Why is My Honeycomb Black?
If you are new to beekeeping, you might be surprised to see that some of the cells of honeycomb in a beehive turn much darker than others. These centrally-located black honeycomb frames instantly conjure up worries of pest infestation or decay. But what exactly are they?
When areas of a hive’s honeycomb turn dark-colored or black, it indicates that those combs are being used to rear baby bees. The same honeycomb cells are used to house baby bees again and again, and a build-up of pollen, bee spit, and other debris is what causes the bee frames to blacken. Black or dark-colored brood honeycomb is safe to eat and even contains additional nutrients.
Black bee frames may seem like something to be worried about, but they are actually a symptom that the hive is performing as it should. Keep reading to learn more about black bee frames and how they affect the health of your hive.
Why Do Bee Frames and Honeycomb Turn Black?
Black or dark-colored honeycomb is an indication that a beehive is brood-rearing—or raising baby bees within the darker bee frames. While the lighter, translucent frames on the edge of the hive are usually used for storing honey through the winter, the frames at the center are used for raising baby bees after they are laid and stored there by the queen’s workers.
The reason that bees set up their honeycomb in this way (with the brood at the center and bands of pure honey on the edges) is because the honey acts as a cooling insulator for the brood during soaring summer temperatures, helping prevent the young bees from becoming overheated.
Because the appearance in brood honeycomb and virgin honeycomb is so different, it can lead novice beekeepers into believing there is something wrong with their hives when they do an inspection and find brood honeycomb.
The truth is closer to the opposite—brood honeycomb is evidence of a healthy, expanding hive with a functioning queen. So, when beekeepers find a darker core of honeycomb in their bee frames, it is an indication that all is well.
What Substances Cause Bee Frames to Appear Black?
There are several different substances used in brood honeycomb that cause the honeycomb to appear darker than a virgin honeycomb. Some people may be worried that the darker coloration of brood honeycomb is due to the presence of feces.
This is not the case—worker bees are disciplined about making sure that the brood cells of young bee larvae are kept immaculately clean, and each cell is sterilized for the next generation.
Instead, the darker color of brood cells can be attributed to several other substances:
- Pollen: Pollen is used to feed juvenile bees, and this pollen becomes built-up in the wax of the brood cells over time.
- Dirt: Hundreds of bees track dirt in on their feet day in and day out in the hive as they care for juvenile bees, and this dirt becomes embedded in the soft, warm wax of the bee frame.
- Atmospheric dust: Especially in arid climates, lots of dust can get kicked up into the bee frame, and this dust can help discolor brood cells. Virgin honeycomb is capped off and remains clear and clean, while brood cells are left open and are exposed to the air.
- Propolis: Propolis, or bee glue, is a combination of bee spit and botanicals such as flower bud nectar and tree saps. This dark amber-colored sealant can stain many parts of the bee frame and is used to help insulate and seal it against dangerous drafts or leaks.
- Royal jelly: Royal jelly is a substance that workers bees produce to feed the larvae of the hive. While the royal jelly is sometimes used as a nutritional supplement, there is no scientific evidence that it has any health benefits when consumed by people.
All of these substances can cause brood-rearing honeycomb to look darker than virgin honeycomb. You have to remember that brood honeycomb sees a lot more activity from the bees than the honeycomb used to store honey, so it will naturally look dirtier than honeycomb that is used purely for storage and capped off for the winter.
Is Black or Dark Honeycomb Safe to Eat?
Dark brood honeycomb may look unsanitary to eat. However, not only is brood honeycomb safe to eat, but it is regarded as a delicacy and considered to have positive benefits for human health. (Amazon)
Brood honeycomb reportedly has a more nutty, complex flavor than eating virgin honeycomb. While brood honeycomb is not traditionally considered valuable as a crop from beehives, it is being used increasingly in culinary and medicinal preparations. The complex flavor of this honeycomb has made it a popular addition in haute cuisine and desserts.
Do Bees Like Dark Honeycomb?
The answer is yes! Bees do not mind their brood cells becoming increasingly blackened over time—some beekeepers have been known to keep the same brood frames for up to twenty-five years with no problems. The blackened appearance of the brood honeycomb is not from unsanitary conditions, so leaving it won’t negatively impact the health of the hive.
In fact, brood honeycomb can be used to trap wild swarms of bees (they like it so much!)
However, there are some concerns with keeping the same brood honeycomb for decades. While the use by the bees does not cause any problems, these cells can become contaminated with pesticides that the bees bring in with them, as well as pathogens that are dangerous to the bees themselves, such as foulbrood disease.
For this reason, many beekeepers will clear out old brood honeycomb and force the bees to create a new brood frame every four to five years. This allows the bees to start fresh with new wax and hopefully keep out any unwanted pathogens that may threaten the colony over time.
What Are the Benefits of Eating Dark Honeycomb?
Dark honeycomb is not just another type of edible honey product; it is regarded as medicinal in many parts of the world. Dark honeycomb is full of living enzymes, pollen, and other antioxidants that lighter-colored comb does not contain. Science has shown that the darker a honeycomb, the higher the level of antioxidants it is likely to contain.
Here are some beneficial nutrients that you can gain from eating dark honeycomb:
- Glucose oxidase: This substance is an enzyme that gives raw honey its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Glucose oxidase is one of the reasons manuka honey is commonly used as a wound poultice. Manuka honey is especially useful against antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains. (Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine)
- Polyphenols: These antioxidants are found in a variety of substances, from wine to whole vegetables, and have been linked to reducing the incidence of several serious illnesses ranging from heart disease to cancer. (Source: Healthline)
The only people who should be cautious about eating dark honeycomb are pregnant women (who are at risk of botulism from raw food products) and people who have allergies to either bees or flower pollen.
Black Bee Frames Are No Reason to Worry
If you pull out a frame in your hive and find that it has a darkened center, there is no need for alarm.
It is just a sign that the colony is plugging away doing what they do best. If anything, brood or dark-colored honeycomb is beneficial and delicious.