A Bailey comb change is a manipulation in beekeeping to displace old or diseased comb and replace it with fresh wax that has been drawn from foundation or starter strips. It was proposed and publicised by Lesley Bailey, the Rothamsted expert on bee diseases. This technique is also infrequently referred to as "the Bailey frame change". My version is a little more fastidious than Bailey's original, but my reasoning is that many hives carry high levels of virus these days, due to varroa and that the extra work is worth undertaking. We can't see the viruses, but anything that we remove from the hive and clean, will lose whatever virus load it had.
Part of what we intend by this manipulation is an improvement in cleanliness of frames, comb and the hive in general, so any hive part that can be removed and replaced with a freshly scrubbed one, that has had a lick over with the flame from a gas torch, will be of benefit. So, regardless of the instructions listed below, if you can swap any item at any time during the period that the process is running for a freshly sterilised one, take the opportunity to do so. This is not wasted effort, as this Bailey method is not inherently as 'clean' as shook swarming and so anything we can do to reduce virus load will be to our advantage.
Many sets of instructions start by saying "change the hive floor for a fresh one", I will go further and say change it at the start of the process and again at the end, when the old brood chamber is removed.
I have not mentioned specific timing, local variations in conditions and knowledge of them will vary the times. Basically, we are going to do this in early spring, as the brood nest is about to be expanded and we are likely to be taking five or six weeks for the comb change process.
- Remove any unoccupied frames and melt them down. Centralise what frames are left and fill the outside spaces with dummy frames. Place a fresh brood box on top of the original and put in one central frame that has a diagonally cut triangular sheet of foundation, Make up this box with frames fitted with starter strips, until there are as many frames as occupied ones in the box below, then fill out the spaces with division boards or frame feeders containing syrup. Take this opportunity to use a fresh crownboard, and add a contact feeder if you have not used frame feeders in the second box.
- One or two weeks later, check that comb is being drawn and introduce a queen excluder between the two boxes, ensure that the queen is in the upper portion, add one or two frames with starters strips to the outer edges of the nest, if the bees are advanced enough to be working on all upper box frames. If comb drawing has not progressed as far as that, ensure adequate feed is still available.
- Three weeks after this point we will remove the old box and old frames, but in that interval we need to check whether extra frames with starter strips are needed and perhaps top up with syrup feed.
- The last part of the comb change is the removal of the old box and frames, but this is not the end of the process. When I have done this in the past (and shook swarming), I have moved the whole hive to one side and placed a fresh stand, floor and brood chamber on the old site, then transferred the upper box frames, one by one, in the sequence that they were in. Finally filling out with frames that had starter strips, frame feeders or dummies according to conditions. If this upper box was full of frames that were mostly drawn, I would put a super on. the old frames would have any remaining bees shaken onto a hiving board temporarily attached to the entrance.
- In the few weeks after this point, the bees will build up rapidly, so rapidly that you need to be 'on your toes', as any congestion could trigger a swarm several weeks later.
The triangular foundation in the central frame, acts as a ladder so that the bees are led upwards and can climb up to the top bar of the frame where they may cluster more easily for comb drawing.
The use of only half a sheet is not done for 'penny pinching', nor is the use of starter strips an economy measure, this lack of supplied wax, enables the colony to draw wax and make use of it and to do so with little influence from the cell size imprinted on the foundation.
I find frame feeders useful, as I have an aversion to large cool spaces at the top of a hive, my crown boards and roofs are all in one solid, insulated and non-ventilated, which helps to maintain warmth at the top of the hive, I also have a large number of frame feeders available.
The hiving board is used so that the combs are not shaken directly over the fresh, clean brood box.
Any broken bottom bars or top bars with broken lugs are cleaned along with the other frame parts and salvaged later for construction of frames to fit nucleus hives.
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Page updated 29/12/2022