We didn’t plan to do a hive inspection again so soon, but it turns out it was good we checked our swarm hive, now named the Salvia hive, this weekend.
Since the bees arrived all signs have been suggesting that the hive is functionally normal even though we hadn’t yet sighted the Queen, eggs, or brood. The bees have been very active, especially on warmer afternoons, foraging for nectar and pollen.
One change noted this week was that in the 24 hours prior to this inspection, feed consumption had suddenly decreased by 50%. The question was, why?
The last time we briefly peeked inside the hive, the bees had only been in residence for 72 hours. When we checked this weekend, they had been in their new home for 9 days.
As we removed the lid we could see even more bees in the upper hive body than during our first inspection. However, as it’s far too early for any new bees to have hatched, this simply suggested the bees were moving up in the hive.
However, even though we’d only been beekeepers for less than two weeks, we could tell as soon as the cover was removed that something wasn’t quite right. There clearly was too much new comb visible between a couple of the frames.
We carefully teased the frames apart, and like last week we noticed a number of bees festooning between frames.
As we moved the frames a section of the protruding comb between the frames began to tear away. We noticed that rather than the comb being drawn directly from the foundation the bees had constructed this fragile comb directly from the frame’s top bar.
Comb that is built out of place is often referred to by beekeepers as Burr Comb.
The bees are doing what bees do. If they have extra space in which to build extra layers of comb, they will. The fault is entirely ours. While the bees are drawing out the frames with comb, at the end of the last inspection we should have pushed all of the frames tightly together into the center of the hive body, so they were touching each other. This minimizes the space between frames, and decreases the likelihood of burr comb formation.
Our frame spacing had resulted in a violation of what is known as ‘bee space’. Bee space is the space within a hive that is large enough for the free passage of bees, but not so large as to encourage the building of excess comb. Any gap between the frames that’s too wide will be filled with comb.
When building burr comb, the bees will use it, just like any other comb, to store nectar and honey, pollen, or brood. Left undisturbed, this would be fine. The trouble is, this fragile new comb is often not well anchored, and if the comb bridges two frames together (sometimes called bridge or brace comb) it can make future hive inspections challenging, and potentially very damaging.
The ideal is not to have burr comb in the hive, but when it does occur, it’s best to catch it early. We knew we’d need to remove it immediately, and as much as we feel bad to waste any of the efforts of the bees as they build up their new hive, we’d do far more harm if this comb was left in place. Waiting too long to remove burr comb can result in a significant loss of young brood if the Queen is actively laying in those cells.
As removing burr comb takes a little time, and can be messy, we briefly set that box aside, covered it, and proceeded with the rest of our inspection first.
We moved down to the lower hive body, which had no burr comb, and went straight for the two old frames that already had drawn comb in them when the bees first arrived. We knew that during this inspection we should, by now, be able to easily see evidence of brood in the frames, presuming of course that we had a laying Queen present.
When the Queen lays an egg in a cell, the egg is in that stage for a mere 3 days. The next stage is larva, and worker brood are in the larval stage for 6 days. At 9 days the cells in which the larva are housed are capped. The bees then pupate in these cells, and remain there, until they hatch.
The bees had been in this hive for 9 days, and we expected that we may see larva during this inspection.
Sure enough, as the bees moved around the frame we had our first sighting of bee larva! Small white horse-shoe shaped grubs visible within the cells…
This tells us that our Queen is successfully laying eggs within the hive, and that new bees should be hatching soon.
Not only were there larva on these two frames, but there was also capped brood, and brood in the process of being capped. These frames also contained pollen, and the first signs of a little capped honey.
Worker brood aren’t capped until the 9th day of development, so the presence of capped brood suggests that as soon as the bees had been introduced to their new hive, the workers had cleaned out the two old frames of comb, and the Queen started laying eggs the very first day she arrived!
Having a couple of frames of drawn comb in the hive when we first installed the swarm enabled the Queen to resume egg-laying almost immediately. If there was no drawn comb, the workers would have to draw it out on their arrival, delaying their ability to build up stores of nectar and pollen, and delaying the Queen’s egg laying. Worker bees in late spring and summer live on average for a mere six weeks, so the sooner new bees are reared as replacements, the better it is for the colony at large.
After sighting larva, we quickly replaced the upper hive body and began to remove the errant comb. Overall there wasn’t very much, and fortunately no brood or eggs were present in any of it. A few cells contained a little nectar, which we gave back to the bees, and there was also one section that was packed with beautiful pollen.
It seemed a shame to take all of this fresh pollen away. For now, we have set this comb section flat on the inner cover, with an empty medium over it so the bees can have a chance to rob the pollen back from the comb, and as of the last feeding, they seem to be doing just that.
Simply removing the burr comb though isn’t enough. As beekeepers it’s our responsibility to correct the conditions in the hive that spawned its construction in the first place, or the bees will simply build it again.
We now will be much more careful about placing new frames, especially those which do not yet have fully drawn out comb, as close together as the frames will permit, to help keep our bee space in check and prevent the contruction of additional burr comb. We made a new beekeeper mistake, but the bees have taught us an important lesson, and that’s much of what beekeeping is about. Experience, learning, and adaptation.
The only other change we made to the hive was to bring a couple of frames of empty drawn comb down from the upper hive body, to the lower one. The bees have efficiently been building out the upper box, but in the last week have not added much comb to the lower hive body. By moving the comb down, we provide the Queen with more room to lay eggs. Frames of untouched foundation were moved up from the lower hive body for the bees draw out.
We will now leave the bees alone, at least for the next 10 days, unless there’s cause for concern. This time, the sudden decrease we noted in food intake seems likely due to the fact that most of the frames in the upper hive body were drawn out with comb. Feed consumption has increased again now that we’ve switched some empty frames to the upper hive body. The next inspection it will be important to ensure the bees have sufficient room to grow. If not, a third hive body will be added during that inspection to keep the bees happy.
So far the bees are building up well, and the way things are going, we hopefully will have our first generation of baby bees hatching in the Curbstone Valley apiary within the next 10 days!