Rainy Days and Hugelkultur Beds

Last year we prayed for continuous sunshine and warmth as we were racing to make our house livable and to complete preparations for winter. It was a droughty year … demanding for all the locals. This year we prayed for rains to saturate our newly built raised beds … and so we’ve been having a streak of rainy days. Its wonderful mild rain gently covering the landscape and watering all new newly planted plants. It has been going on for I think at least 3 weeks and more is expected throughout this week and the next with only occassional appearances by the sun (no doubt this would have been a challenging period for living off the electrical grid).

Last year everyone complained about lack of water. This year many people are showing signs of worry due to too much water. Some peasants have already lost some crops (some of which have already been replanted) to flooded areas.

We are now realizing another wonderful feature of raised beds. Our plants are all planted on raised beds and are in absolutely no danger of flooding (unless it comes in the form of a hollywood-end-of-the-world kind of disaster) since excess water that is not absorbed into the bed itself will run off. It will have another opportunity to get absorbed in the earth in the mulched space between the raised beds … and if there is still any runoff it will most likely find its way to the small lake we dug.

We have not yet harvested a single crop from our raised beds yet I cannot imagine raising plants in any other way (except of course where the terrain calles for Sepp Holzer style terraces). Planting in a field seems out of the question.

Building Raised Beds

A year ago we were still in the theoretical phase of working land. We already met Bhudeva though we were not yet the owners and we were bewildered by the vastness of permaculture and could not imagine how to begin reviving 9 hectares of land. Then we found Sepp Holzer’s raised beds and something told me we’d found a good beginning.

Raised beds is a common gardening term and usually refers to small and manageable areas of garden that are slightly elevated from ground level and neatly arranged to accommodate plants. This IS NOT what we are talking about. When we say raised beds we are referring to Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur … very large raised beds that:

  1. Are made up of fallen wood or other residue organic matter that has substantial mass.
  2. Provide a fertile growing area for many years without the need to bring in extra fertilization.
  3. Soak up a lot of water and as a result can survive droughty months without any need for irrigation.
  4. Make harvesting easier by reducing the need to bend down to ground level.
  5. Drastically increase the surface growing area where available land may be limited.

Paul Wheaton posted an excellent article on such raised beds so I don’t need to. I urge you to read his article to gain a basic understanding of what hugelkultur raised beds are and then, if you’re still interested, continue reading about our efforts to create them.

Raised Garden Bed - from Permies.com

Location

If you have a small garden this is probably a lesser-issue. However, we have 9 hectares of land and this was quite an issue. We have an evolving vision of the entire property but there are still many things that can and are being shuffeled around in that vision. Here is what we knew:

  • We wanted to build a few raised beds … how many would depend on how much wood we would have (which was still an unknown when we decided to get started).
  • We wanted the raised beds to be our primary gardening area for annuals.
  • Therefore we wanted the raised beds close to our future (and current) house.
  • But we didn’t want them taking up space that would be set aside for one of our forest gardens which we also want close to our future house.

So we decided to start building the beds just south of the intended location of our future house. The house is intended to be mostly underground so a forest garden cannot be placed to the south where it would block out the sun. The only inhibiting factor for this location was timing.Β  Eventually the area of the house and its surroundings will become a construction site (though a relatively delicate one) and we do not want the raised beds to be in the way or to get trampled. Fortunately there is enough space for both πŸ™‚

Materials

The raised beds started with a symbolic gesture. I simply placed a small pile of medium sized pieces of wood that were lying around from an old and ailing tree we pruned heavily (it seems to be reviving wonderfully). Most of the materials then came from a maor thinning we did of a dense and overgrown prune orchard behind the existing house (the one we currently live in).

