31 Jan 2012

Urban Bee Guild Event

UBG with The Entomological Society of Victoria are jointly presenting a screening of Honey Bee Blues. Details by clicking on the graphic below.

23 Jan 2012

Langstroth dimensions

I'm working on weighing my Lang on a regular basis. Had a few problems with my weigh scale build - need to use more rigid wood . . .

In the meantime, I weighed (with a suitcase digital scale - about AUD 16 from eBay) various hive components in order to be able to calculate how much of a live hive was wood and how much was bee related materials. I thought I'd share these in case they were useful elsewhere.

Please note the scales are supposed to be fairly accurate, but there would be more accurate methods of measurement. In other words, this is not a rigorously accurate exercise! You will see there is 0.54 kg difference between the sum of the components and the total hive weighed as one item. :-)

Note also this is the standard 8 frame Australian Langstroth hive as sold in Victoria through major retailers. I believe the material is Hoop Pine and 22-23mm thick board.

  • Base/Bottom - 3.16 kg
  • Lid/roof - 2.82 kg
  • Full depth box - 3.90 kg
  • Full depth box with bare frames -  5.68 kg
  • 'Ideal' depth box - 2.52 kg
  • 'Ideal' depth box with bare frames -  3.92 kg
  • Top bar mat (3mm vinyl sheet) - 0.10 kg

Full hive:
  • Base + lid + 1 box + empty frames + top bar mat = 12.3 kg (weighed as one item).

Alternative extras - Warre Roof:
  • Lid - 6.3 kg
  • Quilt - 1.92 kg

18 Jan 2012

Honey Bee Blues

Honeybee Blues tells the story of the worlds disappearing honeybees and the efforts of Australian scientist Dr Denis Anderson to save them from annihilation.

You can see the whole 52 minute documentary below (using the Flash plugin).

Main websites here and here.

Note (esp around minute 13, for example) that what we see demonstrated here are export beekeeping practices - not to be confused with backyard Natural Beekeeping. This is 'bees as business'.

The threat of Varroa Destructor aside, is this sort of treatment ethical or just another part of the continuing industrialisation and commodification of our agriculture? How does this affect the bees in the long term?

Some view the sending Australian bees to supplement dying commercial colonies in the US as unhelpful in the long term. Our bees are not resistant to the mite - as the beekeeper says, the are likely to be infected and die. By sending them over there, we are slowing (perhaps preventing) the process of the local US population of bees developing its own resistance through natural (genetic evolutionary) means. Of course this long term view does not meet the short term requirements of the bee-related pollination industry (of crops such as almonds) worth millions of dollars . . .

A great book on these various aspects of bees and commercial beekeeping is Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen. A must-read for anyone who wants to keep bees or is interested in a broader view of their plight.

16 Jan 2012

Monster pot cut-out

Cutting out nests/colonies of feral bees (from places where they are not wanted) is a useful skill - so I've been practicing.

To me, they are a bit like going to the dentist, or the doctor for an injection. You don't really look forward to it - but you grit your teeth and get started and once they are under way they are less daunting than they first appear.

What I really don't like about them is the trauma suffered by the bees. In the few I've done so far, they bees have watched while I tear apart their home and never bothered me. No stings at all. Funny then how sometimes I'll open an operating hive for a very quick look and a bee will be buzzing in my face! Bees really can be such gentle creatures despite what we do to them.

The other thing is that the potential to lose the queen is very high. She could be squashed or just fly off.

Here's the cut-out I did today. I never take many pictures because my hands are covered in honey and I'm just too busy getting on with the job. 30,000+ buzzing bees have a way of focusing the mind . . . I should have taken one as I tipped over the pot - jam packed with comb and bees. Like a big upside down skep.

The really difficult part of doing this one was lack of access. The pot was surprisingly deep and there was little room to get in and separate the comb from the walls. Once the cutting started, there was honey everywhere. I think in this case the queen was lost in the depths and may have drowned - we will see in a few days. I mostly suspect that due to the lack of fanning at the entrance and so many bees sitting outside and not moving in. But that could easily just be the trauma.

