Swarm inspection and fixing cross comb

by Flow Hive 20 min read

Today Cedar checked on a swarm that his son Jarli caught last week. The bees were starting to build their comb crossways, and Cedar shows how to rectify that before it becomes a bigger problem. He also answered your questions on swarms and all things beekeeping, like do bees sleep?





Video Transcription

Opening the hive

So we're here with this little swarm that my son caught. I had a bit of a proud dad moment here, he was standing on top of the car and shook the branch and the swarm went into the box. And here we are, a fresh swarm caught a week ago. Let's pop the lid and see what's going on in there and see if they're building straight on the comb guides. So ideally, I'd probably get in there a little bit sooner, but alas, busy lives. Let's see if they have built straight on those comb guides. So I'm just here by myself today. So I'll be back and forth with the camera. Better put on my bee suit as well. And then what we're going to do is pop the lid and see these bees that basically my son just shook them into this box, we put all the frames in and moved them to this location. Let's pop the lid and see what's going on. But first I want to get a bit of smoke happening. Now, it's bushfire season coming up so people, please be very careful. It's a good idea to put this down on something metal, like a lid of a metal garbage bin, and also pay attention to your fire restrictions.

Just putting a little bit of smoke in the front of the hive, and I'm going to rest this smoker right in this old camp oven I've set up in front. So the hot bottom won't catch any leaves a lot on the ground. And I'm going to pop the lid and we'll see what's going on. So let's just have a look for the queen. Sometimes she can be on the lid. There's no excluder in this setup and I can't see her, but I can see a hive beetle and I can see a few drones. I can see a lot of bees, which is good. It's a nice, healthy swarm. Just in case I missed her, I'm going to lean that inner cover up against the hive so those bees can run into the entrance.

Now, what am I going to do is just add a little bit of smoke, I even might smoke my hands. So here in the southern hemisphere, it's swarm season. So there are lots of swarms around. A lot of people are doing their swarm prevention so their hive is less likely to swarm. So I'm looking straight in, we see a good amount of bees, looking really good. I'm looking in this box here and the frames on this side are empty still, which is expected. We've only just put them in a bit less than a week ago now. So I'll pull this frame out and that'll come out quite easily because the bees actually haven't used it yet. So we'll just take that one out. I'll put that one aside and then start moving frames sideways like that, which gives you the ability to really work the hive. Look at that, beautiful. See them all hanging down there that, oh, you can see some nice pearly white comb. Look at that. That's exciting. Let's pull that up and have a look at that.

Checking the new comb

So it looks like we've got a little bit of cross-combing here, which is exactly what I'm looking for. Important job to make sure your swarm, if you're using naturally drawn comb with just the comb guides, to make sure they start nice and straight. Which is the thing you need to do if you've just boxed up a fresh swarm. We've got a little bit of adjoining comb in the next one too. So there is a little bit of work to do in this hive to just get them building straight and hopefully one-handed, we'll be able to show you how to do that.

Now, see how they started on the guide here. Nice comb hanging down, where it should be. And then they've just gone crossways just there. So what we're going to do is add a bit of smoke to clear the bees, and then we're going to cut that off with our hive tool. And that will just give us access to see what's going on. There's a little bit of comb going from one frame right across to the next and that's called cross-comb. So we don't want that. And we want to fix that up. So we're going to just break that all the way down and push it onto the guide using our hive tool. The smoke did a great job of clearing the bees away. And oh, it's amazing comb. It's a beautiful thing. Oh dear, a little bit broke off down the bottom. See that down the bottom there.

Let's just pick this frame out. And what you've got here is a nice, beautiful patch of white virgin comb hanging off this section and the other bit broke off, unfortunately. Look at that. Isn't that amazing when they make their virgin wax? So when they're bringing in nectar on a honey flow, they can secrete wax, brand new wax and build this pearly white comb. If it was yellow, they would be recycling the wax inside the hive, most likely. Sometimes you can get some virgin wax that's bright yellow colour, but mostly it's white. If it's more brown, they're actually recycling wax. So I'm just going to put that one on our frame rest. The shelf brackets double as a nice little frame rest, which can be helpful.

