Catastrophe! Calamity! Comb Collapse!

Bees cover the pile of broken comb

Bees cover the pile of broken comb

The view through the observation windows on our top bar hives isn’t perfect. The combs are, after all, covered in bees (nearly a ‘couch‘, to be precise). Nonetheless, I could see a piece of the pattern that did not fit. I could make out what appeared to be a bit of comb, lying on the bottom of the hive.

Jen in her Bee Garb.  Elastic bands on ankles and wrists, veil tied tight.

Jen in her Bee Garb. Elastic bands on ankles and wrists, veil tied tight.

So we put on our bee garb and went in. There was in fact a piece of broken comb lying on its side on the bottom. In the process of accessing this piece, two combs broke off. Not at the top bar, but partway down. Most of the comb was very soft. The largest was also very heavy with capped and nearly hatched brood. Very sad.

Pollen and honey in this broken comb

Pollen and honey in this broken comb

I laid the broken combs outside the hive below the entrance. Hundreds of bees covered the broken comb. Later it occurred to me that the queen might be in there with them. Uh-oh. This time ungarbed, I gently lifted the combs until, yes, there she was – the large bee with the big red paint dot. I took the lid off, lifted that piece of comb up, pried open the nearest top bars, and did manage to shake the queen into the hive. The rest of the bees migrated back to the hive by dusk.

What a setback for these bees! How do we prevent this from happening again?

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3 Responses to Catastrophe! Calamity! Comb Collapse!

  1. Pardon for the barrage of questions but they touch on factors in comb collapse.

    What have the temperatures been? Is the hive in full sun? Was the comb heavy with honey? Is the hive stable not shaky? Could someone/thing have bumped it? How wide are your top bars?

    Newly made comb is very fragile, vulnerable to breaking if agitated, and the more so when it is very warm. We have seen comb collapse once but it was when we were manipulating the comb when temperatures were in the nineties Fahrenheit and the hive was in full sun. We applied shiny foil to the roof (also cut down on bearding) and in the future left it alone on very, hot days.

    • jkmcintyre says:

      I love questions. Thanks for weighing in. It has been unseasonably ‘hot’ (for Seattle) (was probably 75F that and preceeding day). The combs that broke when we went in were very heavy and also very soft. The hives are in partial sun. A reflective roof sounds like a good idea. The legs are 2×2, so not super stable. We probably did ‘bump’ the hive, if not then, then another time. I am thinking of reinforcing them, at least with a cross bar. our bars are 1 3/8″, nearly 1 1/2″. I was wondering if I should put spacers between the bars when they start to look wide…

      We went in because of the piece of comb on the bottom, then ended up causing the collapse when we tried to take out a bar. It sounds like we should just stay away when it is warm.

      Question: Would it be better to inspect when it is cooler, e.g. in the morning rather than mid-afternoon?

  2. Before we continue, please bear in mind that you are communicating with veterans of a mere two years of beekeeping with only one of those somewhat successful.
    We have read and learned to our dismay from experience that staying out of the hive during hot weather is indeed the prudent course. Earlier in the day may be a better time with your temperatures. As long as it is warm enough not to chill the brood and sunny enough that most of the foragers are out and about you ought to be okay.
    One more question for you. What are the bottoms of your top-bars like? We can not quite tell from the picture. We have heard that the V-bottom has the strongest attachment, the flat bottom the weakest, and intermediates…intermediate.
    One and three eighth inch is what we use as a compromise width. We have not heard of anyone exceeding one and a half inches with or without spacers. That would just encourage even heavier comb.
    As for the legs, ours are 2×4 but still allowed wobble along the long axis of the hive until we attached a wide board (1×12 or 1×8? Can’t recall. Thickness unimportant but the wider the better.) connecting the far-apart legs. That greatly improved stability.
    The good news is that the bees can recover from such a setback. Ours did and made it through winter…so far.

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