Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Transferring Langstroth Nucs to Top Bar Hives

Disclaimer: We are documenting our experiences here so we can keep track of what we've done and for others' curiosity.  We are NOT experienced beekeepers.  Please be sure to watch and learn (over time) from our successes and failures!


One of our bees

Well, plans changed.  To make a very long story short, instead of purchasing two bee packages (bees only), we obtained two "nucs".  A nuc (short for nucleus hive) consists of five (total) frames of brood (eggs, larva, pupae), honey and pollen along with a whole mess of bees (more than in a package).

Pros to Nucs:
- there can be more bees
- they know their queen
- they have a better head start since there is brood already developing and they already have stores of honey and pollen

Cons to Nucs (for us):
- the frames aren't the right size for our top bar hives
- they are more expensive (about $40 more per nuc)

On Friday evening of this past weekend, we met a very nice couple who agreed to sell us two nucs the following day.  They have been beekeepers for the past 8 years and sell honey down the road from our church.  These nucs came from Florida, but the queens are Minnesota Hygienics (bred to be more pest and disease resistant).  On Saturday morning, Jamey and Sam went to pick up the nucs.  The beekeeper suggested that we just set the nucs on top of our hives for a few days to allow them to recover from their car trip (bees are sensitive to vibrations- their car ride was only 10 minutes long).

Jamey opening the doors to the nucs (they were closed for the car ride)

We set the nucs on top of the hives and the whole family enjoyed watching the bees emerge and get acquainted with their new yard and find their water source and nearby fruit trees that are still blooming.  Sam spent the entire afternoon outside watching them with Sadie and Miriam joining him at times.  The bees were extremely tolerant of their new family, allowing us all to get very close with no problems whatsoever.

Possibly the very first bee to find the water source

After taking a look at the weather forecast we realized that the bees would have to be transferred into our top bar hives the following day (Sunday) because Monday would bring several days of cool, wet weather.  It's important to work with bees on sunny, mild days when many are out foraging and their mood is better.  Bees don't go out in the rain.  Instead they are all at home guarding their brood and stores.

A peek inside the top of one of the nuc boxes

Our task on Sunday would be to cut the rectangular Langstroth (Lang) hive frames down to fit our hive.  These wooden Lang frames held plastic foundation down the center with comb drawn out on either side.

After church and a potluck meal, we anxiously returned home and got everything ready.  About 30 feet from the hives, Jamey set up a plywood table over two saw horses and we gathered our supplies.

- our spacing plan (where/how we wanted to space the bars/comb)
- instead of a bee brush, Jamey used tall weeds nearby
- a water bucket for cleaning sticky hands and tools
- 2 1-quart jar feeders of sugar syrup (ratio 1:1)
- container for cut-off comb pieces that wouldn't be used
- smoker
- sugar syrup spray bottle
- hive entrance covers
- 2 hive dividers (one for each hive)
- plywood template/pattern of top bar comb size/shape
- tools: saw, hacksaw, tin snips, knives, pliers, drill and screws
- bee hood/jacket
- work gloves (which never got used)

- About 15 minutes before beginning, both nucs were sprayed heavily with sugar syrup.  This was to keep them from flying off because they have to clean their wings first.
- Get the smoker smoking
- Feeders of sugar syrup were placed in the back of the top bar hives (so bees shaken/brushed into the hives would be enticed to stay).
- Top bar hive entrances closed so they wouldn't leave before we got everyone moved in

Locating the Queen
One of the most important parts of this process was to make sure the queens made it in the hives.  So our first job was to locate them (one per hive).  We started with the nuc on the lower hive.  We searched the front and backs of all five frames and couldn't locate her.  We knew this was our fault- our eyes aren't yet trained to pick her out from among the masses!  We decided to close up that nuc and move on to the other hoping that when we came back to the lower nuc later we'd be able to find her.

Searching for the queen

I wasn't quite quick enough with the camera- queens move fast.  You can see her abdomen only at the bottom of the picture just to the left of the wooden frame.  Notice her size compared to the worker bees.

The queen in the second hive was found pretty quickly and Jamey carefully brushed her into her hive along with the rest of the bees on that frame, then placed the top bars back, creating a lid to keep the bees inside.  From there the process went as follows:

- Bees were shaken and the remainder brushed off two Lang frames at a time (into the hive) and the hive was closed back up.
- The mostly bee-free frames were brought over to the work table where Jamey used the template to cut the frames down to size.
- The saw cut through the wood frame and the hacksaw and/or tin snips cut through the plastic foundation/comb.  The top of the frame was then screwed into a top bar without a starter ridge.
- The top bars with comb were placed back into the hives.
- If there was a lot of brood on the frame pieces that were cut off, they were also attached to top bars so that in the end we had 7 or 8 bars with comb on top bars to be placed into each hive.
- This process was repeated until all the frames were transitioned into the hives.

