Bees Build Down

Well, thus far my latest sculptural experiment has been a dud. Witness:


No, don’t get excited, the comb that’s actually in the sculpture, I put there as bait, hoping they’d work off it. The comb that’s gorgeous and full all around the sculpture but not touching it? The bees put it there.

First, if you have no idea why there is a tiny living room in my bee hive, see the Bees in the Living Room previous post.

However, I think I have a good idea of what’s going on. It’s not quite apparent in this picture, but the bees draw comb down, not up. This is more obvious if you look at the bottom of the box that I took off the top of this one. The “blank” areas you see here are filled with comb hanging from above. It’s also obvious if you know anything about bees, which I apparently do not.

So, humans, lacking wings and such, build their homes from the ground up. Bees, possessing wings and such, build their homes from the ceiling down. Thus, if I want them to build comb around my home, I’ve got to put it on the ceiling, not expect them to build up from my floor.

Next plan: attach the furniture to the floor as shown above, invert it and hang it in the hive. Update to follow.

Top Bar Update

My top bar bee hive is making good progress. Installed just over a month ago, they’ve built out 12 solid frames of comb so far. Most of that development was in the first weeks. The last couple of weeks, it appears they’ve been adding about one frame per week. In the photo below, you’ve got frames 12 and 13 (that tiny thread of white in the middle of frame 13 is the beginnings of the next round of comb).


It’s interesting to see the small cell comb be built. The cells are noticeably smaller than those in the comb built from pre-marked foundation (4.9mm compared to 5.4mm, I’m told). Interestingly, I’m also noticing two distinct sizes of bee on the comb, presumably the larger, darker ones from the package as it was delivered and the smaller, yellower ones hatching from the new small cell comb. I had thought I had Carniolan bees with a Carniolan queen, but perhaps I’m mistaken. The bees are definitely different colors, so they must be different breeds, right?

Two species of bee?


The puzzling part is that my photos of the hive when I installed it shows bees that look more like the smaller, yellower bees than the larger, darker bees. But small cell should lead to small bee, right?

I’m also a little worried about the ability of larger bees to tend to the smaller cells. Really, they’re so large and the cells so small I’m not sure they can fit their fat heads into the comb to clean it, but I suppose they must have, or else I wouldn’t have successfully hatching brood and set honey.

Bees in the Living Room

For the past several years, I’ve been experimenting with creating sculpture in collaboration with my bees. My first piece, featuring a husband and wife entombed in comb, was my favorite. It was clever (I thought), whimsical and pleasing to the eye.

My other attempts (a rolling eyeball similarly entombed; LED christmas lights wending their way through wax, etc.) were interesting, I thought, but lacking in artistry. Yes, there are some objects entombed in comb in a way no human could create on their own…but so what? Beyond the “wow, how did you do that” effect, there was little to recommend them. Proof of concept, yes. Art, no.

For this year’s sculpture, I wanted something a bit more elaborate and thought provoking (but at the same time, no clobber-you-over-the-head symbolism). See the photo below for my start.

That’s a cheese plate on the bottom. The dollhouse pieces I picked up years ago at a now defunct dollhouse specialty store up on Phinney Ridge, figuring I’d do something with them some day. The cheese plate comes with an attractive glass dome that I was hoping the bees would draw comb down off of, so I drilled a hole in the bottom for them to come and go. I’ve got a little fake rug I’m going to try to cover the hole with at the end of the project.

The trick here, though, is going to be to get the bees to build inside my little dome. No reason they should or shouldn’t, it’s sort of up to them, but obviously I’d like to improve my chances.

My first attempt was to melt a bit of existing comb onto the top of the dome and then drip some honey inside. I removed seven frames from a honey super and placed the whole set-up inside an active and growing hive.


The result: the bees came in, cleaned out the honey and left the dome alone.

Then I remembered that bees will huddle on brood (eggs) to keep them warm, acting as nurse maids. It’s a strong instinct: if you add brood anywhere in your hive, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll converge on it quickly.

