The Bummer of Burr Comb

Burr comb is the free-form, hanging mass of cells that bees build when left to their own devices. It’s the stuff you may have seen natives on educational channels harvesting honey from while dangling off of rope ladders over the sides of cliffs. When it comes to cool things that insects can build this is up there with watermelon-sized wasp nests spun tissue-thin from clay or termite mounds that look like half-rotted old-growth redwood stumps. But when it comes to hobby or commercial beekeeping, burr comb is a total bummer.

The book I received with my beekeeping course is graffitied heavily with notetaking – sometimes filling every available inch of margin space and appearing to join printed paragraphs together. Extra notes are stapled to the back on steno pad paper. Despite taking as many notes as I could, passing the test, and rereading the book cover to cover three times before picking up my package of bees, I have still managed to make a classic newbie mistake. In the middle of page 17, alongside instructions about using a top feeder to give sugar syrup to a newly hived package, in my own handwriting, is the comment “don’t just set it on the frames in an empty box or they go burr comb crazy!” Naturally, that is exactly what I did.

What I was supposed to do was set the feeder, which is just a little bottomless box with four holes on top which inverted mason jars of sugar syrup rest, over the hole in the middle of the inner cover, then surround it with an empty box and put the telescoping cover on top. This allows the bees to climb up through the hole in the inner cover, eat their fill, and then climb back down through the hole to the brood chamber. With the inner cover hole covered this means everyone has to use the front door because the feeder sits flush and does not allow a way to get out from underneath the feeder except whatever way the bee got in.

My inner cover came with an escape in the hole. This little contraption has tiny pieces of spring steel in it that act like a one-way valve for bees: it lets them out, but not back in. It works great for the purpose I intended it form which is to let bees out of the upper boxes of the hive without having to go all the way back down to the main entrance. However, if I put the feeder over the escape they would be able to get to the food but would be trapped under the feeder, unable to get back out. That, and newbie naïveté (“How much could they possibly build in a week?”) Led me to go against the clear advice I copied down in class and put the top feeder directly on the top of the frames in the brood box.

This is the top feeder, without the jars, sitting on top of the new inner cover.  Through the jar holes and the breather hole in the top feeder you can see the oval hole in the inner cover.

One week later it was time for my first real hive inspection. Time to crack the hive open and check to see that all is well and that the queen is laying. I suited up, carried all my materials to the hive site, and lit up my smoker. Puff puff, puff puff, telescoping cover off, and heave ho on the inner cover . . . hmm. Seems heavy – not like it’s been glued in place, which is quite common . . . just seems really heavy. Oh, crap. I pulled the inner cover up about a foot and there, firmly attached to the underside of the inner cover, spreading out to cover an area roughly the size of my gloved hand and extending down about as far, is a stalactite of burr comb, crawling with bees. I broke my horrified but fascinated stare when I heard a loud clink! One of the four pint jars from the feeder had been adhered to the bottom of the stalactite and as I moved the inner cover and its appendage up and to my left to get a better look at the slightly freaky growth I had knocked the jar on the edge of the hive box and dislodged it. It rolled away down the slight slope, squashing a worker bee as it hit the ground. Stumped and stupified, I replaced the inner cover and outer cover and retreated to the picnic table to feel stupid without my “space helmet” (combination bee veil and pith hemlet) adding to my feeling of foolishness.

Brushing bees off of the jar that had been attached to the burr comb stalactite.

During dinner at Denny’s that night I scribbled on scratch paper and surfed around a few beekeeping websites on the laptop to survey my options. One thing was clear: the burr comb had to go. It would be impossible to get any honey out of it and inspecting that nasty mass for brood was going to be a hell of a chore. There’s a good reason that modern beekeepers are so fond of the nearly universal Langstroth movable frame system, which is set up very much like a hanging folder filing system. The bees can’t hide anything from you and the honey is very easy to remove without causing any damage to the brood or the hive structure. Before moveable frame hives beekeepers hived swarms into “gums” (hollowed sections of tree trunks, generally gum trees) or “skeps” (the conical straw domes most widely recognized as a symbol of beekeeping). They worked in that the bees liked them well enough to take up residence and keep their honey there, but in order to harvest that honey the gum or skep generally had to be destroyed, bees, brood, comb, and all, to extract the honey. Moveable frame hives allow me to buy one package of bees, steal their honey without destroying their house or killing their babies, and still have that same colony of bees next spring.

