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Comb Renewal in Feral Nests

How frequently should we renew combs?

Many years ago, for four years, I observed a feral colony in the bell tower of a church.

When I first saw this colony I was surprised by the fact that it appeared to be built upwards from the floor. This was an illusion as there was a horizontal rail that was part of the sloping structure of the wall about 350 mm above floor level. I came to the conclusion that the bees had arrived in a swarm and had clustered on the underside of this rail and the nest had expanded downwards and outwards from that point.

Over what I assume was the first season they built fourteen combs. All extra combs were added on the east side (right) of the original starting point. When the colony clustered for the winter they did so in the centre of the nest in a section of combs that varied from having been bred in (on the left of the cluster) to combs that had not had any larvae in them (on RHS). The shape of the cluster was not symmetrical... The left hand side was almost flat and vertical, the front and right hand side was bulbous (I could not see the back, which was attached to the sloping wooden wall), during the winter the centre of the cluster moved 2 combs to the right and upwards to the top edge of the combs. As it moved, its shape altered more to a rugby football shape.

As the weather warmed up and the nest developed the following season it was centred about the point at which it had ended the winter. More combs were added, again all on the east side of the nest. Most of combs that had been bred in the previous year were unoccupied, but in good condition.

The second winter they started their cluster centered on the central comb, but the cluster shape was about twice as wide as it was tall. The cluster appeared symmetrical. As winter progressed this cluster moved upwards and to the right (more easterly) also changing shape to be almost spherical (it appeared larger than the previous year).

The third year the nest again developed centred on where the cluster finished up and one extra comb was built on the right. The two combs on the extreme left became brittle and like paper and seemed to have been abandoned. By the time that they were clustering again there were silken tunnels of wax moth larvae, not in the outermost dry combs but, in the two combs next to this (probably the ones most bred in during the first season). The cluster was in the same place as the previous year, but more bulbous in shape. There was no sideways movement of this cluster, but it migrated to the top of the combs. The wax moths did a little more damage during the winter and the following spring.

The demolition of these damaged and dry combs was done by the bees themselves. The comb was cut into irregular flakes about 2 mm across and flung outwards from the nest to lie on the floor. If I were a romantic I would say that the bees were enjoying this activity (they were vigorous in their flinging). They built two new combs that summer in the positions that had been occupied by the wax moths.

I was unable to make any further observations for about a year (owing to illness) and when I finally went back to have a look the nest had been removed, I made enquiries of the church warden, but never established why, or by whom.

Although I got much pleasure from these observations (it is rare to be able to see a whole colony at once) I don't think I learned much from them. The nest was in a sheltered place and exposed to a good deal of light.

A few questions stick in my mind:-

  1. Why were the first brood combs not re-occupied the following year? In general the bees prefer old combs to new ones.
  2. Was the direction of expansion deliberate or accidental?
  3. Why were the cluster shapes different?
  4. Why did the shapes of the clusters change over the winter?
  5. Why did the bees tear down the damaged comb with such violence?