We currently know of only two kinds of trees that are not suitable for raised beds. Hardwoods such as Acacia (which is a strong native here) contain chemicals which deter the microbiological fungi that are responsible for rotting wood (which make them extremely durable and rot resistant). Then there are walnut trees (also abundantly available here) beneath which nothing ever grows due to another chemical that is present in the tree (though we don’t know if its just in the leaves or in the bark itself) … so we don’t want that in the raised beds either. So our raised beds are mostly of prune trees with a few more mixed in.

Building

Building the raised beds was a lot of work for one person. I am confident that a few people working together could have done it much faster … however it is possible to do on your own. Converting a branched tree into pieces that can be piled together can be quite a meditation. I eventually found a work-process that I could follow fairly regularly (dragging trees from where they were lying around, spreading them near the raised beds, chainsaw cutting and then piling).

How you go about it ultimately depends on what kind of wood you have available to you. I had lots of relatively thin pieces (even the tree trunk) and only occassional massive pieces. In some cases I used the heavy trunk pieces to quickly create a base … very rewarding as it feels like rapid progress πŸ™‚ However I ultimately found that is it better to use the thinner pieces to create the base and then to lay on top of them the heavier pieces to weigh them down. Some of threes were tall, straight and fairly thin (most branches pointed up and alongside the trunk) and I just placed them as is on the ground … a pile of such trees formed a formidable base with relatively little work.

The good thing is that it isn’t rocket science and eventually it is all buried by dirt. My main objective was to make sure I got fairly large beds (at least 1 meter high just the wood)Β  and as much wood mass as I could into the beds. Because I was using fairly thin branches, whenever I could I tried to insert pieces into spaces that formed inside the bed. There was still much space for dirt to settle inside.

Another good things is that we now have 3 different “densities” of raised beds to observe and experiment with over the years. We have one very dense bed, two mixed bed and two low-density (and smaller) beds.

Spacing

We built 5 raised beds. They are located on a slight-slope that faces south. The land also slopes slightly from east-west. The raised beds are oriented roughly west-to-east and they are interlaced so that water can flow between them:

Again this isn’t rocket science and only time will tell if our choices will work well for us. We tried to leave enough space between the beds so that after burial, which widens the beds, there would still be enough space to walk comfortably between them with a wheel-barrow for carrying stuff in and out (tools, harvest, etc.).

The blue space you see in the diagram is where we got the dirt. We dug a small lake … however that is a topic on to itself … and it is too early of an experiment so I am nowhere near confident enouh to write about it. .. stay tuned though πŸ™‚

Burial

To bury the raised beds we hired Florin our wonderful tractor guy for a day (we had him to lots of other things that needed doing that day).We decided to dig a test lake and to use the dug up earth to bury the beds. The lake is placed in the lowest corner of this part of the land … so hopefully it will collect water without us having to penetrate the aquipher for water (as seems to be the norm around here).

The beds were spaced in such a way that a tractor good just get through and dump earth onto the beds. This is important to plan for if you intend to use a tractor. It would have been easier to do this one row at a time (or two rows at first) so that there would have been unhindered access for the tractor but just having the tractor arrive at our property is costly so we decided to maximize using it.

It took a lot of earth to bury the raised beds. It would have been an unimaginably difficult task (a few strong people over a few days) to get this done without heavy machinery.

Because of the limited access to the central bed the tractor had to dump a few loads when its not aligned parallel to the bed itself. This resulted in a “wide-dump” causing dirt to fall to far to the sides of the bed creating a wider bed then we had hoped for.

It is better (for the shape of bed that we were aiming for) that the tractor come up parallel to the bed and dump the earth right on top.

Post Burial

We then had the tractor haul over a pile of hay that we would use for mulch.

We also had the tractor haul over a pile of cow-manure that was sitting next to our barn (last years our neighbors housed their cows there for some time ) and had composted there. We didn’t know if the amount would be sufficient for the 5 beds so we preferred to leave it in a pile we could use as we see fit. In retrospect that was a mistake. Spreading it manually will not create more of it. It was hard work to spread the manure over the beds and I definitely regretted not having the tractor dump it directly onto the beds (with supervision to make the best of what is available).