The work station- hives can be seen in the background

A Lang frame cut to size for our top bar hives- you can see the top bar at the very top screwed into the top of the Lang frame

Attaching two pieces to a bar

Bee Stages
One of the coolest parts of the day had to be getting to hold the comb up close to peer inside the cells.  We were able to see (and show the kids) freshly laid eggs (too small to get a picture of with my camera), different stages of larva, capped pupae, emerging new honey bees, pollen, unripe honey, drone cells (larger than normal), and capped honey.  I felt like a little kid!

See the capped cell in the center of the photo that looks different than the others?  That's a new bee's head squirming it's way out.

Here you can see unripe honey (shiny and brown), bee larva (white, fat, curled-up worms), and capped brood (light colored caps covering the pupae stage- just before "hatching").

Queen on the Lose!
With one hive completed, the entrance was opened slightly and we moved back to the lower nuc again.  While looking on the first frame for the queen, Sam announced that he found a queen on the ground under the hive we just finished!  How he spotted her or why he even bothered to look over there while Jamey and I were searching for the other queen was a miracle.  Jamey carefully placed her back into her hive.  We have no idea how she got out- if she jumped/flew out (queens don't fly very well when laden with eggs) when we had it open or if she fell/walked out the entrance after we opened it.  Good save, Sam!

The queen was found just in front of the empty nuc box after we had closed up the hive and opened the entrance.

We went back to the lower nuc/hive and found that queen and were especially careful to get her into the hive (although until we see fresh eggs laid in a few days we won't know for sure that she's still in there).  We then proceeded to alter the combs.  Once finished with that nuc/hive, we closed it up, opening it's entrance slightly, too.

Even though we now have partial Lang frames in our top bar hive, we don't intend to keep them there.  As soon as we're able we'll try to get them out of our hive's circulation by encouraging the bees to fill those combs with honey.  Then, if the hive has plenty, we'll remove the bars with the Lang frame, harvest the honey and replace that bar with a normal top bar, allowing the bees to build their own comb.  Reused comb (it was very evident that these Lang frames have been reused) can contain higher levels of pesticide residues, layers of pupae cocoons and fecal matter (yuck for the bees and yuck for us).  By constantly cycling out old, darker comb, we can decrease these contaminants for bees and beekeepers alike.

When bees feel too crowded, they start preparing to swarm.  Swarming is when a new queen(s) is reared and half the hive leaves with her to find another home.  The older queen and remaining bees are left in the original hive.  Horror movies have made everyone afraid of swarms but swarms of honey bees are not dangerous.  They're just trying to find a new place to live.

In order to discourage swarming (we'd like our bees to stay put, thank you very much), it's important to make them feel as if they have plenty of room to grow.  Placing empty bars staggered at one end of the hive gives them room to stretch the nest.  In top bar hives, it's also important that the bees draw out comb in nice vertically straight rows so that the combs can be lifted out easily.  This is another reason spacing is important.  If you place an empty top bar between two built combs, the built combs act as a guide and the bees will build/draw out comb in a vertically straight manner.  I wish I was good at computer graphics but I'm not, so you'll have to imagine this with me.  This will be written vertically, but of course the hive sits horizontal.

(entrance end of hive)

full honey comb bar
brood/honey comb bar
brood/honey comb bar
brood/honey comb bar
empty bar
brood/honey comb bar
empty bar
brood/honey comb bar
empty bar
brood/honey comb bar
divider (cut short to allow bees to travel underneath)
empty space: empty top bars above with jar of feeder syrup sitting underneath

(opposite end of hive)

The whole process took just over four hours.

Putting a package of bees into a hive goes much quicker and there are top bar hive nucs out there- we just didn't have access to them.  While it wasn't our original plan, we are so happy to have our bees all snuggled in their new homes.  Here's to hoping that this cool/wet stint will clear up soon so they can explore.  In the meantime, we're hoping they're in there building lots of new comb.

On the next sunny day, we'll peek back in and check on how they're doing.

A note about feeding bees sugar syrup:  It's our intention not to feed them unless we absolutely have to.  Times that we've determined will make it necessary are

1) as they're getting adjusted to their new hives but only for a brief period since we know they have stores and there is a nectar flow (things are in bloom), and

2) if they appear they might starve (no stores or if they're heading into winter without enough).

Also, we put a second source of water out next to the first that holds some sugar syrup.  Our neighbors have a pool, so we wanted to make sure that the bees established our water source as the place to go.  The sugar water attracted them to the drink buffet but now that they've found it, we'll only add water, allowing the sugar water to be diluted and eventually replaced with plain water.

Here are the first two bees who discovered the sugar syrup source (to be converted to water). On Sunday, there were 50 or so happily drinking.

Natural (or organic) beekeepers try to let the bees do the work they were created for as much as possible.  Their food is much better for them than ours is.

The sun setting with the bees tucked inside

While we're not expecting much of a harvest this first year (we want to leave plenty of honey for the bees for winter), we did harvest about a cup of honey from the cut off pieces.

