Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Swarm Prevention. I talked about knowing when to stop feeding to prevent swarming and all kinds of good stuff. I also said something like this:
In a standard Langstroth hive with foundation, all the foundation usually has worker-sized cells imprinted on it, so the bees tend to build worker brood comb on it, not drone comb. That leaves the queen with nowhere to lay drone comb, so she’s forced to fill the space between the boxes with drone comb — drone comb that is a big ugly mess to clean up in the spring.
That’s why I insert at least one foundationless frame into the brood nest of every colony. Given the choice to build comb however they like it, if they’re short on drones (and they usually are in a Langstroth hive full of plastic foundation), the bees will (usually) fill the foundationless frame with drone comb instead of gunking up the space between the brood boxes with it.
NOTE: This post doesn’t provide much information about queenless hives (or queenless colonies). It’s an inquiry into a specific hive that I suspected was queenless. That’s all.
Well, I think we may have our first queenless hive. Or something.
I checked our one foundationless Langstroth hive today for the first time this year and saw no sign of the queen. No worker brood of any kind. Just a lot of empty cells and plenty of honey on the sides. I saw about twenty or thirty open drone brood about to be capped and some older capped drone cells — possibly from a laying worker — but not much else. No fresh day-old eggs. No sealed worker brood. Nothing. Here’s a quick video of some of the broodless frames I found during the inspection:
I recently read Beekeeping For All (8mb PDF), by Abbé Warré. He’s the guy who designed the “People’s Hive,” also known as the Warré hive. To condense what I said in a previous post, it’s a top bar and therefore foundationless hive with small, square shaped hive boxes, no top entrance and a quilt box on top to absorb moisture. Boxes are added to the bottom of the hive, not the top — the bees build comb downwards as they would in nature. Honey is harvested from back-filled brood comb at the top of the hive. Warré called it the People’s Hive because it’s cheap and easy to build and maintain. The beekeeper need only add boxes to the bottom to prevent swarming, which is done without opening the hive or disturbing the brood nest. The Warré hive, perhaps more than any other hive, emulates the conditions of a natural honey bee hive.
From what I can tell, the hive is designed to minimize interference from the beekeeper. The only time it’s opened is when honey boxes are removed from the top (at most, twice a year). That fact, along with the absence of a top entrance, helps concentrate the queen’s pheromones throughout the hive, which supposedly results in calmer bees. The regular rotating out of old comb from the top also means the brood are more likely to be healthy because they’re always raised in new, clean, natural sized comb.
Another key feature is the small square sided hive boxes. The height of each box is slightly less than a typical Langstroth, but the sides are each 30cm long (about 12 inches). The square shape allows for more even heat distribution and requires less work from the bees. Warré also claims that bees in a smaller, more natural sized brood chamber consume less honey over winter and are therefore less likely to starve before spring.
I’m not yet convinced that any kind of foundationless hive will do well in the exceptionally wet climate of St. John’s, Newfoundland. I’ve only been at this for, what, 611 days, so I still have more than a lot to learn. But some aspects of the Warré design, such as the small brood nest area, seem to make more sense than the conventional Langstroth design, and I’m tempted to integrate them into some of my own hives.
I don’t agree with all of Warré’s claims. In some cases that’s because I don’t have the experience to know what’s what either way. In other cases I can confidently disagree because I know his observations are based on his local climate in France that has no correlation to my local climate where the bees do different things at different times of the year. Nevertheless, I think he came up with a thoughtful design and method that might appeal to beekeepers who aren’t so intent on the consistent hive manipulation that’s synonymous with many beekeeping practices today.
Note: This is an unusually long post, probably not much interest to general readers. I promise I won’t do this kind of thing on a regular basis. But I’ve been out of commission with a weird, rotten flu and I don’t have anything better to do. So without further adieu, here are some notes I wrote while I read the book on my Kindle: …
We have four Langstroth hives in our backyard. Each hive consists of two deep supers (or boxes). Our plan is to expand up to a maximum of eight hives this year by splitting the hives we already have. We’re hoping the population of all four hives will explode to fill three deeps per hive by sometime in June, and if that happens, I think we might be able to reach our goal of eight hives and still get a half decent honey harvest from at least two of the hives. We’d be happy with that.
It should go without saying that our plan is likely to have little resemblance to what actually happens. The bees will not always do what we want them to do, and we’ll just have to deal with it. But beyond the basic notion of expanding up to eight hives, we’re not planning to do anything too complicated because things will get complicated enough on their own. …
What do rotting honey bee corpses look like in the middle of February after being buried in snow for a couple months? This:
We had a heavy rain storm over the weekend that melted and washed away most of the snow and revealed the bottom entrances of the hives that have been buried for much of the new year. I knew I’d see more dead bees. The old-timers seem to fly outside the hive and die. Several hundred of them are scattered around the yard, little black dots everywhere on the crusty snow. Sometimes the dead are removed from the hive, but I get the impression corpse-removal becomes a lower priority in the dead of winter when it’s hard enough just to stay alive. The bottom board of our one foundationless hive is nearly blocked with dead bees. Dead bees are accumulating in the other three hives, too, though not as bad. …
I’m not sure if it has something to do with today’s date (the winter solstice), a recent snowfall or just business as usual, but a pile of dead bees suddenly appeared at the bottom entrance of our foundationless hive today. I wouldn’t have noticed them if we were using a solid mouse-proof entrance reducer instead of the open mouse-proofing mesh. The dead bees would have stayed piled up inside the hive all winter.
I could still see the cluster poking up through the middle of the top bars in the upper brood chamber. All three of the conventional hives look the same as they did last week, clustering high in the top brood chamber and hardly any dead bees on the bottom board.
I wonder what it all means. Probably nothing.
UPDATE (Dec. 23/11): I just took a closer look at the dead bees. About 90% of them are drones. The foundationless hive always had a large number of drones and not all of them were booted outside in the fall. This must be the last of them.