Next, we've got a situation where we've got a whole lot of comb here straight, and then there's one that came across from the other side. So really important, lucky I got in here today just to help fix that up. Because once we get them building nice and straight, then they'll follow suit. But if you just left this how it is, then you run into the situation where it's actually quite a big job to clean up. Because you can't pull individual frames out. And it is a requirement that you can pull frames out to inspect your hive for pests and diseases. And just generally looking at the incredible world of bees. 

Now what I'm going to do is take this comb out because I broke off that when I was inspecting the frame and it might be a nice sweet trait for my son Jarli. Just checking on here for the queen before I put this down. And that'll just give me space to get right in amongst the hive. All of these have no comb in them. So I'm gonna just put my hand down here and pick up this amazing piece of honeycomb. Isn't that a wonderful thing? It's so fragile I can hardly pick it up.

It's warm and it's full of honey luckily. I'd hate to knock off some brood. It's just full of nectar actually. It's not even honey yet. So that's a good thing. We can just simply take that away and enjoy the flavour of that. And let me check in the other side, no eggs down those cells either. Good. I'm just going to put that aside, but remember to take that away with you. You don't want to get into the situation where you've left a piece of comb out for the bees to rob. Otherwise they get a taste for robbing comb instead of going and getting the nectar from the flowers. Then you get into a world of trouble with bees stealing honey from other hives and spreading pathogens around and so on. So make sure you take that away with you. 

You can see here, these beautiful bees doing their job on their virgin white comb. It's amazing how one bee will create just part of a honeycomb cell and another bee will come and join in. And somehow they're able to create this pattern. When one bee might've only worked on a tiny little part of a honeycomb cell. There's some kind of group consciousness that holds it all together. 

Look at that beautiful piece of comb they've built off the comb guide, that's how you want them to start.

Fixing cross comb

We've got a bit of comb down here going across. We need to fix that up. This is a great example of why you need to get in when you catch a swarm and fix up your comb before they get too advanced on building crossways. If you've left it too long, you will need to get in there and cut out the good sections of brood and rubber band them into the frames to get them going straight. That's a bit of another exercise to do. So if you find that really wonky, then you might need to come back equipped with some rubber bands to deal with it. 

So this is just a little bit crossways. You can see how there's the guide at the top, and you can get a good idea they've started on this side with this going a little bit bent. And if they follow suit, they'll end up with a wonky comb. So I just put the frame here and what we'll do is just use our hive tool to straighten that up. So I'm looking at that going "how do I straighten that?" I can see that it's pretty well on the guide, but it's at a bit of an angle. So all I probably need to do is give that one a little bit of a twist and that that'll get them building straight. It's nice and straight now. Don't worry about breaking the comb a little bit. Try not to snap it off, but the bees will fix any little breaks in the comb. 

Now I just successfully cut that comb there. It's nice on the guide over here, and then for whatever reason, they decided to go up over to that side. So what I've done is I've cut that off and we'll get them going nice and straight. And we'll straighten up this little piece over here. Now to do that, I might put this one back in, and we'll pull this one out to work on it. Look at that. That's a beautiful comb, but it shouldn't be overlapping comb like that. What we're going to have to do is join that together. 

So what I'm going to do is chop off this piece of comb. And this is what you have to do if the bees start doing this double layer thing and they've gone off the guide. So you want to chop off some of the comb, like this and just check there's no brood in it first. This one's just honey. I'm just going to chop straight down. Going very, very delicate in the beginning. So we're working very gently removing that comb and that will be a nice little tasty treat later. So I'll put that aside. And that's given me the ability now to push this over, to join the other side. It's a nice idea to use a bit of smoke to get the bees out of the way. I'll get my smoker going and just puff a little bit of smoke here. The bees are now clearing out. You don't need a whole lot, just a little bit. And that gives me room to work. I'm going to push the comb back straight.

