Frame width

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Observations on Natural Frame Spacing

1 ¼" spacing agrees with Huber's observations

"The leaf or book hive consists of twelve vertical frames... and their breadth fifteen lines (one line= 1/12 of an inch. 15 lines = 1 1/4"). It is necessary that this last measure should be accurate." François Huber 1806

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Comb Width by Cell Size

According to Baudoux (note this is the thickness of the comb itself and not the spacing of the comb on centers)

Cell Size    Comb width
5.555 mm 22.60 mm
5.375 mm 22.20 mm
5.210 mm 21.80 mm
5.060 mm 21.40 mm
4.925 mm 21.00 mm
4.805 mm 20.60 mm
4.700 mm 20.20 mm
ABC XYZ of Bee Culture 1945 edition Pg 126

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Wild Comb in Top Feeder Comb Spacing Comb Spacing 30mm

Brood nest that moved into a top feeder even with plenty of room in the boxes. Inner cover after removing the comb. Spacing on naturally drawn brood comb is sometimes as small as 1 1/8" (30mm) but typically 1 1/4 (32mm).

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Other historic references to narrower frame spacing
"...are placed the usual distance, so that the frames are 1 9/20 inch from centre to centre; but if it is desired to prevent the production of drone brood, the ends of every other frame are slipped back as shown at B, and the distance of 1 1/4 inch from centre to centre may be maintained."--T.W. Cowan, British bee-keeper's Guide Book pg 44
"On measuring the combs in a hive that were regularly made, I found the following result, viz; five worker-combs occupied a space of five and a half inches, the space between each being three-eights of an inch, and allowing for the same width on each outer side, equals six and a quarter inches, as the proper diameter of a box in which five worker-combs could be build...The diameter of worker-combs averaged four-fifths of an inch; and that of drone-combs, one and one-eight of an inch."--T.B. Miner, The American bee keeper's manual, pg 325

If you take off the extra 3/8" on the last one this is 5 7/8" for five combs divided by five is 1.175" or 1 3/16" on center for each comb.

"Frame.--As before mentioned, each stock hive has ten of these frames, each 13 inches long by 7 1/4 inches high, with a 5/8 inch projection either back or front. The width both of the bar and frame is 7/8 of an inch; this is less by 1/4 of an inch than the bar recommended by the older apiarians. Mr.Woodbury,--whose authority on the modern plans for keeping bees is of great weight,--finds the 7/8 of an inch bar an improvement, because with them the combs are closer together, and require fewer bees to cover the brood. Then too, in the same space that eight old fashioned bars occupied the narrower frames admit of an additional bar, so that, by using these, increased accommodation is afforded for breeding and storing of honey."-- Alfred Neighbour, The Apiary, or, Bees, Bee Hives, and Bee Culture...
"I have found it to be just that conclusion in theory that experiment proves a fact in practice, viz: with frames 7/8 of an inch wide, spaced just a bee-space apart, the bees will fill all the cells from top to bottom with brood, provided deeper cells or wider spacing, is used in the storage chamber. This is not guess-work or theory. In experiments covering a term of years. I have found the same results, without variation, in every instance. Such being the fact, what follows? In answer, I will say that the brood is invariably reared in the brood-chamber -- the surplus is stored, and at once, where it should be, and no brace-combs are built; and not only this, but the rearing of drones is kept well in hand, excess of swarming is easily prevented, and, in fact, the whole matter of bee-keeping work is reduced to a minimum, all that is required being to start with sheets of comb just 7/8 of an inch thick, and so spaced that they cannot be built any deeper. I trust that I have made myself understood; I know that if the plan indicated is followed, beekeeping will not only be found an easier pursuit, but speedy progress will be made from now on."--"Which are Better, the Wide or Narrow Frames?" by J.E. Pond, American Bee Journal: Volume 26, Number 9 March 1, 1890 No. 9. Page 141

Note: 7/8" plus 3/8" (max beespace) makes 1 1/4".
7/8" plus 1/4" (min beespace) makes 1 1/8".

"But those who have given special attention to the matter, trying both spacing, agree almost uniformly that the right distance is 1 3/8, or, if anything, a trifle scant, and some use quite successfully 1 1/4 inch spacing." --ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture by Ernest Rob Root Copyright 1917, Pg 669
"With so many beginners wanting to know about eleven deep frames in a 10 frame deep Langstroth brood chamber I will have to go into further details. But first this letter from Anchorage, Alaska of all places. For that is as far north as you can keep bees. He writes, I'm a new beekeeper with one season's experience with two hives. A good friend is in the same boat he had read one of your articles on "Squeezing" the bees and tried one of his hives that way result a hive full of bees and honey. This year we will have eight hives with eleven frames in the brood chamber."
"If you, too, want to have eleven frames in the brood chamber do this. In assembling your frames besides nails use glue. It' a permanent deal anyway. Be sure your frames are the type with grooved top and bottom bars. After assembling the frames, plane down the end bars on each side so that they are the same width as the top bar. Now drive in the staples. As I mentioned last month make them by cutting paper clips in half. They cost but little and don't split the wood. Drive the staples into the wood until they stick out one quarter inch. The staples should be all on one side. This prevents you from turning the frame around in the brood nest. It's a bad practice and it upsets the arrangement of the brood nest. It is being done, but it leads to chilling of brood and it disturbs the laying cycle of the queen. I am talking to beginners, but even old timers should not commit this bad practice. As for the foundation, if you use molded plastic foundation just snap it into the frame and you are ready to go."-- Charles Koover,Bee Culture, April 1979, From the West Column.