Then came the mulch … and planting the beds … both of which I will get too in separate future posts πŸ™‚

Meanwhile …

While we were building our raised beds our neighbors were all busy doing the same traditional, expensive, labor intensive, fertility destroying activities they (and most Romanian peasants) have been doing for eternity:

People who passed by were curious about what we were doing with the piles of wood on our land … or to be specific … why we weren’t cutting it up into firewood … or to be even more specific … why were we burying precious firewood with dirt. We give a brief and passionate explanation to those who ask and get on with our work. The beautiful thing about these raised beds is that when you hear the reasoning it makes sense even if you’ve had no gardening or farming experience … it makes TONS of sense if you have had any experience … yet it it still mostly met with doubt.

If all goes well, then this time next year we will be free to relax or do new things while our neighbors will all be doing the same work again. Maybe in a few years when we’ve shown that we can get better results with less work and less expenses some of them will come around to inquiring about what is going on.

Beware: Sitting & Digging Dogs

Our dogs love sitting on on raised piles … usually of hay … though raised beds work great for them too. They demonstrated their affections from the start:

At first it was cute … heck it was an achievement that they just sat there instead of trying to bark the tractor into submission … but now we are constantly demanding they get off. It isn’t pleasant to see them walking over or sitting (or digging into) the raised beds now that they are planted … and to the dogs the plants make no difference. So our recommendations: (a) get them off from the very beginning and (b) get used to it πŸ™‚

 

 

 

 

Bees: the end of the beginning

Yesterday we finally took the last step in welcoming our bees to Bhudeva. I was working (making great progress) on the mobile chicken shelter when Andreea noticed that outside the first hive we had already transferred to a top-bar-hive there was heightened activity. We can’t be sure but it looked like the bees may have been preparing to swarm (a natural instinct where a bee family splits into two resulting in many bees leaving with the active queen). We weren’t really prepared for it but we decided to place another (third) hive next to it with waxed top-bars and inviting scents and hope that if the bees do decide to swarm they may choose it as a new home. However it turned out into a much longer work session πŸ™‚

Fortunately for us Levente was available and joined us – both out of curiosity and to help. We put the new hive in place and then opened up the living hive. For the most part things were looking good.

The hive looked thriving, there was lots of activity. The standard “chop and crop” frames were all filled with bees (we took the opportunity to gently, using a hand saw, cut off the ends of their frames so that they would not interfere with the hive’s lid). The bees did an excellent job cleaning up after the somewhat brutal chop-and-crop.

Some of the new top bars were also coming along. This one had quite a comb built up.

It was fantastic to see inside the hives (sorry … no image) chains-of-bees linked together, supposedly using their body lengths as a measuring tool in building new comb. However there were no eggs to be found … which means we may have lost/injured the queen when we made the initial transition. We did find quite a few young queens … which is when things got interesting.

We decided to do a split. So now instead of hoping that the bees move to the new hive (which wasn’t very likely) we moved into it three frames with one of the new queens. We added to it a few empty top-bars and a failed chop-and-crop bar from the original transition, with honey in it, that was left over from the initial transition. So now we had two hives populated and we managed to capture and set aside four additional young queens.

Β 

Then came the third hive – the one that was setup as a transitional hive. As we were warned in the forums the bees showed no signs of moving into the lower top-bar-hive. They were very active in the standard hive sitting on top of the top-bar-hive … but showed no interest in moving down. Our decision was to shake them into the top-bar-hive and remove the standard hive completely. Andreea & Levente took care of this task.

Had we been there on our own we would have a serious mistake that Levente wisely avoided. We would have taken the standard hive down – and that would have probably aggrevated the bees greatly. Instead, Levente opened the hive, inspected the frames one by one and then shook the bees directly into the standard hive – which of course was still sitting on the top-bar-hive … and this time the bees, with no choice left, moved down. They were very frustrated and there were a few stings … however, with the help of much smoke, Andreea & Levente managed to get all the frames out, examined, shook .. and the bees to move into their new home. We also put in the modified follower-boards to prevent bee-leaks.

