Year Two in your Top Bar Hive – What if your bees lived?
May is upon us; the worry of losing your bees to the cruel vagaries of April is receding; it’s finally (finally!) going to be spring.Trees are budding; flowers are blooming; dandelions are dotting the landscape with their cheerful yellow faces.
So here you stand at the beginning of Year Two, looking at your overwintered top bar hive.It’s full of natural wax comb – made by bees, for bees.You’ve got brood combs full of eggs and larvae, honey combs with some honey.And best of all, the hive is just booming with bees!Yay!First of all – a little recognition is in order.Please accept my hearty “Congratulations!”
An overwintered top bar hive also represents a new resource that you didn’t have a year ago.In addition to your expanding store of beekeeping knowledge, and your year of experience, and the clean wax, and the natural honey – you’ve also got BEES.
And if you’ve got bees – (ahem) - you’re about to have MORE bees.
Really?What does that mean, exactly – that you’re about to have more bees?Well it’s a bit different from how we find ourselves with more of most living creatures.For instance: cats have kittens, and dogs have puppies. Queen bees lay eggs, and baby bees hatch from those eggs.But even in colonies with a prolific queen -- laying and hatching many thousands of baby bees in a season – more baby bees does not a new hive create.
There are two “levels” of reproduction with honeybees.Level one is when the queen lays lots of individual eggs that hatch into individual bees.That process is quite simple and straightforward.It keeps the colony growing, making lots more worker bees, and producing drones when they are needed.It’s a significant process too – a queen bee can lay more than a thousand eggs in a single day!
But the second level of reproduction of honeybees is a bit more complicated.That is when ONE thriving colony – turns itself into TWO thriving colonies.
The name for this natural process is swarming (a word much maligned by Hollywood and the authors of horror stories).A hale and hearty colony that has grown to fill all the available space in their hive will soon begin preparations to swarm.When a colony swarms, it reproduces itself and becomes two complete colonies – one of which will stay in the hive, and one of which will need a new home.(Kind of like a litter of puppies or kittens, right?)
So what’s next?It’s time to bone up on the signs of swarming!In a nutshell, the booming hive preparing to swarm will quickly progress through several stages.
The colony will begin raising drones; the brood nest will begin to fill with nectar; the colony will begin the process of making a new queen; and then the old queen and half the bees in the hive will depart for their new home.
There is a lot to know about the specifics of swarming, and it’s important to learn about it and manage your hive appropriately.But, suffice it to say, just for today, that your bees will swarm. The question is:Are you ready for that?
Backyard beekeepers tend to keep small-ish numbers of hives – usually somewhere between 1 and 10.So this fact that bees make more bees, as they do, can be something the beekeeper needs to contend with.
Let’s talk briefly about the practical aspects of having more bees.The first question is: Do you even want more bees?Are you a beekeeper who is expanding their apiary enthusiastically, or do you need to keep your apiary small, because you live in a crowded urban environment?Do you have more equipment to house more bees?Do you have enough space for them?Do you have the time to care for more hives?
If you do want more bees – then your needs are pretty straightforward and simple.You need a hive that is interchangeable with your existing hive, enough space to put them on, and the time to care for them. You can then “manage for increase,” and support the bees’ natural urge to swarm, and either split those bees, or catch the swarms and hive them.
If you don’t want more bees, then swarming requires thinking about all this a little differently.One option of course is that you simply let nature take its course.The bees prepare to swarm, they raise a new queen, and then the existing and proven queen flies off with half the bees of the colony to start a new hive.
While this sounds “natural” – it’s often a poor choice in a city environment because the new colony may choose inconvenient new homes – for example, they could move into your neighbor’s roofline, or shed wall, or another location where they are not wanted.So in that case, you may help the bees more by being proactive about their urge to swarm, and by harnessing that urge to make more bees.But then, what do you do with those bees, if you don’t want more bees!?!?
With a little advance planning – you can launch another top bar hive beekeeper!We like to think of this as “paying it forward” and it works like this:
You and the other beekeeper must first make sure that your top bars are interchangeable between both of your hives.If they are, then you can split your hive, and exchange top bars with drawn comb and bees for the same number of blank top bars from the other beekeeper’s hive.This exchange gives the other beekeeper a thriving mini-hive – or nuc – that already has bees, drawn comb, brood and food, and they are definitely in growth mode.It puts your original hive back into growth mode as well, and they will go back to building up.But remember - by next year, they will again be doing their best to be ready to swarm.So stay alert! Because if you've got bees - you're about to have more bees!
*This post is drawn from the text of "Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping - Next Steps for the Thinking Beekeeper." Written by Christy Hemenway and available at Gold Star Honeybees or at your favorite book retailer.