Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Part 5 - Adding Comb Guides

(Click here for Part 1 - Getting Started)

Whilst the flat roof of your hive, provided by a set of top bars, is all the bees need. However, without some kind of starter guide the bees will build their comb in whatever direction they want. Whilst this is fine for them it will produce a nightmare for you if their combs don't follow your top bars; it will make it near impossible for you to remove bars and carry out an inspection. It is common practice therefore to add starting guides to try and encourage the bees to build along you top bars. There are several methods you can use. Some folk swear by one method whilst others think others are best. My own experience suggests that they are all about as good or bad as each other so you can choose the one you find easies to make or try a variety and see for yourself.
The various methods involve using either physical protrusions or bees wax or and are outlined below. However, please read the Warning at the foot of the page before buying any bee's wax.

For most of these methods you will need a small supply of bees wax as bees are attracted to build comb from a bees wax starter – presumably they think another bee has started the comb and they continue down.

1. Sawn Kerf Top Bar 
This is probably the most commonly used and is relatively simple to make.

Basically what you do is saw a line about 2mm wide and 1-2mm deep along the centre of each top bar – see Diagram. [Click on any picture to enlarge it]
You then dribble melted bees wax along this cut line which once set forms your starter line – see Diagram.

As bees are attracted to work from a bees wax starter it generally seems to work. You will of course need a small supply of reliably sourced bees wax

2. Waxed String Top Bar
Waxed string melted to the top bar
Possibly the simplest design, this involves dipping a length of natural fiber string or twine into melted bees wax then immediately, whilst the wax is still molten, stretching the string out and holding it in position along the center of a plain top bar whilst the wax hardens and sticks to the bar – see Diagram E.
You will find that using rough-sawn rather than planed wood helps the waxed string to adhere.

3. The Starbucks starter 
Wooden coffee stirers or lolly sticks
My favourite as it's easy to make is to use a supply of the wooden coffee stirrers (like long thin lolly sticks) you get when you by a coffee at a Starbucks, Costa or other coffee outlet. Just run a line of glue along one edge and stick this to the centre of a standard top bar. If you use a proprietary wood glue you only need to rub a thin film along the stick then hold it to the top bar for around 30 seconds. Once the glue goes off it will be really strong. To get the sticks to come to near the edges of your hive you may need to overlap them as shown in Diagram F though this probably isn't really necessary.

To finish this off just rub bees wax along the protruding edge when the glue has completely dried.

4. Hanging bar starter
The best option for comb guide
a hTBK (Kenyan)
Some top bar hive beekeepers have been having success in preventing cross comb by experimenting with physical protrusions hanging down from the roof of the hive. Perhaps this replicates the lumps and bumps that you might find inside a natural tree cavity or maybe bees like to start building comb from an appendage. If you want to try this then you need to fit some shims below your top bars as in the diagram aside which is similar to the Starbucks starter method but with more substantial shims..
The shape of the shims is not overly important but it is suggested that they need to be around 6-8mm wide and hang down by at least 15-20mm and have a flattened bottom. Stick these on with glue and rub bees wax along the protruding edge as you would for the Starbucks method.
2 x 6mm dowels adds
lateral strength to the comb

Adding 2 x 6mm (no wider) dowels protruding just 100mm below the top bar provides more lateral stability for the comb to help save breakage on inspection. If the dowels exceed 6mm width (here's that magic bee space again) then the bees won't incorporate them in the comb but will instead stop the comb at the bars.

5. Gareth's rotating shim method 
This method, which is undoubtedly the best, was shown to me by Gareth John who uses the tapered guides with dowels shown above, but also employs an additional trick - he uses rotating shims.

Gareth's rotating shims shown in yellow
(click picture to enlarge)
Bees space their combs depending on what purpose they serve. In the brood area combs tend to be spaced about 35mm apart whereas in the honey storage area they are wider, at about 40mm. So rather than have all the bars the same 'average' width which generally tends to lead to some comb crossing bars, he cuts his bars narrower at 28mm width and uses 7x12mm shims. The shims can be placed upright in the brood area (28+7=35) and sideways in the honey area (28+12=40), see picture. As the base of the shims are not as deep as the top bar they further discourage the bees from cross combing - result!

