17 Dec 2012

Media Watch - 17/12/12

Antibiotics weakening bees defences? Who'da thought?

"A new study finds prolonged antibiotic use by beekeepers might play a role in
the mysterious drop in honey bee populations in the United States."


And from up north,

Buzz about native bees' potential for honey and crops

"The little Kimberley bee, long overlooked as a crop pollinator in favour of the
dominating European honeybee, could be about to get its day in the sun.

There are few bushtucker foods as nice as sugarbag, the name given to honey
produced by native bees in hollow logs."


Shame we can't get them down here in "sunny" Melbourne, although I do see a lot
of other native bees buzzing around.


29 Nov 2012

Harvesting today

Well, this is my first post for quite some time and also my first harvest for the season.

I am currently participating in Andrew's Hive Weighing Research Group - or HWRG for short.  Every week, in addition to observing my hives, I diligently weigh them with this nifty weighing mechanism that Andrew has created.

Andrew is keeping track of the weight and any other observations and advising us of the best course of action to take in relation to our individual hives.  It is quite amazing how some weeks they will put on kgs, and in others there is no noticeable weight gain at all.

In mid-late September, my girls had put on weight, and harvesting was looking like it was an option.  However, on inspection, there was brood in the top box - so I let them be.

Since then, the boxes have stayed at a pretty constant weight.  The average of last week's readings for the first hive was 23.75 kg and the second hive was 17.89 kg.

On weighing the hives today, I discovered that the average weight of the first hive was 26.97 kg and the second hive was 20.3 kg.

In real terms, due to the way the high weighing tool works, this means that the hives had both put on in excess of 5 kg for the week.  This is quite a large weight gain and indicates that the girls are experiencing excellent foraging conditions.

With no brood in the top boxes, I whisked them off and placed them onto contraptions like Tony's in his harvesting post.  You can see the top of mine in the photo below.

I (or rather my husband under my direction) made my honey / bee separators by cutting a couple of ideal boxes in half.  Our cones on the top are made out of shade cloth - which, although does the job, the bees do not seem to like.  This is apparent as some of those coming out, immediately decide to sting the shade cloth - the result of which you can see around the base of the cone - some dead bees - next time I do this I will change the material used to create the exit cones - will try fly screen next time.

The hives, after my disruption, have a number of bees hanging around and bearding outside the hives cooling down.  It is quite hot in Melbourne today - 38.1 degrees celcius - which has been a bit of a sudden shock for us all - so you can't really blame them.

I will try to follow this post up with a photo of the boxes of honey and the final weight of the honey harvested today.

17 Aug 2012

Stress and Honey Bees

I recently found an interesting article on stress in bee hives which, although written for the USDA, echos some of the ideals and philosophies of the group.


A few relevant quotations:-

"As beekeepers, we assume that the white boxes we provide as hives are somehow adequate if not better than natural cavities. We find it difficult to understand why, given our breeding and management strategies, our bees are often unable to withstand the onslaughts of weather, diseases, mites and perhaps even the incursion of Africanized bees. The fact is that from the very moment we place bees in artificial wooden hives, we impose upon them a large measure of stress."

"Honey bees require a balanced diet. Since few, if any, single species of pollen are nutritionally complete bee diets, plant species diversity is essential for development of healthy, vigorous colonies. Frequently, this diversity is lost in areas suffering from drought and where monoculture is practiced on weed-free farms. Plant stress may also lower the nutritional value of the floral reward, either nectar of pollen. As a result of any of these conditions, colonies may dwindle. The best adapted and otherwise unstressed colonies will survive longest on the resources of environmentally-stressed plants."

Highly recommended, well worth the read.


22 Jun 2012

 Michael's Fallacy #2:  Feral bees are bad

"... feral bees are unproductive, swarmy and of bad disposition.   
I've heard this often repeated - this or other disreputable things.  Feral bees probably were at one time but lately have not been, bred for disposition.  I've removed and caught many.  Same are mean.  Some are quite nice.  Some are nervous but not mean.  Some are calm.  These traits I have found easy to find in feral bees and easy to breed for.  Just keep the good ones and re-queen the bad ones.  From my experience they are often more productive because they are more attuned to your climate and build up at the appropriate time to make a good crop.  As far as "swarmy" I think all bees are swarmy.  This is how they reproduce.  I have not had any problems controlling swarming in any kind of bees."
 If you look at feral (wild) bees with a permaculture attitude in mind, you will see colonies that survived on their own, no beekeeper to assist.  These surely are the strongest and most resilient ones - the ones best suited for your location, your flora and your climate.  These are the ones that the laws of nature found most suitable for the place.  They are unlikely to be a sickly ones - out in the big outdoors sickly creatures perish.  These would be the toughest and most resilient ones.  Swarms from such feral colonies should be considered a valuable resource.  They may turn out to be mean and nasty, but this is just the luck of the draw.  Still, they seem worth giving them a go - you never know, you collect a feral swarm and it may turn out to be a  "Black Caviar of bees".  Worth trying, IMO.

9 Jun 2012

Napoleon and bees (ammended)

If you go to the Napoleon exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, you will quickly notice that there is a bee motif appearing all over the place.  If you wonder why, see below for my take on it.  If you find any inaccuracies, please advise, I am not an expert on Napoleon or 18th century naturalists.

