Can You Put New Swarms on Old Comb? You’ve caught your first swarm. Where should it go? You don’t have any new equipment to put it on, but you have an overwintered colony that didn’t make it. Can you use the combs from that colony? Always the...
Can You Put New Swarms on Old Comb?
You’ve caught your first swarm. Where should it go? You don’t have any new equipment to put it on, but you have an overwintered colony that didn’t make it. Can you use the combs from that colony? Always the best answer – It Depends!
First, ask yourself, why did that colony die? Was it maybe American Foulbrood? European Foulbrood? If you don’t know you need to find out BEFORE you put more bees in those boxes. Have them tested.
If the colony went queenless overwinter, there will probably be some dead bees and lots or at least some honey. But if there’s no bees, none, and lots and lots of honey, maybe varroa and virus.
Did you count mites last fall? Did you treat when you should have?
Drawn comb is an incredible resource for your bees and for you, but how old is that comb? Do you date frames, is that wax clean enough to use another season?
Listen today as Kim & Jim discuss the ins-and-outs of using that dead colony’s comb with a new swarm!
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Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott
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Jim: Kim, I've got one of those famous 1910 questions that we do occasionally that is still a question today. I'm about to get your opinion on if you're ready for it.
Kim: Let's see, 1910. I wasn't here yet, so it's going to be a new question for me. Go ahead.
Jim: Yes, but you look like you were here then. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.
Kim: And I'm Kim Flottum.
Jim: We're coming to you from Honey Bee Obscura, where today, we'd like to ask ourselves a question that we've been asking for a long time. Kim, if honeybee bees die through the winter, made new swarms the next season, be put on the same harvest. I'm sure that means the same comb, so the question is, if you've got a colony and it dies in the winter, can you put a swarm on those combs the next spring?
Kim: Well, there's the universal answer to every beekeeping question. It depends.
Jim: Yes, I knew that was coming. [chuckles] I knew you that was coming.
Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honeybee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew, explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world and engaging in informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long-timers, and those just starting their journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.
Jim: You sound like a beekeeper. Everybody's got an answer, but the right one. It does depend though. It does depend. You're exactly right.
Kim: Well, the thing is, go back a half a step and let's look at the beekeeper who found it, who had this colony. Went out in the spring, took the top off, dead colony. Has this beekeeper been at this 20 years or has this beekeeper been at it 20 minutes? If the beekeeper really has a pretty good handle on all of the things or almost all of the things that can kill a colony over winter, he or she is going to go looking for those things and probably find them. If you don't, therein lies-- Because you've got a perfectly good colony that you could put a swarm on or you've got a deathtrap that you could put a swarm on. What you've got to know before you put that swarm is which one do you have.
Jim: Yes, you're exactly right. There's a-- If you'll pardon the expression, there's an elephant in our apiary right now because you know what that death trap is and we discussed it a few segments ago in bad smells. American foulbrood.
Kim: Yes, you've got to be able to recognize American foulbrood. I'll take it a next step. Unless you're a 20-year-experienced beekeeper, make sure that you've got or don't have American foulbrood by taking a sample and setting it to the Beltsville Bee Lab and getting an expert opinion because then you know.
Jim: Yes, I completely agree with that. Because when you said you need to identify American foulbrood, this is the worst situation. This is not fresh, active American foulbrood. This is old comb stuff. You have to look at just a few of the identifiers compared to an active case. It's harder to ID. I know it is.
Kim: It is. Unless you've got a lab and you could take scraped off scales off the bottom of those cells, that might be who knows what? Because there's another elephant in the beehive that's almost as big, which is European foulbrood.
Jim: Yes. I have not seen European foulbrood. I don't want to confess too much here because there's all kinds of apiary inspectors listening. I hadn't seen European for years, but I had a case a couple of years ago. It was a couple of years ago and it really was European. I really don't know what to do with it because I don't want to get off the subject on this, because terramycin is not readily available and the things we used to do. Actually, the colony did clear up on its own, it didn't produce anything, but here's the question. Can you use that comb the next year? If that colony had died, can you still reuse that comb with European foulbrood?
Kim: The quick answer is yes. The safe answer is I wouldn't.
