Observation Top-Bar Hive One Week In

I opened up the fabulous observation window top-bar hive today to make sure the bees weren’t drawing any crazy comb. These bees are my heroes! They have drawn the combs perfectly straight and hanging from the tab on each top-bar (instead of, as has always been my experience, stringing wax comb from one top-bar to the next). To top it off (sorry!), they’ve drawn five combs already and are at work on the sixth.

I decided to play it safe by removing some of the extra top-bars from the box, so that the bees have less room to play with for the time being. They now have a total of ten frames (six currently in use and four blanks) sandwiched between divider boards. This limited space will hopefully help keep them on their good comb-drawing behavior.

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I haven’t fed this swarm at all, but you can see the bees’ curing nectar toward the top of the comb.

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5 Responses to Observation Top-Bar Hive One Week In

  1. Having recently read a newspaper article reporting that a survey has shown something like 30% of honey bees in the USA were lost last winter, I’m thinking you could show your commercial beekeepers a thing or two! Your colonies definitely behave in a completely different fashion to our UK ladies when swarming as our single older queens fly off with half the colony leaving virgin queens behind whereas you seem to so often have multi queen swarms. Does that mean they have lived in harmony for a year or two or are virgins flying out with the old queen? While attending a county show a couple of years ago I spied a top bar hive and checked it over quite jealously since as much as I’d love one I don’t really have the room. Next weekend I’ll be back to the annual show so will make a bee-line (!) for the stand to take another look now that I have more of an understanding through your blog of what goes on inside. Have you managed to extract honey from Mondo?

    Could your April 3rd small swarm have been a cast? If so the risk can be that they continue to split and split until so few bees are left they fail completely but there again that’s in the UK…. your bees enjoy a different lifestyle. Amazing isn’t it that you have probably got our original British apis melliera mellifera that died out over here around 1919 after a devastating disease struck them down, hence our Italian bees today. Apparently a colony of the original British black was recently discovered in an old church roof doing very nicely so they’re not extinct after all but ‘experts’ have decided to get them into a hive so let’s hope they don’t kill them off. You’ll glean from that I’m wary of so-called experts!! Most of our wild honey bees have been killed by the varroa mite and we have to be diligent and sometimes treat our colonies with hefty chemical laden strips twice a year to keep the numbers of mites down but never manage to eradicate them. There are several new treatments coming on to the market so we can only hope. Meanwhile you may have heard that the European parliament has now put a 2 year ban on neonicotinoids while more tests are carried out. I’m not so sure that will be a long enough time to see any difference but at least a start is being made.

    A page of written notes were jotted down to catch up with your blogs but I won’t carry on other than to say I’ll be watching with interest to see what gets planted in the place of your felled trees and I’m curious, was the fence you were weaving made from willow? We’ve got some planted up from a couple of years ago at the allotment that we’re hoping to create an arch with. So far they’ve reached about 5′ so a little way to go yet!

    • The multi-queen swarming thing seems to be a bit of an anomaly, though I’ve read about others who have observed this in their bees. I’ve also read about rare occasions where more than one queen will set up house in the same hive and live peacefully together for extended periods of time.

      In our case, I believe it happens like this: When the hive has built up and is ready to swarm, the old queen leaves with roughly half the bees. When the virgin queens hatch out, they don’t kill each other in the hive, as most queens do. Instead, they leave with secondary swarms (usually there are at least two more swarms). We’ve seen anywhere from 2-10 (+) queens in these swarms. Sub groups of bees often leave with the individual queens in the days after we capture the swarm. In some cases, I think the queens do end up fighting and the bees stay as one group. We have only ever seen this behavior with Mondo and her daughter colonies.

      We’ve never harvested honey from Mondo because the cross-comb got too out of control early on. With this new TBH, I am going to do everything I can to stay on top of any cross-comb from the beginning. The TBH beekeepers we know do harvest honey, but they don’t tend to get as much as their Lang counterparts. Personally, I think TBHs are more work, and I tend to prefer Langs. But I am excited to have an observation window and a fresh start in terms of the cross-comb thing.

      We too are wary of experts, especially when they mess with what seems to be working. We shudder to imagine the removal of the colony you mention. Yikes!

      The April 3rd mystery group of bees could have been a cast, I guess. I haven’t seen what you describe in terms of colonies that die out from having too many tiny secondary swarms. Hortensia (the colony with the April 3rd activity) is going strong, and I had convinced myself that the queen went out mating on April 3rd, but who knows.

