Supersedure cells in a top bar hive

UPDATE: It turns out these were swarm cells and half of these bees swarmed on Aug 7. I didn’t expect them to swarm this late in the season, but I guess the swarm instinct was strong.

Yesterday, I inspected my top bar hive. It had been a week and a half since I last visited them. The colony is doing excellent aside from some slight cross combing that is happening at the back, in the honeycomb. The queen is definitely very active and thorough with a great laying pattern and signs of brood in all stages of development.

However, on three of the bars that I examined, I found open supersedure cells like the ones pictured above. They caught me a bit by surprise and I’m not sure why they’re there. I believe I saw at least one larva inside these cells, but it was very difficult to see inside.

I don’t want to remove them, because I trust that the bees know what they’re doing better than I do. Perhaps the queen is maimed or very old. Otherwise, this is an extremely healthy colony. Perhaps these are just empty cells to be used in case of an emergency.

Honeybee on flower

There’s a new petition out today that has been started by the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. Please take a moment to sign the petition and ask Ontario Premiere, Kathleen Wynne, to ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Please join this campaign


When I received an email from Kelly McLachlin explaining that she had an established colony of honeybees living in a Beech tree in her backyard, I was obviously very intrigued. I had her send me pictures of the tree and the bees and I was still slightly confused. I knew how much hollow space honeybees needed to make their hive and it was perplexing to see them coming and going from a crack in a seemingly solid and healthy tree. When I arrived on site however, things started to become clearer.

The Trap-Out

Another beekeeper, Marco, and I set out to extract this colony without harming the bees or the tree. Kelly was very accommodating and we decided to try a “trap-out”. This method of honeybee extraction includes setting up a bee escape to allow foraging bees to leave the hive, but not return afterwards. To coax them into a new hive, young brood is used to lure the worker bees inside. If all goes well, the bees will raise a new queen from one of the eggs inside the new hive.

This trap-out process can take up to six weeks before the bees have all left the original tree, and it’s very likely that the original queen will never leave. She will die in her empty palace filled with honey. After the extraction, the tree will need to be sealed up completely, otherwise the homeowner stands a very good chance that a new honeybee colony will move right in next year.

The trap-out is in place. MTK.

Top bar hive with cedar roof

Last weekend, I installed my first top bar hive. I have been planning and building the hive for a couple months so I was excited to move a recently captured swarm into this hive and see how they do. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as smoothly as I’d planned. I’ve included lots of pictures here to show off my hive, and then I’ll describe what happened.

My top bar hive

The roof of my hive was made with a bundle of cedar shingles that cost about $10 at my local lumber store. I made a ridge cap out of some old aluminum that I had lying around.

Cedar Singles

I decided to build a window on my hive so that I can open it up and see the bees without disrupting the colony. I built the window out of thick glass instead of plexiglas because it won’t warp in the heat and is much more natural of a product than plastic to have inside the hive.

Top Bar Hive Window

Top Bar Hive Window Open

Most of the hive was built using 1″ x 12″ pine material but the follower boards were made from plywood. The design roughly follows Phil Chandler’s top bar hive design, available for free. I also included a screened bottom on the hive using #8 screen that has 1/8″ openings.

Top Bar Hive Follower Board

As an added bonus on my screened bottom, I constructed a second bottom that sits roughly 1″ below the screen and has a removable tray that pulls out easily to discard Varroa and other debris from the hive.

Side of Top Bar Hive

Removable tray on top bar hive

The entrance to the hive is a 1¼” hole that I drilled while I was on-site, after the hive was situated and set up properly. The bees had no problem finding and using this entrance immediately.

Entrance to top bar hive

I used some small flagstones to keep the legs of the hive off the ground.

Leg of a Top Bar Hive

Disaster strikes

After setting up my top bar hive, I started moving bars of drawn comb from my top bar swarm trap to the full size hive. The first few bars were perfectly drawn and completely straight, but by about the 7th bar, I noticed that the drawn comb was beginning to curve a tiny bit off the bars. By the 11th bar, the comb started on one bar and then curved onto the adjacent bar, making it nearly impossible to pull out the bars cleanly, without ruining comb.

I initially solved this problem by simply separating the part of the comb that was curved from the bar, and then gently placing it in the hive, ensuring that the wax was straight under the bar. I had to trim more and more of the comb off the bar, and finally by the 14th bar, I had trimmed too much. The entire drawn comb of capped brood fell off into the hive! Oh no! Then as I was packing up the hive, two more combs fell off. And as I was trying to repair those, a fourth comb fell off! Complete disaster!

Fallen comb in a top bar hive

It was at this point that I took a breather, stepped away from the hive and tried to determine the best course of action. I had 4 fallen combs with brood and a lot of angry bees circling me. I didn’t have any tools to successfully repair the comb but I remembered a tip that I had just learned in my current beekeeping read. You can move fallen comb to the back of the top bar hive, separated by sticks to leave room for brood to hatch. After the brood hatches, you can remove the old wax. So that’s exactly what I did:

Comb separated with sticks

My first ever top bar hive installation could have gone a lot smoother, and I’m not sure if there was a better way to deal with the cross-combing within the hive. I’ve since researched some better solutions for preventing cross-comb in the first place, which I will be certain to start implementing right away. I’ve also read of ways to try and repair comb that falls off like this, so I may be adding a few more tools to my beekeeping kit for future visits.

This is counted as a strike against top bar beekeeping in my opinion. This was one of the harder things I’ve ever had to deal with while beekeeping. If this was my first time ever handling bees, it would have been overwhelming. But I walk away with another notch on my belt and I’m glad that I experienced this. I’ll now be better prepared for the future.

[vimeo w=700]

Bees and science both fascinate me, but when the two are combined, my fascination turns into amazement. The above video shows how bees react in two different situations – first when both bees have their left antennae clipped off, and secondly when they have their right antennae clipped.

In the first part of the video (in the petri dish labelled “2”) the bees are shown embracing and swapping mouth-to-mouth fluids because they are from the same hive and recognize this by using their remaining right antennae. In the second part of the video (in the dish labelled “1”) bees who only have left antennae square off the same way that they would if they were from competing hives. This indicates that the right antennae is being used to determine if a stranger honeybee is friend or foe!

Check out this post on ScienceNews for more information on this study.