhelpful instructions sent to you and you need to decide whether you are going to have a brood box with either top bee space or bottom bee space. And of course once you have decided what bee space you are going to go for, you need to make sure that any supers you construct also have the same space either at the top or at the bottom, depending on what you’ve decided. If you don’t do this, the bees will propalise together any boxes with the wrong spaces and you will have a devils own job to split the boxes one from the other. You will find that if you have got two boxes with different bee spaces (I speak from experience) the frames in the bottom box will be stuck to the frames in the top box when you split the two boxes apart. When this happens the frames below will lift out as you lift the top box off the hive. And this will really piss off the bees! It also means that you are much more likely to kill bees accidentally as you are going to roll them and squash them. Your charges have a enough work trying to deal with all the viruses endemic within any hive, and if you then are crushing and squashing bees, you unwittingly spread viruses around your colony because, as you know, bees are very clean creatures and they will try and remove any squashed corpse and will suck up the contents of the crushed corpse in order to clean up the beekeeper’s mess. In other words, do make sure that you build your brood box and your supers with the same bee space.
Secondly beginners also forget about bee space when replacing the queen excluder. This only applies to the metal slotted Queen excluders. If you look at one of these carefully, you will notice which side the bee space is. So if your hive has top bee space, then you need to place your queen excluder with the bee space uppermost. On the other hand if you have bottom bee space and your frames fit flush with the top of your brood box, then you need to place the excluder with the bee space downwards. If you don’t do this, then the bees stick the metal slots to the top of the frames. And why wouldn’t they? They know about bee space, it’s just that their owner hasn’t yet learnt. Bees respect bee space and so must you.
Beginners should remember that bees stick everything in sight. They stick each frame to the next frame, they stick the top of the frames to the edge of the crown board (notice how your crown board has a lip of wood surrounding the edge both at the top and the bottom which gives you bee space), they stick a feeding bucket to the crown board, they stick the outside edge of your super to the top edge of the brood box. In fact they stick everything!!! This is the reason I hate plastic or thin metal Queen excluders because the bees stick these down to the top of the frames and these then ping off as you remove them. Bees may have bad eyesight but they are very very very sensitive to movement. And pinging Queen excluders definitely pisses them off! Remember if you do try and not piss your bees off, the experience of looking through your bees will be a much more pleasurable experience.
Now thirdly and most importantly for a beginner. Perhaps they have been lucky enough to get a swarm. They have managed to successfully hive that swarm. However in their excitement they have forgotten about bee space. Woe betide any beginner who doesn’t sit up and pay attention to what I’m about to say. You must, and I repeat you must, place all frames into the brood box. That means that once you have knocked your bees into the hive into the space created by removing five or six frames, you have to gently put back the frames that are missing. And you absolutely must make sure that the frames are tightly sitting one next to the other. Use Hoffman self-spacing frames for ease as the bee space has been worked out for you.
What could the consequences be of leaving frames out of your box? If you leave a gap, the bees will no doubt build wild comb which you will then have to dig out. And of course it is highly likely that the bees will build wild comb in the gap because they abhor a space and so they will ignore your nice fresh wax foundation until that space has been filled. The beekeeper in cleaning up this mess will probably, in all likelihood, kill the Queen. She is probably laying eggs in that wild comb, and as you remove it, you will kill her. And that probably will be the demise of your nice new colony!
Learning to keep bees equates in difficulty to learning how to drive. There is a lot to learn and bee space is fundamental.
Malcolm Wilkie 27th March 2018

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