The standard frame width on Hoffman frames is 1 3/8". That means that from center to center combs are spaced 1 3/8" apart. This makes a comb about 1" thick and a beespace between the combs about 3/8". This spacing works pretty well as an all around spacing and yet beekeepers usually space the frames in the supers further, like 1 1/2" or more apart. The 1 3/8" was already a compromise between honey storage, drone brood comb and worker brood comb. Natural worker brood comb being spaced 1 1/4" while natural drone comb is more like 1 3/8" and honey storage typically is about 1 1/2" or more. (1 1/4"=32mm, 1 3/8" = 35mm and 1 1/2"=38mm)

Spacing frames 1 1/4" has a number of advantages among them:
  • Less drone comb.
  • More frames of brood in a box.
  • More frames of brood can be covered with bees to keep them warm as the layer of bees is only one bee deep instead of two.
  • According to some research back in the 70's in Russia, there was less Nosema.
  • It's more natural spacing for smaller cells.
  • It incites the bees to build smaller cells. The smaller spacing contributes towards them viewing the comb on it as worker comb.
Frequent misconceptions about tighter spacing:
  • That 1 1/4" (32mm) is only right for Africanized Honey Bees. I've let European Honey Bees build their own comb and they space worker brood comb as small as 1 1/8" (30mm) but typically 1 1/4" for the core of the brood nest. Wider at the outside edges when they want drones and even wider when they want to store honey.
  • That your frames won't be interchangeable with 1 3/8" frames. I interchange them all the time. Many of the historical references above show that people often spaced them tighter in the center and wider on the outside edges. There is nothing stopping you from putting a 1 3/8” frame in the middle of 1 1/4" frames or vice a versa.
  • That it simply doesn’t matter. Well, it probably doesn't matter a lot but see the above advantages.

Ways to get narrow frames
  • Assuming no nails from the outsides of the end bars, you can plane off the end bars of regular frames until they are 1 1/4" wide. If you do this before assembling the frames, you can also cut the top bar down to 1" wide on a table saw.
  • You can make or buy frames built from scratch. Either by adjusting the dimensions and building Hoffman frames or by building Killion style frames and simply changing the spacing (see "Honey in the Comb" by Carl Killion or later editions Egene Killion).
  • You can intersperse PermaComb (which has no spacers) with regular Hoffman combs and then space them a little further by hand.
  • You can build Koover frames (see old 70's Gleanings in Bee Culture articles or plans on nordykebeefarm.com)

FAQs

Q. Won't the top bars be too close if I plane off the end bars?

A. A little, but you can get by with it. It does cramp them down to about 3/16” between the top bars, but bees can get through a 5/32" hole. I prefer to have more space but not enough to cut down the top bars on regular frames. I do prefer them enough that I make them smaller when I make frames or order them smaller if I can get someone to make them.

Q. Why not put 9 frames in the brood box of a ten frame box? Won’t that keep things the same (since I want to run nine in my supers) and give them more space so they don’t swarm and I don't roll bees pulling out frames?

A. In my experience you'll roll more bees with this arrangement (9 in a 10 frame box) because the surface of the comb will be very uneven due to the thickness of the brood being consistent while the thickness of honey storage varies. This means that frame spaced nine in a ten frame box have an uneven surface. That uneven surface is more likely to catch bees between two protruding parts and roll them than when they are even. It also takes more bees to cover and keep warm the same amount of brood when you have 9 frames instead of 10 or 11.

"...if the space is insufficient, the bees shorten the cells on the side of one comb, thus rendering that side useless; and if placed more than the usual width, it requires a greater amount of bees to cover the brood, as also to raise the temperature to the proper degree for building comb, Second, when the combs are too widely spaced, the bees while refilling them with stores, lengthen the cells and thus make the comb thick and irregular--the application of the knife is then the only remedy to reduce them to proper thickness."--J.S. Harbison, The bee-keeper's directory pg 32
Here is a quote from Hoffman (the inventor of the self-spacing frame) about excess spacing in the brood nest (although he went with 1 3/8"):
"If we space the combs from center to center 1 1/2 inches, instead of 1 3/8, then we have an empty space of 5/8 inch between two combs of brood instead of 1/2, as it ought to be; and it will certainly require more bees to fill and keep warm a 5/8 than a 1/2 inch space. In a 1/2 inch space, the breeding bees from two combs facing each other will join with their backs, and so close up the space between the two brood combs. If this space is widened to 5/8 the bees cannot do this, and more bees will be required to keep up the needed brood-rearing temperature. What a drawback this would be in a cool spring, when our colonies are still weak in numbers, yet breeding most desirable, can readily be understood."--Julius Hoffman, 1890 Gleanings In Bee Culture Volume 18, pg 673

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