Jim: Yes. That's exactly where I am. The colony lived through it, but then you wonder, "Well, should I have kept up with that some way?" Because I really don't know which colony it was now. Things have been mixed and matched and moved around in pollination and back. I don't remember really where it was now. I don't know if that makes me a sloppy beekeeper or if that's just how things are.
Kim: Well, the thing about European is, as you said, you can get antibiotics if you know a vet and can get one to come to your yard and identify it. There are becoming more and more vets who are available for that service, but you probably don't have the time to wait for one. That swarm is hanging on that stick right next to you, and you've got to put it someplace. What do you do? Like I said, my first choice is not.
Jim: Yes. Well, I was thinking what would leave this if we had to? I think I agree with you. If you know it was European foulbrood, I'm probably not going to use it. Are you going to tear that comb down? Yes, I'll set it to one side. If the wax moths don't get it, I may tear that comb down. What if you've got a swarm during that time, which was the 1910 question? Well, it depends. That's where you started, Kim. It depends on how much other equipment I have, what else I have to do that day, how big that swarm is. If it looks like it's going to be leaving immediately, there may be some conditions under which I'd take a shot at that colony. In a perfect world, I'd probably try to find another box. Yes, it depends.
Kim: Well, there's another depends here that has to do with a colony that has some dead bees in it and a little bit of honey, but last fall, it had two full boxes of bees and a full box of honey on top of that. Do two full boxes of bees eat that full box of honey or did something happen that that dead colony or dying colony got robbed?
Jim: Well, the universal excuse, the universal blame agent for that kind of colony is something happened to the queen. The last time you saw that colony, it was thriving and healthy. The queen had some cardiovascular event or whatever and she died and they couldn't replace that animal, that queen. That colony lingered for a while, became weak. Isn't it really interesting how the colonies in the apiary know when another colony has an issue? They'll come rob that thing out? Do you think they're going to be bringing over a covered dish and sympathy cards? No, they're coming to steal what resources are left there.
Yes, it depends, but you can probably find colonies that floundered, went into winter good, came out terrible.
Sponsor: Betterbee is pleased to sponsor today's episode of Honey Bee Obscura Podcast. For over 40 years, Betterbee has supplied beekeepers across the country with the tools, equipment and knowledge needed to succeed. Because many Betterbee employees are beekeepers themselves, they understand your needs and challenges and are better prepared to answer your beekeeping questions. From the colorful catalog of their supportive beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast, Betterbee truly lives up to their tagline of beekeepers serving beekeepers. See for yourself at betterbee.com.
Kim: Then there's a colony you'll find sometimes, not a bee to be found. Not a dead body, not a loose wing, not an errant leg. It's full of honey.
Jim: Yes, I don't like those.
Kim: What happened there?
Jim: I don't like those mysterious situations.
Kim: The one thing since 1910 and today that has changed the whole equation are varroa mites and the viruses that go with them that could lead to this.
Jim: See, we just can't get off this slippery slope, Kim. We skidded around there with this European thing and now we're going to have to skid around here with these varroa bombs that cause these colonies to have these massive collapses. Maybe you were treating for some varroa infestation, didn't work. Colony died out in the winter from varroa virus loads, whatever, you've got to swarm the next spring, you think it died from varroa, you're going to reuse that comb, Kim?
Kim: In a heartbeat.
Jim: I thought so.
Kim: In a heartbeat. you've got to a colony set up with lots of food, you've got drone comb, the richest thing you own is all that drone comb. You put that swarm in there and that queen will have laid her first egg before you get back to the house.
Jim: We know we talked about this and danced around this in other segments, but that comb is so valuable. If you've got a swarm there, you can really help that swarm get through that first winter. If you can somehow subsidize the cost of comb productions, so may not have the cleanest pedigree going, but it didn't have American foulbrood. We're really comfortable saying that, so yes we're going to probably use it again.
Kim: Not only that, the resourceful of 20 combs possibly. How many, five-frame nukes, can you start with 20 combs? You put three drawn in the middle, two undrawn combs on the outside so that comes to three that comes to seven nukes you can start if you've got bees. It's a resource, it's a lost colony, but it's a resource-- let's see. Seven splits you can make with that. Let's see at about 150 bucks apiece.
