Monday, January 31, 2011

Thinking of Bees- Part One

I wanted to let everyone know that if they want to try having bees, now is the time to order bees and packages! Winter is also a great time to build hives.

I have had a great time with my first hive of bees and I have also learned a lot.
But some of the things I have learned, I learned too late.
One of my learning experiences was the occasion that I call "The Great Honey Disaster"
If you click on this photo you can see the little grubs that are baby bees curled up in their cells.
 It was a hot August day when I decided to check how the hive was doing and pull a few bars of honey. Everything was going fine except that it was too hot out and the combs in the hive were a little soft. I pulled my first bar up and found that the bees had built all of their combs slightly off kilter. Each comb would end on the bar next to it. I have a lot of theories about this crooked comb issue, but for now we'll leave it at that.
After I cut the first comb of honey into a pot, I went back to the hive only to find that the comb from the next bar had been torn enough on this hot day to cause it to come off its bar and collapse onto the floor of the hive.
It was a comb full of about 500 brood
and it fell on another 100 bees.
I didn't fully understand the magnitude of what had happened until I had scraped the comb up with my hands and put the hive back together. When you have nine or ten thousand bees flying around you have to work fast, with little time for introspection.
After I got the hive shut back up and my bee hat off, so I could see better, I felt sick when I looked in the pot. In the pot were all those baby bees. I was so sad. If it had been cooler out, I could have tied the comb back onto a bar and saved them but it was so hot out that the wax was like jello.

A rookie mistake which cost the hive a whole generation of bees.

Everyone in the neighborhood came to glean the dropped honey.

The bees spent a lot of time cleaning off their compatriots. Some bees I had no hope for, came back to life after being cleaned.

Here is a picture of the pot with a bar upside down on top to show the angle that the bees are building the combs.

Later, I put the honey I gathered that day back out for the bees to take back to the hive. I figured it was the least I could do. You have to put leaves or hay on the honey or the bees get stuck in it and drown.

It only took two afternoons for them to get every drop.
 Well, looking back on this sad event I have learned:
  • That although they say you should only open your hive on a warm day, they do not mean above 80 degrees.
  • That the fact that the bees built their combs crooked is a much more serious problem than I thought.
  • That bees are very resilient and will work hard to correct my silly mistakes.
I have, since the Great Honey Disaster, also learned that one needs to keep checking top bar hives in the beginning to nudge any crooked combs back into line with the bars. Once they get a few bars filled straight, they continue in the proper alignment. Also, it turns out that many top bar hive keepers have switched to a different style of bar because of this very problem. I also have a sneaking suspicion that they are building the combs in the direction of North.
The hive in July, you can see the angle of the comb. The strip of gold along the top bar is propolis which the bees use to seal up everything.

In this picture that I took in July, you can see the corner of a comb that tore off of the neighboring bar on the right.

It's too late for this hive to straighten up so I have decided to let them alone and see how they do. I am however, planning to keep them fed and coddled so that they will increase in numbers and swarm this spring.
I will then catch the swarm and put them in my new and improved top bar hive. More on that later.


  1. That is amazing how fast the bees cleaned up the honey. Lee is hoping to catch another wild swarm this year. I hope if works this time and they don't ditch us like they did last year.

  2. It is amazing how they clean up so fast. My brother in law has a friend who has 30 hives and a special shed he keeps his honey harvester in. He went away for the afternoon after he had harvested what he estimated as 300 lbs of honey. When he got back he realized, by the incredible sticky mess on the floor, that the spigot on the tank had not been shut and all the honey was on the floor. He opened the doors and let the bees in. He says that in a couple of days there wasn't a sign of honey in the building. Nothing was sticky anywhere.
    I read your post on the bees and it is my humble opinion that Lee just didn't get the queen. Or she got killed or wounded in the capture. With both the swarms we caught, we knew we had the queen because once we got the mass of bees into the box, we opened a little flap in the box and all the bees that were flying came back over a span of 5 hours and went into the box. Also the bees that are in the box will come out and fan pheromones into the air to call the other bees back because that is where the queen is. If there is no queen present they will all leave as soon as they get organized.

  3. I am definitely interested in getting bees but we decided that it would be better to wait until next year. I'm a little disappointed over that, but don't want to get in over my head. Anyway, your bee posts are of great interest to me!

  4. You mentioned that most top bar hive keepers have switched to a different bar design. Are you talking about the V rail, or something else?

    I'm using Langstroth equipment for now, but I'm not using foundation and I re-worked each frame to have a V-like top bar to encourage each comb to form in line.

    I agree that "no queen" is the best explanation. The process of capturing didn't go as easily as I hoped. The videos online often deal with a tiny branch on which the cluster is hanging, and our cluster was on a big apple tree branch we couldn't readily cut down.

  5. Leigh, It's good to know how much to take on. I will say that the bees take very little time, but what time they do take is time sensitive.

    Lee, I am talking about the v bar or something a lot like it. I'm not sure if that is the way I will go or with the starter partition ( a piece of thin 1"- 2" wood, glued in the groove. What I do know is that when I built the first hive there was not a lot of info about bar styles...now there is a ton!
    If you are faced with a swarm that is on a big limb or some other unshakable situation just put your bee suit on and scoop the bees up with your hands and a paper cup and put them into a box. That's what my brother in law does.If you see the queen you can put her in the box and shut the lid. Then all the rest of the bees will fly into the box. ( put a little door in the box and shut the lid and leave it for a couple hours.)
    In our swarm capturing video http://thereluctanthomesteaders.blogspot.com/2010/06/swarmin.html you'll see that I sprayed them beforehand with a light sugar syrup in a spray bottle. It distracts them and wets them down so they don't fly. They get so excited about the free food they don't really seem to notice what's going on. I think that would make it even easier.
    Anyway, good luck on your next batch- are you on the swarm list in your area? They will call you to come get a swarm if you are on the list.


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