Last Monday we finally had time and weather to inspect Annabelle. Primarily we just wanted to confirm that she was in general good health but also to get some indication of when she might be ready to be split. Overall to our inexperienced and aging eyes she seemed all right (maybe) for the late spring we have had this year. Sadly we may abandon our plans to split altogether.
Regard the underside view at left of a top bar (number 14) which we removed. The bees often begin to build comb at several spots on an empty bar. If all goes well the pieces, being built along the center-line of the top-bar, eventually merge into a single, planar sheet of comb. That was clearly not going to happen here as each piece along the bar met it at an increasing angle. The comb on other bars was the culmination of such inauspicious beginnings. On many of Annabelle’s top bars the comb would follow the bar at one end but then further along begin to curve onto an adjacent bar eventually leaving its original. This makes it impossible to lift a single top bar without seriously damaging the comb. And since the sheets of comb must nest with just enough room for bees between them, once one curves like this its neighbor will curve even more so. The bees don’t care. They do not require the comb to be removable.
The only well-behaved comb in Annabelle is that which she inherited from Beatrix. Being unable to even separate most of the bars without slashing through comb, some of which was even fused at the bottom, we did not lift many bars for close inspection but merely tried to look down between the bars as we pushed them apart after some cutting. We would be unlikely to see eggs or spot the queen under the best circumstances but this, combined with the blurring effect of the veil and a dazzling sun, made it impossible. We did see honey and pollen but could not agree on how much non-drone brood was present. We will feel better once we start seeing orientation flights. And for all their buzzing the girls were remarkably tolerant of our slicing although we did use the smoker rather frequently, especially when we had to cut through the top of the brood chamber. In spite of everything we did not get stung.
The first contributing factor to this mess is that the top bars that came with Annabelle were nowhere nearly as strongly peaked as the ones we made for Beatrix, making less of an obstacle to cross-combing to bees were so inclined. In this case the inclination came from the queen cage we had attached along the top bar and was made worse when our attempts at repair caused comb to fall off completely. (Sad tale here.) Having learned to stay out of the hive on hot days, of which we had many, we made no further attempt to straighten the comb and now must deal with the results of our timidity.
While we will be leaving Annabelle in peace for a time to recover from our invasion, we must determine a longer term strategy for bringing her back to the straight and narrow. Certainly any top bar we replace will henceforth be one the strongly peaked ones of our own manufacture. We may simply shift all the bars as a unit away from the entrance end to add an empty bar or two there. The wall would provide one constraint to encourage straight new comb and the peak of the bar another. Then with a little surgery a bar or two of old distorted comb can be removed and retired from the other end. Over the years the bad comb would be cycled out of service, as old comb ought to be regardless of it shape.
And that still leaves us with Beatrix empty, two more hives under slow construction, and rather late to purchase any bees. Far from our dearest wish for two surviving, splittable colonies. Catching a swarm may be our likeliest if chancy way to get another colony. Perhaps, like some optimistic beekeepers, we shall take to carrying a nuc box and veil in each car, just in case.