This year there is more than expected bridge comb, and in some cases truly crazy comb in the top bar hives, and also the foundationless Langstroth frames. This means the bees have used their own sensibilities to build the bones (comb) of their colony and not followed the nice straight wax strip indicators we provided them. Only three of the eight hives I manage this summer have followed directions in comb building. So good for the bees! They are building just the shape and size comb they need right now. But rather difficult for us who would like to inspect the comb and look for a healthy brood pattern, pollen and honey stores, and the all important swarm cells (multiple queen cells produced in anticipation of swarming). Once significant amounts of bridge comb are built, the options are few. Earlier in the season, while the comb is developing you can go in and straighten and cut to promote straight comb, but even then they may still keep building across the bars. By July, with cases of extreme bridge comb, the remaining options are:
1) to go ahead and cut away the connecting comb between bars or frames with a long knife. This certainly frees the comb for inspection but it also creates a mess of honey and ripped open brood in the middle of the box and is really not a very good idea. The brood will likely die, the bees will have much extra work to clean up and repair everything, and the bridge comb may well be reestablished as they do so.
2) to set up some saw horses and boards, set your boxes down then crawl under with a smoker and flashlight and do an inspection from below. It is difficult to see the brood pattern from underneath, but swarm cells are usually apparent hanging off the bottom of the combs. All you need to see is a couple of uncapped brood cells, either from above or below, to know your queen is alive and laying.
3) to weigh your boxes with a luggage scale to determine amount of stores. This gives you a good idea of how well the bees are doing in terms of gathering stores. My Warré boxes ranged from 10 lbs. to 30 lbs in late June, so, given the cool wet weather I chose to feed the lighter hives 1 quart of syrup.
4) to check your pull out bottom board regularly, keep it clean in order to monitor new deposits, and learn to read the signs it carries. The amount and nature of the debris on the board tells one something about the activity inside the hive. Keep a sharp lookout for mites, they are small brown specks, more round in shape than the other debris, and uniform in size and shape. They also have a shine to them unlike the other material on the board. If you suspect mites, take a magnifiying glass and confirm it. A mite looks like this:
Varroa destructor - the varroa mite
5) to become a keen observer of entrance traffic and through this, learn to read the signs of activity.
These options are listed in order of the most invasive to the least. In each situation it is a judgement call as to what approach to use.