There was a time when bees actually made their own comb from scratch. No really – they actually did. Honeybees really do know how to make their own comb! Unfortunately, their comb making often does not mesh with our desire for order. If left on their own, the combs will often have curves, which is not conducive to movable frame management. There are a few areas in even natural beekeeping where for the sake of managing the hive and extracting a harvest without destroying said hive, we must depart to a degree from the purely natural and give the bees more motivation to make straight combs. In this case, the use of comb guides has proven beneficial.
Comb guides can be a variety of things but their common attribute is that they’re attached to the top-bar either in a frame or a top-bar style hive. There are many options for comb guides – chamfer-trim or similar, Popsicle-sticks glued into a grooved top-bar, a piece of foundation similarly attached, or in some cases just a big of wax poured into the groove of the grooved top-bar.
When the bees make comb, they form little curtains of bees, hanging to gravity. These curtains are what determines the comb’s dimension. With the comb-guides in place, they’ll often grab onto the guide as the lowest point and use that as the base of their comb-making. While they are not guaranteed to stick to the guide, in most cases they do so long as other conditions are adequate – such as top-bar spacing and condition of neighboring combs. If the spacing is too far apart, they’ll begin to disregard the comb guides after a comb or three. And if a neighboring comb has a big bulge at the top – as can happen when they start filling out for honey, the next comb will be likewise off-center from the comb-guides. So the guides are at best recommendations, and it still takes a bit of management to ensure the bees properly utilize them.
I use chamfer trim attached to my frame’s top-bars for comb-guides. It worked GREAT in the top-bar hives so I simply kept using them on my frames when I migrated to Langstroth last year. The bees appear to have taken to them just as well. Chamfer trim can often be found in the trim department of most hardware stores and I use the 3/4″ chamfer trim, which is all the store here carries. It fits the grooved top-bars perfectly. They come in 8′ lengths and I cut them into 16 3/4″ sections, with five sections per stick plus a little “waste” that can be cut to size to pair with another to fit in a frame. It takes two 8′ sticks per hive-box. With the TBH’s hives, I used to glue and nail the trim to the top-bars – which was rather tedious. My latest batch of top-bars that go on the frames I’m glued and used 1/2″ staples instead of nails and that’s worked pretty well. I purchased an electric stapler to make it easier.
The basic technique is to run a couple of beads of glue like Titebond III on the chamfer trim section and position it on the top-bar then staple it. It needs to be held firmly to make sure it doesn’t shift while being stapled. Not all the staples go in all the way – sometimes I have to re-staple if the previous staple didn’t go deep enough to hammer in, but in most cases I can just tap it the rest of the way in with a hammer. I prefer the staples with the flat edges rather than the pointed staples. The points are usually angled in a way that when the staple goes into the wood, one part goes in one direction and the other part goes in the other direction, and I want it to pretty much go straight in.
While it may seem more work than Popsicle sticks or paint stirring sticks, I prefer the chamfer trim because the angle promotes the bees to go down to the lowest edge before they start making comb, then they build it up either side of the comb guide as they draw the comb down, cementing the new comb to the top-bar securely. Eventually you won’t even see the comb-guide as the bees will exhaustively cover it with comb.
It’s not a 100% guarantee – you need to monitor them while they’re drawing comb as they still can cross-comb. Once you have some straight combs, you can use these to help guide the new combs by placing an empty frame or top-bar between two straight combs. Just be sure that you always have at least two brood-combs together – no “empty, comb, empty, comb” because that makes it harder for the bees to tend to the brood and keep it warm. So, “comb, comb, empty, comb, comb, empty” and so-forth is better. It’s also good if you don’t overdo it too – just one or two empties at a time. Of course, this assumes that the bees already have comb to use to help keep neighboring combs straight. If it’s a swarm, you can pull straight comb from another hive and put it in to help get them started. Then just feed in an empty here and there as they draw their comb once they have a few frames or top-bars filled. If you feed towards the center, that will keep the bees making brood-comb and hopefully by the time they start prepping the outer frames for honey, they’ll already be up against the wall and they won’t be able to go so wild with it.
I wire all of my frames to help support the comb, regardless of whether it’s brood or honey. Since I don’t use queen excluders and run an unlimited broodnest, I like my equipment to be uniform and interchangeable – so it all gets wired. That way, as I rotate my frames through the hive they’ll always have wire and will reduce blowouts in extraction. Bees build right over it with no problem at all. The wiring also makes attaching cutout combs much easier – I just place the cut-out comb on the wires close to the top-bar and then put the rubber-bands on. I don’t mess with trying to embed the wires – this comb will end up being rotated out and cut from the frames in time anyway and it’s better for the bees and the brood that I get the cut-out done faster.
In any case, the bees hardly notice the wires when drawing down their comb and the wires quickly disappears under the comb as the bees start filling it with brood and nectar. This makes the comb much stronger, especially if it’s rather young, and simplifies inspection and extraction. It is a bit of work to wire them, but in the end I think they save more of a headache than they cause. Once the bees have fully drawn out a frame, it is nearly indistinguishable from a frame that used foundation. Save for more spaces on the sides and bottom of the frame, the frame is fully filled in and if managed correctly, pretty flat. As the comb is rotated up and used for extraction, the uncapping knife will help level out any bumps and irregularities too.
Foundationless takes a bit more work than foundation, but it allows bees to build the comb as they deem necessary – seeing as most of the time they know what they need better than we do. And it allows bees to size their cells according to their needs and not what we think their needs are. Their cell sizes will generally be smaller than the oversized foundations commonly sold, but honey production will still be high and the difference is often indistinguishable. And finally, the advantage of foundationless over foundationed is money. A dollar a frame for wax foundation adds up, especially if you’re growing your hives up to five or six deeps tall and have multiple hives. While it takes a bit of management to develop straight combs, once they’re built you’ll get several years of use out of them and basically for free. Time to draw isn’t any different from foundationless or foundationed – some report one is faster and others report the other is faster. But the bees can fill a deep frame with comb in less than a week, foundation or no. So give it some consideration. With their own comb, you will always know where it came from.