 

Because there were three of us and the event was less traumatic we realized that we could easily chop-and-crop a few frames of brood and honey. I had a table and tools setup nearbye and indeed we got 4 frames chopped-and-cropped and reinserted into the top-bar-hive. This time, as I was chopping the frames I also cut the remaining top-bar down to size. Most of the bees found their way into the hive though there was a small bundle under the hive (attached to the netting).

Β 

Andreea completed the day by manually squeezing honey from the crops left over from the standard frames. She aso found and left in the honey plenty of pollen.Β 

This all happened yesterday. Today the two primary hives are very active and the third, split hive, less so. We’ll see how it goes.

We are relieved and happy. We are looking forward to the bees settling in their new homes. We still want to phase out the remaining converted top-bars … but other then that it looks like the transition has been completed. We are expecting our acacia trees to bloom in the coming weeks … and that should result in plenty of honey-stores for the bees … maybe even some for us πŸ™‚

This transition had a wonderful and unexpected side-effect. Levente was very much opposed to our decision to abort the standard hives in favor of top-bar-hives. He is already used to us doing things differently and he usually watches us from the sidelines with curiosity. With the bees he was outright against what we were doing. However yesterday he saw that the bees were actually doing very well. He was impressed. We gifted him with the remaining 6 frames and the 4 queens. We then drove over to their place where we sat with Valentin, his brother-in-law, who is a professional beekeeper (standard hives). This time it was Levente telling Valentin about the top-bar-hives and showing off our queens … and Valentin also seemed curios and impressed. So the bees did an excellent job of making a case for top-bar hives … and so it goes πŸ™‚

 

Wednesday - May 9, 2012

yesterday was a car-maintenance-and-some-city-stuff day … all went fairly well (though tomorrow we have to visit the mechanic again to complete some thing tht had to wait for parts (they don’t keep many parts on hand).

today started out completely clouded and gray and uninviting to the outside … so it started with some writing.

then the sun came out and drew me out too … I spent most of the day completing the structure of the mobile chicken shelter … very happy with the results.

yesterday evening the neighbors lent us a brooding hen, at night Andreea candled some of our eggs to choose the good ones … and we have one brooder at work sitting on 17 eggs … then today our neighbors called again and offered another brooder … and she is already in place sitting on 3 eggs to which more will be added tomorrow … we are still hoping at least one of our hens will get the idea and become broody πŸ™‚

two fighter jets flew overhead today … I was used to hearing and seeing them in Israel … definitely not used to them here … as I looked up at them I thought how vulnerable self-sustaining life is in the face of mass-destruction!

Bees Take 2

Following the difficult first hive transition we chose a (supposedly) softer approach with the second bee-hive. We adopted Phil Chandler’s approach of a natural migration from a standard hive into a top-bar-hive. I started with an idea for a kind of apron-adapter which would enable us to mount the existing hive directly onto the designated top-bar-hive (instead of building a dedicated intermediate box for the transition).

When that seemed to work out OK I prepared a few top-bars with passage holes enabling the bees to move between the hives. I organized the bars so that there was one standard (sealed) bar and one passable bar in the hope that in the future we will have to transition less bars into regular sealed top-bars.

With everything ready to go we waited for a day with good conditions for placing the top-bar hive in place of the existing hive and then mounting the existing hive on it. It should have been a simple procedure. It wasn’t.

To place the existing hive onto the top-bar-hive we had to separate it from its bottom. It didn’t take much effort but when I got the first crack open bees poured out and attacked. Within seconds I was stung numerous times. We decided to follow through and within a few more seconds had the standard hive mounted on top of the top-bar-hive. We left it sticking out towards the front a bit so that the bees would be able to continue to enter following the known scent. Only later in the evening I came back and closed it completely. When I did so, the slightest move of the hive caused the bees to stir like crazy. An unnerving sensation.