The personal emblem of emperor Napoleon has only four elements, all clearly important:

- a large letter N, no explanation required,
- a crown above it, ditto,
- laurel leaves below - well, he won a few battles, didn't he?
- a bee - how come?

Napoleon's coronation robe is covered in golden bees and even the spectacular vase, shown on each poster, is full of bees.Why all these bees?

Early naturalists noticed that among thousands of bees there is one to which all other bees show great respect and reverence.  Clearly, it has to be the King Bee, the beloved monarch of them all.  Many 17th and 18th century beekeeping books refer to a 'king bee' as being the most important component of a bee colony.  No wonder many royals took a bee as a symbol of themselves. 

A bee was considered a symbol of immortality and resurrection.  Napoleon selected the bee to link the new dynasty to the very origins of France. Golden bees (in fact, cicadas) were discovered in 1653 in Tournai in the tomb of Childeric I, founder in 457 of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis. They were considered as the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France.  If you read carefully "The Da Vinci code", there is a reference to early French monarchic dynasty - Merovingians. 

From “Bloodline of the Holy Grail” by Laurence Gardner:
The Merovingian kings were noted sorcerers in the manner of the Samaritan Magi, and they firmly believed in the hidden powers of the honeycomb. Because a honeycomb is naturally made up of hexagonal prisms, it was considered by philosophers to be the manifestation of divine harmony in nature. Its construction was associated with insight and wisdom – as detailed in Proverbs 24:13-14: “My son, eat thou honey, because it is good… So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul…”

To the Merovingians, the bee was a most hallowed creature. A sacred emblem of Egytian royalty, it became a symbol of Wisdom. Some 300 small golden bees were founded stitched to the cloak of Childeric I (son of Meroveus) when his grave was unearthed in 1653. Napoleon had these attached to his own coronation robe in 1804. He claimed this right by virtue of his descent from James de Rohan-Stuardo, the natural son (legitimized in 1667) of Charles II Stuart of Britain by Marguerite, Duchesse de Rohan. The Stuarts in turn were entitled to this distinction because they, and their related Counts of Brittany, were descended from Clodion’s brother Fredemundus – thus (akin to the Merovingians) they were equally in descent from the Fisher Kings through Faramund. The Merovingian bee was adopted by the exiled Stuarts in Europe, and engraved bees are still to be seen on some Jacobite glassware.”

Early naturalists noticed that in the orderly society of a bee colony there is one, bigger than other and treated by all the bees with great respect and reverence - a King Bee. Napoleon took a bee as his personal symbol. I wonder whether he knew that it is actually a Queen Bee.

Go to this very interesting exhibition and look for bees.  You will have good reasons to laugh and something interesting to tell your friends and family.

Warre roof - making a top bar cloth

The Warre hive has a multi-functional roof in three parts:
  1. The roof itself;
  2. The quilt;
  3. The top bar cloth.
You might like to build a Warre style roof for your Langstroth? It provides what is arguably a better (closer to natural) environment for the bees inside the hive. The roofs we use here in Australia have fixed vents which provide a constant flow of air through the hive - something that does not occur in the bee's natural home - a hollow in a tree trunk.

This post describes how to easily make the top bar cloth in acordance with Warre's original plans (BfA p. 53). The whole thing takes about 15-20 minutes of work. David Heaf also has a post on this topic.

Note that there are alternatives to using hessian, such as organic cotton or even flyscreen. Here I'm trying to stay true to the Warre style. It's primarily about applying a flour paste to the hessian - if you do not apply flour paste, the bees are likely to chew through the cloth and cause problems when you remove the quilt at a later stage.

1. Roughly cut a piece of hessian to be a few cm larger than the outside dimension of your hive's box. Do not cut to fit the box at this stage - as the hessian dries, it make shrink and not fit, so best to make it oversized this stage.

2. Gather your tools. Perhaps use organic flour.

3. Mix a little flour with (perhaps three cups of) cold water and heat gently until it forms a paste. Warre's book states a certain amount of flour per litre, using rye flour if possible and adding some starch. No matter, so long as you have a thick but paintable paste. David's post includes some measures.

4. Place the cloth on a newspaper. Using a clean (new, cheapie) paint brush, apply the paste evenly over the cloth. Work it into the cloth. Don't apply too thick. You are aiming to soak the fibres without clogging all of the holes with the paste. The bees will decide whether they want to block those holes with propolis.

5. Once complete, the cloth will be wet and wrinkled. Leave it flat for a few hours to dry out.

6. It will then by dry and wrinkled. Run a hot iron over it to flatten it out. If you don't, it won't sit neatly across the top bars (or frames) and form a simple seal.

7. Place a hive box on top of the cloth and mark out around the outside. Cut the cloth to fit. It should be a neat fit and seal completely over the wood, to the edges, without (ideally) going beyond the edges.

8. The finished item.

Pic credit: David Thorn

9. When the cloth has been in place on the hive for a few weeks, the bees will propolise it to the box edges and to the top bars, forming a bee-tight (and air tight) seal across the top of the hive. They can remove propolis (should they wish) to allow some air to vent into the quilt.

