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Tales from a Top Bar – 2

20 June was a Big Day – it was the nearly 6 weeks since the swarm took up residence and I took a first very tentative peek at what was going on between the follower boards (the main hive area). A few bees had been hanging about outside the hive in recent days, crawling about on the surface, so I concluded that it was time to check and see if they need a bit more space.

They had very nearly filled the 10 bar space with comb – there were seven combs that were starting to extend across the hive interior, an eighth well in progress and they had started on a 9th. The pic shows the combs from the outside with the follower boards moved back and top bars added. Incidentally, I spotted what I think is a drone cell near the edge of one of the combs.

Both follower boards had been lightly propolised to the sides, but it was not difficult to ease them away very gently.

The bees were plainly anxious and a few landed on me initially (I was wearing my suit!) but they were not aggressive at all – with a gentle shake they all flew off again.

I looked first at the left hand end, which is the working end, and saw a mass of bees working very hard on their combs – the ninth is just visible top left in the photo.

I then added two more bars (having waxed them first with Jim’s beeswax) and closed that end, renewed the syrup (which I feed them at that end) so at least some of them would be distracted (they do love their syrup!), and opened up the right hand end, which was where they first started comb-building.

From my reading I knew that the comb was likely to be stuck to the side of the hive, so had armed myself with a knife to ease it away, which was just as well as there were a couple of minor attachments. I moved just one comb to try and have a look at it but did not lift it out completely which I probably should have done as the comb seemed very fragile – next time maybe! I just moved it back to see what was going on. They seemed to be filling it and the adjoining one with stores (The ones at the top of the comb were very white and looked suspiciously like syrup!) and capped cells which are probably pollen – a few bees there were carrying pollen. If there is a brood nest it is likely to be further towards the centre of the seven larger combs.

The first pic is of the outside of the comb I moved – you can see where the follower board was by the line of propolis – and the second is of its inner side.

I then added a couple more waxed bars at this end. I hope that this is not overdoing it – will monitor carefully and remove if the bees are looking bewildered.

It may be my imagination but there seemed to be some bees at the right hand end that had slightly different colouring – a yellower band around the middle (see top right of the photo). Maybe I have a mixture of breeds? Or uninvited guests? The more likely explanation though is that these are some of the next generation of bees, as after 6 weeks I guess most of the original swarm will have died?

So I am moving very gradually to the next phase of learning to work with this hive. As my confidence grows I will be able to do more thorough inspections which hopefully will be more informative – although I have to say that the advice is to leave them alone as much as possible unless there is evidence of a problem.

Since then the other thing I have done is to change the syrup feeder again. I discovered that the plastic chute arrangement tended to become air-locked which meant the bees couldn’t get at the syrup. I have now installed another of Phil Chandler’s inventions, which is inverted jam jars with pin holes in the lids. They drip a bit when first inverted but then air pressure holds the syrup in – it just appears as little drops which the bees can sip. I made a shelf with holes in it for the jars that sits across the hive interior, placed just above the slots I cut in the follower board for the other feeders, the whole thing being covered over with spare top bars. I will now monitor how this works

It apparently has the advantage that this arrangement can also be used for winter feed, with boxes of fondant being placed across the holes. I’m not sure how long to go on feeding them, and all the advice is contradictory, so have decided that I’ll go on until they stop taking it, or at least markedly reduce consumption. Jim said he fed his through their first summer and winter so I’ll probably end up doing the same.

I also observed that the bees were trying very hard to get between the base board and the hive floor from the outside. I lowered the base board a bit to see what would happen, and now they are in there, I think cleaning the board and the mesh floor above. Certainly there are no bits on the board now, which there were when I first lowered it. There is a focus of cleaning activity beneath what may be the brood nest which is towards the centre of the hive near the entrance.

More from the Top Bar next time…. Julia