Burr brood combAs luck would have it, as I was inspecting my hives this week, I realized that I had put in a half-sized “honey super” frame in a full-size “brood chamber” box. As a result, there was an empty space that the bees had filled with comb…and brood. Perfect! Brood comb unattached to anything just waiting to be plucked (right).

I had some difficulty getting the comb into the sculpture, though. At first, I tried melting the wax onto the glass dome the same way I had the early comb. Unfortunately, the larvae that were in the cells on the exposed edge of the comb proved wet and slick, and it refused to stick. In the end, I just lumped some in on the floor of the “room” and hoped they would build up. Some of the comb was distorted in the process, but hopefully it didn’t kill the growing larvae.

This was yesterday. As of today, as you can see, the bees were still teeming inside the sculpture, and had even sealed the comb to the glass (as well as knocked the vodka off the table and misplaced the bra I had left on the chair). No new comb had been built, but that’s not surprising after just a day. I’ll check back in a week.

Bee Art in the Making photo.JPG

Top Bar Installed

I drove up to Mukilteo last Saturday and grabbed the ferry to Whidbey Island to pick up my three packages of bees. I had to get an early start on it, as we were hosting a food swap later in the day, but a) when you have a 2-year-old, getting up early is par for the course and b) I figured I’d get pick of the litter.

I had a bit of trouble last year with the switch to from Italian bees to Carniolans, as the Carnies seemed a bit more aggressive to me that the Italians. It’s not a big deal in a regular bee yard, but my “bee yard” is located 15′ off my back yard deck, home of many a bbq and playground for my son, so it ended up being a bit of a buzz kill (pun intended). To try to balance it out, I decided to go with two Italians hives and just one Carnie. David Neel of the Whidbees swapped out Carnie queens from the package and subbed in Italians for me when I made the pick-up and I made my way back to Seattle in time to swap some honey for other goodies.

This year, I’ve got two traditional Langstroth hives going (the kind you’re used to seeing) and one Kenyan top bar (old school, yo). I’m pretty excited about the top bar hive, so that’s probably what you’ll be hearing most about this year.

I installed all three last Saturday, putting the Carnie queen in the top bar box. Nothing unusual in the setup there except the feeder: because there’s no “top box” and no traditional entrance, there’s no place for a top feeder or entrance feeder. Instead, I just took a mason jar with holes in the top and propped it up on a couple of small pieces of wood inside the hive, far from the door and let it be.

Because the queens had been placed with the hives just Friday (and the Italian queens only Saturday), I held off on sticking marshmallow in for the cork until Thursday. It was exciting to crack the top bar on Thursday: how much progress could the hive make in just five days?


Well, about that much. There were probably 2 or three other beginnings of comb in there, as well. I have to admit I was surprised at how much progress they’d made in just a few days, but I guess I shouldn’t be. That’s a lot of bees at work in there.

I got stung on my finger as I was trying to set the marshmallow in the top bar hive and the queen escaped into the hive. Not such a big deal, though, since that was the Carnie hive and she’d already been with the sisters for five days at this point, but I was more careful with the two Italian hives.

Fortunately, when I checked in earlier today, all three hives had the beginnings of healthy laying patterns in them, with the tell-tale speckle of a tiny, rice-like egg at the bottom of each cell (see the second photo below). I was amazed again at the expansion of comb in the top bar hive.


Bee eggs

Kenyan Top Bar

I’m excited to try a new experiment this year: top-bar beekeeping!

In traditional “Langstroth” hives (or at least, traditional since the mid-1800’s), rectangular frames are placed into rectangular boxes, and the bees build their comb into these rectangular shapes. The foundation in the frames typically have wire running through the middle (or, more recently, are made out of solid plastic), meaning you can remove them, spin them in a centrifuge to extract the honey, and then return them to the hive for re-use. Because you re-use the honeycomb, the bees can spend more time making honey and less time making wax, increasing your production.

On the flip-side, having wire down the center, or worse, plastic, makes it more difficult to harvest comb honey: you end up needing a special contraption to separate your comb into usable parts.

