Eight of us gathered at Helen J’s for an evening chat in Cowley, Oxford. We looked at different types of top bar, discussed preparations for the imminent Swarm Season and swapped lore…Half of us use Top Bar Hives and half Warrés – the usual mix. We compared types:
Helen’s flat-topped TBH has been wintering indoors masquerading as a coffee table. Brian’s claims of only having modest carpentry skills were treated with scepticism when he revealed he has been building his first hive, a windowed Warré, and his bars are semi-framed (bars down the sides to reinforce the comb). Tim and Sharon had videos on a phone showing a swarm walking into their first Warré last year.
This led to discussions about different designs of top bars and Warré bars. It’s generally agreed that some kind of sharp ridge is desirable to give the bees a guide, so you don’t get misaligned comb. But opinions vary whether you need wax along this edge. You can melt some on as a belt-and-braces why-the-heck-not thing. Helen J showed us a technique where the bottom of her bars is angled like a V, and you cover the V with strips of foundation and melt that on. Gino (not at the meeting) has mentioned he simply fixes thin hazel twigs under a flat top bar, with U-shaped staples, giving the bees a clear “start here!” signal with something they can adhere wax to easily. Some use spacers between top bars so they can medicate, say with icing sugar, without removing bars, and adjust the bee space between combs to suit whether it is honey / brood comb. (Honey comb is thicker.)
This led to a discussion of why comb in TBH’s sometimes goes at odd angles, cross combs etc and sometimes not. I ventured the opinion that the difference seems to be that people don’t get weird comb in their first year of using a TBH, because they are always opening and checking it. It’s only in subsequent years that people get, frankly, lazy and don’t inspect enough that the bees have an opportunity to build comb at an angle, which leads to hives that can’t be opened without major disruption to the comb & colony. To be clear – I favour low intervention beekeeping. But if you want an inspectable TBH, you will have to be invasive a few times a year, manually straighten comb etc.
And this led to swarming. Now, as natural beekeepers we think swarms are a Good Thing. But I suggested that you can have too many in one year and the optimum is one per year, because:
- a single swarm will be a big prime swarm, with the old, fertile queen. It has a high chance of thriving and if hived, it will probably give you a honey crop that same year, if you want it;
- every time a swarm emerges from a hive it weakens it through reduction in numbers, and it takes lots of honey. If a colony throws off three swarms it could well be left so small, and low on stores, that it may not be able to build back up and survive the next winter.
So it seems the optimum path is to navigate a line between conventional beekeeping (total suppression of swarming) and hard-line natural beekeeping (let the bees do what they want).
How do you limit the swarms to one big healthy one per year? By making sure the bees have plenty of room to lay brood. The key here is that the queen will not lay in or cross honeycomb. In Warrés, this is not a problem, there is nothing blocking the bees expanding the brood area downwards. But in horizontal TBH’s, as the colony emerges from winter it puts stores at the back of the hive – say 8 inches away from the entrance – and lays brood near the door. Pretty soon they run up against the wall of honeycomb, the entire volume allocated to brood is full, and the bees get the urge to swarm. And because they don’t convert honeycomb to brood comb, they are stuck in a cycle of continually throwing off small casts.
To give TBH bees a healthy brood volume (say, 12 top bars’ space instead of 5) you have to keep going into the hive – every one to two weeks – and if you find honeycomb too near the entrance, you move it away. And you can add empty bars between brood comb. This gives the bees the brood space they need. And then they only swarm if they get enough spare bees to form a vigorous, numerous new colony.
And yes, that’s what conventional beeks do. You need to strike a balance. Otherwise you will get lots of small casts with virgin queens which never quite build up to critical mass that year, and a weak mother colony.
We also discussed how bees drink. They need water but like to land on something solid and suck from the surface of moss, wet rocks etc. Alison uses a bird bath filled with marbles and Tim & Sharon noticed their bees favoured a piece of wet carpet!
We shared some propolis for baiting hives, and reviewed how to actually catch swarms we might be called out to.
- Helen J has a book we’d not heard of before, A Guide To Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives – The Thinking Beekeeper – Christy Hemenway. Hasn’t read it yet but Amazon’s reviewers give it 5 stars.
- Some fondants for winter feeding are better than others – some contain palm oil which the bees don’t like.
- Helen N warned that her normally calm bees once went for her when she messed about with catmint which she had planted near their hive. She had thought they would like it, but when she broke foliage it was so pungent it agitated them. Helen J confirmed she’s heard of this elsewhere.
- Sarah told us how she had 2 colonies, one was fairly aggressive. Her docile bee colony starved and died when their aggressive neighbours robbed them out.
- We have compared winter survival rates in our group. Of 39 colonies, mostly in Warrés, some TBH’s with a handful of Nationals, a WBC, a skep, a couple of home made oddballs and a…tea chest. 38 have survived winter though 3 are queenless and one probably too small to survive and we are not quite out of danger yet. There was no particular correlation between hive type and survival rate, but all hives were very well insulated, with extra cladding round thin walled types. The beekeepers ranged from very experienced to novices. All but 2 colonies originated as feral stock (the others are Buckfasts from Honey Bee Suppliers in Hook Norton, and these survived too). This sounds like Oxfordshire and Natural Beekeeping is the perfect combination for raising bees, but our losses were significantly higher last year. It’s not clear yet if conventional beekeepers in the area are doing so well.
Many thanks to Helen J for sharing her house with us!
Next meeting will be on April 18th, Steeple Aston