15 September 2013

Back to Jumbos

Earlier in the year I decided to house a swarm in two shallow super boxes (MD shallows/Langstroth mediums) rather than the Jumbo Langstroths (same depth as Dadant, but only 10 frames) I usually use. I mentioned it in my post "A swarm in May".

I reasoned that plenty of people keep their bees in double brood and, although these boxes are shallow, two of them were about the same as Tom Seeley's recommended 40 litres for a swarm, so should have been fine. If it worked well with this one colony then I would be able to transfer all my colonies to these boxes, making everything cross-compatible - no more messing about with two sizes of box and two sizes of frame.

I was initially fairly enthusiastic, it all seemed to go very well. The bees were fine, the queen was laying well. They were warm and dry, and should have had enough space to do whatever they wanted. Or did they?

And that's the point. The most important information gained from any inspection should be in answer to the question:

Is this colony behaving normally?

The brood area is generally a fattish rugby ball shape; the queen fills the central frames almost to the top bar, perhaps leaving only one or two rows of cells. The central frames have only a tiny honey and pollen arc at the upper outer corners and, moving outwards from the central frames, this arc of stores gets larger and the brood area gets smaller, until on the outermost frames there is rarely any brood.

I had, perhaps naively, expected the bees to treat the two frames in the same way as a single one and let the queen lay a good pattern going from the upper frame through to the lower one, but they weren't. I should, I know, have taken some pictures which would have described the problem more clearly, but words will have to do.

As time went on I found that they were using the supers (i.e. boxes above QX from which honey is harvested), but not in the same way as a colony with large brood frames in the lower part of the hive. The frames above the queen excluder were drawn, but didn't contain much nectar because the bees were concentrating their stores in the upper frames of the brood area instead of putting stores in the warmest part of the hive. These upper 'brood' frames were almost completely full of sealed honey, with only a tiny patch of brood on the central three frames - at most about 2 inches (5cm) in diameter. This brood was isolated from the brood in the lower boxes because there was also a band of honey beneath it. (I checked carefully, there was no second queen.)

The lower frames were mostly brood, all but the outermost frames contained stores. But, and there's always a but, the queen wasn't using the lowest inch (2.5cm) or so of these lower frames which meant that her available laying area was significantly less than on the fairly massive Jumbo Langstroth frames. I know that local queens are more than capable of filling a brood box, so decided there was a significant risk of a late swarm caused by overcrowding. I'm not sure what the rhyme says about a swarm in August, but I can't imagine it's anything positive.

Oh, and the other thing I didn't like about this arrangement was taking one box off to inspect lower frames. I have this horror of destroying, or losing, a queen in a moment of carelessness. But that's by the by, the main point is that this colony was not behaving normally, and it's my job to help them back to normal as quickly as possible and without jeopardising their winter preparations.

The weather was good, there was still plenty of nectar about, so I bit the bullet and did something about it, which meant a fairly major reorganisation.

I took some drawn but broodless frames from other colonies*, put them into a Jumbo brood box. I then removed all the frames of sealed stores and put all the frames containing brood into just one shallow box, placing the bigger brood box above. I was confident that the queen would be encouraged to move upwards and that the workers would do whatever was needed to tidy up their home. I popped the queen excluder on top, replaced the supers and roof, then left them to it.
This is what the hive looked like when I was last there. Plenty of happy bees on their way indoors. It seems to have been a successful reorganisation, my next inspection will let me know for sure. I plan to leave the lower shallow box in place over winter, it'll act as a buffer from any seriously cold winds that might find their way through the open mesh floor.

Extra info
This colony is in an out-apiary where the bees should be collecting Ling nectar, which makes the most amazing honey.

In case you're wondering why there's a landing board to the side of the hive rather than the front, there are few reasons. Firstly, this colony seems to prefer to build comb running north->south, so that's the way the frames run. Secondly, the hive is close to a large oak tree and the bees preferred approach is from the east, which is the right hand side of this picture. There are arches to both sides of the floor and the bees have a silly habit of thinking it's okay to use them as a short cut to the entrance, they end up beneath the open mesh floor and stay there because they have a scent of the queen from inside. This isn't a problem during the warm months, but when it turns colder any stray bees left beneath the floor are likely to perish overnight.

My mobile number is written on the board, just in case there's a problem and the landowner needs to reach me in a hurry - it's more reliable than a piece of paper.

On my next visit the supers will be removed and the colony will get a thymolised syrup feed which should knock back any Nosema. The blue pallets will be replaced by a double hive stand, which will look much nicer and will also raise the hive higher above the ground for the winter, making it less likely to be bothered by either small mammals or slugs.

* Moving drawn frames, or frames of brood, within an apiary is usually fine, but if transferring between apiaries it's important to be sure the donor colony has no brood disease.
It isn't always a good idea to accept a donation from another beekeeper.


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