18 May 2012

Honey harvesting - the Natural way: pt 3

Third job - Separate honey from wax

The NB approach
For small jobs (one frame) you could probably get away with using a large kitchen strainer (to hold the chopped wax) and a food bowl (to catch the dripping honey) for this part. But as soon as you have a box of frames to extract, something larger is called for. Again, we take a simple, low-cost approach. There are a number of YouTube video's detailing this 'two-bucket' approach.

Buy two food grade buckets - around 20 litres in size. They cost around $8-10 each. You can use a smaller (8L) bucket on top, if you limit yourself to extraction of (for example) two Langstroth Ideals (or one full size box) at a time. This would reduce the height of the device and make it easier to store. That's the configuration you see in the pictures below - 8L on top and 20L below.

I thought about using a smaller (8L) bucket just for the honey catching (the bottom one) but realised the sieves (strainers) would take up lots space in that bucket, so I stuck with the 20L for that lower part.  You can source them new from hardware and other stores. You can also source them (used) from restaurants and food outlets. Buy two large medium mesh sieves (strainers - about $3 each at budget stores) which are close to the same diameter as the bucket but still fit inside. Don't worry about the size of the handles. Buy a 'honey gate' (a special tap for dispensing honey) from your local beekeeping supplier (about $15).
  • Cut slots in the rim of the lower (honey) bucket to allow the sieves to sit securely down inside. They need to be deep enough to allow the lid to be seated on top of the bucket.
  • Make sure each of the two sieves have their own slots and when fitted, that they sit a couple of centimetres apart, vertically. You do not want the mesh of the sieves to be touching. This is so the lower sieve can have muslin cloth seated inside and not touch the upper sieve. This second sieve and the muslin cloth are optional, but it gives a fine filtration which removes any remaining wax particles. Either that or buy fine sieves.*
  • Cut a round hole in that bottom lid, one that's slightly smaller than the base of the top bucket (and smaller than the diameter of the sieves).
  • Drill a series of 10mm holes in the base of the top bucket, so that honey will flow through and leave the bulk of the wax behind. Note that the holes should form a circle slightly smaller than the hold you cut in that lid.
  • Drill a hole in the bottom bucket (not too close to the base . . .) and fit the honey gate.
That's only a brief description rather than a 'how to build'. To learn more, please watch this video.

The two bucket system might sound like overkill - but if you are going to use it for a few years, it's worthwhile. Once you have a pile of honey and wax, separating them quickly becomes very important! Once you have the bucket system working, it's so beautifully simple. Costs around $40 (plus an hour to build) compared with a honey extractor at $500. Guess which is easier to clean and store . . .

The 'system' showing the two sieve (strainer) handles
 . . . and the 'honey gate'
Top bucket lifted to show honey dripping into sieves of bottom bucket
Forgot to take a pic when the wax/honey mix was first poured into the top bucket. But here it is the next morning - maybe 12 hours after draining started.
All that's left is some sticky wax.
After about a day and a half, I removed the top bucket and filled our collection of honey containers, new jars and old jars - that was so satisfying!!!
Bucket about 1/4 full (look carefully for the dark line inside). So these buckets would easily hold 2-3 Lang Ideals full of honey or one full sized Lang box.

Liquid gold
Most of our haul (plus some unpictured cut comb and cooking honey)
Arguably, one could leave the buckets dripping for days to get the final drops out - some people do. But honey is hygroscopic (attracts and absorbs water). If it gets above 20% water content it will start to ferment and ruin the honey - so I play it safe and get the honey into sealed containers ASAP.

To quickly and conveniently extract the final remaining useful honey from the wax, I do the following:
  • Put the sticky wax in a heat-proof bowl or container.
  • Place it in the oven set at 70-80 deg C until it all melts.
  • Let it slowly cool in the oven.
  • The wax and honey separate.
  • You crack a hole in the wax and the warm honey pours out.
  • Place this honey in a separate container and use (I suggest) for cooking since the heat treatment damages it somewhat and is less good for eating raw. Please do not feed heated honey to bees - it can kill them. Please read up on HMF if you are interested to learn why.
Wax cooled and hardened - make a hole and the honey flows from underneath. I used a small sieve to filter into a 'cooking honey' jar.
Underneath the wax was a layer of propolis - a surprising amount! Has a nutty sort of smell.
Propolis scraped off the wax.
Wax now ready for final rendering (purification) process.
 * You do not have to use two sieves. What you do here mostly depends on how you want to filter your honey. If you don't mind some tiny wax particles in your honey, buy one sieve with a medium mesh. If you want smaller wax particles, buy one sieve with a fine mesh. If you want reasonably fine filtered honey, use muslin cloth as a final filter. Using muslin probably means using two sieves since you want to stop the larger wax chunks blocking the cloth. Experiment and decide for yourself!

Back to part 2.


Honey harvesting - the Natural way: pt 2

Second job - get the honey out of the combs

Once the bees and the honey are separated, it's time to extract the honey from the comb. I decided to do this at night, inside the house - less bees around to get interested. Honey harvesting a great job to share with friends. Damien (a fellow beek) came around to help me out.

