Bailey Comb Changes

Why it’s important to replace old comb
One way in which beekeepers can keep their bees healthy is to ensure that the colonies brood comb is changed regularly. Over a period of time the levels of pesticides, bacteria and other pathogens can build up within the comb to the point at which it can threaten the viability of the colony.

Therefore it’s important to regularly change your brood comb at least every three years to keep your colonies clean and healthy.  However, it’s difficult to remember the age of each individual brood comb frame over time and so a good idea is to mark one end of each frame with a blob of the same paint used to mark that years Queens. This is the current colour sequence that repeats every five years.

2013 – Red
2014 – Green
2015 – Blue
2016 – White
2017 – Yellow

In the Fleet BKA training apiary, the hives are all new and therefore almost all the frames are marked with green blobs and probably won’t need changing until 2016/17 when they will taken out, sterilised and reused marked with the correct colour. Putting the colour on one end only also ensures that all the frames in the hive go back the right way round!

The Bailey Comb Change process
Assuming that the colony is still relatively healthy, the best and least disruptive method of changing combs is a Bailey comb change. This simply requires an additional brood box of the same size as the original complete with a full suite of frames containing foundation and a feeder with sugar syrup.

This process can only take place when the average day temperature is above 12-15C as the bees need to raise the temperature inside the hive high enough to enable wax to be manipulated by the bees. Assuming the weather is suitable, you simply lift off and remove the super and Queen excluder (shaking any bees back into the brood box) and place the new brood box with frames of foundation on top of the existing brood box. Unless there is a big inbound flow of nectar, its probably a very good idea to feed the bees with a sugar syrup solution so that they have a ready access of food from which they can generate the large quantities of wax needed to replace an entire brood box full of new comb. We typically use large top feeders holding up to 10l of syrup at a time placed on top of the new brood box.

Stage 1 of a Bailey comb change. The new brood chamber is in place  with a full feeder on top.
Stage 1 of a Bailey comb change. The new brood chamber is in place on top of the old one with a full feeder above.

Leave the bees alone and after a few days you should start to see the sugar syrup levels fall within the feeder that lets you know that the bees are feeding and probably building comb. After about ten days or so have a quick peek in the top of the hive to see if  the bees have started to create areas of fresh comb, probably on one or two frames to begin with. It’s highly likely that the Queen will soon come up into the new comb to start laying eggs in the fresh cells – A quick visual check will confirm this.

Once the bees are building full-depth comb across more than one frame you need to ensure that the Queen is either already in the top brood box or move her there yourself and once this is done insert a Queen excluder between the top and bottom brood boxes. This will ensure the Queen stays up with the new comb and once she has started raising brood the nurse bees will transfer up to look after her and the new eggs that she is laying.

Bailey comb change stage 2 - The bees are now well established in the upper brood chamber and a second entrance has been opened.
Bailey comb change stage 2 – The bees are now well established in the upper brood chamber and a second entrance has been opened.

After three weeks or so all the larvae in the old brood box will have hatched and the bottom box can be taken away once any remaining bees have been shaken off the frames into the new brood chamber. The old combs will need to be disposed of and the frames and old brood box sterilised before they can be reused.

The Bailey comb change process really works well and whilst it can’t make a huge difference in the case of Varroa, it for almost all other pathogens and pesticide residue build-up, it ensures the colonies continued survival.

Flipping Beehives!

It’s early spring and the sight of worker bees returning to the hive with full pollen baskets is a strong sign that the Queen inside has started to lay eggs in earnest for the start of the foraging season.

During the winter, the bees tend to consume stores from the bottom and work their way up the combs through the hive until they become resident just under the roof, typically either close to or even in the super itself. It’s at this point that the Queen starts laying eggs again and if this happens to be in the super, your going to have a real job in your first spring inspection finding and moving the Queen below your re-inserted Queen excluder.

This is made all the more difficult because early in the spring, the outside temperatures are marginal and you don’t want to chill the bees and especially the brood by exposing frames and manipulating bees in the open air for too long. For those of us with polystyrene hives, the high levels of insulation typically means the Queen starts laying earlier than she might in a wooden hive and therefore the potential of your Queen laying in the super is much more likely.

So, on the one hand you want to inspect the hive early as possible to check on the bees, and keep the Queen out of the super, but on the other hand you don’t want to risk the health of the colony by chilling them… This is why “under supering” or flipping beehives in the previous Autumn is so useful.

Once you have harvested your honey in August, leaving a full super on the hive for the bees as insurance for the possibility of a long or hard winter to come, you can lift off the brood chamber, clean out the floor and then place the full super on the base with the brood chamber on top and remove the Queen excluder. So now the hive looks like this…

Flipped or under-supered hive ready for the winter
Flipped or under-supered hive ready for the winter

You can now put back any extracted supers that you want the bees to clean up briefly for a day or two and soon after apply any Varroa treatment directly onto the brood frames without having to remove and replace the full super, saving your back and minimising disturbance to the bees. The hive can now stay in this configuration right through until next April. Any Oxalic acid treatment will be channeled directly between the brood frames and get to the bees much more effectively and you can also apply thin patties of sugar candy on top of the brood frames under the roof as shown here.

pack of sugar candy
Part-eaten pack of sugar candy placed under the roof on top of the brood frames. These are hungry bees!

