Tying In Comb

Tying In Comb: A Way to Solve Problems

Tying-in is a useful little trick to know about. Although it is usually associated with major beekeeping projects like cut-outs, it comes in handy much more frequently when fixing up small disasters and miscues.

Notwithstanding the elegance of Reverend Langstroth’s hive design, sooner or later, your bees are going to put comb where you don’t want it. If you’re on the ball, you’ll notice and correct the problem while it is still minor. But if you miss that window, you can have a real mess on your hands when the bees seize the opportunity offered by any open space to put comb in the darnedest places. In the spring the bees feel an urgent need to use every bit of the hive. A missing, or wrong-sized, frame or excess room left along the sides or above or below the frames will be filled with new comb that will make working a hive a chore, or even impossible.

If the freeform comb is only filled with nectar or honey, you can just remove it. But if there is brood in the cells, you have a different problem. You could just cut out the offending comb and sacrifice the brood. A good queen can lay up a deep frame in just 5 or 6 days, so it may not be too much of a setback. (If you do decide to cull the brood combs, don’t just throw them on the ground as this may attract scavengers like skunks. However, if you have chickens they will gobble them right up.) But it always seems a shame to waste all that effort.

Or you could carefully remove it and do something called tying-in the comb. This involves using an empty frame as a supportive perimeter for the cut-off combs. The comb is held in place within the frame by a cage made from rubber bands until the bees have attached it securely to the frame. This flimsy-sounding technique works very well and is easy to do.

What you need to have on hand to tie-in comb

The only specialized equipment it requires is a supply of rubber bands. Next time you’re at an office supply store, pick up a package of the extra-long ones, as well some ordinary brown ones. Keep them with your bee tools and you’ll be ready to tie-in comb on the fly.

Although rubber bands make the job easier, the term “tying-in comb” comes from the time before rubber bands were available, when string was used to literally tie around the frame to hold the pieces of comb in. So if you haven’t got any rubber bands, you can use string, untreated baling twine, or even dental floss!

You’ll also need a completely empty frame, without any foundation or wires. Depending on the location and size of the errant combs, you may need a long, thin knife. Your hive tool is usually too bulky for this delicate job. A pot of warm water for rinsing your hands will come in handy. Because this technique takes the brood comb out of the hive and away from the care of the nurse bees during the process, choose a warm, even hot, day. Brood needs a nearly constant temperature of between 91-94 degrees F. If you’re going to be working on more than one comb at a time, have a nuc box stocked with some frames with nurse bees so you can stow the completed frames.

Prepare the frames and (if needed) a nuc box ahead of time

To make the process as efficient and quick as possible, prepare the frames before you start. First, slip four or five regular-sized rubber bands around each end of the frame. Keep them on, or very near, the end bars, making sure they aren’t crossing over each other, so that they can be easily moved individually, even when your fingers are sticky with honey. Stretch two long rubber bands around each of the top and bottom bars. While it is OK to have the bands slightly inward of the wooden frame, you want to keep as much of the interior space within the frame unobstructed. Prepare a couple of extra frames for all but the most minor jobs.

If you plan to temporarily stash the finished frames in a nuc box while you work on others, remove a couple of frames with lots of bees (try not to include the queen!) and place them in a nuc box near your work surface. Plan ahead so that you have room to eventually return the finished frames within the hive’s brood nest area when they are completed. If you are going to be making more than one tied-in frame, make sure you have enough room waiting to receive them.

Prepared frame with rubber bands

Cutting off (or out) the problem combs

The misplaced comb may be attached to any surface in the hive: the sides of the hive, underneath or on top of a frame or cover, or even beside a frame. How you remove it depends on where it is attached. If you can take the comb – still attached – out of the hive, your job will be easier and safer for the bees. New comb is very fragile, so, if at all possible, carry it to your work surface lying flat. Use a thin knife to carefully separate it from the frame, box, or cover. Make note of which way is up, so that you can set it inside the new frame with the same orientation.

Fitting the comb pieces into the frame

Lay the comb down within the empty space inside the frame. Sometimes, pieces are so large that you’ll have to trim off sections that are too big. Smaller pieces can be pieced together within the frame, always keeping the original top-to-bottom orientation in mind. If laying in multiple ribbons of narrow pieces, start filling from the bottom of the frame. Work as quickly as you can because the brood is completely exposed during this period. Your goal is to more or less fill the entire frame with combs, tucking smaller pieces in where you can. But you can leave some small open spaces – the bees will fill these in.

Cutting off pieces of comb

Cutting off pieces of comb

Carefully fit the pieces of comb inside the frame, paying attention to keeping them right side up.

Carefully fit the pieces of comb inside the frame, paying attention to keeping them right side up.

Create the rubber band cage around the combs

Create a rubber band cage

Without lifting the frame and comb more than necessary, slide the short brown rubber bands (these run around the frame from top to bottom) inwards from both end bars so that they are evenly spaced over the whole surface. If some are diagonally slanted rather than strictly up and down, that’s OK. Ease the rubber bands along rather than scraping them over the comb to avoid damaging the cappings. Once the bands that run around the short dimension of the frame are in place, slide the long bands that run around the frame in the horizontal direction into place. These will glide on more easily over the inner layer of rubber bands. Carefully do a trial lift to make sure the comb is held reasonably upright and secure within the cage of rubber bands. One you’re satisfied that the frame is complete, return it immediately to the hive or stow it in the temporary nuc box where the nurse bees can keep it warm.

After the frame is back in the hive

The bees will immediately begin to anchor the pieces of comb to the frame, and the nurse bees will continue to tend the brood if it’s still viable. You may see some larvae or pupae that were damaged during the tie-in process being hauled out over the following day or two. After a week or so, you can check on the frame. Unless you were tying whole sheets of comb, as you might if you were doing a cut-out to remove bees from a building, these frames will always have a lumpy, awkward shape. Once the brood has emerged, it’s best to move the frames as quickly as possible outwards, and eventually out of service. During this period, the bees will be chewing through the rubber bands and trying to remove them from the hive. You may catch the amusing sight of bees determinedly tugging on one end of the rubber band while the other end is still stuck down with wax.

While tying-in comb is a useful way to prevent unnecessary loss of brood, it always involves some collateral damage. In the future, that loss and the extra work of doing it, may encourage you to discourage the bees’ creative comb-making, while the cost is still trivial.