Monday, 23 June 2014

Update on the Bees in our Top Bar Hives

My goodness, keeping bees is quite the education!  I don't feel at all like I can call myself a beekeeper just yet (I fear that label is YEARS away) but I CAN say that have a lot more confidence and WAY less fear than on this first day when we hived our nucs (late May).  We have fallen into a good routine of checking the hives weekly (usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon).  I like checking them every week on schedule because it gives us a good frame of comparison.  We can see how much change has occurred from week to week and then we are better able to judge succession and prepare appropriately (hopefully preventing a swarm).  

Fast forward a few weeks and you can see how busy the "girls" have been!  Right away, the worker bees started to draw comb.  Below, you can see how it starts...  a few lobes of comb drawn down from the top bevel of the bar.  Within days, those lobes are all joined together to form a full comb.

Here, you can see a full comb (which took surprisingly little time for them to create).   I've lost count of how many frames of combs are drawn in just one month!     

After 2 weeks we could see evidence of new brood indicating that our queens were laying (WHEW). We have managed to identify our queens each hive inspection, so that's very reassuring to us, (although it may get harder as the population increases) and we feel like we are getting familiar with our hives and their queens.  Both hives have a different "pulse" or "personality" (so to speak) which is fascinating to us. 

On the dark comb (above), there's a lot of activity - plenty of capped brood and lots of larvae (sorry - it's so hard to get a good close up in bright light and with gloves on).  This comb is from the original langstroth style nuc.  We trimmed the comb down on an angle and screwed the top of the lang frame  onto a top bar frame (without the bevel) and inserted it into our hive.   You can see the hexagon (outline) shape of our Golden Mean Top Bar Hives (notice how it's the same shape as a cell of comb).  The bees seem to like it and are happily building comb to suit the space.  No wonky comb, just straight gorgeous frames of custom created comb with the exact size and number of cells that the bees need.  

I've recently learned that dark comb is highly valued.  It's been polished and maintained by the bees for several generations of brood rearing.  Apparently, queens prefer to lay in dark comb (hence the high value).   I don't yet know why that is but we are respecting it and watching carefully to learn more.

Interestingly (although not surprisingly) the frames that have plastic foundation (from the original nuc) have been abandoned, showing that the bees clearly prefer to draw and work their own comb (just as we suspected).  We have swapped out those abandoned (nearly empty) frames for empty top bars which are fast being filled.  If we let the bees show us what to do, hive management seems so much easier.  

We keep adding new empty bars in between all the full ones to open up the brood nest and provide more space for the workers to draw comb in preparation for the queen to lay her eggs (which is working beautifully).  As the hive is expanding rapidly and there is a large flow of nectar and pollen on the horizon, we decided to super the strongest hive BEFORE things got out of hand (remembering that my instructor told us to stay ahead of the bees by 3 weeks).  We moved a frame of honey comb up into the newly placed super (as "bait") hoping this would encourage the bees to use the super for honey storage and the bottom hive for brood rearing.   After a full week, no change.  Drat.  The bees were NOT interested in working the super yet.  Disappointing and humbling.  Maybe our timing was off?  Maybe there weren't ready to work the super?   Plan B was mobilized to avoid a swarming situation (from overcrowding).  We "baited" the super with a frame of brood.  Success!  The bees began to work the super.  We have no idea if it was the frame of brood that brought them up or it was merely "time" for them to move up as the bottom hive was filling.  We have so much to learn.  Once that frame of brood hatches out, the bees will fill it with honey and we won't have any more brood up in the super (which should make honey harvesting easier).  

One of the other struggles we had with supering the hive was providing internal access for the bees to get up into the super from the bottom hive.  With top bar hives, there are no open gaps on top between frames.  We first tried leaving a gap/opening between top bars (instead of pushing them together as is the norm) which resulted in exactly what we predicted - "wonky" shaped, super thick comb (the bees tried to fill in the gap between the top bars).   Not good.  Plan B was put into place.  Hubby cut 5 notches into the top side edge of an empty top bar frame (which line up exactly with the "bee space" between the combs so that the bees can easily travel up into the super).  The bees do also have exterior access to the super via a front entrance.  At our next hive inspection, we shall see how effective Plan B is.  We did see immediate evidence of bees using the notches, but goodness, that doesn't mean they will keep using them.  Fingers crossed that they like Plan B.  Meanwhile we sort out Plan C (longer slits instead of notches).

We are also in the habit of peeking in the viewing windows a few evenings/week when all the bees are in for the night.  This gives us a good idea of what's going on inside without opening up the hive.    I LOVE top bar hives for this reason - there's no frame sides in the way - we just see a lovely row of beautiful comb, covered in bees :)

I'll take more pictures at the next hive inspection.  


  1. All sounds so interesting. If I manage to make some top bar hives in the winter I'll be sure to come to you for advice. There's so much to it. I'm planning on doing a course sometime soon.

  2. Interesting and informative post.
    What decided you on the top bar hives?