The clear plastic cover allows us to see how the bees are doing down in the combs without opening the hive unnecessarily and if the bees do start eating through the candy, then you can quickly replace the patties as required.

We can now relax through early spring knowing that if the Queen starts laying early in the year it will be close to the top of the hive – in the brood box. We can therefore delay our full spring inspection until it really is warm enough to go (3 or 4 days at 15C plus) through the hive inspecting the brood frames up close for any sign of disease or other problems.

During this inspection we can take off the brood and super, clean or replace the floor and then place the brood box back in place followed by the queen excluder and then the super on top ready for the main nectar flows in April, May and June, adding further supers as required.

Polystyrene beehive
Hive in “Summer mode” with one or more supers above the brood box. Note the thick tiles ensuring the hive stays stable.

This process minimises any major disturbance to the colony, especially in early spring and in late summer/autumn and ensures that the Queen stays where you want her.

Beware of woodpeckers!

woodpecker damage on poly hive
This was done in seconds!

Woodpeckers (for some reason its only the Green Woodpeckers) can sometimes attack beehives to eat the bees and honeycomb.  They somehow find the thinnest part of the hive to go for and break through either a wooden or polystyrene hive in seconds to eat the bees and honeycomb.  This usually leaves a big hole in the side of the hive that  leads to the death of the colony either directly by the woodpecker eating large number of  bees or indirectly through cold as the hole left behind is simply too big for the bees to block up.

Where we are in Hampshire, it seems that only certain families of Green Woodpeckers in some areas learn to attack hives whilst most just leave them alone. They usually seem to attack late in the winter when all other food supplies have been used up, but this year we have already received reports of a members hives being attacked locally in Mattingley and so now is the time to protect your hives.

Protecting hives from Woodpeckers.

Woodpecker proof!
Woodpecker proof!

The process we use in the Fleet Beekeeping training apiary is to use either chicken wire or plastic fencing mesh around the sides of the hive to prevent the Green Woodpeckers getting access to the hives with their sharp beaks.

It’s important that the mesh is loose and kept away from the sides of the hive so that the woodpecker can’t reach it and its also vital to keep the mesh off the ground otherwise it acts as a climbing frame for mice and others wanting to get into the hive. The two ends of the mesh are secured with short lengths of gardening wire or twine and the two bamboo poles are inserted through the mesh and rest on the roof so that they hold the mesh at the correct height.  Inspecting the hive or treating for Varroa with Oxalic acid is easily done by slipping out the poles and letting the mesh drop so you can get to the roof of the hive to remove it.

These will stay in place until next spring when the risk of woodpecker attack is over and the plastic mesh can be rolled up and stored away for another year.

Rehousing a swarm of bees – Part 3

IMG_1356So we went to see the swarm again in their new home to see how they were getting on. We had previously left them with a spare super with a small amount of stores as a emergency feed and left them to settle down after having cut down the comb to fit into a single Langstroth Jumbo brood chamber. The colony had grown considerably since our last visit and seems to be doing well.  No chance to really examine the comb as it is so complex and tightly woven around the apple tree branches we trimmed previously.

The real issue was what to do next to ensure the colony makes it through the winter into next spring. It’s getting quite late in the season and they are unlikely to be able to make much more comb, so adding frames of foundation would be pointless even assuming they could find sufficient forage to fill them. I had a number of completely full clean brood frames from Queenless colonies that I had merged previously and assembled into another jumbo brood box.  It was incredibly heavy and took two of us to lift onto the hive once we had removed the Queen Excluder.

So with up to 30Kgs of honey and pollen stores, placed just above the brood comb, the colony should do fine and we will keep an eye on them over the winter so that next spring the colony should have moved up en-masse into the top brood chamber with frames full of food.  On a suitably warm day, we should also be able to see signs of egg laying at that time on the frames letting us know the Queen is up in the top chamber.

At that point, we will run some cheese-wire between the two brood chambers to separate them, so that we can  then remove the bottom box and replace the frames, bees (and hopefully the Queen) back onto the floor before shaking out the bees left behind in the bottom chamber.

Those more experienced will recognise that in fact we are really doing a pseudo Bailey comb change, albeit onto complete combs and should this process should enable us to keep the colony intact whilst moving them off the current chaos of comb and twigs etc.