We then realized there was another slight problem. This top-bar-hive was the one I tried to build out of construction-grade lumber I planed on my own. My work conditions and tools do not enable me to reach a uniformly planed surface so the seal with the follower boards was not good enough and bees were leaking out from there rather then from the hive openings. We left it as is for a few days … until today I came up with a simple solution. I glued (not sure the glue will hold) and stapled some pond liner that is sticking out from the sides and bottom.

I tested the solution in the 3rd hive and it looks like its working fine. We have unsteady weather, but as soon as possible we will place in the modified follower boards in the hope it will encourage the bees to use the existing openings.

It seems that the bees are much less agitated around Andreea then they are with me. The day after the transfer I sat a good distance away from the hives to watch the bees for a few minutes and a bee came after me and stung me in the forehead. Andreea spoke to Ildi and Levente (our neighbors) about this and Ildi said that she has the same problem. The bees are perfectly fine around Levente but very aggressive towards her. I wonder what it could be?

We are committed to natural beekeeping (we don’t consider standard beekeeping an option – but we are going to purchase a smoker just in case) but we are also a bit exhausted and overwhelmed by our first contact with it.

With this post published I am off to visit Biobees forums. We hope to find some comforting and advice on how to move forward from where we are now.

 

After a Storm

The night before last was horrible for me … I felt attacked and as if I had to defend myself … so I didn’t get much sleep. Then yesterday felt horrible (tired and achy). Tonight I didn’t sleep much either but I wasn’t attacked again and so I did manage to get some rest. I’m feeling better today. So,before I do anything else today I wanted to share this panorama image taken a couple of weeks ago. A short lived rain storm has just passed over us and the sun broke through the clouds again. This images is facing east … the dark storm clouds with the sunset-lit greens is one of favorite color palettes (you are welcome to click the image for a larger view).

 

Wednesday - May 2, 2012

another loooooong day … started earlier in the morning to get a head start on the heat … made good progress in shoveling composted manure onto the raised beds.

paused when heat and tiredness kicked in …Β did some website work in-cool-doors … rested …Β  went to the workshop and started cutting up the lumber for the mobile chicken coop … and then joined Andreea (who earlier also attended a[nother] funeral) back at the raised beds … managed to get 3 out of the 5 covered with manure and as I write these words Andreea is finishing (mulching) covering them with hay (not the best mulch material, but its what we have) … so that when the rains arrive moisture will go in but not out πŸ™‚

wood is burning in the boiler (can’t wait to get started on the solar hot water experiment) … soon showers … and another day gone by πŸ™‚

Tuesday - May 1, 2012

strange day … startd with a visit to the market … which totally drained me … I’m not sure I started off with much energy but I am pretty sure not much was left after the market .. which, byt the way, is getting livelier as spring moves into summer … the crowds may have something to do with my energy … no stiu

then we got home and I wanted to rest a bit … BUT … 37 uprooted trees were waiting in their holes in the field waiting to be planted and it was hot and time was not on their (or our) side … so a nice breakfast (duck eggs!) and then out to the field. Using a bulldozer to dig out planting holes was very efficient and easy … however getting all the dirt back in was not. The holes were detinitely an overkill … we didn’t close them up completely … we put in just enough dirt to replant the trees … which now benefit from a small ditch to collect water for them (rains are expected during the weekend). It was hard work but we managed to get it done. Very satisfying to see a long line of planted trees marking our property line πŸ™‚

THEN a quick shower followed by much coveted rest. Then we went to visit Ildi and Levente and meet with Levente’s uncles who are joining Cutia Taranului making another 10 boxes available in Cluj. Finally we made our home … and though we missed the post-death-pre-funeral meal we stopped to say hello and offer our respects … they were happy we came and we found in ourselves (because we simply couldn’t get out of it) in a small post-[post-death-pre-funeral-meal]-meal … that was interrupted by a visit from the vet who, at our request, came over to give our dogs shots against ticks & fleas.

