Two years in and the fears are creeping in!

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This is aimed at bee-keepers with one or two years experience who may feel that bee-keeping is not as easy as it appeared! None of what follows is intended as anything other than tips for an easier life. My methods will not suit everyone so please pick out the parts that are relevant to you and adapt them if necessary to suit your own situation.

I have had some feedback on the issue suggesting ways for a relatively new beekeeper to handle frames. Please do not think any of my suggestions are ‘the only way to do it’. They are just a guide, however there was an error in the photographs, the arrow clearly showed the rotation of the frame towards the body, it is far more natural and easier to rotate the frame away from the body. My thanks to Mr Coyle for spotting the mistake!

Your second year is so different to the first. If your hive came through winter and has built up well during spring you will realise that there seem to be far more bees than the previous year. The comb in your brood box will be discoloured and lacking its pristine look. Please don’t worry. This is normal. Just because they don’t look clean doesn’t mean they are dirty! You want a good strong hive and the bees will look after the comb. The fact that it can turn black and have holes in it has little bearing on what goes on inside the hive but it does mean that you have to look more carefully for the dreaded queen cells.

The most important thing is that your bees need room. In the wild they will probably have a cavernous space that they can fill with comb from the top down or outwards. As the brood emerges (Not ‘hatches’, eggs hatch and brood emerge!) the bees fill that comb with stores. New brood progressively moves down the new built comb underneath these stores. In a hive things are slightly different. We give the queen limited room to lay at the bottom of the hive and then when we think that the hive needs room for stores we add comb above. It adds up to nearly the same thing but sometimes it takes a while for the bees to use the supers, especially if it is undrawn foundation. There is no quick fix to this. Others may suggest you remove the queen excluder for a while or even put the super under the brood box for a week or so. Honestly it seems to make little difference, when the bees need the room they will use it.

With regard to the queen excluder, do not feel you have to use one at all. It is there for our convenience and not for the bees, giving us a clear barrier between brood and stores but if you feel that you can manage the hive without one then there is nothing wrong with trying it. There are no ‘strict rules’ in this game! Out of preference I do use a queen excluder and long ago learnt that spending money on a wired one with a frame is well worth the extra pennies.

As you know supers are intended for honey and the size is designed for ease of handling. Their purpose is to hold nectar and store honey. The bees will spread the nectar over many cells to evaporate the water before filling a cell to the top with ripe honey and capping it. For this very reason you need to give the bees room to ripen the honey as well as store it, so always stay ahead of them. When a super starts to get some decent weight to it then add another. I like to add my new supers immediately above the brood box and below existing supers. They will hopefully have started to store ripe honey in the previous box and they prefer to store honey at the top of the hive so you don’t want them to move it unnecessarily.

Try and think why they ‘do what they do’. Honey gets stored from the top down and brood goes underneath. When the queen goes off lay in autumn they start to consume stores from the bottom up. The heat is at the top of the hive, as the stores get consumed they move up towards the heat, needing less stores to stay warm and therefore eking their stores out until the spring, so ripe honey will get stored at the top of the hive. Of course you don't want to give them so much room that they can’t cope with it. Remember you are trapping the brood under a queen excluder so you don't want to create a huge void between the brood and the stores. (All queen excluders should of course be removed for winter for that very reason)

Inspections can be difficult when you start to get several supers. Always make sure you have somewhere firm to put them as you remove them. Refer to last month for inspection preparation.

This is how I would deal with a hive with two supers over a queen excluder and brood box.
I remove the roof and turn it upside down next to the hive. Metal lids can get super hot so you don’t want to put anything immediately on the metal. I use a flat roof but if you use a sloping style then an empty super can be used instead of the roof. Loosen the crown board so that it can be removed easily (as explained last month) but don’t remove it yet. When you lift that first super remember that the frames on the super below may have been stuck to the frames above so gently lift the rear edge and check. You should be able to loosen the odd frame with your hive tool. Now lift the first super off the one below it and place it on the roof slightly off square so that there are four points of contact, one on each side of the roof.

At this point slowly lift the crown board off and place it on the next super to be removed. Loosen this super on all sides from the queen excluder and place it on top of the first super. Now remove the queen excluder. This will probably have bees on it so check for the queen on the underside of the excluder and then lay it down squarely on the crown board. Remember your crown board should have no holes in it. If you have missed the queen on the excluder she is now trapped between the excluder and the crown board and can be retrieved when you re-assemble the hive. If for some reason you do have holes in your crown board that are open, lay your queen excluder upside down on it. That way a queen cannot crawl into the super unnoticed and hopefully you will spot her there.

Complete your inspection of the brood box. When you reassemble the hive always put each piece down so that the corners of each part are slightly offset and then twist the box into its final position. This prevents you crushing bees as there are only four small points of contact prior to you twisting it into its proper position.

Some hives seem to produce vast quantities of propolis and stick everything together even when all the bee spaces are correct. In these circumstances I have been known to put one super on top of another at right angles. I can hear the gasps from respected beekeepers from here! I am told it will reduce the honey crop. I have never noticed this and it helps no end when parting the supers from each other as the frames are not stuck along their entire length to the one below. I have even used this technique on double brood with success. You cannot lift the frame below if it is at right angles to the one above!

Remember several supers can get very heavy. Make sure your hive stand and the ground below can take it.

This months tip.
About this time of the year, if you use an open mesh floor, (OMF) it is worth checking under your hive. You may see a cluster of bees hanging underneath. This cluster can vary in size until it becomes so large you panic. Others will tell you it is a swarm or that the queen has crawled under the OMF. Don’t panic! Most of the time it is a simple fault that can be rectified in a couple of minutes. What happens is a few bees approach your hive but underfly the entrance. They grip onto the OMF but cannot understand why they cannot get through it. It isn’t much different to the queen excluder that they go through easily and they can see the hive above them. Before long more and more bees may join them. On a cold night these bees may get chilled and fall to the ground hungry and cold and the following morning you may seem them crawling listlessly on the ground under the hive. Your immediate thought will be disease or poison from spraying. The quick fix is to remove the cluster and let them crawl in the entrance. Then simply block off the area between the landing board and the ground with a piece of wood, fine net or a breeze block. A large landing board seems to make this scenario less likely too. It is that simple!

Next month a little about the queen!