Not only does this provide an adaptable comb width which helps prevent cross combing, it also has a couple of other significant advantages. First, when you wish to inspect a comb you just need to remove the shims either side of the bar. It is then easy to extract that bar without the need to slide all the other bars along  to create a working space. The gap created by removing the shims means you don't end up scraping bees or comb against the next bars. This makes for far less disturbance of your bees. Secondly, when replacing the bar you can easily replace the comb bar first then add the shims after. As the shims are narrow they make it far easier to gently nudge the bees, who by now will certainly be peeping up and in the way, back into the hive - you are far less likely to squash any bees - double result!

6. Bait Hive method
This method I developed for use in bait hives - small hives set out to try and attract passing swarms. The bait hives in question had top bars to fit a horizontal hive of the dimensions we are using here, but also had to be adaptable enough to allow the any bees caught to be transferred to a smaller Warré hive with minimal disturbance. The trick employed was to screw a Warré top bar with 2 short screws to the underside of the main horizontal top bar - see diagram. This way if the bar was subsequently transferred into a horizontal hive it just went straight in. However, if it needed to go into a Warré hive I just place it on the empty Warré box, then unscrew the two screws releasing the Warré bar and then easily took away the main horizontal bar. 
For use in a bait hive .
Warré bars below, attached from so can be released
from above to drop into a Warré hive 
By placing these bars in a horizontal hive I discovered that they made excellent starter bars. I suppose they are a cross between the Starbucks and Hanging bar methods above.

All you need to do to complete these starter bars is rub bee's wax on the underside of the Warré bar as a starter.

7. And finally.....
The choice of what kind of starter you make is yours. In my opinion Garth's rotating shims is the nearest thing to a magic answer. However, bees don't read the books so will cross the bars in all types some of the time. If you really can't decide then I would suggest that you make the starters you find easiest to produce depending on your carpentry skills or materials you have to hand. Of course you could try making some of each type and experiment to see what kind works best for your bees. After all beekeeping is a learning process and we can all learn from your results!

Note: You can download models of these top bars in the Google's excellent free Sketchup 3D drawing programme. Download a free copy of Sketchup here.

WARNING about sourcing your bee's wax You need to be aware that there are risks involved when using bee's wax from an unknown source, i.e. any but your own. The wax in a hive absorbs chemicals and microbes from its environment. If the beekeeper supplying the wax used chemical treatments on his/her bees then this will present in the wax, or if the hive was diseased then it will carry microbes from the disease. Ask yourself – 'Do I really want diseased or poisoned wax in my hive?' 

Unfortunately, it has now been shown that bees wax contains traces of any pesticides used on crops or plants that the bees were foraging on. This is beyond the control of the beekeeper but will be at increased levels where the beekeeper lived near to, or moved his/her bees to take advantage of, a large monoculture crop such as oil seed rape, etc. where you can pretty much bet that systemic pesticides (the worst!) were used on the planted crop.

When starting out in beekeeping you won't have your own supply so you are best getting it from a very local beekeeper, one that you feel you can trust. You could even ask them what treatments they used on their bees and make your decision depending on the answer. I would strongly recommend that you do not buy wax or foundation (bees wax pre stamped in honeycomb shaped sheets for use in a conventional hive frame) from a large supplier or a local beekeeper acting as an agent for such a supply. This will have been sourced from around the world an who knows what nasties or foreign diseases are in it? 

Robin Morris
© YABeeP 


martha said...

Thank you for the sketch-up models of the write up of the various top bar designs.
I am having cross combing on my new hive, so I am searching for the magic!
One question for you:
Have you ever used a queen excluder in a top bar hive?
thank you, martha

FollowMeChaps said...

I honestly believe that there is no magic solution. Bees build comb how they want, not to suit us and our convenience. That is why we don't like horizontal top bar hives. IMHO they require too much 'management' and therefore mitigate against being natural unless you just leave them and allow them to cross comb to their heart's content as I do in mine. I favour Warre or skeps where the bees can build natural comb - just see how beautifully they do it when we stop forcing them to build straight for OUR convenience.