AND … now we are home, making tea and about to let this day come to a soft end πŸ™‚

Monday - April 30, 2012

wow what a day … sooooo many things happened all at once … is was a tractor day … Florin our fantastic tractor bulldozer guy was here for a day πŸ™‚

the main project was covering the raised beds with earth … where did we get the earth you ask?Β  from our small new lake of course πŸ™‚ more words and images to come on this ongoing project … when that was done we had him move over one of our piles of hay and a pile of fertilizer we had sitting next to the barn (from last year when our neighbors cows were housed in it) … both to be used on the raised beds.

in the background both our neigbors were busy hand-plowing / tractor plowing, seeding their fields in straight lines … there was a huge contrast between their tried-and-true traditional methods and our mostly-uknown-somewhat-rebellious methods … if our efforts work (as I expect they will) this time next year we will be drinking coffee (or conducting some other strange experiment) while they will be doing the same hard (for them and for the land) work … as they have been doing for years …I’m very curious πŸ™‚

as he was finishing this part of the work the mayor appeared to ask if he could steal him for half an hour (which turned out to be almost 3 hours) … and got a quick tour of some of our experiments πŸ™‚ we also had a chance to show him Cutia Taranului so that hopefully he too can spread the word.

when Florin finally returned we fed him (poor guy was starving) and got back to work:

  1. scratching weeds and some top-soil (leaving bare surface) of an area of a field near the raised beds … that is for an experiment that Andreea has in mind … I don’t know enough about it yet πŸ™‚
  2. closing some of the open ditches from last years water infrastructure installation
  3. digging a new ditch and hole for our grey water treatment,
  4. uprooting lots (~50) young ash trees all around the house.
  5. discovering and uprooting large surfaces of concrete that we discovered just under the surface of the ground.
  6. carrying the uprooted out to the field
  7. digging 40+ holes for the trees in what will be an initial wind-break and property line.

so lots of stuff … very satisfying, rewarding and much happiness … and though the tractor did most of the work we are dead tired … it’s been a long day … the wood-boiler is fired up … looking forward to a warm shower.

tomorrow we plan to visit the market in the morning … then we’ve been invited to another customary post-death-pre-funeral meal at a neighbor whos mother passed away tonight … and sometime very soon we need to go back out and plant all the uprooted trees lying in open holes in the fields … rains are expected during the weekend … perfectly times to saturate the beds, water the trees … all around greatness πŸ™‚

Bee Week

One of our intended projects for this spring was to get started with bees. One reason is that we consume a lot of honey so it made financial sense to pay once for getting started with bees and then enjoy our own honey for the rest of our lives. Another reason is that bees play a crucial role in gardening and developing a landscape – they fertilize plants by doing what they do naturally … carrying pollen. It’s easy to take them for granted (I did) but without bees there wouldn’t be much food (not naturally anyway).

So this past week+ has been about bees. We had two high-priority projects two choose from: (1) a mobile shelter and mobile electric fence for the chickens and (2) bee hives. We decided to start with the chickens but as I set out to work I changed my (and our) mind to bees. At the time we still did not find a source of bees. This meant I could take my time in building the hives, which I did. Then Levente told us he found bees at a great price and suddenly everything was moving very fast.

Getting Bees

On Tuesday afternoon we went to bring home to bee families. Though there are a lot of beekeepers in Romania there isn’t (at least we couldn’t find) an organized market place for bees. We asked Levente and he asked around until he came across someone that was willing to sell 10 frame colonies. We didn’t want such a large colony … we preferred to get a nucleus colony (a small package of bees wit a queen)Β  – but that didn’t work out. So we went to purchase two colonies together with Levente (who wanted to purchase one colony) and Valentine his brother in law (who is a professional grower who wanted to purchase 7 colonies). Valentine was generous and loaned us two standard hives to make the transition.

