To improve the cluster, destroy the nest
Recently, someone asked if I had read the article in Bee Culture (November 2011, Volume 139, Issue 11, p. 63) about removing the center of the brood nest to make room for the cluster and, if so, did I have an opinion. Truth is, I had missed this little gem or I would have written about it sooner. And do I have an opinion? Hmm, let me think . . .
Because I’m rarely so testy—at least in print—let me cut to the “my opinion” part first. I will be subtle: Short of issuing foragers personal bPads at taxpayer expense, this is the most hare-brained scheme I have ever encountered.
The author of the article seems to think that the entire overwintering problem is the fault of the Langstroth hive and its parallel frames. He believes that bees cannot form a proper cluster because all the frames get in the way. So, in his infinite wisdom, he created a big hollow in the center of his brood nest so the bees could make a true and solid cluster. The diagram shown in Bee Culture looks something like the one below.
In his argument the author ignores that fact that Langstroth hives—and most other hives as well—are modeled after wild hives. He discounts the fact that bees have been making parallel combs that slice through the brood nest since long before mankind crawled out of the ocean with his power tools.
The first question that came to my mind was, “How will the cluster support itself?” Unless it is filled with helium, I don’t see how it can levitate itself into position so it can maintain a “true cluster” in the void.
But the bigger problem is this: the part he cut out is the part where the brood is supposed to be. The bees’ idea was that the brood nest—the nursery, if you will—is supposed to be in the warmest, most protected spot in the entire hive. If you cut the supporting comb away, where will they put the brood? And where will the nurse bees put their little rocking chairs? Brood is not held in its mother’s arms like human babies or carried around in a pouch like a kangaroo. Honey bee brood goes in honey bee combs.
And the timing of this destruction couldn’t be worse. According to The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (41st edition, p. 831), “the least amount of brood rearing in colonies occurs in the fall months of October and November and normal brood rearing starts in December and increases greatly during the cold months of January through March.”
This method excises the brood nest combs just before the bees start the arduous task of winter brood rearing, and right when it is most difficult for the bees to replace the comb he just took out. How can they rebuild the brood nest when it is too cold for them to leave the cluster? And since they don’t secrete much wax this time of year, they have to tear down other comb and rebuild it in the proper place. Removing the brood nest like this is nothing short of cruel.
According to honey bee researcher Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz About Bees (p. 157), “The comb of the bee nest is in a sense a part of the bees themselves. . . . The nest is not only living space, food store, and nursery, but also an integral part of the superorganism: skeleton, sensory organ, nervous system, memory store, and immune system.” Eviscerating the brood nest is akin to stripping bees of their very “beeness.”
The author himself admits problems: “In some hives . . . the bees had built burr comb down from the shorter frames and had begun raising brood in it . . . In others there was a mish-mash of comb in part of the open space.” Well, of course there was.
I can see why someone could have a hard time visualizing a cluster with planes of parallel comb passing through it. And it’s even harder to imagine the clustered bees smoothly rotating their positions when the combs are blocking their way. But just because he can’t visualize it doesn’t mean he should change it. The system has been working for millennia. The bees are okay with it—so should be this author.