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By Pam Gregory
The most careful plans can go wrong and this is especially true in beekeeping. Often it is not clear why it happened or how the situation can be rectified. The experience in Nigeria, described in BfDJ 70 page 10, with getting hives colonised shows how true this is.
These are some of the common problems that can arise for a beekeeper:
This article looks at the first three problems from the perspective of the beekeeper using top-bar hives. The other problems are management matters that will be looked at in more depth in the future. It is important to remember that only where a colony has enough food, access to water, is safely protected from danger and the elements and containing a fertile queen, can it thrive to give the beekeeper a good crop of honey. Part of the beekeeper's skill is to know how to supply the bees' living requirements.
This has to be the most common problem in tropical beekeeping. For some reason bees just do not come to the hive. This can be a difficult problem to overcome as it is largely out of the beekeeper's control. However, take a cool look at what is going on. Are the conditions right for the bees? Is it the right time of year for swarms to be about? Consider the location. Is it a good place for bees, well shaded with plenty of food available? If everything seems OK then make sure the hive is clean and clear of unwanted creatures that will repel the bees: ants, beetles, spiders, wax moths or even rats.
Use materials that will attract bees to the hive, like beeswax, or a piece of brood comb, to bait hives regularly. You must do this frequently in order to keep the baits fresh. Try other baits if the ones being used do not appear to be effective. You do not always have to catch the bees in the place where you want to keep them, although this is convenient. Small 'swarm catcher' boxes placed in a variety of different locations may be more productive. Bees are often reluctant to colonise near to other bees, as they like to avoid too much competition for resources. After swarm boxes are colonised and the colonies are well established, they may be carried back to the apiary and the combs transferred to a hive.
Sometimes a colony can be slow to build up. There may be a number of reasons for this. The queen may be old, or even injured. Prime swarms leave with the old queen and one of the reasons for swarming is that the old queen did not have enough pheromones to maintain the cohesion of the colony.' Very often these old queens are replaced after the swarm has become established and this can sometimes lead to queenlessness or poorly mated queens who are not up to the job. Alternatively, if the swarm is a cast (or secondary) swarm it will have a young queen and this has two consequences. Firstly the swarm will be small and secondly the young queen has to mate before the colony can start to grow. This may take several weeks and the bees are vulnerable during this period.
Another reason for slow development is lack of food for the bees. Bees need both nectar and pollen for colony growth. Careful artificial sugar feeding, even for a short period, can be beneficial in helping a swarm to build up its strength. Pollen, which provides the protein for the development of the young bee larvae, is essential. Where pollen is the limiting factor it is possible to give a pollen patty. These are made of a high protein flour such as soya, yeast and maybe some previously collected pollen, bound together into a thick paste with honey and water. If this 'high tech' solution is not possible, a comb with pollen and honey (but absolutely no bees) from another colony could solve the problem (a manoeuvre tbat demonstrates how useful top-bar technology can be). Do not forget that bees cannot forage during times of heavy rain.
This is a particularly irritating aspect of top-bar hive beekeeping, and often gives these hives a bad name. If the combs are built across two or more top-bars and are not corrected, then what remains is an (expensive) fixed-comb hive and all the benefits of top-bars are lost. Vigilance by the beekeeper during the colony establishment period is essential to avoid this. If combs are not built straight, all need not be lost if prompt action is taken to correct it. You need a sharp knife, some string and a helper.
Let us assume that comb has been built across two top-bars (A and B). Carefully lift up both top-bars with their attached comb and get your helper to hold them. Decide at which end of the two top-bars the comb is attached for the shortest length: in this example it is top-bar A. Separate them by cutting this section of the comb carefully at the point where it is attached to top-bar A, which will now be released from the comb and can be put back into the hive. Your helper will be left holding topbar B with a partly attached comb. Bend the unattached part of the comb carefully around to line it up with top-bar B, push a small hole in the top of the comb with the knife, put some string through the hole and then tie it on to top-bar B to hold it in place. Once replaced in the hive, the bees will reattach the cut part of the comb to top-bar B. The result will be a perfectly placed single comb on top-bar B.
Sometimes combs will be joined together across top-bars in a muddled way. This is a sure sign that the spacing is too wide. It is possible to separate these by cutting downwards between the combs and trimming the combs to make them flat. However, if the spacing is wrong the bees will eventually join them back up again. When the honey is harvested this kind of comb should be removed and the top-bars replaced with ones that are cut more accurately. The old top-bars can then be shaved down to the correct size.
[Bees for Development Journal #72]