no comb?

my third attempt to establish bees in my topbar hive seems to have been successful in that 10 days later they are still there and, when the sun shines, are busy coming and going looking very purposeful.  So today, in warm settled weather I decided to look inside.  there are lots of bees, all huddled together at one end of the space and the very end bar (the one furthest from the entrance) there are bees forming chains.  BUT there is no comb.

Do I (a) leave them alone as they know what to do and will build comb when they’re ready or (b) worry or (c) do something?  and if (c), what to do?  as you know the weather had been very unsettled but it has been quite warm for the last few days.  there are honey bees foraging in the garden and there is a great deal of bumblebee activity (do all bees forage from the same plants at the same time?).  I did wonder if the apparent non-activity can be explained by not much pollen /nectar and maybe that will improve.  or are these bees who, having come from a National hive, don’t know how to build comb? or is the queen sick or dead?  what is queen right?  I read that one one of the other blogs but wasn’t sure what it meant and how you could tell.  Please don’t hesitate to suggest the obvious – I’m such a novice that nothing is obvious to me but I want (and need) to learn



About walthambees

I am a complete novice to bee keeping - eager to learn, willing to try, happy to acknowledge that I know little and prepared to write about that in the hope that others will share their wisdom and experiences!
This entry was posted in Bee Colony Temperature Control, Feeding, Horizontal Top Bar Hives, Natural Beekeeping, Swarms. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to no comb?

  1. simplebees says:


    Here in West Oxfordshire the main honey flow has just started. That means there will nectar coming in which will give the little colony the energy it needs to build comb. So the answer is (a). 🙂

  2. walthambees says:

    I sort of knew you’d say that! thanks. I think I need regular reminders to just be patient and let the bees do what they’re good at….

  3. ingridIngrid says:

    Hi Ruth
    My new swarm in the topbar sounds just like yours. When I looked in yesterday there was a bit of new comb – about an inch or two- which is heading towards another bar- cross combing? – I am trying to remember what Gareth told us to do – turn the hive 30 degrees??

    • Ali Twigg says:

      Let the bees cross comb if they want to. They do this in response to environmental conditions in the hive e.g. draughts, heat flow. Wild bees don’t make ruler straight comb. If you are a natural bee keeper let the bees decide.

  4. walthambees says:

    Hi Ingrid
    that’s what I remember too – turn the hive so it orientates the direction of the comb to the line of the top bars. which made perfect sense at the time – but I wonder why bees would do that? and having decided to do it, why they would work along the bars in the new position. that may remain one of those great mysteries of course….

    • ingrid says:

      That makes sense but it is a mystery. Thanks for that – I must go and orientate tomorrow. We have torrential rain again. Poor bees.

      • walthambees says:

        I’m curious to know how your comb got on after you reorientated the hive. My apparently comb-less swarm seem to be building something at the far side of the hive in the corner furthest from the entrance and my little observation window. if that’s the case they’re working across the bars instead of along them. I’m surprised as that the north-facing side of the hive which I would have thought was the coldest side. BUT I don’t want to move the hive in case that upsets them and, given the suggestion that top bar hive might be best managed by just leaving the bees to do exactly what they want, perhaps I shouldn’t be trying to make thing more convenient for me.

        another question – my bees are now taking pollen into the hive – does that mean that they are feeding or preparing to feed brood?

      • ingrid says:

        Ruth I will have a peek in to see what’s going on when it is warm and sunny (if it ever is again) and report back about the cross combing.

  5. Paul says:

    If they can get nectar / syrup they have the fuel to make wax and thus comb. Sounds like they just had poor forage for a while.

    They tend to build comb in the alignment of their previous hive; they have a magnetic sense; they will forget what that direction was after a few days in a new home. This has led to an untrue “everyone knows” factoid that bees always build north/south comb … just an artefact of the way most people orient their hives in northern Europe, entrances facing the sun.

    Living in a National hive shouldn’t wipe out tens of millions of years’ of genetic programming; they’ll know how to make natural comb. Consider what happens when a swarm escapes – they set up home in a hollow tree or roof and build comb just fine.

    I get the impression everyone’s colonies are behaving “oddly” this year because weather conditions have been non-standard, so the bees are trying to adapt using little-used instincts. So one of our hives has swarmed 3 times, probably killing itself, and the other – a sister colony – not at all, it’s seething with bees. Extreme conditions have triggered extreme reactions.

  6. pamglos says:

    Gareth kindly brought us a small swarm on Monday and we hived them successfully and during the warm weather have been very busy flying and foraging. On looking in through the observation window we can see they are just clustering on the side wall of the hive, they have remained there all today during the cold rainy weather. As instructed, we put some feed in the hive on Wednesday evening and they seeem to be getting by on that and we will replenish it on Friday – so it is useful to know others are behaving the same way. I guess we have to be patient and let them get on with it in their own time.

  7. johnmkubwa says:

    To build comb a swarm has to make wax and raise the temperature within the cluster to 40 deg C. To raise brood the nest must be kept at the optimum temperature of 35/36 degC. (Tautz: The Buzz about Bees). Normally swarm bees always climb to the top of a cavity to find a hot air pocket in which to work. If the swarm has been put in a large box with no such ‘snug’, they may struggle in cool weather to build comb. Once they have have started the nest and are tending brood, slightly cooler weather may reduce foraging if bees are required to maintain brood warmth. Small swarms will find balancing comb-building, brood rearing and foraging quite taxing; and that is before they have to defend against wasps.

    When using Nationals I used to use a 5 frame nuc box to provide a cosy environment for a swarm, or use a divider board to restrict the volume of a full brood box. My Warré boxes have 8 topbars but heat is retained by a hessian cloth and quilt.