I decided to take the simple 'crush and strain' - or more accurately in my case 'cut and strain' - method. This is simple, cheap, arguably less effort and supposedly leads to better honey. I wrote here on the conventional way of using a centrifugal extractor and why it's not 'Natural'.

Crush and strain is simple - you:
  • cut the comb out of the frames;
  • place it into a large tray;
  • crush or cut it up;
  • pour the mess of comb and honey into a strainer to separate them;
  • wait a day or so to let the comb drip-dry and allow the honey settle (ripen). The air and tiny wax particles rise to the top;
  • pour the honey into containers.
Before we removed the frames, we cleaned off the excessive propolis.

The Ideal which was full of uncapped nectar/honey - later returned to the bees Lots of propolis where the top bar cloth (Warre roof) had been glued down by the bees.
Scraping the propolis off the top bars
Propolis - it has a nice spicy sort of smell
 We checked the frames for capped honey content. One box was not ready for harvest, as you can see from the pictures.
A frame from the unharvestable box. Some capped honey. the rest is probably close to ready for capping, but is likely to contain more than 20% water and be liable to fermentation.
A frame from the other box, which was chock full of honey. Here showing a tear from a bridging comb.
We cleaned up the frames in the laundry and one by one took the frames into the kitchen for cutting up. Doing it one at a time helped stop things getting too messy. Once honey starts flowing it's all over the hands!

Frame and large tray
Damien cutting the comb from the frame
We stand the frame in a large stainless steel tray and cut around the edges, cut across the middle of the comb and let it drop into the tray. If we want 'cut-comb' (where the comb and honey remain intact, are stored in containers and are eaten raw) we do this carefully and gently, so the comb is not damaged. We do this first off before the tray gets messed up.

Comb and honey carefully removed to be placed in containers 'as is'
Once the frame is empty and the excess wax removed, we take a small, sharp knife and make fine, close slices in one direction across the full face of the comb - the idea being to cut through each cell. Then we do the same in the other direction (at 90 degrees to the first cuts). By the time you've finished, it's falling apart. I flip over what remains and do the same on the back side and the comb then disintegrates. Pick through the mess and chop up any remaining chunks.

First cut one way
Then the other way
Flip over, so the same and it falls apart.
In this particular tray I would chop up the comb from two frames at a time. Then pour it into the top bucket to start straining while I do another two frames and so on. It's just easier to pour while the tray is not too full or heavy. Some folks use a larger tray (such as a plastic storage container tub) which gives larger capacity. Here I'm trying to stick to what we might find in an everyday kitchen.


Honey harvesting - the Natural way: pt 1

On 15 April, I decided to harvest honey from my Langstroth before the cool weather set in. I think I timed it right, it was the last of the really warm spells (in Melbourne, at least!).

Here is a series of posts on how it was done, the end to end process. There are many possible variations on these methods, but I find this works for me.

Before we start . .  .
(I think) it is important, at this point, to step back for a moment and consider how we will harvest our honey.

The conventional approach is to use a centrifugal honey extractor. Even non-beekeepers think that is 'how it is always done'. If you question that wisdom, the response is usually that 'it is so much faster'. That may be true if you are a professional honey producer, but probably not if you have one or two hives in your garden.

The important point here, from a Natural Beekeeping (NB) perspective, is that once you decide to use an extractor (bought, hired or loaned) then you lock yourself into a whole way of keeping bees which involves more work, money, equipment, complexity and (in our view) less bee-friendly hives. All this and more for the aims of 'more honey' and 'easier harvesting'. I wrote more on this topic here.

The alternative is the low tech/low cost/simple (NB) approach. You have a decision to make and each method takes you down a different and important beekeeping track. If you are already a top bar beekeeper, you have limited choices anyway.

Here we illustrate the more Natural approach.

First job - take the honey from the bees

Here's how the hive looked at the start - two Ideal supers, which I planned to remove for harvest. I'm using Ideals for their lower weight and for their flexibility in management.

Before - Warre'd Lang with Kenyan
Some history - the lower ideal had been filled a few months before and I popped another empty one on top once it was full. I'd normally prefer to put the empty super under the full one to encourage to the bees to 'adopt' the space and start building comb. But as it was well attached to the brood boxes and I didn't want to risk excessive comb breakage and spills of honey, I settled for 'top-supering'.

From above, the top super looked to be full of capped honey, I later found it it was only capped at the tops of the frames and the rest of the comb was near full of nectar - probably close to being capped, but I didn't want to mix that in with the capped honey, so I later returned the top Ideal to the bees as extra winter stores. You can't extract and store nectar or mix it with mature honey in case it causes fermentation. I believe 20% is the maximum amount of nectar advised in a harvest.

Once the (Warre) roof was off, I used a little smoke to encourage the bees to move down and out. I don't believe in using a lot of smoke - it disturbs the bees and it can taint the honey with smokey smells and that's the last thing you want!

The supers with their temp base and lid with two 'witches hat' cones for exits
I'm reminded by Andrew (see below) that at this point (before removing a box for harvesting), we should remove one or two frames from the centre of the box and inspect for brood cells. Very occasionally the queen will lay some brood in a patch up in the honey supers. If that's the case, the bees will not willingly leave the comb using this or any clearing method. Neither would we want to kill brood or have it in the harvest.

