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.