Kenyan Top Bar Hive: Overwintering and Evaluating Honey Stores

“What the heck do I know?”

There’s this period when you are learning something, when you have some book knowledge, you have heard many experienced folk’s opinions and then you try to use this information and move forward in the real world as a beginner. This is not always easy.

There’s always more to learn about bees and beekeeping, and I think I may have learned something a little too late to help my Kenyan Top Bar Hive (KTBH).

  • (summary with bullets at the end – skip to the end if you don’t want to read my rambling thoughts)

In the Spring of 2013 long before I had bees, I listened to Phil Chandler’s “Barefoot Beekeeping” podcast and purchased his book. I read Christy Hemenway’s KTBH beekeeping book, “The Thinking Beekeeper”. I later purchased and read Les Crowder’s KTBH book “Top Bar Beekeeping.” Then I decided NOT to keep a Kenyan Top Bar Hive because I had no one local to mentor me. But I caught a swarm in June 2014 and had no where else to put them, so I installed them into a KTBH that I had built when only dreaming about bees. So this winter, I’ve been reading my way through Wyatt A Magnum’s KTBH book, “Top Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom and Pleasure Combined.” And I came to a page that made me stop in my tracks and chilled my little beginner beekeeper’s heart: the bees only move UP the combs vertically in the winter, not across. He says that during a Fall inspection, there should be a patch of brood in the bottom of a brood comb and above that, in his photos, there is approximately 2/3 – 3/4 of the comb containing nectar or capped honey. If there isn’t enough food above the brood in the Fall, then the bees should be fed 2:1 Fall sugar syrup until they fill up those brood combs at the top.

I honestly don’t remember how much honey was above the brood in the Fall (see pics below). I was looking at how many frames contained food vs brood and thought there was a lot of food present in that hive. But I admit that I was thinking the bees could work their way horizontally to the food. Reading Wyatt A Magnum’s book, it makes sense that in the winter, the cluster occupies the now empty brood cells, “shivering” together to keep themselves warm and then move vertically upward, slowly eating the honey stores until they reach the top bar. But we had a dry Fall and a poor nectar flow. So if the brood area was shrinking down in my hive, there probably wasn’t any nectar coming in to fill those cells. I did briefly feed the KTBH some sugar syrup. I don’t want to feed sugar syrup unless the bees really need it because it’s a new hive or I made mistakes.  So, I thought, “The KTBH has enough honey, I don’t think I should feed them anymore,” so I pulled out their feeder.

Last pics of KTBH brood combs I took this year on 8/26/14:

Worker and drone brood take up most of the frame. I can't tell if there's nectar in the emerged brood cells. Next is a close up.
Worker and drone brood take up most of the frame. I can’t tell if there’s nectar in the emerged brood cells.  8/26/14
Close up of the previous frame - I think there's nectar in a thin band above the brood. But there's so much brood still  in August. Wish I had taken pics in September and August.
Close up of the previous comb – I think there’s nectar in a thin band above the brood. But there’s so much brood still in August. Wish I had taken pics in September and October. 8/26/14
Another comb where a large amount of brood had emerged and there IS nectar and pollen being stored.
Another comb where a large amount of brood had emerged and there IS nectar and pollen being stored. 8.26.14
The same comb as the last photo, but with "notes" I added in the bee yard.
The same comb as the last photo, but with “notes” I added in the bee yard. 8.26.14

After reading this information in Wyatt A Magnum’s book, I thought, “I should check on my KTBH,” and then I debated when was the best time to check on them. I’ve heard and read various opinions on when to open hives in the winter. “Wait for a warmer day.” But we won’t be above 55ºF any time soon, so that’s not a good option if they’re in trouble now. “Go in when it’s around 30ºF when the bees will be in cluster, this way they won’t fly up at you, get chilled and die away from the cluster and also it’s not so cold that a quick inspection will chill the cluster like if it was 20ºF.” We won’t be below 30ºF on a day I’m off work for about a week, I’m panicking now and I’m also worried I’ll be slower than an efficient, experienced beekeeper. So I went in the hive on a cloudy, 40ºF, windy day (yesterday). The previous 4 days reached highs of 45-55, but the temperature was dropping yesterday.