Jim: I can see where you're going with this, but the irony is we've had another segment-- I think we've done a segment, if we haven't, we should have, on how long do you use this cone? In the old days, you'd use a comb 200 years. I'm kidding. You'd use it indefinitely, but now, because of all the things you put in the beehive and because of its affinity for absorbing everything that comes near it, we now say, bees' lives should be phased out every two to three to four years. It's kind of a game, isn't it, Kim, where you keep some of this valuable resource, you reuse it, but at the same time, you're always phasing out older combs that have been around for a while because of what our concerns are about that. It's always a mixed bag of keeping some comb, getting rid of some comb, building some new comb, but basically having something there to help the colony get started.
Kim: You mean you don't date your combs when you put them in the colony with fruit?
Jim: I date them every time, and then the only reason I date them, Kim, is so that I can feel guilty about how long I've left them in there beyond the date.
Kim: [chuckles] Okay. I'm pretty religious.
Jim: That is what I feel. You think, "Oh, my stars. Is it 2021 already? This comb's been in here since 2015. I've got to do something about that next spring." No, I'm serious. About a third of mine are dated for that reason, just to see, I guess how long they would go. When I was a young beekeeper, just all those years ago, it was just no thought given. That old comb was just forever. That was just like a returnable coke bottle. That's a laugh because nobody returns a coke bottle today, but those combs were considered to be reusable. Now we put an expiration date on them.
Kim: That's a way to look at it. What about a colony that just flat-out starves? What are you looking at when that happens? What do you see?
Jim: Then I see a beekeeper who needs to go to a short course, but if it just starved, then that's going to be a classic symptom Kim, that's an interesting point to bring up. That winter kill look where all the bees died and a tight clustered, desperately died together. All the little butts sticking out of the comb the wrong way, the dead bees in the center of that putrefaction, which was the other bad smell we talked about in other segments. That's an easy one, Kim. Even the robbing, you can tell they weren't robbed because the combs are not torn up and ripped, and there's not a lot of cappings on the bottom board.
Kim: You've got a lot of dead bees on the bottom board, maybe even some outside?
Jim: Yes, you definitely have them on the bottom board inside. You've got them outside. Sometimes the raccoons and animals will eat them out there, but they're in between the combs, in between the frames. Unfortunately, I've seen my share of winter kill and starvations of this kind of winter kill, Kim, because probably should have done something for those colonies going under winter, which wanders into another subject of preparation for winter.
The comb, the bottom line is that comb can be reused, but ah, please do all you can to get as many of those dead bees out because it's a pain for those bees to have to clean that comb up, drag out all those dead comrades they've got, clean all that mess up. Shake them, bounce them, vibrate them, brush them, do whatever you can to clean as many of those carcasses out before you give it back to them for that swarm the next spring.
Kim: Hanging onto either the bottom bar or the top bar, the furthest away from most of the bees, I'll bang it on top of the colony next to me and two or three times that usually knocks most of them out. You're always in a hurry. so that comb's going to go back, if it's dated, right. That comb's going to go back into a new colony as drawn comb, which is an asset. I'll let the bees and the new colony drag out the few that are remaining. A star colony is pretty easy to handle. You don't have anything to worry about in terms of residue. You don't have anything to worry about in terms of what's left behind, it's just free-drawn comb.
Jim: Yes, it really helps jumpstart them. The question was from 1910, that was reposed to-- what's it going to be, 2021, 2022, Kim? I guess 2021 still. Question that's reposed all these years later is, "Can you use comb from a colony that died in the wintertime to hive a swarm in the springtime?" I'm going to quote Kim Flottum on this, "It depends," but most of the time, yes, use it again. You all right with that?
Kim: I'm all right with that. That's good. It's late winter. Those bees are out there. When you get out there, first thing next spring, if that colony is dead, find out why. Can you use it again? Yes, no, maybe. Move on from there.
Jim: Kim, that's perfect. I cannot improve on that. I can't improve. Know what American foulbrood looks like, smells like, and then use it again.
Kim: Okay. Well, it's been good.
Jim: Kim, thank everybody for listening to us.
Kim: Honey Bee Obscura with Jim Tew and Kim Flottum. We'll see you next time.
Jim: All right. Thanks a lot, Kim. Goodbye everybody.
[00:16:40] [END OF AUDIO]