Frame Spacing That’s More Natural

By Greg Aubel, a Beekeeper in Coatesville, Pennsylvania

Why I’m a Beekeeper

I was with a group that stopped by an ice cream shop; they had an observation hive that fascinated me. I thought “why do they do that,” and “how do they do that.” Hm. I’ll have to look into this a little. Well that started me out as a beekeeper.

My wife said something like “if you want to start you need a coupon.” So I researched, looked around, talked, read etc. and found that Kelly’s offered free shipping over Thanksgiving week. So can we say “coupon?” My dad lives in Ohio and had a vacant house next to him with a hive in the banister. Can we say “coupon?”

Learning, and a Few Key Lessons

As a totally green, excited beekeeper-to-be, I went to get “my bees.” I know that there is a TON to know about beekeeping and often beeks don’t agree on most things, (if you ever find something that most agree on then make sure you write it down and remember it). One thing they agree on is to start out you need at least two hives. I found out why when I found the queen from the cut-out just about dead.

Another thing most beeks agree on is that you need to know your stuff. I remember reading on Beesource some time ago, someone (I don’t remember who) had said: “Knowledge isn’t better than wisdom and experience, but it is a whole lot better than ignorance. As a Novice I read, study, learn. The wisdom will come.” I thought this was great.

Also agreed upon is: spring build-up is very important. You want them to be strong enough pre-flow to capitalize on the flow when it starts.

Learning that “Standard” Isn’t Standard

So, I continued learning. One thing I found is that the common measurements we use for “standard” equipment aren’t actually as accurate as they could be. I’ve seen frames that bees have drawn out where they’ve capped some stores on the upper and outer portion of the frame, and yet the brood surface is in slightly from the capped stores, meaning that the capped portions of the cells were perhaps 1/16" to 1/8" deeper than were the brood cells. In another cut-out of this all-natural hive, upon examining the comb, I found it to be about 1" deep on one side or about 2" thick overall. They wanted their honey stores deeper than the brood.

Toward More Natural Spacing

It honestly didn’t dawn on me that bees make their spacing “non-standard” until I read others saying that they cut their frames down in the brood nest to accommodate the bees’ preferences. I found some great reasons and thoughts on Michael Bush’s website regarding frame spacing<sup>1</sup>[pullquote align="right"]1 - I am so thankful that we don’t stand on our own feet. There are so many that have gone before us that we can glean from their hours of research, study, and experience.[/pullquote].  He and others cut the end bars down to 1-1/4" from the standard 1-3/8", allowing for 11 frames in a 10-frame box or 9 frames in an 8-frame box.

So why would you want more frames? Well there are several reasons, not in any particular order:

  • Earlier spring build-up (the cluster is a cubic foot or so regardless of what frames / comb is in there) so if the bee-space was right in the brood nest, they could raise more bees sooner and therefore build-up faster. I thought that this would be best for those that may be using foundationless frames, however, it really doesn’t matter. The principle applies to both.

  • More natural spacing for smaller cells which helps / encourages them to think of the comb as worker comb.

  • Less drone comb.

  • More frames of brood in a box.

Have Others Considered This?

The concept of more-natural frame spacing has been around for quite a long time. Here are a couple of older references, as found on Michael Bush’s website:

“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...

“… 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 beekeeping 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

If you go to Bush’s website there will be more info and thoughts. Here’s a bit more, quoted (with permission):

Note: 7/8" plus 3/8" (max bee-space) makes 1-1/4"; 7/8" plus 1/4" (min bee-space) makes 1-1/8"

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 bee-space 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.

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 70s 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.

So Now What?

So some may ask: Why is this so important and what are your goals in keeping bees?

I think the information explains things enough as to why this is important for all of us.

Personally, I’d like to make some money from bees, have fun in the process, and supply my local area with some good hives / queens / nucs etc. The issue I have now is I want to use 1-1/4" wide frames to be more natural and gain these benefits, but there’s no one that makes them.

Knowing that 1-3/8" is good for drone comb and is slightly small for honey stores, what do I do now?

Well I’m making a jig to trim the end bars down on a router, and going to run the top bars through the table saw to get them to the right dimensions. That’s a lot of extra work in my opinion. Doable, but not most productive.

A consideration against 11 frames in the brood box and if someone would space all 1-1/4" frames tight in the hive: in the supers you’ll actually get less honey then if you had 1-3/8" spacing. This is true mainly because of the extra bee-space that the 11th frame causes.

But, once the frames are drawn out you can use 9 in a 10-frame and perhaps even 8 if they’re evenly spaced and already drawn out, thus saving on frames purchased, and gaining honey storage space (putting less frames in the supers means 1 less bee-space, or 3/8" that’s being used.) One caution: if the frames aren’t drawn out don’t space them away. The bees will mess up any foundation that you may put in, or if you’re going foundationless, you’ll have a major mess on your hands.

That seems to be what the bees want to do anyway from my very small research, experience, and reading. Not just Michael Bush, but many others also prefer 1-1/4" frames. I know that Kelley’s sells a spacer tool that you could use for the supers. Would that make it easy enough? I’m not sure, but I plan on finding out.

Feedback Please

Editor’s Note: Have you tried a more-natural frame spacing? We’d love to share your results, experiences and thoughts. Would you be interested in more-natural frames (thinner) for the brood box if Kelley’s produced them? Please let us know, email me at Thank you in advance for your input.

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