    To me, enabling a colony to retain warmth and manage its own ‘air-conditioning’ is vital to colony well-being. Providing 5mm thick wax starter strips on topbars not only gives a comb building guideline, it also provides some wax resource to help stretch the new colony’s meagre stocks of honey.

    • Ali Twigg says:

      Hope your wax comes from a reputable source or it could contain nasties such as AFB/nosema spores.

      • johnmkubwa says:

        Ali wrote “Hope your wax comes from a reputable source or it could contain nasties such as AFB/nosema spores”.

        Too right!. I recover my own wax using a solar extractor. Before doing so, I examine carefully my brood comb for signs of AFB or EFB; I burn any comb which is black, contains pollen, dead brood or the like of chalk brood. I find that old brood comb gives very little wax, unlike honeycomb, and is not worth the recovery effort.

        In a natural situation, following a colony die-out, there are likely to exist a variety of bacteria and spores. Any comb with pollen, honey and dead brood will attract wax moth and mice which will breakdown the comb. The ‘sump’ of a tree cavity will contain mites, bacteria and fungi which will further decompose debris. It seems to me that bacteria and spores are likely to exist everywhere. Any comb remaining which is occupied by a wild swarm will be cleaned extensively and ‘rubbish’ thrown out. Bees will be exposed to bacteria etc but if they are fit, strong and healthy a colony should be able to cope.

        The risk of weak colonies developing disease, drives conventional beeks to clean and disinfect hive parts; but the chemicals damage bees, kill beneficial mites and disrupt colony pheromones. Chemicals will also contaminate wax and will ‘leach’ into the nest atmosphere.

        Andover, North Hampshire

  8. walthambees says:

    thanks for that John – really helpful. I suspect cold is the issue and I have tried to put in some insulation to help with that. I have created a smaller space using the centre-board or the top bar hive although, to add another worry to my list, I have been wondering when I will know to increase the space when they do start building. But I haven’t got there yet. what’s really needed is some nice warm weather of course.

  9. simplebees says:

    Maintaining the optimum temperature is more difficult in a horizontal hive than in a vertical one. Heat rises and, in a vertical hive with a well insulated top (such as the Warre), a cluster of bees at the top of the hive is in the warmest place. As John says, there is no such warm spot in a horizontal hive, as the heat dissipates either side of the cluster instead of accumulating around it. Earlier this year, I saw exactly the same problem in a well established colony in a horizontal hive during sudden cool weather, leading to chilled brood, despite there being plenty of insulation above the top bars.

    In hot weather, the opposite problem can arise; hot spots develop that can lead to comb collapse. Poor temperature regulation has caused me recently to abandon using horizontal hives. I have now converted to using only Warres.

    West Oxfordshire

  10. walthambees says:

    that’s interesting Gareth. I’m beginning to wonder how I can possibly keep this hive warm during the winter if they’re struggling now. I assume that once the colony is established, they generate heat though their mass but presumably, the cooler it is, the more of thier energy gets drained keeping them warm. I’ve put some newspaper and some hessian into the roof space to try and help but there’s not much more space.


  11. FollowMeChaps says:

    I’m going to add to what Gareth says about the hive type as I think it is important that folk realise that horizontal hives are very problematic. It’s so unfortunate that so many are encouraged to build them by a certain web forum.

    I too started with horizontals in 2009 and started a bee group in North Somerset. We all built horizontals so gained much experience with them (though not as much as Gareth has). It soon became apparent to us that horizontals suffered several issues – the two main ones being heat retention, as Gareth already pointed out, and the fact that you need to ‘manage’ a horizontal by frequent opening to keep the comb straight. Basically they need managing bar by bar. We also tried Warré hives and found these to be far more simple to use with benefits for the beekeeper and, much more importantly, for the bees as they are managed box by box – no need to keep opening and disturbing the colony.

    We therefore converted to just promoting Warrés 2 years ago. Although several members, including me, continue with the horizontals we started, as they die out we don’t replace the bees.

    I know this is not what those with horizontals want to hear, but is said for those who have not yet built of bought their hive. If you ain’t done it yet I strongly recommend a Warré or other vertical hive (eg Perone) over a horizontal.

    If you have a horizontal they can be used to keep bees naturally (ie minimum interference) by using end entrances and leaving the bees to build comb as they wish – this will inevitably lead to cross combing. Just let them be and once they have filled the hive with comb you can choose what you want to harvest (eg 5 bars) and use a long knife to cut between the bars at this point and cut through any cross combing. Harvest those bars and leave the bees to make good the damage. It’s far from ideal (and problematic if the bee inspector calls!) but does leave the bees undisturbed.

    I hope this helps.


  12. ingrid says:

    So many things to consider. Useful advice on cross combing. I wonder how Warres would stand up to inquisitive badgers, which is an issue here in West Somerset? Having two very solid horizontals, I am committed to those now but imagine they are less prone to tipping over?

    Ingrid, West Somerset

    • simplebees says:


      First, since you mention it, I have taken the liberty of adding your location at the end of your post and encourage others to do the same. It helps readers to understand the context in which a post is written if you know where the writer keeps his/her bees.

      Second, I have seen badger scratch marks on the roof of a TBH but the hive, and contents, survived, likely because there was no mesh floor that the badger could get at.

      It is true that Warres, which have a small footprint and can get rather tall (like a tree), are less stable than horizontal hives. Whereas a tree has roots to keep it upright, Warres do not, so many strap them down to avoid wind blow. If I had badgers nearby, I would not rely on this, however. I help a beekeeper whose Warres are within sight of an active badger den and his apiary is surrounded by a wire sheep fence, with the sheep mesh buried in the ground for good measure.

      Gareth, West Oxfordshire

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