Why Beekeepers Fail in Year 3

Fresh comb from the bees

Fresh comb from the bees

We know that as many as 75% of untrained beekeepers fail to keep their colony alive in their first year. But it also appears many of them have difficulties in their third year. There are a number of reasons for this but high on my list is old dirty comb. The bees hate it and will either leave (abscond), continue to leave (swarm) or cease to leave (die)!

New beekeepers have often started off with nucs or swarms with lovely fresh comb. They are usually busy concentrating on all those new-learned skills of lighting smokers, expanding hives, examining brood and bees, and taking photos for social media. So it is not surprising that understanding how bees change their environment over a few years is often not seen and understood until trouble begins to appear. Bees naturally like new comb for brood and honey, and the bees are much calmer and healthier when they have it.

Some of our hives (Warre Hives) naturally encourage this process of renewal in the way boxes are added, but in Langstroth hives a good deal of intervention is needed to achieve the same result. My rule of thumb is to renew comb every three years. Some commercial beekeepers suggest four to five years however they are often keen to keep costs low and honey production high.

When we see awful comb that is dark, hard, full of pupa cocoons and poorly used by the bees, I would encourage you to replace it with a fresh frame. But if we are to renew comb every three years, this action alone is not enough and we need a systematic approach. In cool Tasmania we often winter over with four ideal boxes (equivalent to two deep boxes), and in Spring when the brood is high in the hive, we remove the bottom box and all the frames in that box.  The frames are cleaned and repaired, and the box is checked for repairs and prepared for reuse.

In effect the hole hive is dropped down by one or two boxes every year and provided with fresh comb on top for the honey flow. In a Warre this rotation happens naturally. Other hives will need to have a plan to refresh comb regularly.

This comb regime will give you happier and healthier bees as well as bees that want to stay in your hive.

Happy beeking!