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How To Populate Your Non-Standard Beehive
When I started beekeeping at the turn of the century, the choice of hive here in the UK was National or WBC or, if you had bigger ambitions, commercial. Langstroth was considered un-American, and anything made of straw was just weird at best, and at worst, a disaster waiting to happen. Now, less than 20 years later, we also have Warré, the horizontal top hive, Lazutin, ZEST and other deep boxes, and for straw lovers, some interesting variants on the skep. This has created two new problems for beginners: which hive to start with and how to get bees into it.
In those days it was easy: National was the top choice because of its ubiquity. Those who liked the look of the WBC and weren’t put off by the extra work could use the same frames, albeit fewer of them. You paid around £25 for a wintered nuc and about twice that for a hive and you were instantly a new beekeeper.
Somehow, in the intervening two decades, the prices of nucs doubled, and doubled again, and again, and the prices of wooden containers also increased, so now there is a significant cost to getting started in beekeeping. If you go the conventional route: you can expect to shell out around £500 for a beehive and basic equipment.
If you take the road less traveled and build your own overhead hive – vertical or horizontal – you can certainly save money on equipment, but now you have another problem: how to get the bees into the hive, given that a standard nuc 5-frames won’t fit in your odd-shaped box, and suitable nuts are as rare as hen’s teeth.
When I first started teaching beginners about top hives, we used a rather brutal technique we called “smash and cut”, which involved performing a drastic and irreversible operation on the frames and combs of a standard nuc so that force it to fit the trapezoidal shape of a horizontal hive with a top bar. It worked quite well but required a bee cover over and around the frame bars and was very messy if there was a full frame of brood to deal with. A better method had to be found.
My standard advice was – and still is – if possible, start with a bunch. Ideally, start by introducing a swarm directly into your hive, as this provides strong evidence that by choosing to be there, they consider it high on their list of ideal homes and are more likely to thrive than not. Swarms can be attracted from hives by baiting them with an empty comb from another (healthy) hive, rubbing wax and propolis around the woodwork and adding a few drops of my Magic Swarm bait, which includes one part geranium essential oil in two parts. lemon oil.
The great thing about swarm bait is that you can set up a number of boxes that are really just small hives – 10-12 bars is good for a bait box TBH – and place them in several different places to multiply your chances of success. The not-so-great thing is that you’re relying on the bees to find your boxes, which is most likely in an area that contains a fair number of beekeepers, but less likely the farther you are from civilization. If you are more than a few miles from other hives or live wild colonies, your chances decrease exponentially (I suspect it follows the inverse square law: your chances are inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the nearest apiary close).
You can be proactive and cast yourself as a swarm attractor, which may yield a better result, provided you don’t mind dealing with lots of questions about wasps under the shed, flies masquerading as bees, and real honey bees that have taken up residence in chimneys. attics and walls. Not to mention wasps and bumblebees. With luck, at least once a season, you’ll be presented with a large, football-sized bunch hanging from the horizontal branch of an apple tree, conveniently at shoulder height. This is the one to install in your horizontal top bar hive, by pouring it into the box as if it were liquid, or by putting it on a slant in your Warré. These bees are in perfect condition to get you off to a great start: full of honey and enthusiasm, they’ll be busy building combs and all you have to do is watch in awe.
But assuming the season is passing you by and no swarms have appeared. You’re desperate to get started and you’re seeing ads for nucs, which you suspect are run by an imported queen. Or maybe a friend has bees in their National Team who look like they might have big ambitions. How do you get the bees from the frames to the overhead bars without hacking through the wood and brood? Is it even possible?
Fortunately, it is not only possible, but also quite easy to do.
For a “standard” bar top hive (using 17″ bars) you need temporary access to – or possession of – a national hive brood box containing 5-8 good frames of bees and brood, with or without a super honey. This could be a nuc that you bought and placed in a full-sized brood box, or it could be a friend’s hive that they don’t mind playing with. (I must say that this operation can also be performed as described using a Langstroth or other type of framed hive, provided the bars in your TBH are the same length as those in the framed hive.)
