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Frames and Frame-spacing

Many beekeepers, especially novices, find the range of frame-types and the various methods used for spacing frames confusing. Thorne’s catalogue lists 6 top bars, 19 side bars and 9 bottom bars. Admittedly, these are not all for the same type of hive, but how do you decide which type of frame to use in the brood box and super, and how should you ensure that they are correctly spaced?


If you keep bees in Langstroth, Modified Dadant, Commercial or 14x12 hives, the decision is easy as these hives all use self-spacing (known as ‘Hoffman’ after their inventor) frames in the brood chamber and do not have a choice of top bars. Hoffman frames have side-bars with broad ‘shoulders’ which provide fixed spacing between each frame. The only option is the choice of bottom bar(s) - which can be either two-piece for use with wired foundation, or one piece if you want to wire the frame itself. Based on my experience of supplying equipment for the past 8 years, very few Cheshire beekeepers use these hives, the vast majority opting for the Modified National or the WBC, both of which use the same frame types.

There are two different top bar and two different side bar designs available for the Modified National brood chamber which in combination results in four different frame choices. The top bars are available in two different widths, 7/8” or 1 and 1/16” . The wider top bars are designed to reduce the bees’ tendency to build brace comb. The side bars are either plain or Hoffman. The British Standard BS1300 identifies the four different types as follows:

DN1: 7/8” top bar, plain 7/8” side bars

DN2: 1 and 1/16” top bar, plain 7/8” side bars

DN4: 7/8” top bar, Hoffman self spacing side bars 1 and 3/8” wide at the top

DN5: 1 and 1/16” top bar, Hoffman self spacing side bars 1 and 3/8” wide at the top

As a further option, the bottom bar(s) can be either two pieces or one piece.

The frames used in Smith hives are the same as those used in the Modified National/WBC except that the lugs are each shortened by 3/4” so that they fit the narrow rebate used in the Smith hive.

When it comes to the frames for supers, there are even more choices. In addition to plain and Hoffman side-bars, super frames are also available wide parallel side bars known as Manley frames. These frames were developed by the commercial beekeeper R.O.B. Manley to prevent frames rocking in the supers and crushing bees whilst moving hives. Super frames for the Modified National and WBC are identified as SN1, SN2, SN4 and SN5 equivalent to the brood definitions above.

Frame Spacing

In feral colonies, bees space their combs at approximately 1 and 3/8” (35mm) between the midrib of adjacent frames. This leaves a space between the comb faces of ½” (13mm) allowing the bees to work back to back between the combs. Within bee hives, a number of methods are used to achieve the same constant space between combs.

Hoffman brood frames have side bars designed to provide the required spacing of 1 and 3/8” although Modified Dadant brood frames are designed to space frames at 1½” (Does anyone know why?).

Frames with plain side bars (DN1, DN2, SN1, SN2) are not self-spacing and so need to be used with separate spacers. Whilst brood frames need to be spaced by the standard 1 and 3/8” it is possible, with care to use wider spacing for the frames in supers. This wider spacing, up to 2” between frames, allows a reduction in the number of frames required to fill the super as well as providing an increase in the weight of honey which can be stored. There are also fewer frames to uncap when the time comes for honey extraction and the thicker combs are easier to uncap as the comb surface stands proud of the frame.

There are several ways that frames can be spaced:

Metal/Plastic Ends

Metal ends, which slide onto the lugs of National or WBC frame top bars were introduced by WBC in 1890. These are still available, but have largely been replaced with plastic equivalents. Plastic spacers have the advantage of being less likely to result in cut fingers. Spacers are available in two sizes, narrow to provide the standard spacing of 1 and 3/8” or wide for use in supers where it is desired to space frames further apart (up to 2”). They are also available in a range of colours corresponding to the queen marking colours. Some beekeepers use coloured plastic ends to help identify the age of combs to assist with their comb replacement programme. Another technique is to use one colour of spacer on one end of the frames and a different colour on the other end to help ensure that frames are always replaced in the box the correct way round.

Castellated runners

These are fitted to the box, usually in place of the frame runners. They are available to suit spacing for 9, 10 or 11 frames in a National super. They can be used in brood boxes but in that case the appropriate castellation must be selected to maintain the standard spacing of 1 and 3/8”.


Some beekeepers use round head screws or studs (Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey used hob nails) to space frames accurately. These methods are not widely used due to the labour involved in fitting the spacers but they do have the advantage of minimum contact-area between the frames, which reduces the use of propolis by the bees.

Yorkshire spacers

Metal spacers that fix onto the frame side bars. They are not commonly used these days, having been largely superseded by the more popular Hoffman frames.

Finger spacing

This relies on judgement using a finger at each end of the top bar and checking that the frames are equally spaced across the brood box. Not to be recommended as a method to be adopted as the norm, as it is not possible to achieve accurate and consistent spacing, but useful in an emergency if you run out of plastic ends or are unfortunate enough to have a mixture of plain and self spacing frame types in the box.

Comparison table

Each of the spacing methods available has advantages and disadvantages. There is no single ideal method which will suit everyone. The following table compares some of the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

Spacer TypeAdvantagesDisadvantages
Metal/Plastic endsLow cost, can vary the spacing in supersNeed to be removed from super frames when extracting
HoffmanSelf spacingFrames more expensive,side bars may not fit extractor
Castellated spacersDo not require plastic ends on the frames, available in a range of spacings, prevent frame movement during transportCan have sharp edges
ManleyPrevents frame movement during transportCost, bees propolise frames together


You may have heard it said that if you ask two beekeepers the same question, you will probably get three different answers! I recommend that beginners should try to attend apiary meetings where they can see the different methods in use and then decide what they wish to use. For the record, having tried most of the frames and spacing methods described above over several years, I now use Hoffman frames in the brood boxes and plain frames with 10 slot castellated spacers in the supers.

Graham Royle NDB

© 2015 Cheshire Beekeepers' Association