Why Have a Bailey Comb Change?

Having kept bees for a couple of years, I am still encountering new challenges to overcome, and it has been highly enjoyable learning on the move. 

I have read around some elements and was lucky enough to have some training with John and Christine Hebron at Ness Gardens, my confidence in handling the hive physically is high (smoking, inspecting, housekeeping). My theory (i.e. why we do things) is at best patchy. 

All that being said, I committed accidental regicide with one of my queens last year (I squashed her with, of all things the queen excluder) I bought a new nucleus circa May 2019.

The hive had a brood box, queen excluder and super – but I noticed near the end of summer the bees had not collected enough honey to see them right over winter – something I had not experienced before. They had almost entirely ignored the super, not even attempting to build up the comb; instead, they had capped probably a supers frame worth of honey around the top of the brood frames— easy access for the winter, but not nearly enough food.

One issue I had, had over August was the bees robbed a lot of stores from a second hive (which had been abandoned over summer) after finding their way into the shed en mass. They had got into the bee proof bag of old comb a mouse had kindly opened up. 

I am not sure if this had affected their behaviour, but I removed the super and fed using bee fondant over winter.

For some reason, I had not placed the right number of trays in the brood box during pre-winter checking. This had left a gap between the middle two trays which the bees had conveniently filled with makeshift comb – it was impossible to check without potentially damaging the queen as she tactically hid in there.

So the situation I found myself in as the days started to warm up, was a colony of bees which seemed small, but producing some brood and the possibility that their lack of honey gathering the previous season was due to disease in the honey/comb from the robbing.

My gut said fix all the variables I can control, and leave it to bees to deal with the ones I can not.

My goal, therefore, was to get fresh comb and a healthy, expanding hive.

The Rationale for a Bailey Comb Change

From what I have read, the Bailey Comb Change should only be used for a strong colony. The other option I had was a shook swarm, which is not very suitable for small colonies. 

As my colony was probably small and not very strong, it did not seem to make much of a difference which one I picked, and rather than get bogged down in debate and indecision I chose the one which I found to have the best instructions and kept what brood I had. 

Sometimes you need to fail fast and learn any lessons from it.

How to do a Bailey Comb Change

The method is broken down into four stages, over five weeks, but there is a week 0, where I did some prep.

Week 0 of Bailey Comb Change

First off I got a second brood box (brood box 2), gave it a quick sand down, a flaming with the blowtorch, scrubbed any remaining bee product from it in washing soda solution (not to be confused with caustic soda) and painted it nice and fresh. I also gave it a composite primary key (unique ID) based on location and an integer so I could start tracking what was going on inside. I did the same with a super.  

Week 1 of Bailey Comb Change

Here, I added the cleaned and newly weatherproofed brood box (brood box 2) on top of the existing brood box (brood box 1). 

Brood box 2 was filled with cleaned frames and fresh, premium, wired foundation I’d purchased last year. It had gone a little hard, and next time I’ll probably not stock up on foundation over winter.

On top of brood box 2, I put the newly cleaned and weatherproofed super. Inside this, I included a (liquid) feeder and made up a syrup solution of 2 parts caster sugar to 1 part water. This does produce a very thick liquid, and the surface tension keeps a lot of it contained, so I did not lose a lot out of the bottom as I had initially feared. 

Caster sugar was hard to get my hands on though due to everyone baking during lockdown; this meant I did not have a lot of syrup to add into the hive at the start. I used a 1kg bag. The feeder looks to be able to take at least three times that amount.

Next time I will keep a couple of kilos of caster sugar in storage just in case.

I popped a clean crown board on top, sealed up the hive and ordered my Bailey board.

Week 2 of Bailey Comb Change

I opened the hive and much to my delight the worker bees had started to draw fresh comb in the brood box 2 as expected. The queen had also decided to migrate upwards.

The lower brood box (box 1) had a mixture of worker brood and a small amount of drone. Quite a few of the worker bees had stayed in the lower box. Although the lower brood box was messy in terms of propolis and the black comb, there were no signs of any nasties (other than the occasional deformed wing).

I placed the Bailey Board (which is simply an eke with an entrance for the bees and a queen excluder attached to the bottom) on top of brood box 1, followed by brood box 2, the super (with syrup), crown board and lid.

The limited supply of sugar syrup I had given the bees had been thoroughly drained, and I managed to replace again with the same amount and ratio as previously. 

I blocked up the original hive entrance with a newly opened and cut up car cleaning sponge. 

Most of the bees got used to the new, higher entrance quickly – though there was a queue due to the significantly smaller aperture they had to go through.

Week 3 & 4 of Bailey Comb Change

I opened up the hive to reveal excellent brood with stores on three of the frames. The queen was busily running about and not squashed, so I was ahead of the curve compared to last year.

The bees had also built a fully formed queen cell in the bottom brood box which I destroyed.

The “bee highway” (a term coined by my other half to indicate the bees flying across the garden) was in full swing, so I decided not to fill up the sugar syrup again.

Week 5 of Bailey Comb Change

My understanding of leaving this number of weeks between inserting the Bailey Frame and then removing the lower brood box (brood box 1) is to take into account the 24 days between egg-laying and hatching of worker bees. Sure enough, there was no capped worker brood.

I removed brood box 1 (ready to be cleaned) along with the Bailey Board, re-instated the original entrance (more confusion for the worker bees) and filled the super with premium wired foundation).

The way I approached the Bailey Comb Change was essentially dictated by a guide I bought from the BBKA – it was £1 on the website. 

The Outcome of the Bailey Comb Change

I was pleased with the outcome of my Bailey Comb Change. My goal had been to get new comb drawn in the brood box and a rapidly expanding hive. Both of these were achieved.

What I would have done differently over the year comes in four fundamental lessons:

  1. Keep records – this makes seeing how the hive situation has altered a lot easier than from memory alone. Especially true if you have got more than one hive. While the bees are taken not to keep records or read books, it was my responsibility to record what I am doing. 
  2. Have a helper – I have still yet to convince my other half to don a bee suit and help out. But this is one of the main reasons I have not kept records; I have generally been fighting to get everything done after invariably forgetting something and having to sort it ad hoc.
  3. Pay attention to putting the hive back together right. 
  4. Mouse proof everything in storage.

Having a science / legal background one of the concepts I have struggled with, with beekeeping is the sheer subjective nature of advice and terms. 

Strong and weak do not mean much to me without some ability to measure. I assume this will come with experience, but for the time being, I have gone on gut feeling on most things.

In a final note, I will probably also start looking at some formal qualifications in beekeeping. I have started to look into the reading material for the BBKA official qualifications. Even if these do not come to fruition until 2021, I am still going to be in a better position to look after my colony.