You could return the frames, close up the hive and leave the brood for upto three weeks (depending on its maturity) and then harvest once it has emerged. Or, if you have a number of honey supers on the hive and wanted to harvest that day, you could swap the frames (containing brood cells) with frames of capped honey from a another super. That way you have at least one box full of capped honey to harvest and the brood returned to the hive.

Of course, 'queen excluders' were invented to prevent the inconvenient appearance of brood in pristine honey supers. In NB we do not use them as they are an additional, avoidable, imposition on the bees which we (and they) can live without.

Once the boxes were removed from the hive, the next job was to get the bees out (clearing the box). Rather than manually intervene with brushes and smoke, I took the no-stress approach pioneered local by our group convenor, Andrew Janiak. This is to:
  1. place a plastic covered base under the boxes (the plastic catches any honey dripping from broken comb) - in this case I used a spare Lang lid covered with a cut-up shopping bag;
  2. then place a top on the boxes with some 'witches hats' built in. I made mine from a simple timber frame with a plywood cover - I cut two holes in the plywood and placed flywire cones in the holes. Assembly and attachment of the cones was a bit tricky - but not too hard. I don't have three hands, so used a staple to hold the shape while I attached them to the wood (with more staples and tape).
The idea is to allow the bees to get out of the removed boxes (including the larger drones) and discourage them from re-entry. With the floor and lid in place, the supers are sealed against robbers etc. The bees perhaps sense a lack of queen scent very soon after removal and they start pouring out of the exists. I place the supers close to the hive entrance so the bees can easily return to their home. They do not try to get back into the cone exits once they are out.

Bee leaving via the cone

I left this for about 3 hours, noting that most of the exiting traffic ceased within the first hour. I strapped the 'hive' together and moved it to the house, ready for honey extraction. I opened up the box to check for bees before bringing them in for harvesting - there was one single bee with its head in a cell - I gave it a nudge and it buzzed off. This surely has to be the easiest, most stress-free way to separate bees from the honey!

The boxes removed to the house - now empty of bees (bar one)
Fwd to part 2

4 May 2012

Michael Bush on beekeeping fallacies - #1

Michael Bush is an experienced beekeeper from USA, very highly regarded in Natural Beekeeping circles.  I cannot speak highly enough about his website and I encourage all readers to visit it.

Michael published his ideas and experiences in a great book: The Practical Beekeeper, Beekeeping Naturally.

The book is great in more ways than one.  The content is great, but also the book is impressively thick.  But not be discouraged by its size - it comes from the rather large font used.  It seems to me that Michael took mercy on all those old geezers (myself including) involved in beekeeping.  Eyesight used to be a bit better few decades ago...

I very much enjoyed reading the section of the book devoted to beekeeping fallacies.  Michael's thinking aligns with my experiences and my understanding of what bees need and how they live.  I asked Michael for a permission to quote from his book, he kindly agreed.  I plan to go through the whole list of fallacies, one at a time, quoting verbatim Michael's writing and then adding comments whenever possible to add anything.  Below is the first installment, more to follow.

 Michael's Fallacy #1:  Drones are bad.

"Drones, of course, are normal.  A normal healthy hive will have a population in the spring of somewhere around 10-20% drones.  The argument for almost a century or more (really just a selling point for foundation) was that drones eat honey, use energy and don't provide anything to the hive, so controlling the drone comb and therefore the number of drones will make a hive more productive.  All the research I've heard of says that the opposite is true.  If you try to limit the number of drones, your production will decrease.  Bees have an instinctive need to make certain number of drones and fighting that is a waste of effort.  Other research I've seen says that you will end up with the same number of drones no matter what you, the beekeeper, do anyway."

The above relates to another quote from the very first page of Michael's book"

"If the question in your mind starts with 'How do I make the bees ...' then you are already thinking wrongly.  If your question is 'How can I help the bees with what they are trying to do...' you are on your way to becoming a beekeeper."

This is the jest of natural beekeeping philosophy.  Remember - bees are wild creatures, not domesticated.  They do what instinct tells them to do and this instinct has developed over millions of years.  It is worse than ridiculous to think that me, you or anyone else may know better ways than what bees' instinct dictates and may succeed in forcing bees to follow his/her line of thinking.  This simply will not happen.

Going back to drones, it is my experience that the larger the number of drones in a colony, the better they do and more honey they gather.  When I see numerous drones, I am happy - the colony is thriving and so will my honey cupboard.

Removing drone brood is a cruel practice, but it is also an idiotic one.  Bees invested honey into this brood and you want to throw it away.  If you do, the bees will again invest honey and effort in raising new drone brood anyway.  Along the way you only disrupt the hive and stress the bees.  Stressed bees get sickly - just like me and you.

Reading available literature let me realize that we actually do not know what role drones play inside the hive.  We know that bees raise them at the time of intensive brood rearing and get rid of drones around the time brood rearing significantly decreases.  It may be just a coincidence, but coincidences are rare in a hive.  Possibly drones assist in brood rearing - some beekeepers refer to drones as "brooders".  I would not be surprised to learn that they play vital role in heating the nest area.