      We feel more and more strongly about not treating our hives, despite the high mortality rate among colonies these days. As you mention, even the nastiest chemical treatments don’t irradiate the mites, and we worry that treating is actually doing the bee species a disservice by preventing natural selection from taking its course. We also wonder if better bee management practices may do as much or more to aid individual colonies as chemical treatments. We know beekeepers who have much better than average survival rates in their colonies who steer clear entirely of treatments (chemical or not). Our feeling has become that although short term losses might be greater for beekeepers who don’t treat, if those keepers propagate the surviving colonies, they will ultimately strengthen their stock and build bees that are better adapted to local conditions. This adaptation is another big concern to us, as purchased ‘package bees’ are generally bred hundreds of miles away in California, in climates very different from our own. And then there is the concern of genetic diversity… I’ve heard something along the lines of 95% of US queens each year are raised from just 400 breeder queens (hope I’m remembering these numbers right). The gist for us, is that locally bred, open mated, and untreated bees seem like the best way to go if our goal is to stay out of the way/assist survival of the species under the very challenging modern conditions. I fear I ramble :).

      The plant list for the front yard continues to be a heated topic of debate around here! So far, we agree on planting a pomegranate, and several apple trees which will espalier. Kelly has an extensive list of ornamentals that she is eager to include, and I would vote for more blueberries. Kelly wants to weave the fence from the Laurel suckers we pruned out. However, I don’t know how well that will work now that they have dried considerably. Perhaps we can soak them? I love the sound of your willow arch. Is it a type of willow conducive to basket weaving?

  2. When it comes to varroa treatment I agree that we need to have a survival of the fittest strategy and hopefully breed bees that will build up an immunity over time. As ever we have to work differently in the UK since we have so few chances to inspect and are sometimes put inder pressure by local bee inspectors to ensure treatment is placed in hives twice a year just in case a bad infestation is taking place and we can’t see it. Our planned inspection today has been postponed due to severe thunder storms so we’ve still not take one good look through the hives. When we got started just 4 years ago treatment once a year was deemed sufficient so I fear some beekeeping associations are beginning to panic!! We do our best to source natural remedies and hope that maintaining a healthy environment for Terry’s bees will reward us and our ladies over time but if they begin to fail then there’s no point in trying to prop them up but rather let nature take its course.

    My camera was taken to the allotment this morning to take photos of the willow-soon-to-be-arch but as mentioned above a violent thunderstorm had me rapidly putting everything into our shed before we got on with a few tasks having decided we were already wet to may as well continue! My neighbour Debs that I share these hobbies with went on a basket weaving course and not only came home with a newly made basket and plant support but a few willow sticks with instructions to stick them in the ground and wait for them to take root. They did quite rapidly and hopefully the arch will be completed in the not too distant future.

    • Very interesting to hear that there is this level of oversight by inspectors in the UK. Do you use screened bottom boards on your hives? We know a number of beekeepers even here in our mild California climate who only very rarely open their hives. They glean incredibly detailed information about the health of the hives, levels of mites, and development of the brood nest just by taking a look at the material that falls to the sliding tray of the bottom board. Seems like this could be all the more useful for beekeepers in your type of weather conditions.

      Your willow arch sounds wonderful. Maybe I can convince Kelly to plant one along the side of the house. I took a willow basket making class once years ago, but it is a skill I never followed up on, so have largely forgotten.

  3. Yes Sarah, varroa mesh floors are all the rage in the UK and although last year I had one hive with and one without I’ve now swapped the one solid floor for mesh. Some don’t like the idea of so much air blowing through especially in the winter but I personally think fresh air is better than a damp environment. It certainly does make sense if the varroa mites drop off and supposedly can’t crawl back up into the hive and also gives us a chance to count the blighters although to be honest, unless I’m wearing my reading glasses I don’t see them! It’s sufficient for me to know as many as possible become stranded. The tray is so easy to clean without disturbing the colony so that of course assists with hygene. Trained bee inspectors are generally local beekeepers who show a great deal of empathy and offer a ton of ‘strong recommendations’ that tend to make one feel guilty if choosing to ignore them!

    Debs also felt she didn’t have the inclination to continue with basket weaving…. I think her words were she lost the will to live halfway through the course because it was so fiddly!

    Finally managed to inspect our colonies yesterday, I’m afraid without a camera but I’ll see what I can put together anyway. (Don’t hold your breath!)

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