Saturday, July 16, 2016

When Bees Don't Read the Books

If you're an experienced beekeeper, bear with me for awhile. The whole start of this post is stuff you'll already know, but it has to be said. I'll get to the point presently.

Before I started keeping TBHs, I read the books and watched the videos. They all seemed to say one thing -- Add a single empty bar between the brood nest and honey storage area between 2 fully drawn combs. 

Sorry for the crude illustration, but you get the idea.
This is how you're supposed to add empty bars to a TBH.

The logic of this action is to create space for the bees to build what they need. Queens don't like to cross the honey barrier, so they generally don't look for empty comb beyond the honey barrier to lay eggs. Also, since worker bees like to fill up empty space in their nest with comb, that empty bar between the brood nest and honey bars encourages them to build. If they need more brood comb, they can build that. If they have a lot of nectar coming in, they can build honey comb. By adding only one bar between two fully built combs, the beekeeper encourages the bees to built straight comb on that empty bar.

(Note: Michael Bush seems to be the exception to this rule of adding bars between brood & honey. He writes: I try to get them to expand the brood nest as much as possible to keep them from swarming and to get a bigger force to gather the honey. So I add empty bars in the brood nest during prime swarm season."

Anyway, what goes mostly unstated, but is always implied, is that the brood nest will stay near the entrance, and the honey bars will stay near the back of the hive:

"The logical place to open the top-bar hive is at the entrance end. The added benefit with this particular strategy is that the beekeeper can quickly enter the brood nest... when I inspected eighty brood nests in a day, during the main nectar flow, I never had to lift their surplus honey. That stayed in the back of the hives." (Mangum, Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure Combined. Pg. 114-115.)

In Crowder's book, Top Bar Beekeeping, most of the diagrams show the brood nest at the entrance. The one exception is the diagram labeled "Reverse Brood Nest."

"In this illustration, the brood nest is located away from the entrance, making it necessary to harvest the honey at the front rather than the back. This is relatively unusual but does happen from time to time." (pg 54, bolding added by me)
So now to the point of this post...

My personal management style during the spring flow is somewhat of a cross between Bush's and Crowder's recommendations. In the spring, after the pollen has started coming in but before for the main flow starts, I add 2 empty bars. One goes between the pollen bar at the entrance and the brood nest. One goes behind the brood nest, just before the first honey bar. At that time of year, I like to keep the brood consolidated for warmth, but I feel like a couple empty bars gives them a place to build if they need to.

After the main flow has started and temps have warmed up so that the danger of chilling brood is over, I add empty bars in the following three places:

  • Directly to the brood nest (like Bush) to allow the bees to expand the nest, to inhibit swarming, and to reduce the frequency of my inspections (Depending on colony strength, I might add anywhere from 2-4 bars)
  • Between the brood nest and honey storage at the back of the hive (i.e., the end opposite the entrance)
  • Staggered between full bars of honey/nectar at the back of the hive
When I add multiple bars during the main spring flow, it sort of looks like this.
However, if there are multiple honey bars, I put an empty between all the drawn ones.

However, what I've discovered over the last few years is that my brood nest does not stay put. In other words, it does not stay near the entrance during the main flow. Rather, as brood emerges from comb closest to the entrance, that comb gets backfilled with nectar. The colony doesn't run out of room and swarm, though, because I'm constantly adding new bars. However, the brood nest does end up "traveling" closer and closer to the back of the hive. 

Usually, this is the configuration I get: Pollen near the entrance. Next come loads of honey bars followed by the brood nest and a few more honey bars. Most of the honey is near the entrance, though. Essentially, I end up with the reverse brood nest that Crowder mentions. However, this is not a "relatively unusual" occurrence. This happens year after year with every full-size hive that I have. (I should mention that it doesn't seem to happen as much with my nucs.) 

Image of reverse brood nest from Crowder's book
Reverse nest (top diagram)
How to rearrange a reverse nest (bottom diagram)

I've mentioned this issue a couple of times, and other beeks have assured me that the same thing happens to them all the time. So here's what I'm wondering -- Are my bees simply not reading the books? Or are beekeepers not reading the bees? In other words, as beekeepers, despite evidence to the contrary, do we simply repeat this info about the brood nest being at the front/honey in back because that's what we've always heard? I also wonder what would happen if I just left the bees to do their thing instead of reversing the nest before the autumn flow, though I'm not brave enough yet to try leaving them on their own. I worry they'd either swarm or get caught between the honey in winter.