More important for me, virtually all the foundation for sale is “large cell”, meaning it’s been pre-printed with with 5.4mm wide cells. This is larger than the rougly 4.9mm cells bees would make if left to their own devices. The logic behind the larger cell is that it leads to larger bees and larger honeycomb cells in general, which means more honey production.

No doubt this is true, but there’s also growing evidence that larger cells leave a hive more susceptible to varroa mite infestation: the mites grow in the cells along with the bee larva, and larger cells yield more mites.

So this year, I’m starting a new hive as a Kenyan top-bar bee hive. In top-bar beekeeping, you don’t provide the bees with a frame or foundation, you simple provide them with an empty space and bars at the top of the hive to draw their comb down from. Because there’s no foundation, they’ll create whatever cell size fits their fancy.

Of course, the bees have to spend extra time building out their foundation (since none is provided), so first year honey production is typically quite small.

Top Bar Bee Hive

Worse, harvesting is more destructive to the hive: you can’t put the comb in a centrifuge because it’s too fragile without the wire running through the foundation. Instead, you simply crush the comb in a colander and let the honey leak out…or eat it as cut comb. That means that in subsequent years, they’re also spending their time drawing new comb instead of producing honey. But hey, I’ve been harvesting 15 gallons of honey per year for some time now, and that’s enough for more peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches than I could eat in a lifetime.


I didn’t know much about top bar beekeeping, and honestly, I don’t learn very well from books. I much prefer seeing and doing, so I jumped on the opportunity to take a 3 hour top bar beekeeping class up at Seattle Tilth a couple weeks back. I snapped some pictures of the hive the instructor brought in, jotted some notes and I was off to the races.

The design is pretty straightforward: take a 14 ft 1×10, cut off two 18″ end-pieces, and cut the rest into three 43″ pieces. Attach as seen in the photo, then cut 1×2’s into 18″ pieces to drape along the top. Per the hint I got at the class, I nailed a triangular cant to the center of the top bars to give the bees something to orient off of, but I’m told that’s optional. Cut a small, 6″ long,  3/8″ high hole along one end and ba-bam! you’ve got yourself a top-bar beehive.

Top Bar Bee Hive

OK, you need a roof, too. While the 1×2’s fit in nice and tight along the top so the bees can’t get up and out, the rain could get in, which would be dreary, so I grabbed some scrap lumber and a sheet of corrugated plastic to give them some protection from the elements.

All three of my existing hives died over this winter, so I’m starting fresh: two packages of Europeans and one package of Carniolans. The Carnies are headed to the top-bar hive. Wish me luck.


Based on comments from Rusty and some that I received through Facebook, I think the verdict on the Bee Kill question is clear: the girls found something they shouldn’t have. Rusty left this comment:

The photo looks like a classic case of pesticide poisoning but even if someone were spraying this time of year, the bees wouldn’t be foraging in the snow. It wasn’t cold enough in November to kill the bees, so that’s out. The first freeze of the winter kills off the yellow jackets and hornets, so that’s probably out. No, I’m going back to pesticide. It would only take one misguided homeowner to dump a container of whatever on some unsuspecting insect (or arachnid) to set things in motion. If there was a warm day in there, a few bees could have brought it home with them and poisoned the lot. It sure looks like it.

Toxic FlowI couldn’t figure out where they would have gotten into pesticide at the end of November, either, but Krista Conner left a comment on my Facebook page that hit it:

I’d agree it sounds like pesticides or other poison- but really am just guessing w/o validation of some sort of CSI work. I’d wonder, with the snow, whether they drank something with glycol in it, with de-icing chemicals likely being prevalent during snowmageddon

Of course! The case comes together: the source of poison wasn’t in spite of the snow, it was because of the snow. Someone refilled their car with antifreeze or used some other de-icer and left it out or spilled it where the bees could get at it. The weather cleared up, they went out foraging and found themselves a sweet puddle of death to drink.


(Photo by Troy Tolley)