Sting Count
Jamey was stung twice on the hand.  The first time he accidentally squeezed a bee and it she stung him.  The second time he's not sure what happened.  Even though Sam and I were right up to the hives and had bees crawling on us at different times, no one else was stung.  We were very proud of Sam.  At one point, he walked slowly over to me and very calmly said, "Mom, there's a bee on my ear."  I picked up the smoker and smoked it off.

We all feel quite differently about bees after this weekend.  And we feel badly about the brood and stores that were destroyed during the cutting process.  We hope to redeem ourselves with good beekeeping practices that will help our hives thrive.
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  1. WOOOHOOOO!! I am so excited for you guys!! Oh I can't wait to watch the whole process... I talked to a Master Gardener about keeping backyard bees (for those living in a neighborhood) and he said it's not recommended. And not because neighbors will get mad, but because it's just not enough food source to choose from safely. So instead of keeping bees I am going to do a few more things to attract bees and other pollinators to our yard. I won't get the benefits of the other good stuff like honey and propolis...but that's OK. Someday...xoxo

    1. Actually, from everything I've read and been told, urban areas are MUCH friendlier to bees. You have a bunch of gardens - flower gardens as well as vegetable gardens - jam packed in a small space, with a wide variety of things growing. You also tend to have fewer pesticides and such. Whereas those of us out in rural areas are surrounded by monocrops for acres and acres, and could have nothing in bloom for entire months, and big farmers tend to use more pesticides and chemicals. Personally, I'd say go for it and get your bees!! Did you know they even have bee hives on rooftops in New York City and Washington, DC? Doesn't get much more urban than that!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing all this information with us, complete with pictures! It's a real treat to get to watch someone who is a step ahead of you on the path you desire to take. You're such a belssing, Jane!

  3. Michelle, bees can fly up to 2 miles for food... there's plenty out there for them. Most of our Guild members are in neighborhoods and the bees do fine. Don't let that one person's 'wisdom' scare you off!!! Jane, don't feel bad about the comb and brood... they can build it fast. Every time we go into the hives, we put whatever we have to scrape off in a bag in the freezer, then when the hot summer days come, we put it out in a solar melter to 'harvest' the gorgeous wax. Good job on finding the queens! That can be VERY difficult.

  4. Wow, this was enlightening! I get nasty reactions from bee stings, so it all still scares me just a tad. So glad that you were able to get started on this new adventure!

  5. this is absolutely fascinating. Thanks for carefully sharing all the details!

  6. That's so awesome and I am very jealous! How exciting!

    How do you provide a water source in winter? Do you use a heated dish of some sort to keep the water from freezing?


  7. What a great post! Thanks for writing and sharing such wonderful details!

  8. Good luck Jane...very cool! I'll be looking forward to your adventures with bees

  9. So excited that you have bees now! We are not experts either, but if you have any questions just let us know! Looks like it was a beautiful day in those pictures!

  10. Regarding your desire to avoid medications/maintain them organically, the MN Hygenics seem to be a great choice. I have had a hive of them now since 2009 (I wish it were topbar but it is Langstroth) and I've never given them anything -- no drugs, no antibiotics, no sugar syrup, no miticide, no re-queening. They are very self-sufficient and clean themselves well. They have swarmed a couple times, but I've still gotten harvests those years. Best of luck to you.

    Do you know if your nucs were "survivor stock"?

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experience- it's very encouraging! I don't know if ours are considered "survivor stock" or not. I'll have to ask the folks we purchased them from:-).

  11. Congratulations on your new hives! My mom just told me about your site. We are also just starting up our new hives. We picked them up last night! So excited! Hopefully we can keep them alive...I guess we can learn together :)

  12. Just ordered my nucs for next spring!!!! This story gave me ideas not found in the books on bees that I have read!! Thank you!

  13. Gonna get my nuc this weekend and I am so excited to have your experience and detailed photos! Great job. I tried last year but I think this will work much better!.

  14. Can you explain the metal cans under the legs of the hives? Are they filled with something?

    1. Yes, they are filled with oil (we used old motor oil) and the purpose is to create a barrier that ants can't cross- several books we read recommended this method. We abandoned this method last year because 1) rains diluted the oil and we kept having to fill them and 2) bees were getting caught in the wells of oil, too. Instead, we now coat the upper legs with a ring of Vaseline and this seems to work okay although we've seen ants crawl over an old application so it needs regular freshening.

  15. I am building a top bar hive and just found a nuc setup like you did.. how did the bees handle the transfer.. are they still doing good today? Would you recommend setting two up.. I was planning on just one at this time.. just wondering if two are better?


  16. I just want to make one small correction: it's the old queen that leaves with the swarm; her attendants actually withhold food from her beforehand so she can fly with the colony. The old hive is left with queen cells from which a virgin queen will hatch. She will still have to go on a mating flight. I think this seems counter-intuitive but...that's how they do it.

    1. Thank you for correcting my mistake and for giving a helpful explanation:-).


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