Next time you see a drone at a hive entrance, look at him with sympathy.  He is your and your bees friend and helper.


22 Apr 2012

Comparing hives 7: History and Legislation

This post forms part of a series on hive comparisons.

Here we are setting aside discussion of ancient or traditional honeybee hives and limiting ourselves to so-called 'modern' hives. I note that the use of that word has implications! This is not to say that 'pre-modern' hives were not 'natural', in many cases their design and construction was much closer to the origins of the bee's natural home of hollow trees, caves and rock cavities. But when we are talking about beekeeping in (typically) the urban/suburban environment as hobbyists, we recognise that the practicalities of our urban environment and the existing legislation lead us to only consider modern hives.

Some history
The history of modern hives can be traced back to the 1700's as apiarists sought alternatives to traditional hives, such the skep. In those days, skep beekeepers extracted honey and wax by first killing the colony with (for example) sulphur fumes. Skep beekeeping is still practiced today, but without the extermination. The general idea of the modern hive was to allow beekeepers to extract honeycomb from the hive without killing the colony.

The main issues were that traditional hives did not allow easy access to the inside of the nest and that the bees attached their comb to the walls of the container. Both limited the ability of the beekeeper to removed honey. At some point, moveable frames were introduced into hives which encouraged bees to build their comb within them, rather than attaching it to the hive walls. Development of framed hive continued in various directions until the 1800's saw a rise in the scientific approach to understanding the world.

Ultimately, in the 1852, Rev L. L. Langstroth patented his self-named removeable frame hive based on (his or another's) discovery of 'the bee space'. This is a gap of around 6-8 mm and related to the size of the body of the bee. It was noted that gaps inside the hive which were:
 - smaller than the bee space were eventually 'glued' together with propolis and made the parts (for example frames and lids) difficult to remove;
 - larger than the bee space were joined by comb;
 - within the range of the bee space, they were left open.
Hives designed with the bee space had major advantages for beekeepers (though not necessarily for the bees, as it happens) in terms of convenience, scalability and honey yields. Langstroth's hive remains the predominant type in use to this day in much of the 'westernised' world.

In response to the various threats facing bees, the Natural Beekeeping (NB) movement has formed in the last decade. It is both a philosophy and a practical approach to beekeeping which aims to be bee-friendly/bee-centric in order to (aside from any other moral obligations) allow bees to build immunity through their own natural processes. Many NB practitioners generally view framed hives as a part of the (esp. disease) problem facing bees.

Framed hives
  • Allow, possibly encourage, beekeepers ('beeks') to intervene in the life of the hive by opening it up and pulling out and (re)moving sensitive frames of brood. This challenges the colony, the bees and their young on a number of levels.
  • They also deny the bees the ability to fasten their comb to the roof or the walls of the nest (hive). Essentially, combs constructed in frames are islands floating in a sea of air and do not allow the bees to form heat and scent retaining galleries (dead ends) which retain these properties. See this article by Thur on why this principle of NB is important.
  • Are (generally .  . . ) a requirement if you wish to use a honey extractor and this promotes the use of frames with wires and foundation - more non Natural practices which we posted about here.
So, NB beeks consider (often promote) the use of alternatives to the framed hive. If one does not use frames, then top bar hives (TBHs) are the next step towards 'natural'. This is because TBH's generally allow the bees to build the comb in a way which suits them rather than suits us. The original (non framed) Warre and the Kenyan hives are contemporary hives supported by NB beeks. The Warre derived in the 1950s and the Kenyan lineage arguably going back to ancient Greece.

Which brings us to beekeeping legislation. Most legislation (and esp. true for Australia) says that beekeepers must keep their bees in hives with 'easily removable frames' which 'break no comb' when being removed.
  • WHY would the legislation require this? The answer is - to make it easy for beeks and  government inspectors to check the comb (specifically the brood comb) for diseases.
  • WHY do hives need to be inspected for diseases? Because diseases not only threaten bees, they threaten our food supply and the beekeeping industry. Fair enough.
  • BUT - from early the 1900s, observers of beekeeping (such as Steiner - who BTW in 1920 predicted that our modern method would lead to the downfall of the bee in 80-100 years . . .) increasingly made a link between the increased prevalence of diseased bee colonies with the introduction and widespread use of framed hives. Some propose that some of the more serious diseases (such as AFB) were unknown before the advent of framed hives.
  • SO - are we now in a situation where a significant factor (framed hives) in the causation of disease is also legislated as part of the solution to these diseases? In other words, are we are locked into a vicious cycle.

The legislation requires (in Australia) the use of frames, but does not specifically ban the use of top bars.
  • The Langstroth hive - no problem - fully complies with the legislation - in theory. However, in practice, the Australian built version does have some issues with bees building ladder comb between the frames and that does require breakage.
  • The Warre TB hive - when used with top bars will produce combs which are joined to the hive walls and (under ideal conditions) are arguably removeable for inspection - but does require the combs to be separated from the walls with a special tool. Not what the law requires.
  • The Warre framed hive - is very similar to the Langstroth in box/frame design, just that it's square (see post 1 in this series). It is fully complient with the law, at the compromise of using frames - but the bees benefit from other aspects of Warre's design (such as the sealed roof and square box).
  • The Kenyan hive - is a pure TBH - with no frames. The reason is has sloping sides is to encourage the bees to leave a bee space around the comb and not attach it to the sidewalls of the box. For the most part, this is successful. However bees will sometimes attach a few cm of the top of a heavy honeycomb to the walls. Does it comply with the spirit or the letter of the law? It is an open question. In 2012, in New Zealand - Kenyan hive beekeepers were required to fit fames into their hives. Not an easy thing to do, given the shape and the fact that they are occupied by bees . . .