By the time Matt had finished his sundae I had decided on a plan of action. The next morning I would install my conical escape board under the top box with the burr comb stalactite in it. This would allow bees to leave the top box but not allow them to return. Theoretically the box would be bee-free the next day and I could remove the stalactite and correct my error by reinstalling the feeder over a new inner cover without the built-in escape. My fond hope was that the burr comb building party was due to the sugar syrup smorgasbord – that the bees were building a permanent storage facility for the free food I was providing. What I dreaded was the possibility that there was more than sugar syrup getting packed into those suspended cells. If the queen was in there somewhere, laying eggs in the stalactite, then the plan would fail because the workers won’t leave the queen. My flimsy an Plan B in case the queen was in there was to chop the stalactite off anyway and put the queen excluder on top of it to keep her from climbing up to the feeder again. The queen excluder is a grille with large enough holes to let worker bees to pass through freely but too small for Queen Big Butt to get through. This is a handy tool for segregating brood boxes (where babies are reared) from honey supers (where honey is stored) so that when you extract your honey you get a vat of honey and not a vat of honey with larvae floating in it. (Ugh.)

The next day I installed the escape board without incident. It was the shortest incursion I had made into the hive thus far, and delightfully humdrum.

The hive bristles with bees after I have installed the new inner cover and escape.  They calmed down considerably within the hour.

The day after that was Sunday. Matt’s been working six days a week so this was the only day he was going to be home all day for a week. It was also going to be the first time I worked my bees with an audience. Among my lofty plans was to install an entrance feeder full of water so that the bees would become accustomed to drinking from that before the folks across the street set up their pool for the summer. (Bees don’t actually prefer to drink chlorinated water, but the smell makes it easier for them to give each other directions to it.)

Putting the stalactite into a deep box.  Would you poke that mess with a metal bar?  I didn’t think so.

I pulled off the whole top of the hive (the box surrounding the feeder, the inner cover with the burr comb stalactite hanging from it, and the telescoping outer cover) in one fell swoop and set them on an empty box in front of the hive. I removed the four-jar top feeder, the new inner cover, and the escape board, and started to pull frames to do a proper hive inspection. There were only a few hundred bees in one corner of the brood box and what little foundation they had begun to work on had only been drawn out a hair’s breadth (which means they weren’t building cells to store brood, pollen, or honey). There was no sign of the queen. Damn. That meant that the queen, along with somewhere around 9,000 workers were still in the top box, on the burr comb. I couldn’t work up the courage to attack the burr comb while the queen was in there with that many of her crew. I’m new, but it seems like that’s a great way to incite a bee riot. I stood in a swirling cloud of bees while Matt took pictures and I pondered my options aloud. From where I was standing it looked like my only option was to let them fill the whole box. I would have to put it on top of the brood box and wait for them to run out of room on top and move down into the frames. But that brought me right back to the feeder dilemma: the burr comb stalactite was hanging off of the inner cover that had the escape in it. I started casting about for some way to put the top feeder up on little shims so that the bees could get out from underneath it, when Matt came up with Plan C. He ran back into the house and brought me another deep box (I use deep boxes for brood and shallows for honey supers). His stroke of brilliance was to have me remove just enough frames from this box to make room for the stalactite and then set this box on top of the existing one. This means that they will run out of room for burr comb and move to the frames much quicker. In some future inspection, when I can determine that the queen is not on the burr comb anymore I can switch frames around and use a combination of excluder and escape to get everyone off the damn stalactite so I can finally be rid of the thing. Removing five frames gave me just enough room. That done, I threw on the cover, popped out the entrance reducer, poured the water out of the entrance feeder, refilled it with sugar syrup from of the jars I had brought to replace the empty ones in the top feeder, and installed it as, well, an entrance feeder.

So I’ve made a dumb beginner mistake, but at least I still have my bees. (And for those of you who are counting, I haven’t yet been stung.)

– Amanda

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