A couple of weekends ago, I took a class on Urban Beekeeping. Granted, I’m not exactly urban out here, but I’m not exactly in the middle of the country either, so I need to use methods for farming and animal husbandry that will be compatible with neighbors. I’ve wanted to have bees for some time now, though with the small backyard I had at my old house, it just seemed like it would be more trouble than it was worth. Now I have a beehive, and I’m also convinced that it would have been fine at my old house as well.
If you’re anything like me and probably the majority of folks out there, when you think “beehive” you probably either picture the funky stepped-pyramid thing for which the hairdo is named, or the large white boxes that you can find in orchards and fields, and which are what commercial beekepers use. That’s what I pictured, those white boxes with their layers of sheeting inside, and the full bee suits and the smokers and whatnot. Well, that’s the Langstroth method for raising bees. And turns out, it’s somewhat like factory farming for bees.
The traditional, historical method for raising bees is pretty basic. Find a swarm, dump them into a box or some stump or hollow area, raid them for honey in the spring. Easy peasy, but messy and not good for large scale operations or speed. The Langstroth method standardized hives, and made large scale workings and transportation of hives to fields much easier. Langstroth hives are built on a vertical principle, with a box of “brood” combs topped by one or several honey “supers”. The hives are generally pre-laden with beeswax frames for the bees to use. Harvesting honey is fairly rapid, because the entire box is broken apart between the brood and the supers, and the supers are taken away and drained of honey, reloaded, and replaced.
The problem with Langstroth hives is that they don’t really work with the bees’ natural inclinations, and introduce some management methods that may ultimately be counterproductive for the bees. I’m coming to believe that the methodology of raising bees in this country is partly or even largely responsible for the current problem with Colony Collapse Disorder and several of the sub-problems including Varroa mites and funguses. When a Langstroth hive is harvested, the hive is cracked in half and opened to the sky, which stresses the bees enormously; they really don’t like their brood comb exposed! In order to calm the bees enough to work with them, they are smoked. This causes a response in the bees which signals them to gorge on honey in preparation for a long flight out of a forest fire. Again, the gorging stresses them. Langstroth hives are typically painted, and though I have no reason to believe the paint is toxic or bad, it’s not necessary. The frames in the hives are pre-set with beeswax combs. While beekeepers may claim that this reduces the work for the bees because they don’t have to create their own wax and frame, it’s really for the beekeeper’s convenience; if the bees aren’t spending time and energy making wax, they’re spending time and energy making honey. And because the frames are of a set size, bees are unable to change the size of their combs according to need and instinct. Bees have several natural responses to invaders like Varroa mites, and one of their primary defenses is to vary their gestation time so that the mites are immature when the bees hatch, thus leaving the immature mites behind to starve, or so that the mites are ready too early, again dooming them. In a Langstroth hive, they only have one choice for cell size. And the pre-made wax frames may have been created of wax contaminated with funguses, viruses, or insecticides, as the wax is all recycled.
In comes the hive I have fallen for: the Top Bar Hive. Apparently traditional beekeepers may scoff at it and claim it can’t be done, but people are doing it, quite successfully. It’s a method designed for small scale and backyard operations, which is more natural for the bees and less work for the humans. Some of the more hard core folks refer to themselves as “Bee Guardians”. It’s a method which should appeal to organic farmers and “back to basics folks”, as well as locavores and people who just like nifty keen garden toys.
I am hopeful that people will adopt this method of raising bees and increase the availability of pollinators both in variety and distribution. Those who are allergic to bees should not be overly concerned about having one near, though I certainly wouldn’t recommend being the one to manage the hive. Bees are generally fairly gentle and primarily sting when stepped on, trapped in clothing, or caught in hair. Or when they’re swatted at indiscriminately. They’re not like hornets and yellow jackets, which seem to sting just because they are in a bad mood!
In essence, the hive is a giant box. It’s got tapered sides, a little slit for the bees to enter and exit, a little window in the side so you can monitor the activity without opening the hive, and bars across the top. The bars have points on them to signal the bees to attach their combs, and the bees get to make the decisions about where the brood comb goes and how much honey to store (with a little subtle direction from the humans.) That’s it. Open hive, dump in swarm, close hive, leave them alone. No smoking, no poking, no nothing. Harvest can be done one comb at a time throughout the year, or all at once in the spring. (Honey needs to be left over winter for the bees, as that’s what they feed on. In spring, when they have new nectar and pollen, they can be robbed and they will happily store new honey instead of relying on older honey.) Brood combs don’t have to be disturbed. It’s not necessary to open more than a couple of inches of the hive at once, and the bees look at that more as a repair job than an invasion. “Hey Myrtle, get the propolis! We gotta big leak here!”
When I decided I wanted a hive, I was going to simply buy one. They have the top bar hives available at http://www.backyardhive.com. They have both an original design, and a Golden Mean hive which is based on the Golden Ratio and which fits well with how bees design their hives. They also have plans available on their site for free, for those who are DIY inclined and handy with woodworking. I am both DIY inclined and handy, but I am also busy with other things and hoping a swarm will arrive any time now, so I was intending to buy one. That is, until my husband caught wind of the price and declared that he would make me one. A week later, I now have a fully functional, ready to go hive!
Window exposed, and lid off. The window has plexiglas in it. The divider you can see inside the hive is a “false back” that allows you to trick the bees into making less brood comb and farther forward, to give you more honey at the back when you remove it and they discover their house has grown.
(In the event that you’re in the Greater Portland Area or Seattle area and want one, contact me; we might be able to work out a deal. I can even detail the top or sides with woodburning.)
Now all that is missing is the swarm! When one comes available, I’ll post and let you know how it goes.