ONBG meeting, 6th April 2019 – TBHs

Preliminary discussion of comb management in TBHs with the aid of a small (nucleus) TBH. Photo (c) Jane Denby used here with permission

15 of us converged at Zuzana’s to see her Top Bar Hive, and particularly how to move bars around an occupied hive to make room for the nest to expand. This is necessary in large, established colonies in this type of hive as they can bottle themselves into one end of the hive with a wall of honeycomb for  winter, then find the honeycomb prevents them expanding the nest again for Spring.

This is explained in a lot of detail, along with other TBH management practises in Les Crowder’s excellent book Top-Bar Beekeeping, but as several people commented, it’s one thing reading about these practises but sometimes it’s easier to grasp when physically demonstrated.

Swarm catcher for high-up swarms – basically a bucket on an extendable pole. Photo (c) Jane Denby, used here with permission

We had met fairly early and while we waited for the weather to warm up [to minimise stress on the colony when opened], we discussed other aspects of bee-y stuff.

Will explained how some of the apparent variation in bee colouration in a hive is not necessarily due to different fathers. It also varies with time – winter bees have more fat and look darker; bees returning to a hive stuffed with nectar are lighter-coloured; as bees breathe their segments (tergites) move apart and back, so you see more of the colour beneath these; and the same bee will look darker from behind because the darker segments tend to be at that end.

Initially we ran through what we intended to do with the occupied hive using a small empty nucleus TBH as a prop. This led to a discussion of comb management generally, feeders for TBHs, and what tools were actually useful and where to get them. Here’s the main ones we mentioned:

Comb knives – the longer one is available from Thornes and with its shorter side-blade can be used with Warres as well as TBH’s, which tend to have more internal wiggle room. The lower, black tool is from Backyard Hives in the USA, and may be available elsewhere.

I prefer a goose feather to a bee brush. If you click on the image here for a full size zoom-in you can see how the brush bristles are relatively thick and stiff. It seems to irritate the bees when used (I’m told the bristles go between their tergites and hurt them) whereas the bees are docile when moved with the feather. I was told softer bee brushes are available.

Here’s a couple of gadgets I’ve not used much yet but just like to have around. The upper thing is a mirror on an extendable stick, which can be lowered into a hive to view comb from below. It has LED lights! The lower item is a magnifying glass, again with built in lights (on the other side). I’ve found in the past that bees tend to attack black tools, it took a while to find a magnifier with a light coloured rim.

This is a cheap, powerful red torch available from Amazon. Although many head torches have a red light, those are typically only 2 lumens – this is 300. This photo was taken in full sun and you can still see red light on the hand. The idea here is that as bees are insensitive to red light you can shine it in through a window without bothering them. I’ve tried it once or twice and this seems to be true, but it’s of limited usefulness as the most interesting areas of comb tend to be covered by a mat of opaque nurse bees   8)

Everyone’s favourite

Another common non-invasive tool worth mentioning is a stethoscope.

We discussed side versus end entrances in TBHs. The problem with side entrances is they can lead to cross-combing, explained in a previous post here.

We also discussed the differences between TBH and Warre hives and how Helen has built a hybrid with the best features of both.


The hive inspection

That’s a TBH? Are you sure?

It’s worth mentioning that before the visit all tools had been sterilised to avoid cross contamination from other apiaries. Typically this involves strong bleach, or blowtorching metal tools.

On the subject of biosecurity, you may not be aware that the BBKA has recently declared that leather gauntlets are a Bad Thing. I stopped using these some time ago, as they tend to crack and the bees can sting through the cracks so you gain nothing but lose a lot of dexterity. I use rubber kitchen gloves myself. However the BBKA points out that leather gloves are also tricky to sterilise so pose a cross-contamination risk.

Ohhhh. Right. That’s well wrapped for winter!

Then on to the actual TBH. Zuzana runs a couple of hives for another beekeeper who became allergic, and a TBH which was populated with a swarm last year. The TBH colony was gathering pollen and seemed calm and organised so we could assume it was queen-right.

The hive itself was shielded inside an impressive temporary “shed” for winter insulation. We tried the knock test to re-confirm it was queen-right but alas due to the shed walls we couldn’t really get our ears against the hive roof to do this.

As we opened the hive it was the first time some people, who don’t yet have bees, had seen a hive tool used or live bees in a hive. They commented later it had been incredibly reassuring simply seeing someone opening a hive and remaining calm!

Picture (c) Jane Denby, used here with permission

On opening the hive we decided to do nothing. Sometimes this is the best option! The colony was only on about 7 bars – not all complete combs – and we could see after removing the follower board that there were plenty of bees but few stores. There simply wasn’t enough comb, let alone honey to impede the expansion of the nest from the combs were could see covered in bees (i.e. where brood was being raised). So no need to “help” them and certainly no need to disrupt the brood nest on a somewhat chilly day.

By the way, you’ll note a thick cloth in the photo. This is used to temporarily cover any gaps and minimise loss of heat / pheromones during manipulations, for example if you pull a comb out and examine it.


Many thanks to Zuzana for the hostessing and the general fun we all had!

Next meeting: TBD

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