A Year in the Apiary:
A trip down the slope
The trip to my enclosed apiary is down two flights of stairs, followed by a hike to the bottom of the slope. It wasn’t long before I started thinking that there must be a better way to feed my bees than to haul baggies of sugar syrup down this slippery slope every few days. Not to mention cooking it up in my kitchen and waiting for it to cool off so I can pour it into a baggie, and then washing the pan and scrubbing sticky sugar syrup off the counter.
Then one day after I had carefully placed another baggie of sugar syrup across the top of the frames, I sliced it too far with a razor blade and it all spilled into the hive.
Maybe should have put a plate under it, huh?
While the hive was open, I could see that the bees were starting to build comb between the frames. This was partly because the hive wasn’t perfectly level. Although the bees don’t care, it makes it hard to inspect frames without tearing things apart. Another reason was that in all the excitement, I had forgotten to remove the empty queen cage which left a gap between the frames.
I removed the cage and used a knife to carefully remove two beautifully formed pieces of comb that they had built between the frames. I had a ceramic knife that was too dull for marmalade-making, but perfect for the job. Then I moved all the frames close together so there wasn’t any extra space to fill.
Because new colonies don’t have any pollen or honey stores, they are often fed pollen patties for the developing brood, and liquid feed to jump-start wax production. Despite the name, some pollen patties don’t contain pollen at all, but rather, a pollen substitute that is typically made from soybean flour and brewer’s yeast. You can find recipes online to make your own.
Pollen patties provide the protein that developing bees need, and are placed on top of the frames. Nurse bees eat through the wax paper covering and nibble away at the patty so they can feed it to developing larvae.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Liquid feed can be simple sugar syrup that you make by heating one part sugar and one part water, or a commercially-prepared liquid bee food like Pro-Sweet that has a composition that is closer to both nectar and honey.
It takes about eight ounces (.22 kilograms) of honey or other liquid feed, to produce one ounce (23.84 grams) of wax. And it takes up to ten pounds (4.53 kilograms) of liquid feed to produce one pound (.45 kilograms) of wax. A hive that is fully drawn out with 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beeswax can store over 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) of honey. Of that, a backyard beekeeper might harvest about half and leave the rest for the bees. The bees eat honey so they can make enough wax to store honey, and so it goes…
Any way you look at it, it takes a lot of food for bees to make enough wax to build out a new hive, and my little colony had a long way to go.
How do bees make wax?
I felt bad removing the comb they had worked so hard to build, but it can be reattached to an empty frame so the bees can recycle it, or freezed for later. So I began to wonder, exactly how do bees make wax, anyway?
Nurse bees begin to produce wax when they are about one week old. Soon after, their responsibilities shift from tending brood to making wax, ventilating the hive, and building and repairing honeycomb. By the time they are three weeks old, their wax-producing glands are worn out and they are ready to move into their new role as foragers.
A honey bee’s wax-making apparatus is a wonder to behold. Each worker bee has eight smooth surfaces (four on each side), called “wax mirrors” that are hidden under plates on her abdomen. Each mirror has pores that ooze fatty liquid wax from a gland below. Over a period of twelve hours, the wax builds up like tree rings and hardens into a tiny translucent scale.
When the scales are ready, they are conveniently dispensed from the bee’s nether region where another bee can grab one, pop it in her mouth, and start chewing.
This brings us to the next stage of production. As the wax is chewed, it mixes with enzymes in bee saliva and water until it is pliable enough to be shaped and used like clay to build honeycomb.
A single bee can produce eight tiny scales of wax in twelve hours. It takes about 1,000 scales to make a gram of beeswax — which weighs about the same as 1/4 teaspoon of sugar — and about 453,000 scales for a pound of honeycomb. Bees work around the clock in day and night shifts and take little catnaps when needed. Sometimes a bee’s coworkers will hold her up while she catches a few ZZZs to keep her from falling off the comb. It’s all about teamwork in the hive.
Let’s say that a bee joins the maintenance crew when she’s eight days old and works around the clock for twelve days. By the time she’s three weeks old, her wax-making apparatus is kaput and she’s ready to join the foragers. She can tell her manager that she met her goal of 192 scales. At that rate, it will take about 2,359 bees to make a pound of wax.
Using a top feeder
I was still looking for a better way to feed my bees. That Saturday morning while watching Frederick Dunn’s “The Way to Bee” on YouTube, he featured a top feeder from Ceracell in New Zealand. It caught my eye because it looked like an olympic swimming pool.
So I ordered one from Pierco, along with a 2 1/2 gallon jug of Pro-Sweet. The Ceracell feeder has a chimney feeding station in the middle and one in each corner. I followed Fred’s suggestion to add a little strip of sponge to each corner that the bees can use as a ladder. I also covered it with a piece of plexiglass to keep it clean, and so I could see how they were using it.
I knew that I had made a mistake as soon as I poured the jug of Pro-Sweet into the feeder. It was full to the brim, and so heavy that I would never be able to lift it off for inspections. I had no idea how long it would take my bees to drink that much, although I know now that half that amount would have been fine.
So what to do? I have never siphoned gas from a car, but think that I understand the basic idea.
With that task out of the way, I cut the plexiglass to fit — which was harder than I expected — and put a piece of tape over the hole to keep bugs out. Within a month they had drained it dry and were starting to build comb up through the hole in the center chimney.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to feed them again. So I removed the feeder, hosed it down, and put it in a plastic bag to keep the ants out. Then, I put it in the shed for next time.
My bees were off to a good start, and I was happy to be free from the tyranny of schlepping sugar syrup down the slope.