24 Nov 2011

Screening: 'Honey Bee Blues'

Newly formed group The Urban Bee Guild is holding an event to gather together Melbourne beekeepers.

We are the Urban Bee Guild and our aim is to promote beekeeping in urban Melbourne.

We are not a club as such (we don’t have monthly meetings) we focus on events that will help educate urban beekeepers and the bee-curious about responsible and sustainable beekeeping as well as urban produce and threats like the varroa mite.

“We” are a group of Melbournians passionate about beekeeping, including Mat & Vanessa (from rooftophoney.com.au), Sabine (a biosecurity expert), and Simon (finance guy and amateur beekeeper).

After the screening we will be discussing bees, urban beekeeping, urban farming, to name a few. So if you’re bee-curious, love gardening, keep bees, or are concerned with sustainable food sources come along and enjoy the company of other like-minded folk!

Film: Honey Bee Blues
A documentary about the world’s disappearing honeybees and the efforts of Australian scientist Dr Denis Anderson to save them from annihilation.

Where: The Whitehouse, 11 Princes Street, St Kilda, Melbourne

When: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 6:00pm 


Bee keeping for the energy descent future by David Holmgren

Su learning the art of reading a frame of comb and bees at Melliodora 2007 from urban bee keeper Andy Carter.

One of the reasons I was subliminally primed and ready to accept bees in my life (and garden) was a comment made by David Holmgren as I attended one of his home garden tours.

He was talking about the hives that Su Dennett kept at Melliodora. He said that it was probably the highest energy output for the given input (or something like that - I'm sure he was more eloquent!). But it stuck with me.

In my humble opinion, natural forms of beekeeping best fit David's description because many conventional/commercial approaches to honey production are highly energy intensive from a full life cycle/systems perspective. Whereas home based beekeeping, done appropriately can have significantly greater net returns for less environmental impact.

Now I never imagined me keeping bees myself - just seemed like one of things that other people do. But then it just clicked as a natural part of my attempts at our family learning to become more self sufficient. It's a skill worth investing in. Once I started, I was bitten by the bee bug - so to speak!

David's full article is here.

Bin there, done that.

As a service to the local community, beekeepers will often assist with the removal of bee swarms and colonies which have settled in troublesome places. Better to do that (and perhaps build your apiary) than allow exterminators and 'pest controllers' to wipe them out.

Possum boxes (as homes for bees) are mentioned elsewhere on the blog, compost bins seem to be another favourite place for bees to settle. Bees high in the trees bother no-one - bees in the bin can be more of an issue.

Today we (Andrew, Ben, Tony) removed such a 'compost colony' for an elderly lady. It will be rehomed in Elthan with Ben. Ben is a professional photographer and convenes the local Permie group at Eltham. He met us through Andrew's Natural Beekeeping presentation to that group and was so enthused he wanted to get started right away.

Here are some of Ben's (the good ones) and Tony's (the snaps) pictures. Ben's working on an animated version . . .  

Tony, Andrew, Ben & 'composted' bees
The beginning
Some heavy comb fell off the roof - most was attached to the inside
What was left on the roof
Brood comb being framed and hived

Framing comb - working fast!

Wild and framed comb
Drone brood comb - which was sacrificed
Spidery remains of comb on the lid
More of the inside of the bin
Heroes in action
The end

Tony, Andrew, Ben and hived bees

Swarm capture and hive conversion

click picture for larger version
Comb made by a 2 week old colony (from a swarm issued by my first hive). I captured the swarm in my garden, and contained it in a temporary capture hive with three frames (Andrew's system).

Since the weather turned bad (cold and rain) for 4 days, I could not transfer them to a Langstroth hive for 3-4 days. When I tried, I lifted the roof off the capture box to find the bees had started building 'wild' comb from the roof, rather than using the three, fully foundationed frames! (BTW - a setup I no longer use . . . ) I returned the lid and retreated for plan B.

I then waited until my Kenyan hive was ready for use and transferred them and the comb into that hive, which took some modified top bars to hold in the comb until the bees fastened it. This colony in the capture box was by then 2 weeks old and had four significant combs, one of which did actually use the frame (since they ran out of empty roof space).

During the transfer, I had to bring this frame (pictured) into the house to remove the wires, then cut the comb to fit the Kenyan top bars. You can see its full of shiny honey (not yet capped) and pollen (below the honey).

There is some damage here, as I manhandled the frame in a frenzy of bees. They were actualy VERY tolerant and did not try to sting as I ripped their hive apart. As a bee friendly beekeeper, I'd rather not be doing this type of thing to the bees, but sometimes you just get backed into a corner by circumstances - or perhaps my lack of experience and planning. It's good experience though, for the future.

You can also see the frame side bar and wires used to hold in the foundation and the foundation itself at the bottom right.

I also brought the comb in for the kids to see and taste (with a matchstick) some of the honey. At least now they have made a direct connection between honey in a jar and the ladies that made it.

I once heard about some schoolchildren who, when asked where milk came from, said 'the supermarket'. Sign of the times.

Building a Kenyan Top Bar Hive (TBH)

OR -  How to turn this:

Into this:

Otherwise known as a KTBH or hTBH (horizontal). Top bar hives are low tech, old style configurations of hives. As well as hTBH (such as the Kenyan and Tanzanian) there are also vTBH (vertical) such as the Warre.

The Kenyan was designed to be low tech, low cost and simple to build using available materials. The example pictured above (the one I built) was a luxury version with all new pine timber. Not very Permaculture, I'm afraid . . .

