Those Little Buzzers!

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Late spring is a critical time for beekeepers because it’s now that the colony can quickly expand and there’s real potential for swarming. I learned this the hard way last year! For my hives it’s been a tough start to the year though and with reduced early forage, I’ve been having to feed them to keep them going. About a month ago was the last time I gave them fondant and at the time I thought what the heck, let’s put the Queen Excluders on now before the hives start filling up with more bees. There were very few bees or frames in the supers at the time so I didn’t bother to see if the Queen bee was on them. After sliding the Excluders over the brood boxes, I placed the supers on top and then filled them up with frames leaving only a small gap in the centre for more fondant.

Ten days later I visited the hives again to see if they needed a top up. The weather had been picking up by then so I was hoping that they wouldn’t need anymore help but I brought fondant just in case. I fired up the smoker, donned my beekeeping gear, opened up the white hive and was really surprised to find all the fondant gone and in it’s place was a small chunk of unfilled comb. Fortunately, the Queen Excluder had stopped any baby bees from being laid in the cells so I cut the comb out and set it aside to take home and process. Extra beeswax isn’t a bad thing when you make Manx Beeswax Lip Balms so I was fairly pleased at the time. I also noted that the bees were busy producing their own honey – a very good thing.

I filled the gap in the super up with new frames for the bees to build on, had a quick look in the brood box to make sure there weren’t any Queen Cells before closing up the hive and moving onto the next. I expected to encounter a similar scenario but boy was I wrong.

If you’re a beekeeper you’ll look at the image below and know exactly what the problem is. You remember that I put Queen Excluders on the hives the last time I visited? The Queen bee in the white hive was safely below the screen when I put it in but the Queen in the green hive must have been hiding out on one of the half empty frames! So while I expected some ‘wild comb’ to be built in the gap I was shocked to find it chock a block with brood (baby bees). What on earth was I going to do?

Well first I clearly had to take the Queen Excluder back out so that the Queen Bee could migrate back down into the brood box. The super was far too small for her and I found a couple of Queen cells stuck to the frames indicating that the bees were stressed out over lack of space. It was initially nerve wracking lifting the roof off but the comb was well attached and I could even get a couple photos. Really nice brood pattern on the comb but I wished it would have been down on the brood frames rather than here.

I was able to prop the roof up so that the comb was hanging down in its natural position and then quickly went through the frames looking for more Queen Cells. I then took the plastic Excluder off so the Queen bee would hopefully move back down to where she belonged. My plan was to wait another ten days before coming back to deal with the wild comb so that the baby bees developing inside would have emerged and I would be dealing with empty or honey-filled comb.

In case you’re wondering, a Queen Excluder is a screen that will allow ordinary worker bees to get through but will stop the larger Queen. It keeps her down in her brood box and ensures that the frames you want to harvest for honey don’t contain bee larva. Most Western beekeepers use Excluders and the sectioning of a hive makes the extraction of a honey crop a more humane process.

When I checked my hives again last week I found that the wild comb was nearly empty and in a far better state for me to cut off and handle. I also confirmed that the Queen had started laying down in the brood box but that there were still small sections of wild comb that contained five or six day old larva. Though it’s sometimes inevitable, I don’t really want to kill any bees or larva while I work so my plan was to instead break off sections of the comb that contained baby bees and tie them into empty super frames.

Fortunately I was able to fit the small pieces of inhabited comb into two frames and then tied them with cotton string the best I could. I’m not sure what to expect when I visit the hive in a few days but I really hope that the worker bees were able to cap the little white larva cells and that the other bees hatched without any issues. Though the string looks pretty tight in the photo below, the comb does have leeway so the cells that are crossed by it aren’t completely hindered.

Next was the hard part. I had to shake and gently brush the bees off of each frame in the super and let me tell you, there were a lot of bees! Knowing my luck, the Queen was among them so I couldn’t risk putting the Excluder back on with the chance of her being topside again. I was also reluctant to use my smoker since I don’t want to taint the beeswax with the smell and flavour of smoke. After some patient work I’m nearly certain that she’s now down in the brood box and that after all the baby bees are born upstairs, the worker bees can use the super box for exclusive storing of honey.