Rehousing a swarm of bees – Part 2

In the last posting I described how we had removed a large and well established swarm of bees that had build a large nest from high up in an apple tree and relocated them in a hive within my apiary south of Odiham.  Here’s what happened next…

Too tall to fit in a single brood chamber
Too tall to fit in a single brood chamber

Once we got the bees into my apiary and on a sturdy hive stand, we could take a good look at them.  The picture here shows what we found. The bees had built across seven combs in a tangled mess of tree branches, twigs, leaves and even several embedded apples.  It rapidly became apparent that simply cutting away the combs to shake the bees onto frames of foundation was not going to be an easy option without massively disturbing the nest.  This could potentially kill many bees, possibly including the Queen which would obviously lead to the death of the entire colony over winter.

The other problem was that the main branch the colony was attached to stuck up over the top of the bottom brood chamber by about 10″ and therefore there was a huge amount of wasted space that would be hard to fill with unwanted brace comb. At the same time, the whole hive felt quite light as we moved it into position and we could not see many stores in place.  This is probably because being positioned high in a tree had left them very exposed and unable to keep the brood nest very warm and so they had probable consumed the food as it came in to feed themselves and their brood.

Trimming the branches to get the nest inside a single brood chamber
Trimming the branches to get the nest inside a single brood chamber

We decided to try and get the entire colony into a single brood chamber as a start so that they would not waste further energy building more comb to fill the space left.  I held the hive steady whilst James cut away some of the bigger branches with a tree lopper as well as removing all the embedded apples and bits of twigs and leaves that we could easily get at. The whole nest is made up of beautifully clean, fresh yellow comb, but it’s in a complete mess making it impossible to remove single combs without destroying the ones next to it.

We took away a couple of empty combs attached to the top of the main branch and although the bees were all over the inside of the brood chamber, they were all very docile indicating that there is probably a healthy Queen in these somewhere.

Apiary_swarm_5Having cut the branches back, we  then placed a Queen excluder on the top of the brood chamber plus a super of recently extracted honey for a quick feed.  We then closed up the colony to reduce the stress and left them alone to acclimatise to their new location and start foraging again whilst we think of a way of transferring the colony onto frames of foundation…

I’m thinking of a Bailey comb change, placing a brood chamber of frames and food above the current brood nest which would be ideal if was not so late in the season. I do have a good hives worth of clean brood comb full of honey gathered from recently merged colonies that might work, although it would mean creating a double Jumbo Langstroth (Dandant) sized hive to go through the winter which is a big space to keep warm. However, their in a nice warm poly hive which should see them through to next spring with a bit of TLC and candy feed when required. Hopefully, by next spring the bees will all move up into the upper brood chamber with the food and the Queen will be laying up there which in theory means I’ll be able to simply remove the bottom box, shake off the bees and let them get on with it in 2014, but somehow, I think removing a brood chamber full of brace comb will not be all that easy….

Rehousing a swarm of bees – Part 1…

Even the most diligent of beekeepers employing a strict inspection process to manage swarming gets it wrong occasionally…

We have eleven active hives in the Fleet Beekeepers training apiary and try to ensure that  we manage the colonies to spot the signs of swarming and deal with it appropriately. But about two months ago, as we arrived at the apiary, we saw a huge swarm departing from one of the hives and settling high up in one of the apple trees within the Orchard.

The nest was deeply imbedded in the centre of the tree canopy

Typically, the first stopping point is purely temporary as the swarm sends out scouts to find a suitable home for the bees to go to and as we could not get close to the swarm we had to simply leave it there.

However it appears in this case, the swarm moved into another tree as a few weeks ago we spotted the swarm settled into another tree in the orchard about 15′ off the ground.  They had been busy building combs and had created a nest about 18″ square in the centre of the tree.

James carefully cutting away the branches around the tree nest

The nest was quite exposed in the tree and very unlikely to survive the winter once the leaves had dropped, so James, Geoff and I decided to mount a rescue and retrieval mission.  James built a scaffolding platform underneath the swarm and I supplied a Jumbo Langstroth poly hive to put the bees into.  James and Geoff then proceeded to carefully cut away the surrounding branches so that we could get access to the nest itself. This took quite some time and although the bees were extremely calm it soon became apparent that the bees had greatly expanded the nest and it had become huge!

It was the biggest wild nest we had ever seen!

Eventually, James and Geoff managed to cut away the surrounding branches and they carefully lowered the complete tree nest into the prepared brood chamber complete with tree branches, leaves and even whole apples within it!  Even now the bees stayed very calm as we placed them inside the hive and then we realised that the nest was so big it would not fit…

The nest was about 10″ too high, but as luck would have it, James had a spare brood chamber with him that we placed on top of the other lower chamber and closed the hive up.

The nest filled two jumbo brood chambers!
The nest filled two jumbo brood chambers!

We then left the hive for the rest of the day so that all the flying foragers could return to join the rest of the colony now happily inside the hive. We had no space to keep the colony inside the training apiary and so we decided to move the bees that night to my out apiary south of Odiham and then possibly shake the bees into new brood frames before overwintering them there.

In the next posting I’ll describe some of the difficult choices we faced when we tried to set the bees up in the new apiary…