In the UK there are two well know proponents of TBHs - for Kenyans it's Phil Chandler and for Warre, it's David Heaf. They are also taking of elsewhere in the world. Here in Australia a few folks are serious about them and they are gaining popularity on a commercial and amateur basis. For example: Urban Hive | Malfroy's Gold | Healthy Organics.

Why go for TBH? Well there are various approaches to beekeeping using different configurations of hive 'hardware'. Commercial beekeepers tend to use standard hives, such as the Langstroth in Australia, Canada, USA and the National in the UK. These hives are frame based, meaning all of the comb can be removed for inspection and for other 'manipulations'. This has many advantages, including the ability to maximised honey yields. It's often said that a 'good beekeeper' (in Victoria) should get 100kg+ of honey per year from a well managed Langstroth.

Indeed, legislation in various places (including Australia) requires that all hives have comb which is 'on frames and easily removed for inspection' which generally means we are stuck with frames whether we like it or not. Unless the colony is a 'feral' (wild), in which case the government does not get a say in how the bees build their home . . .

TBH then is an alternative, considered perhaps 'less modern/scientific and lower yielding' by some and superior by others. 'Natural beekeepers' tend to favour TBH hives because they do not involve frames, this then allows the bees to build comb in (something more like) the way they do in the wild. This has all sorts of potential advantages which are far too detailed to go into in this post. Let's just say that one might believe that bees know better than humans how they'd like to construct their homes. Having said that, look at the homes we build in the suburbs these days and you might come to the conclusion that humans can't even build homes appropriate to our own needs, but I digress . . .

So, pure TBHs may not be legal if they do not have frames. In this case we must then add frames of some sort to our TBH designs in order to comply. This does compromise the TBH principle, but that's something we must accept as law abiding citizens.

Having decided on building a TBH, I had to choose Warre or Kenyan.

I wanted to work with as pure a TBH form as I could. The Kenyan TBH has sloping sides, which encourages the bees to make natural shaped combs which they then (purportedly) do not attach to the hive walls. In this case, you still have removable comb. I've since heard that the comb is often braced to the walls at the top end to provide strength and stability. Anyway, I thought I'd try to build one and see how it goes.

On the other hand, in an unmodified Warre, the bees build comb out to the walls which cannot be removed without cutting. Tim Malfroy has been making Warres with side bars and full frames for a while, as shown here.

One day I'll do a framed Warre too, it's just a bit more complicated/time consuming to build those internal parts accurately using basic home tools. Plans are available free on the internet for unframed and framed versions of Warres, but please note that Tim has modified the dimensions of his own design.

I'm not going to describe how to build a Kenyan - just provide a few pictures. Here are the plans, freely available:

First make the 'followers' to use as construction templates
Use them to position and prop up the sides and end plates during assembly

The main body assembled
Bottom mesh installed and my modified guide bar
The underside showing mesh and clips for 'winter board'
'Winter board' in place

Frame for the roof - design in your own style

And finally - cutting the 30 top bars (using 100% solar and GreenPower . . .)

Bees and possum boxes

I suspect bees get more out of the placement of these boxes than possums ever do! I think I've seen at least six bee colonies in them in as many weeks. One problem is that they are sometimes hard to reach when you want to remove them. Another is that they have such a small volumes that the bees have to swarm regularly in spring/summer.

Here's an example from Balwyn. This looks like a swarm (a ball of migrating bees) but it's really a colony (established with its comb).

They were very placid (as is so often the case) and I approached within inches to take the shot - so close they were out of focus . . . Underneath the layers of bees seem in the pictures, they'd formed comb outside of the hole after filling the box.

This box was since removed and the colony rehoused by an experienced beekeeper. Call the council or contact a local beekeepers/apiarists club if you have bee colonies or swarms on your property and want them removed. This can usually be done without killing them in many circumstances.

23 Nov 2011

Beekeeping and learning

Today I was at work till late so I did not get to see my bees although I said a quick hello to the seedlings I planted yesterday. But I have spent a bit of time on one of my favourite sites, the Biobees Forum. This Natural Beekeeping Network is to encourage "low-cost, low-impact, sustainable beekeeping for everyone."

Some of the topics in the forum are:
Beginners start here, Natural beekeeping discussions & questions, Your reports and updates (Post your reports here: tell us what is happening in your hives! Post links to pictures and videos if you have them, or just share your thoughts), Biodynamic beekeeping, Bright ideas, experiments, projects and research and Bee health: the treatment (or not) of diseases and parasites. Lots of learning here.

All different types of hives are discussed here and the photos are really superb helping me to know what to look for when I do the first inspection of my hive and giving me confidence. I particularly like the photos of a bee watering station that a member had built. The forum is a site that I will keep coming back to.

Image attribution:
Image: '' by Eric

Cross posted from My Garden Almanac

Buyer beware - not all purchased honey is the real deal . . .

This story from the UK's Mail Online highlights the differences between some of the highly processed honey (often sold on our supermarket shelves) and the real, raw stuff in its original form.

I know I stopped to think when a dietitian said to me "Give your son real honey." and I asked "But isn't all honey the same?". I quickly learned that it is not all the same and that's partly what brought me to keeping my own bees and only buying honey from trusted sources.

I guess we should not be surprised - one does not have to look too hard to see how so much of our food is being increasingly manipulated and 'manufactured'. See http://usc-canada.org/storyoffood/ and http://www.theendoffood.com and http://www.imdb.com/media/rm2623507200/tt1286537, for example.