Don’t worry, bee happy!

This winter has largely been about bees. As many of you know, we got two hives of bees late last summer. We were intending to get bees because it was something I was interested in, but mostly because we need the pollinators for the orchard and to support open pollinated vegetable varieties. I had a plan in mind for how I wanted to develop bees for the farm, but when an opportunity presented itself it was too good to pass up, even though it went in a different direction than I had planned.

To make a long story short, the bees were doing well up until the big storm we had right before Christmas when a piece of debris knocked the hives over and we lost both colonies. This was a very upsetting experience which is largely why it has taken me this long to write about it. After some soul searching and reflection it was clear that we needed to move forward with the project despite the initial loss. There was good that came out of the experience too. I had a few months to work with bees and get practical experience. With bees in hand it was also possible to take what I had been reading and thinking about different styles of bee management and housing and evaluate first-hand what I was doing vs. what I thought I wanted to do. As a result of the experience I now have the spirit and conviction to go in the direction that I had been planning from the start.

OK, so what the heck does that mean you ask? The next few paragraphs are more of a technical discussion of what I think I know and what I intend to do and why. I find this incredibly interesting, and hopefully some of you will too. I do encourage everyone to bee curious and learn a little bit, especially if you use and enjoy bee related products or are interested in the plight of the honey bee. As with any product, the more you know the better choices you can make.

Honey bee hives: we are all used to the nice, uniform, white rectangular boxes that bees live in. This style of bee hive is a relatively modern invention called the Langstroth Hive, commonly referred to as langs. At the simplest level langs consist of hollow, four sided boxes with no top or bottom. These can be stacked multiple boxes one on top of the other. The boxes are stacked on a base which has a screen bottom and have a covering or two stacked on the top. Each of the boxes holds eight or more usually ten honey comb frames that have a man-made foundation that the bees build their comb on. There are more pieces to the process than this, but in general, this is a good outline. There are some real advantages to this style hive that include industry standard dimensions so that any beekeeper can easily get equipment from any source and know that it is going to work together. The hive is easily expandable to accommodate seasonal colony growth and honey storage needs. Similarly a hive can be collapsed in the fall after honey harvest to help concentrate the bees to maximize winter survival in harsh climates. Langs also maximize honey production and standardize management for the beekeeper, beek for short.

While langs certainly have advantages, there are downsides too. One of the problems in developing countries where small scale agriculture is vitally important and the role of the bees is crucial is availability and expense of Langstroth equipment. While there are certainly older domestic hive options such as the good old hollow log or the traditional skep (the rounded top bee hive of illustrations and advertising) most of these methods involve great damage or even destruction to the colony at harvest time. One alternative that has made great gains recently is the ancient and mainly African model known as the Top-Bar Hive (TBH) (see for further information). The top bar hive is relatively easy and inexpensive to construct, gives the beek a functional range of management options and is more in tune with letting the bees live the way they want to as opposed to the way we want them to.

Our first top bar hive

The equipment that came with the bees we got last year was lang equipment. I was personally not as comfortable with this equipment as I had already decided I thought I preferred the TBH option. To inspect the bees and make sure they are doing what you want them too, you have to dismantle a lang hive by removing the roof and unstacking the boxes one at a time and removing each of the frames. This leaves the bees stressed and feeling exposed and the beek to deal very directly with the bees. This was a bit intimidating as a beginner. One of the features of the TBH is that instead of frames for the bees to build comb on, you supply wooden bars across the top of the hive and the bees attach their own naturally made wax comb to the bars. The bars are cut to a width that they touch all the way across and the hive has a natural closure that you don’t have with lang equipment. The beek removes one or two bars at a time during inspections or when doing other work with the hive and the bees are left largely unmolested in their homes where they are much happier and less stressed which is beneficial to both the bee and the beek.  

On the downside, TBH hives produce less honey. This is not a big drawback for us as our primary interest is in developing pollinators. Many would say that TBH is also much more difficult in that the beek largely has to build their own equipment as opposed to just popping down to the local bee store and buying equipment off the shelf or ordering it on-line. Personally I enjoy woodworking projects, so this has been a plus for me. Most bee keeping classes, especially in the US, are geared toward lang equipment too. This puts the TBH beek in a position to either find another TBH beek to learn from, or having to do a lot of independent reading and research. Again, I enjoy reading and researching. I have always been much more of a “learn from the theory up: person than a “memorize and add experience as I go along”.

The final vote for the TBH comes from the overall design. While langs are stacked and will always have a certain vulnerability to the type of misfortune that ours encountered, a TBH is a fairly closed, one piece unit that is much more likely to resist the high wind storms that we are prone to on our farm and theoretically should resist animal intrusion better as well.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I have two TBHs under construction in the basement. One is just about finished and could house bees tomorrow if needs be, while the other is a few steps behind. They will both easily be ready by the time we get new bees in April. I should have pictures posted soon, possibly even this weekend. There is a whole group of posts about their design and construction and it has been a very rewarding process so far. I haven’t even gotten into natural vs. conventional management yet either, so stay tuned, there is plenty more to come:-)

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