I tried to lift the first comb next to the wall and broke the comb off the top bar – will have to clean that up in the Spring. So I moved around to the food/opposite end of the hive and pulled out 3 combs until I reached a food comb with bees walking on it. I guess this was the edge of the (loose) cluster, and a bee flew up, so I stopped the inspection. I didn’t think I would do anything different if I kept going in farther. They had reached honey.

Oops - broke the comb off this top bar opening the hive at this end in cold weather. Wyatt A Magnum's idea of having a cleat/spacer to keep the comb away from the wall is a good idea.
KTBH inspection yesterday. Oops – broke the comb off this top bar opening the hive at this end in cold weather. Wyatt A Magnum’s idea of having a cleat/spacer to keep the comb away from the wall is a good idea. 12.28.14
KTBH inspection yesterday - there were bees under my hand on the 13th frame from the right. The brood area is to the right in this hive and the food under my hand. I was surprised the bees were so far over.
There were bees under my hand on the 13th frame from my right. The brood area is to my right in this hive and the food area is under my hand. I was surprised the bees were so far over. 12.28.14
This was the 14th comb, honey just next to the edge of the cluster of live bees. Actually this bee is alive - she had just flown up at me. I convinced her to land on this comb and not me.
This was the 14th comb, honey just next to the edge of the cluster of live bees on comb 13. Actually this bee is alive – she had just flown up at me. I convinced her to land on this comb and not me. 12.28.14

When I went back inside, I pulled out my copy of “The Practical Beekeeper” by Michael Bush and reread Les Crowder’s info on overwintering KTBHs. They both mention that bees can move sideways through the hive. They both say to make sure the brood is on one end and all the food on the other so they can just head in one direction, slowly eating and not run out of food, while stores they can’t reach are located on the opposite side of the hive.

(Sigh) Ask 10 beekeepers, get 11 answers. And what to believe as a noobie? From what I saw in my hive, the edge of the cluster was walking on a comb of capped honey, even if there weren’t many open cells for them to cluster into (just a few at the edges). So my fingers are crossed. If they get across to the last of the food combs, assuming they live that long, I’ll have to do some fondant or dry sugar feeding and figure that out. But for now, there are bees on at least one comb full of honey.

Another thing I noticed during this inspection, I can’t look in the observation window with the tar paper wrap around the hive. If I bring a hammer to pull the roofing nails and allow the tar paper to drop off the hive, I can look in. I may do this later this winter/early spring to avoid opening the hive and chilling the bees, when I just want a quick peek at where they are.

Summary:

  • per Wyatt A Magnum, in the Fall, a KTBH brood comb should have a small patch of brood at the bottom and the top of the comb should be full of nectar or capped honey
  • in the Fall, if there isn’t enough food above the brood, feed Fall sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water)
  • in the winter, food can be added next to the cluster in the hopes they will reach it – Wyatt A Magnum uses sugar syrup in his book, but I’m in the north and would probably smear fondant onto/into a comb for them, or dump dry sugar on the floor (I have a mulch bottom eco-floor on my hive)
  • but per Michael Bush and Les Crowder, the cluster can slowly work its way horizontally in the hive and the hive should be arranged with brood on one end and food on the other – I wonder if you need to have a few warmer days here and there for the cluster to loosen up and move around the combs to do this?
  • I need to have lots of books in my library
  • I need to read the Beesource forums
  • I need to take pictures or videos of each inspection – multiple times this year I realized I missed something on an inspection, that later I could go back later and see in photos

This is definitely a thinking person’s hobby. My brain kinda aches at this moment. Or maybe it’s just worry that I’m setting my bees up for failure. Unfortunately, mistakes is how we learn and contemplating them now will help me be a better beekeeper later. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. 🙂

Happy beekeeping, folks! And Happy New Year!!

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