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.
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) – 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 brood 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.
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. 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 🙂
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 🙂