The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861

Honey Bee Biology

Frames and Their Forgotten Diversity: Part 2 – Their Spacing

- March 1, 2020 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

bee hive frames

In the previous article, we examined some various shapes of frames, ending with a hexagonal standing frame hive. Besides being the external wall of the hive, those frames also spaced themselves. Frame spacing is the topic of this article, except the frames are inside the hive body in the usual way.

The movable frame, announced to the public in 1852 by Reverend L. L. Langstroth (patent #9300), was not a self-spacing design. Figure 1 shows the end bars of old frames of various sizes most likely from the late 1800s. The sides of the end bars are straight. Moreover, the end bar and the top bar are the same width, meaning the beekeeper have must manually left the bee space gaps between the frames before closing the hive.

These manually spaced frames became a chronic difficulty. If the gaps were not set correctly, the bees could lengthen the honey cells into gaps left too wide. And of course, the comb sides could not bulge into narrow gaps. The results too often were lopsided combs, which led to other problems. The frames might not be completely interchangeable. Rather, the frames might only fit in the hive in certain ways, which may not be the way the beekeeper wants to replace the frames. For example, two thick-sided combs probably could not be replaced next to each other and leave a bee space between their honey rims (one bee space is one quarter to three-eighths of an inch).

Even properly spaced, the frames in Figure 1 had another problem. They swung side-to-side (like a pendulum) when the beekeeper moved the hive, which would be by horse and wagon over rough rutty roads, not a smooth ride. Some beekeepers even called unspaced (swinging) frames “bee smashers,” although the term was used in other situations. The goal then was to make the frames space themselves, called self-spacing frames, and stop the swinging. Beekeepers, being creative, offered numerous designs.

Figure 2 shows the 1915 catalog from the Kretchmer Manufacturing Company, a firm once located in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The front cover featured their version of the Massie Hive. The hive body resembles a medium depth super (6⅝” deep, aka an Illinois super) but its depth is seven inches. From the catalog descriptions, we can learn the original intent of a hive design. The brood chamber of the Massie hive consisted of two stories (two supers, seven inches in depth).

As an apicultural historian, I see today’s beekeeping in the shadow of all kinds of prior endeavors. So today’s apiary with two medium supers as the main part of the brood nest appears to me as a “divisible brood chamber hive,” which was the old slang for this arrangement. (A pair of seven-inch supers, a super depth more popular in the western United States, would be much closer to the original size.)

The 1915 Kretchmer cover picture shows a pair of frames by the hive. These frames have two striking features. First, the frames hang from heavy-duty pins, which are where the wooden-end lugs are located on today’s frame. Second, the full width of the end bar extends all the way down its sides, rather than being confined to the upper “shoulders” as with the modern end bar.

From my hive hunting, I was fortunate to find a Massie hive in pristine condition (see Figure 3), complete with its unusual frames. Besides spacing the frames, these closed end bars have another job. When the frames are together in the hive, the closed end bars form a second wall in the front and back of the hive. Following boards (blank boards hanging like frames) can be placed beside the cluster. From all sides, the hive now has a second wall of wood around the cluster. Essentially, the Massie hive was a double walled hive, although not nearly as big and bulky as some, which were popular at the time. (A double walled hive, just around the brood nest, was once thought necessary for more winter insulation. The typical bulky design had two thin boards, the walls, separated by a few inches. Sawdust or wheat chaff filled the intervening space for insulation.)

These end bars of the Massie hive allowed a beekeeping skill now essentially forgotten. Massie frames could be handled efficiently in groups of twos and threes. Most likely, that is why the frames appear as a pair in the 1915 catalog picture.

A similar frame and end bar were used in the Danzenbaker hive, from the business once based in Norfolk, Virginia (see Figure 4). The A. I. Root Company in Medina, Ohio, a large beekeeping supplier at the time, also sold Danzenbaker hives, giving them a much wider distribution. The main difference in the Massie frame and the Danzenbaker frame is the position of the pin.

Danzenbaker put the pin in the middle of the end bar. Why in the middle? So the beekeeper could replace the brood frames in the hive –– upside down. Beekeepers even had a name for frames with this nimble upside-down ability. They were called –– reversible frames. But why did beekeepers need reversible frames? While the answer has no direct bearing on frame spacing, for a time, frame reversibility was an important design feature for a frame, and could affect other design components.

Even still, it’s very strange. Imagine yourself looking through the brood nest of your favorite hive, inspecting the combs covered with bees. Now, time to close the hive. Why would you want to put back the frames –– upside down? At the next beekeepers meeting, see if you can get a friend to ask the group this weird question (don’t do it yourself).

Historically, we have things backwards. We have the solution, the reversible frame. We need to understand the problem and some obscure bee behavior. Beekeepers producing comb honey sections most always have partly filled sections when the nectar flow ends. Honey stored below the brood, next to the….