So this one is going to go across. There we go. That's all you need to do. Obviously it mashes the comb a little bit, but bees are amazing at fixing that up. The important thing is to get them building in a straight line. You just need to give it a bit of a nudge really. If they're completely sideways, chop the piece off and rubber band it in. If it's got no eggs or larvae in it, don't worry about it, you could go either way. Which we could do here as well. We could simply just knock this off and get them to start again. So this also needs pushing across. So this is getting a bit dicey now because there's not much holding this piece on, but if it falls off, it's only nectar. That doesn't really matter, but I've managed to straighten that up. The bees will then join those two bits together and what we've got is a nice straight honeycomb for them to follow suit with the next one. Perhaps those two pieces are now in a straight enough line for this frame to go back into the box again. So then I'll just repeat the process with the others that aren't straight and check back reasonably soon to make sure they have indeed joined the parts together. 

Beekeeping Questions

So this was a swarm that you caught, do you know if there was a queen in there? What are you now inspecting for to check that the queen is in the hive?

The main thing I'm doing today is making sure they're building in a straight line, which they weren't so lucky we checked. And also we would like to see the queen or the presence of a queen because what we want to do is just make sure our new swarm is happy and healthy with a laying queen. It's the old queen that leaves from the hive that this swarm came from. So she'll be ready to lay. And what you'll see is eggs in the bottom of cells, like tiny grains of rice. And once you see that, then we're away with a functioning queen and the colony will grow from there.

Could you have left the piece of comb that you removed from the bottom of the box in there for the bees?

You could leave it there for the bees, but the issue with doing that is they might actually connect it to the bottom bar. Imagine if you've got a big piece of comb like this, this is the piece in question. This one, I broke off as I was inspecting. It's very fragile and it was a little bit crossways. Luckily it's just honey, there's no brood or eggs in there yet. So that's fine. We can enjoy eating that beautiful comb. And honey tastes really interesting when it's not quite formed yet as well. Very floral as the nectar is slowly, halfway to turning into honey. If you break that bit off and put it right under, imagine that on the landing board. You can see how they might decide just to use that and connect it to the frames. So better off taking it out and keeping it nice and clean in there. A few little chunks down there isn't a problem, but I wouldn't leave a whole lot of comb on the bottom board underneath the frames or you'll get into a mess.

How often should you inspect the brood box?

Well, in the beginning like this, I was a little bit too late here. So if you've just dumped the swarm in and you're going for foundationless frames, get in there two days later and just get them started in a straight line. It'll save you having to do this fix up later. So but it's a requirement to inspect for pests and diseases at least a couple of times a year. That's generally what the commercial beekeepers do in Australia. They go right through the brood nest, inspecting every frame for things like AFB and EFB. They do that twice a year. If you don't feel comfortable doing that, then please get some help to get in there and inspect your brood. So otherwise it's on an as-needed basis. So if you see the colony dropping in numbers, get in there, make sure you've got a laying queen and all of that.

Will removing the honey from the brood box stop your bees from swarming?

Removing honey from the bee books is one of the triggers, it's a secondary trigger, really. The main one is overcrowding in the brood nest. Room in the brood nest to lay and congestion in the hive are the main triggers, I believe. Now you can get into a situation where there's no way to store honey in the hive because all of the frames are full. Then they start storing a whole lot of honey down here in the brood box. And that can be a cause of congestion. And so yes, harvesting some of your honey is a good idea if your hive is full and it's springtime. 

Is it possible that a swarm will just automatically go into a Flow Hive?

Yes it is. And that's called a bait hive. However, your chances will be small of catching bees in your hive, unless you're near ideally a lot of hives. So if you're near an existing apiary, then the chances are quite high in the springtime. So the best thing to do is get a box like this. There's a product called swarm commander or a little bit of lemongrass oil in a little Ziploc bag and put a hole in it. And that just gives off a pheromones smell like a queen and that'll actually help attract a swarm. So while you don't have to do that and I have caught hives without doing that, that will increase your chances. But it's an unreliable way to get going. And I would say starting with a nuc or a package or taking a split are more reliable ways to get started.

Can you use wax strips and wire in the frames in your brood box when catching a swarm? And if so, how do they actually become attached?

