Yesterday was a easy beekeeping day. We all checked our varroa boards following our Apiguard treatment last week. The Apiguard kills off a large percentage (but not all) of your hive’s varroa mites, causing them to fall through the wire mesh floor of the beehive onto your varroa board, which slots in underneath the mesh. The boards can be made of plastic or thick cardboard, with cut-up estate agent boards being a favourite among thrifty local beekeepers here. Counting the number of mites on your varroa board gives you an idea of how badly your colony is infested.
I noticed a worker bee and a big drone struggling in front of a hive entrance, despite her smaller size the worker bee was managing to pull the drone away from the hive. Eventually the pair fell to the ground, the drone got free and flew off up into the air, presumably to die somewhere with his destiny as sperm provider unfulfilled.
After this strenuous exercise we all went for a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Luckily you can learn a great deal about beekeeping just by sitting around drinking tea, eating biscuits and listening to other, much more experienced, beekeepers talking.
Yesterday a lady with a top-bar hive in her garden told us her hive was packed with bees from end to end and she had been offered £10 for a jar of cut-comb honey – double the usual price local Ealing beekeepers sell their honey for. Another beekeeper with top-bar hives has not done so well, his bees have struggled to get started and not produced enough honey to take a honey-crop this year.
For those unfamiliar with these hives, basically top-bar hives are removable bars of wood in a horizontal box with an entrance. The bees build their comb hanging from the bars -see http://www.biobees.com/how_to_start_beekeeping.php or http://topbarbees.wordpress.com for more info.
From observing how other people get on with top-bar hives, there seem to me to be a number of advantages but also disadvantages, as with any other hive type. The more commonly used hive in the UK is the square-box type National hive, into which beekeepers place frames containing flat wax foundation sheets which the bees then draw out into comb cells.
In a top-bar hive the bees build their own comb entirely, allowing the beekeeper to make cut-comb honey and see comb developed in its natural form. However, worker bees must consume a great deal of honey to produce wax. Their wax making glands develop from about the 10th day of their life, allowing them to convert the sugar in the honey into wax, which seeps through small pores in the bee’s body leaving tiny white flakes on its abdomen. So it seems to me that by not giving your bees starter sheets of foundation wax you are going to lose more of your honey crop to wax-building than a National hive-type beekeeper would.
There are also issues like how to inspect your top-bar hive on a hot summer day without the comb disintegrating and falling off the bars, how to feed your bees in winter and administer anti-varroa and other disease treatments. There are certainly ways to solve these difficulties, but a little problem-solving ability may be required. For all these reasons I feel a top-bar hive is not for me, but I certainly enjoy seeing other people’s.
Bees on comb from a top-bar hive: