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Coming Out - Confessions of a Beekeeper

By John Whitaker

This is all arises from an evening meal we had with the speaker who had been our guest at our association Spring conference. She is very well known throughout the country and was delightful company. She’d delivered an excellent talk and all in all it had been a good day. But during our conversation she referred to one of my preferred practices in a rather dismissive way. My other companion, who was well aware of my beekeeping practice, looked across at me, smiling, wondering whether I would rise to this bait but I thought it may have been rather churlish to introduce disagreement into the conversation and so, rather untypically, I held my peace.


 But it’s not the first time this practice has been referred in a derogatory way by those in the beekeeping establishment. In an article in Beecraft the practice was referred to as an abomination. And so I’ve decided to ‘Out’ myself and confess that I use castellated spacing in my brood boxes.


 The decision to use castellated spacing was not unconsidered. When I started beekeeping eighteen years ago I used plastic spacers, because that is what I’d been taught to do. And then I went on to use Hoffman type frames. And so eventually it was with full knowledge of the alternatives and awareness of the prejudices that I decided to experiment using castellated spacing in my brood chambers. The castellations are achieved using galvanised strips of metal with the castellations stamped along one edge, sized so that can hold the lugs of standard frames. The strips are tacked on to the inside wall of the hive replacing the frame runner, or slotted into a narrow slit cut into the top of the rebate for the frame lugs.


 The castellated spacers, when used on national hives, are designed to hold either nine, ten or eleven frames. The 11 frame castellation gives a frame spacing of 38mm, the 10 frame castellation a frame spacing of 42mm and a 9 frame castellation a frame spacing of 46.5mm. I quickly found that castellated spacing in brood boxes has a number of advantages over other spacing methods:

1. The frames themselves, when removed from the hive, are un-encumbered with spacers and so easier to clean and recycle.
2. The area of contact between the frame and the hive body is minimal and so the propolised joint between the frame and the body of the hive is minimised.
3. The castellations hold the frame firmly and restrict the frames from swinging when a colony is moved.
4. The accurate spacing of the frames cannot be subverted by laziness or bad practice.
5. Once the castellated strips are attached to the brood box, then cheap basic frames suffice.


 Although castellated spacing is widely recommended for the honey supers, they are rarely recommended for use in brood boxes. The reason for this, it is argued, is that when removing a frame it is necessary to initially move the frame upwards and parallel to the adjacent frame, running the risk of rolling the bees over each other and damaging workers or even the queen. Having used castellated spacing in brood boxes for several years and I believe that this risk is minimal to the extent of being nonexistent. The initial vertical movement need only be about 9mm to bring the lugs above the top of the castellations at which point it ispossible to separate the frames horizontally. I’ve never knowingly lost a queen in this way or even damaged workers and in my opinion the small risk is more than outweighed by the considerable advantages of castellated spacing listed above.

 When I inspect a brood box I remove one of the outside frames and ensure that it does not contain the queen. All subsequent frames can be removed by lifting 9mm and then moving horizontally into the gap which has been created before lifting out. After examination each frame is then replaced, but moved along one place on the castellations so that the working gap is maintained. The first frame is eventually replaced next to the brood box wall at the opposite side from which it was originally taken. At the next examination I reverse the direction of working.


 Plastic spacers used on the lugs or Hoffman self spacing frames are far more likely to attract propolis. In my experience the heavy levering required to move heavily propolised frames is a significant contributor to producing bad tempered colonies. By contract, the minimal area of contact between frames and castellations ensures that the brood frames are easily moved, and so, except for the first spring inspection when the hive tool can be used to crack the propolis join, frames can generally be removed just using the fingers.


  It should be noted that Hoffman frames are not designed for the modified national. The width of the national is designed to accommodate eleven frames with a spacing of 38mm plus an additional beespace of 6mm. (38 x 11 + 6 = 424mm). Hoffman frames are designed to produce a frame spacing of 35mm, which is the basis of the design of the Langstroth hive. If 11 Hoffman frames are used in a Modified national a gap of 39mm remains.  It is possible to squeeze in an additional Hoffman frame but this is at the expense of the beespace at the side of the frames and we all should be aware of the risks involved in compromising the beespace.  Alternatively a dummy frame can be introduced.  Hoffman frames tend to be propolised on the self spacing shoulders, they are more expensive to buy and more difficult to clean if you recycle frames.


  Plastic lugs are designed to give a 38mm frame spacing. But it is very easy to overlap them or when in a rush to add a frame without the spacers attached. It is very easy to lose the integrity of the spacing and this can result in total chaos within the hive. When a hive is moved plastic spacers give no restraint to the frames, allowing them to swing on the runners. When frames are recycled the plastic spacers are difficult to remove so that the frames can be scraped clean.

 Having said all this, all three methods I have compared can be used to successfully space frames in the brood.  As with many aspects of beekeeping the choices we make involve a compromise, a balance of advantage against disadvantage.  Anyway, there you are.  I’ve come out!

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