Given the above discussion:
  • The framed Langstroth and Warre hives are equally acceptable under the Australian legislation.
  • The top bar Warre is probably not.
  • The Kenyan is in a grey area.

13 Apr 2012

Comparing hives 2: Frames & Comb

This post forms part of a series on hive comparisons.

After the size (volume and box dimensions) and the shape of the hive which we discussed in Part 1, the next level of consideration is the size (area) of comb supported by the hive.

This is important because, in the end, the hive boxes only exist to provide shelter and support for the bees and they live on the comb which they construct inside the walls. So the amount of comb they are able to build within the hive has an impact on:
  • the number of bees it can accomodate;
  • the ability to breed and grow the colony within the season;
  • the amount of honey and other resources they can store;
  • the amount of energy required to keep the cavity warm;
  • the overwintering characteristics.

Aside from the area of comb, there is also the consideration as to how that comb is fixed within the hive, there are two possibilties (within the hive types under discussion, Langstroth, Warre, Kenyan):
  • Top bars - these are simple, horizontal bars of wood held in place in a rebate at the top of the hive box.
    The bees attach the top of the comb to the underside the bar and are free to build downwards in any way they wish. They may or may not attach the sides of the comb to the sides of the hive boxes. They usually leave a space at the bottom of the comb, just above the floor of the hive or the bars of the next box below.
  • Frames - this is a four sided frame, usually (but not always) made of wood. It has two lugs at the top which allow it to be suspended from the rebate a the top of the hive box. The frame hangs suspended inside the box, with a 'bee space' all around it - rather like a folder in a suspended filing cabinet.
    The bees attach the top of the comb to the (inside) top of the frame, the sides to the (inside) sides of the frame and the bottom to the (inside) bottom of the frame.

Which hive has which?

Langstoth hives were designed specifically for use with frames.
Pic. Newbees

Warre hives were designed for use with top bars (lower pic) - but also had an alternative design specification to accomodate frames (upper pic). In the top bar version, the bees generally attach the comb to the hive box walls.
Pic. Biobees 
Kenyan hives were designed for use with top bars. Some people are experimenting with frames in Kenyans. With top bars, the bees generally do not attach the comb to the sides of the hive, except for combs full of honey where they may make a small side attachment at the top.
Pic. Berkshire Farms Apiary
Comb area comparisons
  • Langstroth - per frame: 0.173 m2 - per box: 1.41 m2 - per hive: 4.32 m2
  • Warre - per top bar: 0.12 m2 - per box: 0.96 m2 - per hive: 3.50 m2
  • Warre - per frame: 0.108 m2 - per box: 0.97 m2 - per hive: 3.84 m2
  • Kenyan - per top bar: 0.125 m2 - per 30 bar hive: 3.5
  • These figures count both sides of the comb - i.e. the total area of cells.
Note that:
  • For typically configured hives of 4 boxes - both variants of the Warre hive actually accomodate 90% of the comb area that the much larger Langstroth hive does.
  • The Kenyan provides 81% of the area of the Lang.

We can now make a comparison of the hives' dimension characteristics by combining the results of volume with the results of comb space by calculating a ratio. That ratio is the amount of hive volume per unit area of comb.

Why is that important? The more 'non-comb' volume there is in a hive, the more energy and resources (bee time) the bees have to apply in order to keep the comb, brood and themselves warm. More energy use = less honey stored and more stress on the bees.

The ratios in order of merit of 'hive volume efficiency':
  • Warre (top bar) - 19.69 litres of hive volume per m2 of comb face;
  • Kenyan (top bar) - 23.57 litres;
  • Warre (frames) - 23.96 litres;
  • Langstroth (frames) - 25.67 litres. 30% more than the top bar Warre . . .
This means that, inside the Warre, the bees have much less volume to maintain at a given temperature.

Why is it that framed hives are much less volume efficient than top bar hives? Two reasons:
  • The wood of the frame takes up a remarkably large volume inside the box. The frames inside a typical Lang take up 11.5 litres of space - that's around 10.5% of the volume. The bees need to keep that volume of wood warm.
  • Frames require a bee space around each side (see Post 7), otherwise the bees with propolise of comb over any gap and attach the frame to the hive box wall, rendering it immobile. In hollow trees, the bees build comb upto the edges of the hollow.
Interestingly, the Kenyan performs on a par with the framed hives in this regard. This is because the bees (usually) leave their own bee-space around three sides of the comb. This is a design feature of the Kenyan (the sloped sides) to allow the combs to be easily removed (easier than the Warre TB at least). The Kenyan may compensate for this lower performance because, as a horizontal TB hive (HTBH), it has different heatflow charateristics to a vertical TB hive (VTBH) such as the Warre?