The method is as follows:
Place the occupied hive (the one containing your core plus the extra frames) in the exact spot where your top hive will later be, with its entrance facing the chosen direction least likely to cause inconvenience to you or your neighbors.
Split the frames containing the spawn into pairs and place a top bar between each pair, returning the spacing to normal. (This is why you start with less than a full complement of frames.)
Leave it for 7-10 days, then carefully check the rods for combing. The bees will have drawn a straight comb on each rod, in which the queen will have laid eggs, some of which may have already grown to the pupal stage. You may well find the queen in one of the new combs.
On a sunny afternoon, move the occupied hive a few steps in any convenient direction and place the TBH in its previous position. You will notice returning foragers coming home, looking surprised that their house has changed shape, but quickly finding the new entrance.
Carefully transfer the combs of the newly drawn upper bar, with the sticky bees, and place them side by side in the TBH, checking that the queen is in one of them. If she is, well and good. If not, then you need to find it and move it to the new hive, taking care that it does not fly away.
Now you need to move about half of the bees from the frame hive to TBH, adding a few bars on either side of the ones that are already there. Place the follower boards and close.
Close the frame hive, after adding new frames to fill the gaps created by removing the top strips.
Now you have a right queen colony in your top hive, with foragers bringing in food as if nothing happened, and a queenless colony in National, with the resources to make yourself a new queen (check they have eggs and newly-emerged larvae). If there is no flow, I suggest you feed both colonies at this point: one should build a comb, while the other should draw a queen.
The principle we are exploiting here is the ability of bees to return to the exact point in space where they know their home is – or have been when they left to forage. This can be used to literally move bees from any hive to any other, provided the new box is replaced with the old one. The extra step of convincing them to build suitable portable combs before transfer makes the process easier, but not essential. You may need to balance populations in old and new colonies, which is where your judgment as a beekeeper comes into play.
Transferring a colony from frames to a Warré can be done by similar means, but you’ll need to make several separate frames and clear out areas on both sides to prevent comb building up where it doesn’t fit. An easier method – especially during the construction period – is to place the National breast box on top of a Warré box, with a plywood ‘mask’ in the middle to reduce the opening to 250mm and partition boards in the National to prevent lateral expansion. . The entrance should be under the bottom box. The comb builders will be busy to enable downward expansion, and if you place two or more boxes under the first, you can leave the National in place until it is filled with honey again. Strap it in, as the arrangement is inherently cumbersome.
A general principle that I discovered the hard way is that it is not helpful to place an empty box – even one that contains foundation strips – on top of an occupied hive. More likely than not, they will refuse to start at the top and work down as you might expect, but will instead build combs up and into all manner of irregular shapes – from the tops of the frames to the box. lower. The resulting mess will take you some time and probably a lot of cursing to deal with.
It may have occurred to you that this process also has the effect of creating one practically without Varroa new colony, as most mites will be confined to the brood cells in the frame hive. (You can figure out for yourself how this might fit as a mite control technique.) On the other hand, this means you could be harboring a pest problem in your frame hive that may need to be addressed upfront. to get serious. However, the 3+ week period without new brood will play in your favor because the mites will have fewer and fewer brood cells to occupy and will be exposed to simple bio-mechanical treatments such as sugar dust, as well as the care activity of the bees themselves.
If you intend to regularly move bees from the frames to the overhead bars – as a service to your local beekeeping group, for example – it’s worth building a conversion hive for this purpose. This is simply a tall framed hive, the equivalent of at least two brood boxes side by side, which holds a strong, quiet and fertile colony whose job it is to build comb on the top bars placed between pairs frames. With a constant food source, they will be able to build 3-4 starter combs per week throughout early to mid summer without breaking a sweat, tapering off somewhat later in the season. You will probably want to run this hive in conjunction with a modest queen rearing program so that you can populate the hives with a known heritage queen and not have to rely on emergency queens or flocks.
Sometimes, we create problems for ourselves by trying to perform operations that our bees would rather we hadn’t thought of. Careful observation of bee behavior will save you from causing the worst of these to your colonies, but we fall in love with our ideas, so our teacher is more often than not the stern lady called Experience.
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