Crazy comb in ClarissaAfter tidying the fallen comb in Dorcas, we lost the next few weeks to cold, both as weather and as illness. Finally last Sunday we were both healthy and the day warm enough to deal with the fallen comb we had spied through Clarissa’s window. We could see that three, large, consecutive combs had broken off entirely. Perhaps there had been some domino effect at work as the first, heavy comb struck bottom then leaned into and broke its fragile neighbor. Repeat.

One dropped comb was still mostly vertical as it sat on the floor. The rest had unfortunately come to rest lying on the floor in partially fused layers, somehow joining as well with the bottoms of other unfallen combs. Or perhaps more combs had partially broken but the bees had been able to build new comb all the way down, as opposed to the first three, whose top bars showed just a few short beginnings of new comb construction. That might explain one patch we saw of old, dark comb surrounded by fresher wax. However it happened, it was a much worse mess than in Dorcas.

The cleaning was a tedious affair. To provide working room we removed the follower and any empty bars, placing them on a nearby bench or on the ground leaning against the hive. Any bars with comb we placed in a home-made frame holder capable of holding several combs. We then carefully cut and lifted the comb from the floor onto a sheet tray, scraping the floor as clean as we could while trying not to shake the hive. We proceeded in this wise until we saw no more comb on the floor and straight comb hanging from the bars. Coincidentally this was the start of the brood area. Or did tougher brood comb better resist breaking and falling? We do not really know what started the catastrophe.

Throughout all this the bees were surprisingly calm, too preoccupied with reclaiming honey from the combs being removed to bother stinging the vandals removing them. Once or twice they seemed to buzz a little impatiently and swirl up as if reconsidering the stinging option but a puff of smoke proved effective counterargument. Still it was a relief when at last we replaced the bars and closed Clarissa. Since what comb was on the bars was straight and true, we did not need to remove any as we did in Dorcas.

And now to process the stolen comb for a little more honey and a little more wax as we wonder why this season has had so much fallen comb.

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Have you ever in some long term project made an early, uncaught error that increasingly corrupted every subsequent step until eventually the supervisor who should have corrected you in the first place finally notices and informs you that all your work will need to be redone? Building comb can be like that for a honeybee.

Last Sunday it was time to pay attention to Dorcas. Opening her unoccupied area we removed the moisture-absorbing pillow and observed some spots of black mold and a small puddle of water. Nothing too troubling. Then it was time to crack the follower. It is a pity that taking pictures during the procedure would have been one task too many for we would be working our way through an artistic phantasmagoria of wax sheets with excrescences, tunnels, and a whimsical sense of verticality. The picture at left of the trimmed combs and fragments does not adequately represent the waxscape we had to fight.

We were greeted by a misshapen comb with the right half much thicker than a typical honeycomb and the left half, sporting a flying buttress at a right angle, much narrower. Cutting attachments and excising the worst outgrowths we slid this bar back to reveal another monstrosity, thick and thin and twisted, having exerted bad influence on the comb we first saw, itself led astray by the comb we had yet to see. Repeat through a jungle gym of more combs of untouched honey and comb being filled with nectar until we arrived at the original fallen comb, attached to the floor and sporting odd vertical features. This is the comb we should have cleaned up much, much earlier. Did schedule and weather not allow? Or were we just negligent? We do not recall.

On the other side of this mess, the combs were much straighter and we began encountering brood and we saw the queen! Overall there were four combs thick with brood, mostly worker with a little drone. And plentiful bees. While not bursting as Beatrix seems to be, Dorcas is adequately populated.

In the end we removed the irredeemably misshapen comb, sadly depriving Dorcas of nearly all her leftover honey and empty comb in which to store incoming nectar. We also pulled the four of her original frames that were yet empty. The fifth held brood. In exchange we judiciously inserted some empty top bars on which she may build straight comb and gave her a jar of syrup as encouragement1. Poor Dorcas is much smaller than she was. Considering how mellow the bees were during all our surgery and thievery, she may not bear us a grudge but will simply and stolidly, as bees do, set to work rebuilding.

We would have liked to inspect Clarissa as well but with other tasks requiring completion we decided that we had inconvenienced enough bees for one day2 and contented ourselves with removing the pillow, exposing some black mold, and leaving a jar of syrup.


1We feel like the reviled stereotype of a villainous commercial beekeeper. Take all the honey, leave them sugar, and twirl one’s mustache while laughing an evil laugh.

2 Is this how comb remains fallen?