It was about a 20 minute drive to get to the beekeeper. It was impressive to see hives that have been working for 60 or 70 years … though he himself admitted that is was time to retire some of the boxes.

When we arrived Valentine was already at work opening hives and checking the colonies. Each hive was opened and smoked to get the bees to retreat inside. He then looked frame by frame to see that there is a healthy queen, good broodΒ  developing and to check for Varroa mite infestation levels (for the first time we saw a mite riding on the back of a bee – though there weren’t many).

All of the hives he examined were OK and one by one he and Levente transferred the bees from their existing hives into new ones .. frame by frame … transferring them in the same order and same orientation. Bees have very keen navigation and always return to the same place looking for their hive opening … so … together with their hive they are moved aside and a new hive is placed where the old one was. The flying bees automatically return to the old location = the new hive. Meanwhile the frames from the old (set aside) hive are moved one by one into the new hive.

Once the hives were prepared all that was left to do was wait for darkness and for the bees to retreat into their new hives. One by one the hives were closed off and tied off in preparation for the journey back home.

We chose in advance the location for our new aviary … a partially shaded, south facing space with some wind protection. We setup up an ad hoc stand for the temporary hives. We arrived after dark and used the car lights to put their hives in their new place.

Top Bar Hives

Originally we thought to begin our beekeeping journey with two standard hives (do it like everyone else does). However we realized that it would be a pretty expensive and complicated endeavour. We first came across Top Bar Hives at Beesource.com. At first it appealed to us because of its simpler do-it-yourself potential but there wasn’t enough information there to get us started. So we did more searching and came across Phil Chandler and his fantastic work at Biobees.com. We highly recommend Phil’s book The Barefoot Beekeeper in addition to his freely available articles on getting started with beekeeping and download-able plans on how to build your own Top Bar Hive.

Top Bar Hives are part of a more natural approach to beekeeping. There are many benefits in Top Bar Hives both for beekeepers and bees. The one example I have been using most to demonstrate the essential difference is through the question of winter-feeding. Standard industrialized (on any scale) beekeeping is designed for maximum honey yield. This means that most of the honey the bees create is taken from them. Then as winter comes there arises a question of how to feed the bees? “Generous” beekeepers will leave them just enough honey frames … others will leave them insufficient honey supplies that are instead complemented by artificial feed (sugar syrups which are cheaper then the equivalent supply of honey). In natural beekeeping this issue is re-solved by re-framing it … some honey is taken in summer but the rest is left for the bees winter-needs and only what is leftover in spring is taken from them. This is to say that Top Bar Hives are not just a different beehive architecture but they come with a very different approach to beekeeping … an approach that is better aligned with our values, more accessible to us and so much more appealing then standard beekeeping.

Hive Construction

So we built 3 top-bar Chandler hives – one for each colony and one more for a potential split (when a singly colony’s swarming instinct is used to create a new hived colony). Building the hives again reminded me of the different realities of our life here in Romania. In Phil’s instructions it is taken as obvious that properly dried and pre-planed lumber is readily available. Though it is available here too the price is very high … so I’ve been using more readily available and affordable rough-sawn (construction grade) pine. Anyways that’s how I set out to build the first hive.

I also wanted to experiment and build a hive with thicker (2 inch / 5 cm) side-walls to see if that would be better for the bees during our cold (-25c) winter. I quickly learned that unlike our furniture the “simple” top-bar hive requires a fairly high level of planing precision. The follower-boards need to form a tight fit against the sides … and the boards I used were not quite flat … so the fit was not very good. There were other subtle aspects that I learned to appreciate and I managed to get the first thick-walled hive built.