Anyway, I'm curious to know what happens in your hives? Do your bees do things by the book or not?


  1. I think it's time to send your girls to the Derek Zoolander Center For Bees Who Can't Read Good. And the original model will work well!

    For the most part, my hives have done what they are "supposed to do" - brood in the front (near the end entrance), honeycomb in the back. However, this year, with burgeoning hives, I've noticed that one of my hives (BnB2) has had the brood nest further back than normal with pollen and sometimes empty comb nearer the entrance. I think they have been storing honey up there this year (given the attached comb on the window), but its been too hot to go through the whole hive to check for sure. Normally I don't worry about some honey in the front until later in the season when I rearrange the combs to get them ready for winter. Then I follow Crowder's advice and move the excess honey toward the back (or harvest it).

    As for empty bars, I guess I just stick them in wherever I think they need some. Sometimes in the middle of the brood nest (during the honey flow) and sometimes between the brood and honey. This year, the same hive has been mixing nectar and brood combs, so I have been trying to move the honey toward the back. I also moved all the drone comb to the back to let them fill that up with nectar (which they did seem to read the book on).

    Maybe when they are so full, they do things their own way like Crowder shows. I remember going to a hive inspection with another beekeeper and his bees always stored the honey close to the entrance and the brood in the back. He took some honey nearer the entrance and moved the brood towards the empty space, but was sure that the next time he looked, they'd go back to their old ways.

    For my 12 bar nuc hive, I have the entrance in the center of the long side and brood is in the center with honey on the outer edges. Not sure what to think of this come winter when the brood will be near the one open entrance. I might move this to a full sized hive (if I can find time to build one) and rearrange with brood near the end and honey on the other side.

    1. Excellent advice! Maybe if my bees learn to read good, they'll want to do other things good (maybe making honey?), too. LOL!

      Hmmm... so that's interesting that your bees actually do what they're supposed to. It figures that I'd have a bunch of handicapped bees. Although, I wonder if environmental conditions make a difference -- for instance, I wonder if honey placement helps regulate hive temps/humidity. For example, you have dry hot weather -- maybe having honey further in the back of the hive helps keep moisture in the hive as water from the nectar evaporates. In my muggy weather, maybe having honey near the entrance helps excess moisture leave the hive? I don't know. Just hypothesizing.

    2. I'm sure that now that I've said this, they'll start doing things differently. ;-) Like you say, just when you think you know what they are doing, they'll throw us for a loop. Not sure if climate makes a difference, but maybe that's a good guess. Crowder is in NM which would be a similar climate. But Magnum is in the east which would be similar to you. I think the girls just do what they need to do to suit themselves.

      BTW, I always start my inspections from the rear unlike Wyatt Magnum. I know he has a removable spacer at the front, but in my hives, the first comb is usually honey and attached to the walls. I think if I tried to start in the front, I'd have a big mess! I have a fixed cleat at the front of my hives to give them the appropriate bee space, but maybe I should try something less permanent.

    3. Don: My bees always used the first comb to dump-and-run for more nectar so it was always a big fat honey comb. In addition to the cleat, I started to use a 1/8" spacer to deter them from attaching that first comb to the end of the hive. I became able to remove the comb if I wanted after that. However, I ended up never doing it. My thinking was that the thermal mass of a honeycomb near the entrance in winter was a good thing. I found the removable spacer helpful with ventilation during periods of excess heat.

      Julie: Yes it's hot and dry here but we still experience excess moisture issues in our TBH. My bees have always read the book, and all their honey in the back was sometimes hard for them to dry out. I rigged a screened bar to place in the very back of the hive, just before the follower, and it would help ripen the honey quicker. My hive is small (what some might call a swarm thrower) so single comb harvesting is important to me.

      The ventilation bar is useful in Winter even. The heat generated by the cluster creates condensation, which in the honey area can create mold. The ventilation bar prevents that.

    4. I like the idea of a ventilation bar for the back. I have a 1" hole in the back end of the hive that is screened. They propilize it in the winter and open it in the spring. A couple more holes might help with ventilation.

      Good idea on the spacer at the front too. They don't always attach to the front, but I like the idea of a 1/8" gap to help one these hot days!