11 Apr 2012

Comparing hives 1: Dimensions & Shape

Common hives - Langstroth | Kenyan | Warre
One could arguably distill Natural Beekeeping (NB) thinking and approaches into two categories:
  1. The beekeeping equipment we use - mainly the hive type.
  2. The beekeeping methods we use - how we interact with the bees and the hive.
The intention of this post is to tease apart some of the (sometimes thorny) issues related to selecting a hive. This is especially relevant to beginning beekeepers. Once you select a hive type, you are likely to undergo training and invest in equipment. This can lead to a financial and perhaps psychological 'lock-in' to that system. This may be OK if you are happy with your initial choice, but not if you later decide you should have gone in a different direction.

Perhaps we should aim to make informed decisions with good information, rather than with wisdom received from someone already locked into a system?

We'll review (within the context of Victoria, Australia) the following aspects of the the three most commonly used hives (Langstroth, Warre, Kenyan):
  1. Dimensions/shape
  2. Frames & comb
  3. Yield
  4. Availability
  5. Cost
  6. Usability
  7. History & Legislation
In this post, we will cover the first topic and the others will be written under their own post.

1. Dimensions/shape
The most relevant dimension of a hive is its internal size, primarily its volume (we use litres) because that is the overall space a colony has to work with. For conventional beekeeping this is possibly the only consideration. The larger the volume, the more space for bees/comb/honey storage.

From an NB perspective we are very concerned with hive temperature and heat retention within the hive. The inside of a hive needs to be warmed to (and then maintained at) a suitable temperature, around 35 degrees C for the brood area. This requires the bees to generate that heat using nectar/honey to vibrate their wing muscles. The larger the volume, the more stress the bees are under in order to maintain the required temperature. There is another factor here and that is how the hive is configured - if there is lots of empty space above the brood area, stress is increased dramatically.

For Natural Beekeeping, there are two additional concerns with dimensions beyond volume:
  1. The shape of the box (i.e. when viewed from above)
  2. The dimensions and area of a section that shape
If, as Natural Beekeepers, we wish to replicate the bees' natural environment as closely as possible. If so, then we are looking for something that mimics the internal hollow of a tree (usually a vertical tree, but it could be a horizontal/fallen tree or log - see diagram below). This would be a hive forming an internal cylindrical shape and this requires a box which is square, rather than rectangular, when viewed from above. This shape fits the tendancy that bees have to work within a spherical shape when rearing brood or clustering for winter.

A typical 'wild' honeybee nest in its natural envirnonment
The size (area) of that square shape is also important because as the brood area moves down a hive box, the bees have to heat a greater volume (of air and comb). If the area is large, they have a greater volume to heat, per cm of depth. The dimensions (the cm measure of the square sides) is important because it should closely match the natural clustering of the bees. There are a number of reasons for this. For example, in winter, bees cluster together for warmth and eat their way upwards into their honey stores. In a square box (of appropriate size) they fill the square and this minimises heat losses. It also ensures that all honey is accessible to them from below. In a rectangular shaped box, in winter, there is unused/cold space to each side of the cluster, the honey there is not readily accessible and there is also the potential for condensation to form on the hive walls.

Let's compare the internal (a single box) dimensions of the three hives:
  • Langstroth
    - 'deep' box - 46.4 cm (l) x 30.7 cm (w) x 24.3 cm (h) = 34.6 litres
    - 'ideal' box - 46.4 cm (l) x 30.7 cm (w) x 14.6 cm (h) = 20.8 litres
    - this is a frame (only) hive
  • Kenyan
    - 110 cm (l) x 38 cm>13 cm (w) x 30 cm (h) = 82.5 litres
    - note that the useable volume can be infinately varied using the follower boards
    - the is the Phil Chandler (www.biobees.com) varient of the Kenyan
    - this is a purely top bar (only) hive (TBH)
  • Warre
    - The TBH version - 30 cm (l) x 30 cm (w) x 21 cm (h) = 18.9 litres (60% of the Lang)
    - The framed version - 33.5 cm (w) x 33.5 cm (h) x 20.75 cm (h) = 23.3 litres (68% of the Lang)
Please note though that for the framed hives, these are the GROSS volumes.  Actual usable (i.e. can build comb or otherwise reside in) volumes are lower because the wood of the frames takes up a percentage (9.1% for the Lang and 7.7% for the Warre) of the space inside the hive. This is very important because it means the bees are warming up space which is unusable to them.

Other heat retention related points to volume and hive design and are:
  • The amount of space within that volume available to build comb - it's an insulator.
  • Whether the comb can be formed into 'gallaries' which are sealed - they trap heat.
We'll cover these in more depth later posts.

Based on the above discussion, the hives perform as follows, in order of preference:
  1. Warre - a square section box, with a small volume. Vertical stacking. Higher frame volume efficiency.
  2. Kenyan - a trapezoidal shaped box, large volume, which can be finely managed with 'follower boards'). Horizontal direction.
  3. Langstroth - a rectangular shaped box with large volume. Lower frame volume efficiency.
The Warre - a hollow tree trunk?
Inside the Kenayn - a fallen log?
Langstroth's box -  a natural shape for bees?