However for the other two hive bodies we purchased (for a more reasonable price) a package of soft-wood flooring panels. Oddly they were cheaper then the planed boards and they were a perfect size. They also had a ready made tongue-to-groove joint which made assembly of the larger panels easier. They seemed too good to be true sitting there alongside the more expensive pre-planed boards. They worked our great and made construction very easy to do (they are 27mm thick so that should be sufficient for the bees).

Phil’s hive construction PDF is thorough, precise, easy to follow and a relatively simple design to implement.

Moving Bees into a Top Bar Hive

Yesterday we finally went to move one colony from its temporary hive into a top-bar hive. We weren’t absolutely sure how to go about it. Most of the instructions in Phil’s book spoke of transferring nucleus (small) colonies. Ours were full 10-frame active colonies in peak activity. From the moment I opened the hive we ran into difficulties.

First I should say that we didn’t purchase a smoker because we didn’t want to aggravate the bees. We preferred to use a water spray bottle – supposedly the bees think its raining and go back inside. The bees were very aggressive and defensive of their hive and they did not respond to water spraying at all. While I could understand their anger (we were about to mess up their home) my understanding did not matter when I got stung numerous times (through my clothes and gloves) in just a few seconds. I walked away to let the excitement (both mine and the bees settle). I was very proud of Andreea who stayed close to the bees and projected light and love … and didn’t get stung at all (though to my defense she wasn’t the one who opened the hive nor was she standing as close to it as I was).

So improvised smoke (an old pot filled with burning materials and mostly covered by clay roof shingles) – also Andreea’s idea. We then moved to transfer a first frame. Of the options outlined in the book we attempted a sewing technique where the comb is cut completely from the standard frame and then cropped to fit into the shape of the top-bar hive inner space and then sown on to a new top-bar. That didn’t go too well either. Between the sewing and the wires running throughout the comb (wires are typically used in standard frames) the top of the comb practically got torn off. We left it in the hive but in the end decided to take it out and throw it out … it was too clumsy and would have prevented the bees from moving freely inside the hive.

So we deserted that option and moved to a chop-and-crop technique. In this approach the comb is left attached to the top-part of the standard frame (the rest of the frame is cut away). The comb is then cropped to a size that fits in the inner space of the top-bar hive and inserted as is. We used this approach for the rest of the bars.

It was not a pleasant thing to do.Β  The frames were filled with brood (cells with bees in different stages of maturity) which we had to cut through. We also inadvertently injured quite a few bees (and apologized to every one we noticed). Andreea was heart-broken. I was confident that it would be for the better. We also went through a difficult transition when we moved out to the village and we are now grateful for a better life here. I am confident that the same will happen for the bees.

I got stung a few more times in the process. Andreea got stung once. We are both relieved to know that neither of us are allergic to be stings. Andreea got stung by something that looked like a bee (but probably wasn’t) a few years ago and had a very strong allergic reaction … so we didn’t know what to expect. Now we know πŸ™‚

We also had some difficulty getting the roof onto the hive. The tops of the standard frames were longer then the width of the roof of the hive. TIP: in Phil’s design, change the size of the top width of your hive to match the standard frame size in your part of the world. Some of the standard frame-tops also have nails sticking out of them preventing them from creating a good seal at the top of the hive. We left it as is and will see what to do about it in the future.

Anyways one hive has been transferred. I expect the bees have a lot of cleaning up and rearranging to do. We will leave them along for a week or so and see how they are doing then. We do not want to repeat the process a second time. It was difficult, strenuous and unpleasant for all the living creatures involved. For the 2nd hive we are looking at building some kind of transitional hive as demonstrated Phil’s video … and we’ll most probably be using a smoker!

Was I that Ridiculous?

At one point Loui (our younger dog) got to close to the action and was chased away by one or more bees. It was hilarious to watch. He ran, jumped, barked, twisted and turned as he was trying to get away from the bees. As I was laughing at him I wondered to myself if that was what I looked like when I was in the same predicament πŸ™‚