Comb Honey Corner

August 2014

by Ray Nabors

The major issues with comb honey production have much to do with crowding the colonies. Crowded colonies are prone to swarm which defeats the purpose for crowding. Swarming can severely reduce production potential. Another problem is keeping comb honey production colonies alive and healthy through winter after production is finished. Replacing weak colonies before or after winter is a constant concern. Both of these problems can be addressed using some of the same techniques. I will recommend the new edition of Larry Connor’s book from Wicwas Press on Increase Essentials. This book will provide step-by-step information on the suggestions in this article.

In order to keep up with the same number of colonies in any comb honey production system, new colonies must be available to either strengthen existing colonies or replace others. A successful comb honey operation is likely to expand needing new colonies. There are several methods of colony replacement, supplement and increase. Package bees are one method of increase but splits, swarms and nucleus colonies are all options. At times, one method maybe better than another, so that multiple methods should be employed when appropriate; remain flexible.

For the starting beekeeper, I recommend package bees. They will not likely make much honey the first season, but they are more gentle when the cluster is small and the beginning beekeeper has time with less defensive bees to become accustomed to working in a colony of bees and observe the workings of a developing colony. There is no substitute for assembling new equipment and installing package bees. It is a part of your education as an aspiring beekeeper and should never be skipped. Order your packages so that they arrive for installation during first dandelion bloom. The pollen source will help, but feed a 50% sugar water solution also. The bees with the queen will all be gone when the package actually makes honey. The queen must produce the bees for that job. Continue feeding until all of the combs are drawn out.

If you have a few colonies already, package bees can be used for increase. The only limitation may be the reduced or no comb honey production from new packages of bees. There is a way to keep your strong colonies from swarming and supplement your new package of bees. Open one of your strong colonies and remove a frame of capped brood. Shake the house bees covering this brood back into the colony and replace the frame of capped brood with a frame of foundation. Place the frame of capped brood in the new hive prepared for package bees. Those package bees will accept their new home much more quickly with brood to care for. That frame of capped brood will triple the size of your package when they emerge. That new colony will make comb honey the first season. The colony where you replaced the brood with foundation will be less likely to swarm. You just accomplished two goals with one manipulation—colony management multitasking at its finest.

The most important method of colony increase in comb honey production is probably the split. Last month we talked about how to raise a few queens. An easier way is to order new queens. You will find it easy to order queens in summer. Queen producers can meet most orders quickly in summer because the big rush is for queens in spring. These companies produce queens all season long and will appreciate summer business. It is good to take two frames of brood out of one strong colony (7-8 frames of brood). The house bees should be left on two frames of capped brood and placed in a new hive body with foundation and at least one frame of honey. After these bees have been without a queen for one day, they will welcome a new queen introduction. Always allow the bees at least 3 days to release the queen from the shipping cage.

A split like this can be made and fed to have a strong colony that will survive the winter. This colony will produce well the next season. It has been my experience that colonies like this are usually less infested with Varroa mites and small hive beetle the first winter and survive at least as well as established colonies. These bees can be strong and productive during the first season for honey production. Splits can also be made from two or three colonies by removing one frame of capped brood from each. The house bees must be shaken from one or two of the frames in order to reduce fighting. It is always advisable to shake house bees from a second frame of capped brood from the same colony where house bees were taken on one of the brood frames. These bees can cover two or three frames of capped brood. Replace the removed capped brood frames with frames of foundation. Swarming will be reduced and you have a new colony.

You can shake house bees from a strong colony onto foundation. One frame of brood helps. Do this on a sunny day when all the field bees are gone. You can put bees from two hives on the same box of foundation if they are placed on opposite sides of the box and made to cut out newsprint folded over a middle frame. The newsprint must extend from bottom board to cover. These bees will accept a new queen and make a colony that will produce the same year if made up in the spring. The reduction in strength from the strong colony can reduce swarming, especially if one frame of capped brood is replaced with one frame of foundation in the parent colony.

I accept swarm calls. The local fire and police department know I will deal with the problem and have my number. The people are always grateful when I come to deal with their unwanted bees. They often become honey customers after our interaction during the removal of their unwanted swarm. I keep a standard hive body ready for swarm capture. Why transfer the bees from a cardboard box? Once the swarm is secured, provide them with a frame of capped brood from a strong colony and the buildup will produce comb honey quickly or overwinter better. The swarm will also  be much less likely to abscond. One frame of capped brood is plenty of supplement for a swarm.  If you can find the queen, remove and replace her with a new one. Queens in a prime swarm are not likely to be young and productive.

Keeping a swarm in the hive box during the first 48 hours is the biggest challenge. One way to insure they stay is that after the queen is inside; put a queen excluder under the hive body. If the bees try to abscond, the queen cannot go along and they will return to the hive body. Larger prime swarms are the goal. Use frames of foundation. These bees are replete with honey to produce wax. They need foundation to fill out in order to keep busy.
For colony increase before the honey flow, I prefer a nucleus colony when available. A nucleus is more expensive than a package, but will make comb honey that first season, paying for itself in honey. I suggest getting to know someone who produces nucleus colonies in your area or somewhere south of you. Many bee producers will ...