The following was written while I was lying in bed with the flu for a few days last winter. It’s long for no reason other than I was sick and had nothing better to do than try to write the longest post in the world. You’ve been warned. I could condense the whole thing down to two or three sentences, but what’s the fun in that?
Subtitled: How I Sometimes Assemble Beehive Frames
Ever pull a big frame full of honey from a hive, only to have it fall apart on you? You know what I’m talking about: one of the sidebars disconnects from the frame and the heavy comb of honey pops out of the frame and just sort of hangs awkwardly from one side while you try to maneuverer it so you don’t crush any bees? Yeah, that. (Am I the only one who had a hard time reading that with this animated GIF distracting me the whole time?)
I’ve always heard about how honey bees won’t draw comb on plastic foundation, but I didn’t experience it in a big way until this summer. I had three nucs set up in deeps that I wanted to expand into medium supers because I want to try on the all-medium-super beekeeping game and see if I like it because I know I don’t like lifting 40kg deeps full of honey (about 100 pounds). If I was a seniorish citizen with back, hip or leg problems, or just a regular human being who wasn’t in the mood for any heavy lifting in their beekeeping, I’d consider switching to all shallow supers. For now, though, I’ll see how it goes with mediums.
Waxless plastic foundation and a foundationless section the bees had no problem building on.
April 2020 Introduction: This is an 18-minute video recorded on my cell phone (the quality isn’t always the greatest) in July 2018, the same month most of my hives that were in the care of another beekeeper were returned to me. But I’ve decided not to post videos about those returned hives because, man oh man, they were sad shape, and I’m just not in the mood to revisit any of it. I’ll continue to post these behind the scenes videos that consist mostly of me talking about beekeeping things and doing some boring hive inspections, etc., which I know doesn’t interest most people, but I like these videos because they show better than well-edited videos what it’s really like to keep a small number of beehives on a budget. I’m all about dispelling the idealised myth of beekeeping. Most people romanticise beekeeping to the point where they can’t help but feel, “Isn’t beekeeping a dream?” Maybe it is, and maybe that’s the problem.
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.
Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after an inspection. (May 05, 2012.)
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.
…naturally drawn out drone comb with freshly laid eggs inside most of the cells.
Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)
The wax is yellow probably because the bees have been collecting dandelion nectar and pollen for the past few weeks.
Click the image to see a much sharper close up view of the comb.
Does adding a foundationless frame to the outside of the brood nest prevent swarming? I don’t know. I still think the #1 method for preventing swarming is the give the queen space to lay by adding drawn comb, replacing frames of honey with drawn comb if necessary. Second is to give all the bees that emerge from the brood frames space so the hive doesn’t get congested with too many bees. The pheromones from the queen and from the open brood don’t circulate well around a congested hive. The worker bees get swarmy when they can’t smell those pheromones. Third, give the rapidly-growing population of worker bees something to do. That’s another reason why I toss in foundationless frames. The bees in a crowded colony usually want to fill in that space as quick as possible. They will eat honey to make wax so they can build comb to fill in the empty space. Eating honey frees up space for the queen to lay. Then the new comb will give the queen more space to lay (probably drones). So in a perfect world all of these things balance out so the hive doesn’t get gunked up with drone brood between the boxes and the queen has enough room to lay so swarming isn’t triggered. In a perfect world.
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. 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 supposedly 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.
Photo by David Heaf from warre.biobees.com (used with permission).
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: Continue reading →
March 2019 Introduction: This is a boring post that probably won’t have much appeal to a general reader, but it does go into some fine details that might be interesting for people who want to compare notes with another beekeeper (me). It’s eight years later and today I’m intrigued by the results I had with my bees at the time. I didn’t just leave my bees alone and let them sort out their troubles. I was always messing with my bees, probably more than I should have, but I have to admit that I created an excellent classroom for myself.
Here’s a short uneventful video I took of the hives today where I mistakenly refer to Hive #2 as Hive #1. (I need to paint numbers on the damn things.)
And now here’s a quick review of the 4 hives in my backyard as they stand today: Continue reading →