Yeah, absolutely. That's a very popular thing to do, it's called wax foundation. I'm glad I don't use that anymore. However, you can get into problems like this when, when your bees build crossways and you have to fix it up. But once they're going straight, they're away. We don't need the wire reinforcing with the Flow Hive anymore, because we're not centrifuging our frames. But if you want to, the frames are equipped with holes in the side that you can putyour wire through and thread it through back and forth, like you're making a little fence. And you'll need to tighten that up. Then you get a car battery and you connect it to the wires briefly, depending on whether they're stainless or steel, depends how long you need to connect that. And it's usually not long, a couple of seconds, and that will melt your foundation sheet into those wires. It's an important step to do. If you just kind of try and mash it in like I've tried in the past, what happens is that foundation sheet falls off in the hive and you get this big wavy thing and you get into a big mess to clean up. So foundation sheets need to be well connected to the wires.

How common is it to use comb guides instead of foundation?

So the comb guides, we actually learned that from some USA beekeepers, it's been popular over there for some time. It's also popular with the top-bar beekeepers. They use some form of guide to guide the bees into drawing. While it's a very natural way to do it, it's not for everybody. There are lots of beekeepers who prefer to go through the process of wax and wiring or using plastic foundation to keep their bees in nice straight lines. I find that process tedious and I'd much rather just put in a little bit of effort now to get them building straight. And after that they'll follow suit. So I'm very happy that my days are waxing and wiring are. My father tends to use a little bit of wax. He might just put one or two sheets in, so they get a nice straight start. That's something you can do as well. When you're taking a split, you're generally taking some straight frames out of another hive. So they've got a good guide to get going. In this case, we just shook a swarm into a box. To me, 9 times out of 10, that works fine. They'll build pretty well straight on all of the frames. When they don't, you just need to get them back in line. 

I caught a swarm a week ago, and the weather isn’t great here today. Should I inspect anyway, or wait for a clear day?

If it's been in the box for a week already, it's a good idea to at least have a quick look. So if you can wait for a break in the weather, just have a quick look. Make sure they're building straight enough on the guides. So if you're just going for foundationless frames like this, then the sooner you can check on them, the better. 

How long do you think it's going to be before that this box will be ready to have a super?

It looks like they're going pretty good, so just a couple of weeks I think. At this time of year, there's a lot of nectar coming in and they should build up quite quickly. 

If some comb broke off and there was brood in it, would you try and put it back on?

Yes. I'd use a couple of rubber bands and just stretch them around the frame to hold a section in like that. And the bees could then rejoin that to the top of the frame. The bees will eventually clean the rubber bands out of the hive. 

There hasn't been much brood so far. Is that because you're not in the middle of the brood box?

Well, these bees built lopsided too. They built all over one side of the box. So it's possible that the queen isn't laying yet, or they don't have a laying queen in here. I'm going to have to keep looking to find out. I'm hoping on the next frame or two, we'll see some eggs, but it is early days. It hasn't even been a week yet. But we should start to say some eggs now. So fingers crossed.

And if you don't see any of those eggs would you assume there was no queen? What would you do?

I will check back and if I still don't see a queen I'll assume there isn't one. So if you check back in, in another week and there's still no sign, then you're going to have to rectify the situation somehow. You might start even to merge this back with its original colony or with another one. You might decide to buy in a queen, or you can give it some frames, eggs from another hive.

Would two supers help to prevent the bees from swarming?

If the hive is really full with bees and you can hardly see the comb because there's so much bees, then adding another super for them will limit that swarming trigger. You can also harvest some honey to make some space. And that way, instead of the new honey being stored downstairs where the queen is trying to lay, they'll store it up in the super. Better still,take a split by taking three or four of the frames from the brood box and adding them to a new hive. 

Is it possible to use too much smoke when you're inspecting your Flow Hive?

Look, it isn't in terms of the bees. They'll be fine, they're amazingly resilient. But there's no point in just going overboard for the sake of going overboard. Tune in with your bees. If they are getting grumpy, then by all means add some more smoke. It's a helpful, handy thing to do. But sometimes, especially with a small swarm then you don't need any smoke or very little. So you can gauge that, but as you start, use your smoker and then as time goes on and you get more experienced as a beekeeper, you can then start using less and less. And in some cases, you might use none at all. 

Can I take a frame of brood from a strong colony and put it in another hive to boost a weak colony?