It takes a lot of energy for bees to produce beeswax so while it’s nice to have had some nice big pieces to take home I wish that I hadn’t made the mistake in allowing the bees space to build their own comb. In looking at the super again I wonder if the scenario would have played out differently if I’d instead left the gap for fondant at the far side of the super rather than smack dab in the centre.

 

I’ve been keeping bees for over a year now and have a feeling that every year after this will bring its own challenges. Even beekeepers who have had hives for decades still run into issues. The way I look at it is that each time some minor crisis occurs it’s actually an opportunity for learning and can only lead to me becoming a better beekeeper. Let’s just hope my bees think so too!

 

 

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19 Discussion to this post

  1. Much of this reads like a foreign language to me Tanya – I love honey but think I will give bee keeping a miss. Interesting stuff though.

  2. LIndsay says:

    Bees and beekeeping are really so fascinating! So many hive politics to be conscious of! I haven't ventured down the path of beekeeping myself yet, but my grandfather was a beekeeper, so I grew up watching him and even got to "smoke the bees" once or twice. The great thing is that honey NEVER SPOILS, so we still eat the honey he harvested when he was alive (and that was 15 years ago!). Great post!

    • I think I've heard somewhere that honey was found in an Egyptian tomb…it was still considered edible even after thousands of years! I wonder which archaeology student got to be the guinea pig though 😉

  3. what great photos and a great post! that's how I look at things too – it only makes you better. 🙂

  4. Dave Mc says:

    That is a cute "save" by tying the comb into empty frames. "Even beekeepers who have had hives for decades still run into issues" Amen to that. Bee are contrary beggars sometimes. The trouble they have not read the manual as me.

  5. CJ says:

    An absolutely fascinating post. I love bees, and I would so much like to have some one day. In the meantime, I am watching and learning. Thank you for sharing this information, this was a lovely post.

  6. becky3086 says:

    Very interesting. There is so much to learn about bees.

  7. Alain says:

    I feel jealous. I would love to keep bees and I have worked with beekeepers in the past. However, we have a black bear who comes to check the compost heap regularly (the heap was set up on purpose outside the garden proper). She has never done any damage but a hive would be asking for troubles.

  8. pattie says:

    Interesting. Many of us in the US do not use queen excluders at all. I am not sure why you believe that using them is a more humane way to harvest honey, unless for the large commercial operations. I harvest 4-5 gallons at a time, and I do not use them. I harvest honey out of my honey supers when the honey is capped on both sides and there is never any brood present in these frames, whether on a super on in a colony in a single deep box. A strong hive will keep honey in the outermost frames and will not mix brood and honey on them. It requires a bit more patience, but you can certainly harvest 100% honey frames without the use of a QE. I gently brush the bees off the honeycomb and place the frames in a spare hive box a few feet from the hive, and put a cover on as I continue to work the hive. I like letting HRH have free reign in her hive, and I will work with them, whether waiting for them to backfull brood comb with honey, or waiting till they have honey on the outmost frames. Good luck with your bees!

    • Hi Pattie 🙂 There are certainly a lot of ways to keep bees ranging from the most intensive industrial hives to natural top bars and sun hives. Most of us take a stance somewhere in the middle but I suppose you learn and experiment along the way.

      It's interesting that your experience is that the Queen will not lay in your own hives but you might be using a larger size than I do? It's common here in the UK to do what's called 'Brood and a half' where you move the Queen Excluder to the top of one of the supers to give the Queen extra space to lay. And lay she does! 🙂 For me, I'm most comfortable using an excluder at the moment but perhaps will try other methods in the future. Thanks for your comment and information and it's great to hear a different perspective!

  9. fascinating read! if i ever have the space i think beekeeping is something i could really get into.

  10. Tanya Walton says:

    Hi Tanya, so how did the brood you moved turn out?? You could have used elastic bands to attach them to the frame. As for if you had left the gap in a different place, I can tell you from visiting someone's hives at the weekend that it wouldn't have made a difference and what happened to you is quite common.

    I am loving following your journey into starting bee keeping and can't wait to get myself set up soon. There is so much to learn but I am really looking forward to it. Bee keepers that have kept bees for decades say that they are still learning so I don't thin we will ever no everything but I think it is great to share experience and learn form each other hands on and not just from books so I am glad you keep giving us updates. So have you had any honey yet??

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