Back in early April, I installed two packages of bees. One went into a Langstoth hive, and one went into a Top Bar hive.
I have been hesitant to write about my bees. For one, I don’t really know what I’m doing, and feel there are so many better bee keeping articles out there that I didn’t have much to add. Additionally, I’ve been a bit afraid that if I wrote something, giving the impression that I was totally awesome and knew what the hell I was doing, my bees would then up and die and I would be embarrassed to then have to admit that I, in fact, really have no idea what the hell is going on. These conundrums have left me silent.
In the world of carefully curated Pinterest, Instagram, etc., we are often only show the good. Very rarely do failures get mentioned. Perhaps because we don’t want to give the impression that we aren’t living up to this perfect life that we share though the filter of social media. But real life isn’t perfect. And neither is bee keeping.
I lost a hive last week.
Langstroth versus Top Bar Hive
The Langstroth hive is the typical hive that you’re used to seeing; it’s the one that commercial bee keepers use, and many backyard beekeepers. In a Langstroth, bees build their combs on plastic comb that is surrounded by a wood frame. There are 8-10 of these frames in one box, known as a super. As the colony grows, you add additional supers, so they can expand hive, moving up vertically.
One of the criticism against Langstroth hives is the bees can’t build the size comb cell they want- they have to build off the plastic foundation. There are many reasons why people considered this bad, which could be another post in itself. Natural beekeepers (like myself), will knock the plastic foundation out of the frames and let the bees build their own comb, within the wood frames.
The Top Bar is considered an alternative hive, and often championed by natural beekeepers. The hive looks like a long rectangle, and the bees build comb hanging off of bars that make up the roof of the hive. As the hive grows and they build more comb, they travel across the hive horizontally. There is no plastic foundation, and the comb is attached only at the top at the one bar. There are usually 24-28 bars. I built my hive to have a window along the side, so I could see what was going on without having to open up the hive.
When I tried beekeeping a few years ago, I used a Langstroth hive. To work in this style hive, you open up the lid, then pull out the individual frames from the super to inspect them. To look at a lower super, you have to lift the whole super up, set aside, then look into your lower box. When full of honey, these supers are heavy. I use a medium size, which is shorter than a regular size super, but they are still 40-50 pounds. This is very, very difficult for me to lift. One of the major appeals of having a top bar hive was that to inspect, you only lift out one bar and a comb at a time, which is only a few pounds.
The demise of my top bar hive.
Things were going well all year in both of my hives. I had some cross combing in both, which is when the bees don’t build straight on the frames or bars, and build either at an angle or curved, touching multiple bars. This makes it so you can’t pull out that one bar, without tearing apart comb. The bees don’t care if their comb is straight, it just makes things more difficult for us humans.
In the top bar, I had a section of 6 bars that were particularly bad. They were in the middle of the hive, and it made it difficult to do a though inspection. About a month ago, I made an inspection and decided that there was enough honey present for the colony to get though winter, and removed the 6 bars that were cross combed. I got some lovely honey from the harvest, which is another post in the works, and I did my final inspection before ‘closing up the hive’ for the winter.
Everything looked great, there was larva and sealed brood, letting me know that I had a laying queen. My population seemed good. There were several combs full of pollen. All combs with brood had a wide band of capped honey surrounding them. There was an extra full comb of honey. I saw no sign of mites or other diseases.
A week after my honey harvest, I did a visual inspection though my window. Things seemed good, but compared to my Langstroth hive, I noticed that there was much less entrance activity. A week later, when I went to do another visual inspection. The hive was empty.
There wasn’t a single live bee present. Unlike my first bee fail, where I was left with a very small population and no queen, these were just all gone. Everything was gone. The honey, which just a few weeks before was surrounding beautiful brood patterns, was chewed away. The bottom of the hive was littered with dead bees and fragments of wax.
My Top Bar hive was robbed.
My hive met its end from robbing. Robbing occurs when bees from another hive come in and steal the honey. A strong hive can defend itself, blocking entrance to these intruders (the guard bees know who’s part of their hive). In a weak hive, however, the robbers will overpower and get into the hive. I had put an entrance reducer on my hive, a common practice in fall, but still the robbers got in. They either killed all the bees in the hive, or more likely, the resident bees surrendered the attack, said ‘fuck this’ and left. This happening is known as absconding, where the whole colony leaves together in search of a new home.
Was my hive weak and robbing bees sensed the opportunity? Did the perpetual attack of yellow jackets that hover my hives weaken the colony? When I harvested my honey, I put the wet wax out for the bees to clean, but far away from the hive, on the other side of the yard. Did this trigger the robbing? The top bar hive had a perpetual plague of ants all year, did that signal a weak hive from the beginning, and my hive was doomed anyways?
There are so many factors that could have caused or contributed to the demise of my top bar hive. It could have been caused by me, or it could have been caused by forces of nature. As a natural beekeeper, I believe in survival of the fittest. A beekeeper named Phil Chandler once said, “nature will select for the ability to adapt and survive, not for maximum convenience to mankind.”
Regardless, a loss of a hive is always a heartbreak. I loved my bees. I was feeling so confident, yet was sent the strong reminder that these are wild creatures we are working with, and how little certainty there is.
“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.” ― Henry David Thoreau