    5. HB: Like you, I also have removable spacers at each end of the hive. They are definitely a help when it's hot outside. I've used ventilation bars for winter, but I haven't tried them in the summer. That's a great idea. I don't know if they will really work in my insulated hives since the insulated roof sits directly on top of the bars. However, that might be a good strategy for the others. Thanks for that insight!

    6. HB, the more I think about your "dump and run" observation, the more it makes sense to me. My spring flow is HUGE. It makes sense to dump honey near the entrance and fly off for more. Also, the ventilation at the entrance probably helps cure it faster. Our summers are usually warm and humid, but not particularly hot (this year is an exception) -- much cooler than VA. So maybe water doesn't evaporate as fast here as it does in Mangum's area. Maybe that extra bit of air helps.

    7. Don, my ventilation bar is loosely modeled after a Warré quilt. I used my 1/8" wood spacers to make a frame the size of one top bar. The frame is wrapped with a scrap piece of metal window-screen. I suppose one could use #8 hardware cloth but I really hate to invite earwigs in. Before closing it up, I laid a piece of wool felt inside. The felt absorbs moisture and keeps drafts and out light, which is why (I think) my bees never propolized it.

    8. HB, thanks for those details. Sounds like a good design.

  2. I reckon the solution is to write your own book! I've learnt so much from your amazing blog, this post is a great example of what's refreshing about your writing - you don't claim there's a single right way to do things and everything's based on observation and an infectious curiosity.

    Winter here in Australia, I've finished building a couple of top bar bait hives to hopefully stock my first top bar hive and put some of these techniques inti action! :-)

    1. Thanks for that wonderful compliment, Gwyn. Maybe one day. There are so many great books, though. I'll probably have to call mine Top Bar Hives: What I Did Wrong. :-)

      I feel like I'm learning every day, and every piece of the puzzle shows me how much I don't yet know! However, the most important lesson I've taken away from the bees so far is that all beekeeping is a singular experience unique to a an individual hive in a particular place and time. We can compare notes and make general observations, but essentially, it's an activity that changes based on any number of factors -- the hive, the bees, location, the beekeeper, proximity to other hives, sunshine, rainfall, forage, winter, pests.... the list goes on. The mental challenge, though, is what keeps it interesting for me. Just when I think I've got the hang of it -- Boom! They throw me for a loop.

      Good luck catching some swarms! So excited for you to start your addiction, er.... adventure. ;-)

  3. Well all beekeeping is local...or at least so the books say!
    I think the placement of the brood nest is ultimately determined by the bees ability to maintain the correct brood temperature. In many cases this will be near the entrance. Depending on your climate and your hive build though that may not be the case. I would hazard a guess that using a super insulated or even just well insulated hive would mean the ideal brood temp could more easily be maintained away from the variations provided by the entrance.

    1. Interesting idea, Dewey. I had considered it, but all of hives (insulated and non-insulated) tend to move their brood nests toward the back of the hive. I'm starting to think that HB may be onto something with her observation on bees that "dump and run." My spring flow is usually massive. I wonder if it's just easier for them to dump it by the entrance. Also, my climate is fairly humid, but not terribly hot. This year is an exception, but normally our late spring/summer temps are in the high 70s to mid 80s F. So water doesn't evaporate as quickly for me as it would for Mangum in VA. I wonder if ventilation near the entrance makes it easier for them to cure the honey.

    2. Of course, temperatures further away from the entrance could still be more stable. I've heard that bees in hives with side entrances tend to move the nest a little to the side of the entrance where air doesn't rush in through the combs.

  4. Nice post! I have noticed my top bar hive move the brood nest toward the back of the hive as well (and I am in Virginia like Magnum). The bees seem to keep an 8-frame brood area, and I've been wondering if it moves because I add an empty bar. If the bees build out new comb, and the queen likes laying in new comb, then the queen starts to lay in the new frame. If the bees want an 8-frame nest size, then the front of the brood nest is abandoned because it is now too far away. Thus, the brood nest moves towards the back.

    No idea if there is any truth to this. If you inserted the bars at the front of the nest, then perhaps the queen would use the new comb at the front and the nest would stay forward.

    Stay cool!

    1. Interesting idea, Erik! I usually prefer to avoid going into the brood nest, but I might have to try it. Maybe next spring, I'll try placing a nest more in the center of the hive so I can add empty bars to the front and back for awhile. We'll see what happens that way.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!