Bailey comb change for spring bees

The sun arrived in London last weekend reaching highs of around 20°C and not a cloud in sight. It was perfect timing for my friend Marina to visit from Malmö, Sweden, and for Emily and me to shook swarm our bees.

On Saturday Marina, who is allergic to bee stings, went for coffee with Italian friends at Notting Hill, while I hopped on a bus to Stockdove Way in Perivale with instructions from my Swedish friend not to come home ‘all bitten’.

Blue skies at the apiary were a contrast to last week’s rain, when Emily and me had spent the afternoon blow torching hive boxes and getting frames ready for this year’s bees. Each spring we give our bees a clean brood box and fresh frames for the year ahead. It is like spring cleaning the house when the warm weather comes to clear out clutter and freshen the home.

Me blow-torching hive equipment to kill off all nasties. I didn't burn down the apiary but there were a few 'interventions'.

Bees naturally live with lots of different bacteria, viruses and fungi (just like people), but when the numbers of parasites rise above manageable levels this can cause problems. Changing the brood comb regularly helps prevent the build up of disease such as European foul brood (EFB), American foul brood (AFB) and nosema.

There are two methods of replacing the brood comb:

  • Shook swarm: bees are literally shaken into a new hive with fresh foundation and the old brood comb and unhatched bees are burned. The shook swarm gets rid of everything (including the varroa feasting on unhatched winter bees) and starts the year with almost no disease in the colony.
  • Bailey comb change: a gentler version of the shook swarm, bees are gradually moved into a new hive by encouraging the queen and her colony to climb up into a clean brood box frame by frame.

A picture of health – our bees were looking healthy and not much sign of varroa. It seemed a bit extreme to subject them to a shook swarm this year.

While chatting over tea and munching on Sarah’s lovely homemade ginger biscuits, Emily and me had a change of plans and chose to do the Bailey comb change instead of the shook swarm. With not much varroa in either hive, it seemed unnecessary to destroy all the unhatched brood.

That decided, we lit our smokers and went to open our hives for the first time this year. First, Queen Rosemary’s hive, our biggest colony going into winter, whose bees had been seen flying home with lots of bright yellow pollen in the past few weeks. Little faces peered up as we lifted the crownboard and a few bees buzzed curiously around our veils, but as usual this lot were pretty chilled and didn’t need much smoking. We found and caged our queen to keep her safe as we worked.

Queen Rosemary safely caught in Emily's queen cage. We put this frame aside to avoid damaging the queen during the comb change. Emily also re-marked Rosemary with a white dot, which makes her easier to find.

Emily and me were unfamiliar with the Bailey comb change method, so John kindly talked us through. John Chapple, beekeeper to the queen’s bees at Buckingham Palace, is a very experienced beek – he has a beard – and is a really good mentor to new beeks.

We put a clean brood box with new frames and foundation above the old brood box. Dummy boards were placed beside the brood nest in both the bottom and top brood boxes to encourage the bees to move up into the new box.

The method works because bees are naturally inclined to climb upwards and to fill empty spaces with honeycomb. It’s what they do, and it is understanding this principle that also helps beekeepers to manipulate bees to make surplus honey.

Me pointing to a dummy board (a plain wooden board) next to the last frame of brood in the bottom box to 'close' the nest and encourage bees to climb up. The same arrangement of frames is made in the top box.

Rosemary's hive now has two brood boxes for the Bailey comb change to be carried out over the next few weeks, and a third shallow super box on top to put a feeder with syrup under the roof.

John told us what the bees would do next: ‘They will climb up and find the new frames, and start to draw out wax comb. In a week or two, you should find the queen and put her in the top box with a queen excluder between the two boxes. The bees in the bottom box, including newly hatched bees, will move into the top box to join the queen.’

Hopefully, if all goes to plan, the bottom box will be removed and the old frames burned (the safest way to dispose of hive equipment). We’ll put the top box with the queen and nest on a new floor with a clean queen excluder, crownboard and roof above. A new hive for a season of flowing nectar ahead!

Happy to see our bees but the inspection of Rosemary's hive showed that all was not well...

I was so happy to see our bees again, but all was not well in Queen Rosemary’s hive. Our inspection showed signs that the queen may be failing: there were very few eggs and Emily noticed drone brood (male bees) in the middle of frames where there should be worker brood (female bees). Emily and me will have to check the situation over the next few weeks and decide what to do.

John, who was inspecting another hive at the apiary, brought over a frame of bees to show us. ‘What can you see?’ he asked. The frame was filled with drone brood, but John wanted us to look at the bees. The bees were small like workers, but their large beady eyes revealed that they were drones whose growth was stunted probably from being hatched in worker cells. Drones can’t look after themselves or future brood, so a hive with a drone-laying queen will collapse. ‘It’s all doomed,’ said John.

John shows us a frame of bees from a 'doomed hive'. The queen is only laying drone brood – you can see the raised domed-shaped cappings of drone brood in the middle of the frame.

Happily, Queen Lavender’s hive told another story. Our baby hive is flourishing – the queen is laying a healthy pattern of worker brood and the bees are building up honey stores. We carried out a Bailey comb change on this hive too, and fed both colonies with sugar syrup to help them along.

Winter bees feasting on sugar fondant under the roof in Lavender's hive. We took away the fondant and replaced it with sugar syrup for spring.

Lavender's hive is flourishing with lots of flat capped worker brood on the comb waiting to hatch. The pink rings show normal-sized drone bees (they have big beady eyes and fat bottoms) and the green ring shows a smaller worker bee going about her business.

Lavender, who is Rosemary’s sister, had a ride on my thumb after a new beekeeper, Rosemary, spotted the queen basking in the sun on the crownboard sitting next to the hive!

Emily kindly sent me this photo of Queen Lavender hitching a ride on my thumb back to the hive. Two workers are attending to her. Image © Emily Heath

I feel very honoured to have had a queen bee on my thumb, because they are notoriously shy.

On Saturday night the clocks went forward and British Summertime started. Sunday was another gloriously sunny day, so while our bees were out foraging Marina and me explored the local nature reserve just around the corner from my flat.

Then we climbed the hills at Northala Fields before stopping for ice cream. A wonderful weekend in spring, as Marina would say ‘It doesn’t get much better than that!’

A beautiful path of daffodils.

A tasty daff for bees to munch!

From the top of the first hill at Northala Fields – a local council project to construct four hills next to the A40 and surrounding nature reserve. This old bit of wasteland is now filled with families playing and people walking every weekend.

Useful links

The National Bee Unit has useful advice about replacing comb here, scroll down to ‘Fact sheets’. Many beekeepers also like the David Cushman method of Bailey comb change, which you can read here.

Emily’s posts on our Bailey comb change go into further detail about the method:

Exams over – and the Bailey comb change begins…
Lavender on the loose