You certainly can. Beekeepers do that all the time. You might've taken a split and it might be a bit weak and you might want to add some more bees from the original colony, or you can prop up a weak colony. But there's different schools of thought on that because in the end, the colony might be weak for a reason. You don't necessarily just want to prop up the weak one in some cases. You might want to work out why the colony is weak and to fix that and also to check for pests and diseases.

Would it cause any problems if you wanted to harvest all of your Flow super in one day?

Flow Hive beekeepers do that all the time. I would recommend just harvesting half of the frames. The reason why is sometimes you get spillage from the Flow Frames and that'll just make it a lot easier for the bees to clean up those spills in the hive. And it's less disturbance for the bees as well, having half of their honey disappear than all of their honey disappear. Having said that, plenty of people go and harvest the whole lot. They sometimes just harvest into a bucket or they harvest into a lot of jars and away they go. At this time of year, you can have a lot of honey here in Australia. It's springtime and generally, if you've got some full frames, you'll be able to harvest and in a week or two, there'll be full again. So it's a good time to start storing some honey on the shelf.

Do bees sleep?

Bees do sleep, and you can witness that with the Flow Hive window. And you'll see bees that are still down the cells. And you might think that bee is dead down in the cell But it's not, it's just having a sleep. And they do shift work. So they'll sleep for a while and then keep going. And the hive never stops. It keeps doing its thing. They're busy bees, day in, day out, 24/7. So you can wake up that bee just by tapping on it, if you feel like it. And you can watch them wake up and reverse out of the cell and become part of the working busy hive again.

There are two little Junco birds that come into my garden and eat the bees. The colony is collapsing and the queen is gone. Could birds preying on a hive decimate the bee population?

Not usually, but I'm not familiar with those. We get the rainbow bee-eaters that come and eat bees and I sort of think fair's fair if they eat a few bees. But it's probably a secondary problem unless they're really eating every bee that comes out. Perhaps they've lost the queen for some reason. And that means your hive will slowly die out. So make sure you get in there and inspect for your pests and diseases and try and rectify the problem. And you'll need to give it a new queen if it hasn't got one. 

Last Wednesday we added our super, but looking through the side windows there is a lot of water dripping. Is there anything we need to do or is this normal? 

Condensation is what you've got there. So that'll happen when you've got some humid air and then a bit of a cold snap. That's normal to have condensation on the walls of the hive. And some people say that it's actually helpful because that's a water source for the bees. A bit of damp in your hive is pretty normal. That'll come and go as the season changes.

When installing a package, how long should I keep the vents closed (in order to not cause confusion in terms of where pheromones are coming from)?

Just for a day. They'll work out where the entrance is pretty quickly, and then you can put the vents in the upward position to allow more ventilation if you want, or you can leave it closed, either way. 

Do you have a lot of bees in your apiary?

I've got about 40 hives down the hill. My sister's got a few she's building up as well.

I’ve had a third bee sting and the reaction this time is pretty badly swollen. Can the reaction get worse as I get stung more?

I've heard of both, where it actually can get worse and the other also that reactions can get better. So please be careful. Some people do have very adverse reactions. So please followfirst aid advice

How many hives can be supported in one area?

Commercial beekeepers generally put up to a hundred in one location. So as a hobbyist, it's usually not something that comes into concern. How many hives an area can support will depend on the amount of forage available for the bees. Right now around here, there's more nectar available, and hundreds of hives could be in this area. But then you'll get other times where there's not much at all. So it really does ebb and flow. 

If you add a second brood box to a hive, should it go above the existing brood box or below?

It depends on your strategy with the frames. If you're using naturally drawn comb with these comb guides, put it below. If you put it above the brood box, the bees will start building comb up above the brood nest and not starting on the guides and it will get really wonky. Better still, you could swap the frames around and checkerboard them between the two boxes. So if you've got a box full of straight frames, then put half of them in the second brood box and half below. And that way you can use your naturally drawn comb and comb guides, and the other frames will create nice straight walls and limit their ability to go sideways. If you're using foundation, it doesn't matter. You can just put a whole box of foundation, wax and wire frames above or below and that would be okay. And then of course the queen excluder is above both of the brood boxes. You want to exclude your queen from your honey collection areas, but not from the rest of your hive. 

So thank you very much for tuning in and also let us know what you'd like us to cover next week. We will have something interesting to show you.


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