When keeping bees in a top bar hive, you need to check on them regularly and make sure that the hive is in good health. Top bar hives require some more attention than the Langstroth variety because the bees may start making comb in a manner that makes it difficult to harvest, and you have to monitor the development of the comb as well as the bee’s general well being.
When checking on a top bar hive, remove the top and one extra bar so that you have some room to move around with. I start at the far end of the brood area with the bars that have the least amount of comb on them, and work towards the heart of the hive. With the top bar design, bees usually do not become overly agitated by your presence because you are only removing one bar of comb at a time. In a new hive you should have several bars of brood comb and, at this time of year, a bar or two of honey comb or a few bars with honey and brood.
Healthy comb has worker bees busily caring for baby bees and larvae, sealing off honey, and guarding the hive as well as traveling to and from the neighborhood flowers for more nectar and pollen. A single worker bee will produce only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime, but a full hive can yield up 200 pounds of honey in a season.
Additionally, a hive should have several drone bees on the comb. There’s usually a few hundred drones scattered throughout the hive. Drones are easy to recognize because of their oversize, round bodies and fuzzy heads. They can be twice the size of a worker bee and trundle around the hive being cared for by the workers. Their sole purpose is procreation and they will eventually fly out to a drone congregation area to find a new queen to mate with. Drones are cast out by the hive in the fall so that the workers do not have to care for them during the winter period.
A hive must also have a queen bee. She is larger than the workers, about the size of a drone or slightly bigger. She can be differentiated from the drones by her pointed abdomen, smooth body, and unbarbed stinger (a queen bee cannot sting you). You should locate your queen regularly and make sure that she appears healthy and active, because the health of the queen determines the overall health of the hive.
When looking for the queen bee, you can move quickly past any honey comb you have in your hive. The queen should be in the brood area and will have a group of worker bees around her that are subservient to her and catering to her every need. Any other bees will quickly move out of her way as she scurries across the hive, so even if you have trouble finding her from her appearance, you should be able to locate her from the other bee’s behavior.
If you have a new hive, you should expect your queen to live a healthy life for at least three years. You do have to monitor a full hive for large, drooping brood cells because these are what are called “queen cells”, and they mean that the hive is preparing to swarm by raising a new queen. I will post more on identifying queen cells and preventing swarming in a future post.
When you care for your hive, a veil and gloves are recommended by not always necessary. Wear light colored clothing and move slowly, and you and your bees should have a happy and mutually beneficial relationship for years to come.
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