So much in life runs more smoothly if you have a good foundation. Didn’t the fairy tale about the 3 little pigs teach us that? Anyway, nothing is as dependent on a good foundation as a bee hive. Or at least one managed by humans who have some intention of extracting honey.
For the non-beeies out there I’ll give a very brief description of a bee hive. Hives are made up of stacked boxes containing hanging wooden frames. On these frames the bees make their comb. The frames have wire running across them and should have a foundation hooked to that wire. The foundation is basically a template of a honeycomb so the bees know where to build. They build on the foundation and the beekeeper can lift out a single frame without disturbing the rest of the frames, inspect the comb on the frame, look for pests, disease, brood or honey cells. Because of the spacing of the frames (a pretty precise measurement based on bee size and discovered ages ago by a German beekeeper) the bees tend to keep the comb running up a frame, not between frames. They fill the comb with pollen, honey or eggs (only the queen lays eggs). Because the queen is slightly bigger than the other bees, it is possible to use a screen to keep her in the brood box(es) and stop her from entering boxes planned for honey (supers).
Which is enough information so that it should become apparent what problems can arise if a beekeeper sticks frames in a box without foundation on them. Bees build comb willy-nilly and separating the frames is impossible without cutting through the combs. In the honey chamber this means a lot of honey gets lost as it pours out into the hive. In the brood chamber a lot of eggs get destroyed. In both boxes a lot of bees get squashed as the comb is cut which is sad, though not really much of a problem when you realise a colony has about 20-30 thousand bees. Unless, of course, one of the bees killed is the queen which is a disaster.
Moving right along, on Sunday Frank and I went to open the less active hive and immediately realised the honey box had no foundation and we had zig-zag comb. Nothing for it but to cut and destroy. Bees were smoked, the cut comb was shaken to remove bees, bees were flicked off and a sticky, crumbling mess ended up everywhere. Chunks of broken comb fell to the ground, chunks of broken comb made it into a box prepared in advance for any burr comb, chunks of broken comb hung from the frames that were placed into a waiting spare box.
To make a long story short, we extracted 6 of the 9 frames (it should be a 10 frame box but that was the least of our worries) then placed a spare box containing 10 frames with foundation between the brood box and the honey box and withdrew from the battle to fight another day. This left the bees with their brood box topped by a new box with 10 clean frames topped by their old box with the 3 frames we didn’t extract. It left us with 6 frames literally dripping with honey, a box full of beautiful, honey-drenched comb and 30 thousand angry bees who left us alone as soon as we closed the lid and walked away.
Back inside and without all our gear on, we moved on to the honey extraction phase of this operation. It’s normally pretty simple to cut the caps off the comb (the bees put a cap on the cell when it’s full with proofed honey) and then use an extractor (a basic centrifuge) to whirl the honey out of the frames.
Of course uncapping is more troublesome when the cells aren’t all nicely lined up.
And the extractor is far from efficient when the comb is not parallel or even (horror of horrors) layered.
But we made a start anyway. Then we went to bed worrying whether the brood box was also foundation-less (a huge problem) and if the 2nd hive is in the same disastrous state. We didn’t exactly have pleasant dreams. But then I think our bees were even more worried. When we went to bed, they were still buzzing angrily on the outside of their raped hive.
It was not all doom and gloom – we had our first taste of what is truly delicious honey. We spread honeycomb on freshly baked bread and sat back to savour the fruits of our (bees) labour.
Next instalment – Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.