When I did my first inspection of the hive last week, I asked Deb if she'd come take pictures. Not just as a record for the blog, but also because I could then examine the combs more closely at my leisure simply by enlarging the photos. And I could ask those who are more expert to look at them, too.
I had my own camera set up on a tripod to take video, and it really bums me out that it came out blurry. I think a bee may have flown in front of it as I was focusing, and I didn't notice because of the veil. Next time, I will double-check that, and also shoot in shorter, Youtube-friendly segments to minimize the need to edit down. Lessons learned.
I let Deb wear the full bee suit and just donned a veil and gloves myself. The gloves probably weren't necessary, but I didn't want to risk another ring-finger sting.
The first thing I did was mark the top bars with a yardstick. I read a tip, too late, to shove all the bars to one side before the bees start building comb. That way, when you take a bar out, you can put it back in exactly as it was positioned before.
You also want to mark the bars so you put them back in facing the same direction as when they came out. Bees do some pretty fancy calculus to position their combs just so, and you don't want to mess that up.
My solution was to draw a line across all the bars. When I put bars back, I made sure the line matched up again.
Then I started working through the bars, starting at the end farthest from the entrance. The far bars were empty, but I could tell when I was getting closer to comb because they were more and more glued down by propolis. My lovely hive tool came in handy for gently prying the bars loose.
Propolis is basically bee-glue created from tree sap. It has anti-microbial properties and is used to plug up small holes, smooth rough edges and stick things together so the hive is nice and solid.
It was pretty exciting to get to the first comb!
It's so cute! This bar is just getting started. Notice how the bees have found the precise center of the bar and are working outward from there.
The next comb was even bigger.
See the bees hanging off each other on the bottom of the comb? That's called "festooning."
It sounds very festive, doesn't it? What they're doing is creating a living plumb line so that their comb is built exactly perpendicular to the pull of gravity.
Here I'm holding an imaginary plumb bob and as I explain festooning to Deb.
This is why a top bar hive has to be absolutely level. If your hive is tilted, your comb will be, too, and that may make it difficult to remove.
The next bars were completely built out.
I was looking at each bar and trying to figure out what I was looking at. And not really knowing what to be looking for. Mainly, I was concerned about finding evidence of a queen.
I wasn't looking for the queen herself (she's hard to spot), but for eggs and brood. Brood is babies, and if you've got a lot of brood, you know you've got a queen.
I got some expert opinions on the last post to help me, and the consensus was that the capped cells are capped brood (and not honey) in a nice, solid pattern, which indicates a productive queen. In other words, this hive is "queenright." Hooray!
When I got the rest of the photos from Deb at a somewhat higher resolution, I was able to blow them up and see larvae in some of the cells.
I should explain the bee life cycle here: The queen lays an egg in a cell. When it hatches into a larva, the nurse bees feed it honey, pollen and royal jelly. When it gets big and fat, the workers cap over the cell, and the larva spins a cocoon (just like a butterfly), pupates and becomes an adult bee, emerging to become a worker herself.
In the above photo, you can see a couple larvae in the cells at the center. Around the top is honey, and around the bottom is capped brood.
It is actually possible for a hive to continue for some time without a queen, so wondering if I had one or not was a valid concern.
I still had six bars to inspect, but the sound of thunder started making me a little anxious, and the bees were also getting more agitated. They didn't want to get rained on, either! So I decided to stop there.
I was taught that you never want to be more than a couple of steps away from closing the hive. That way, if you or the bees start having issues, you can quickly close up and go. With the top bar hive, you could always just toss an extra bar into the gap. But otherwise, you're just sliding all the following bars forward like hanging files.
The only thing that slows down the process is the girls themselves, who invariably insist on trying to dash out or in as you are slowly easing the bars closed. You can get them closed without crushing anyone, but it takes patience.
"Mind the gap, girls, mind the gap!"