What Is Bee Space? An Essential Guide

A beekeeper removing a frame from a box.

Honey bees have exact requirements for the inside of their hive. Give them too much or insufficient space, and they’ll start making alterations.

These housekeeping upgrades are messy and make for unproductive beekeeping. This quick guide looks at the concept of bee space and why it’s so important.

What is bee space?

Bee space is a term used in beekeeping that refers to the space bees leave between comb in the hive. The colony needs enough room to move freely but won’t tolerate too much empty space.

When bee space is not maintained, bees fill the area with burr comb or propolis. This process can make opening the hive and removing frames a challenge.

Providing the right hive dimensions for bees is a delicate balancing act for beekeepers. Through observation and experimentation, beekeepers have learned:

  • Bees must have a space between ¼” and ⅜” (6-9mm) throughout the hive. That includes between individual combs and between the frames, hive bodies, and inner cover.
  • Any small spaces within the hive that measure less than a quarter inch are filled with propolis.
  • Large spaces greater than ⅜” are packed with comb.

Bee space is typically described as 6-9mm, which allows the bees to work beside each other if required. When they can work individually, bee space may be reduced to 4.5-8mm.

A photo of frames labeling where bee space applies within a hive

Why is bee space important for bees?

In the wild, honey bees are used to dealing with non-standard spaces when building out hives. They will quickly fill up airy gaps and chock up areas considered too small.

Bee space helps the colony run an efficient hive. It creates a more insulated home, making temperature regulation easier and keeping out moisture. Keeping bee-friendly spacing within the hive also helps secure the home from unwanted pests.

Why is bee space important for beekeepers?

Beekeepers that fail to provide the correct internal dimensions within a hive may face a mess of burr comb and propolis on their next inspection. This is impractical, as hive woodenware gets stuck together – checking the colony and honey harvesting takes much longer and significantly disrupts the colony.

How was bee space applied to beehive design?

Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, a 19th-century apiarist considered the father of American beekeeping, recognized the implications of bee space. He used this concept to design the Langstroth hive. It remains the most used hive worldwide.

The boxes and frames in these hives respect bee space. They provide a structured environment for bees while facilitating easy management and honey extraction for beekeepers.

You can learn more about the Langstroth inventor here.

A summary comparison of bee gaps

5.2-5.4mmMay be used to exclude drones from specific areas.
6mmThe smallest gap bees leave between adjacent comb.
7mmNot used by bees but is a standard measurement used in some sections of beekeeping equipment.
9mmA typical distance bees leave between capped brood.
Over 9mmBees are likely to build brace comb.

Related reading: What are the Langstroth hive measurements?

Commonly asked questions

Who discovered bee space?

Bee space was first discussed by beekeepers François Huber, Petro Prokopovych, and Johann Dzierzon as part of their hive designs. Lorenzo Langstroth is credited as the first to apply the concept of bee space to a commercial beehive.

Is bee space used in other modern hives?

All good-quality modern hives consider bee space in their designs. For example, top bar hives have precise dimensions to stop bees from attaching comb to the hive’s inside.

What happens if bee space is not maintained in a hive?

Failing to maintain bee space will cause the colony to fill the larger areas with ‘burr comb’ or ‘brace comb.’ If the space is too small, bees will fill it with propolis. This sticky, resinous substance makes it difficult to handle the hive.

Do bee spaces vary between different bee species?

While the Apis mellifera typically maintains a bee space of ¼” and ⅜”, smaller tropical species will prefer less space. In practical terms, there should be room for two worker bees to pass comfortably back-to-back. (Source).

Why is bee space important in beekeeping?

Respecting bee space when designing and maintaining hives allows beekeepers to manage their hives with minimal disruption to the bees. It enables the use of removable frames, facilitating hive inspection, disease management, and honey extraction.

What is a Langstroth hive?

Lorenzo Langstroth invented the Langstroth hive, which consisted of vertical boxes containing frames. This design was the first commercial hive to consider bee space, making inspections and harvesting easier.

Does bee space affect honey production?

A poorly designed hive will divert the colony’s attention from foraging, instead focusing on fixing the interior spacing. This takes time and energy that would otherwise be used to expand honeycomb and brood.

Further reading

T. S. K. Johansson & M. P. Johansson (1967) Lorenzo L. Langstroth and the Bee Space, Bee World, 48:4, 133-143. Read more>

Faji, M., Abebe, A., Mijena, D., Begna, F., & Tarekegn, A. (2018). Determination of bee spacing and comb cell dimensions for Apis mellifera Scutellata honeybee race in western Ethiopia. International Journal of Livestock Production, 9(8), 206-210. Read more>

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