We extracted many kg of beautiful honey. There were three dinner plate sized chunks of honeycomb that could be eaten from the wax. The rest was crushed and drained. Fresh urban raw honey is exquisite. I'd prefer to leave some for the bees in the new hive but the weight and mess means it's very difficult to hold in the frames.

An alternative to the 'cut-out' is a 'trap out' where the nest is left undisturbed and a new hive (with queen and comb) is placed close to the entrance. The bees would be allowed to leave the pot but no return, by means of a one way funnel. This is a nice, gentle, but very slow way (weeks) to allow the old colony to work its way out of the pot.

You'll see here that I'm still using Langstroth hives despite advocating for the use of top bar hives (TBH). The main reasons for this being that:
  • the removed combs are (relatively) easier to strap into a full frame, compared with attaching to top bars.
  • Langstroths are easy to buy and quickly assemble to meet demand. TBHs need to be hand built in advance - something I aim to address, in time.
  • I need to consider and meet the owner's needs and sometimes that's for standardisation/compatibility.
Australian regulations do seem to be quite specific about hives having 'easily removeable frames' which means pure top bar Warre's are not acceptable. In which case we can use framed Warres and then one must ask how much difference is there between the two hives if they both have frames. Well, overall dimensions are vasty different and the Warre is square. But there is also the argument that Australian colonies need more storage room in our hive than in the northern hemisphere because of the huge nectar flows we get from gum trees.

One balance, equipment (hive) selection is an important consideration for Natural Beekeeping, but perhaps more important is how you intent to use that equipment.

Kerin's picture taken during a 'look-see'. Note the bees are 'washboarding' . . .

Idyllic scene before the carnage. I use a white sheet for many beekeeping jobs where it might help save bees from getting lost/crushed.

Hive almost full. Frames using (good quality) elastic bands to retain the cut-out brood comb. Soup pan with honeycomb.

The pot with mainly honeycomb remaining - hard to see because of the bees!

There were lots of bees - so I put on a second box.

The pot once empty, with comb attachment marks where it had removed the sealant.

10 Jan 2012

What is 'sustainable' beekeeping?

We tend to use the term 'Natural Beekeeping' to include various other terms now cropping up in this new alternative beekeeping movement. One of these other terms is 'sustainable beekeeping'.

Defining sustainability for a given, specific situation is not easy. But a general definition of sustainable development, oft quoted is:
Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Another common way of viewing sustainability is through the use of the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) which is usually portrayed as:
Diagram 1: Adams, W.M. (2006). "The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century."
As diagram 1 shows, we use the TBL approach to balance economic development with social and environmental aspects. Achieving balance usually involves compromise and in a world where the economy and its constant growth is generally prioritised above all else, social and economic impacts ensue.
Diagram 2: Scott Cato, M. (2009). Green Economics. London: Earthscan, pp. 36–37
Diagram 2 shows another view of the TBL - this time arranging the aspects in a nested format. Here we see that the economy is part of our society, which itself is part of the environment. Without the environment there is no society and the economy is just a part of our society. Watching or reading headlines today, one would think that society and the environment are instead part of the economy. 

So what has all of this got to do with sustainable beekeeping??

More beekeepers today are describing themselves as being 'sustainable'. Unlike the 'organic' label however, there are no standards or certifying organisations for sustainable beekeeping. Some examples of current sustainability trends in beekeeping:
  • reducing use of fossil fuels,
  • producing and selling honey locally,
  • producing 'raw' honey,
  • increasing bee numbers.
These initiatives are fantastic and certainly important components of a sustainable approach to beekeeping. In terms of Natural Beekeeping,  we may include an additional component - a focus on the bees themselves. Indeed, David Heaf, in his book The Bee-friendly Beekeeper - A sustainable approach proposes adding a fourth factor of 'bee-appropriateness' to the TBL.

Natural beekeepers are primarily 'bee-centric' and their practices, meaning we aim to prioritise the needs of the bee/colony. Obviously there are limits to this when we actually keep them in artificial hives. And in the context of urban beekeeping, we can't put the needs of bees above those of our neighbours!

Perhaps a practical example of the underlying principle here is honey. The production of honey for sale is of less (often no) importance to a small scale Natural Beekeeper. When a business depends on the sale of honey for its survival, there is economic pressure to increase/maximise yields from the hives. This may then involve conventional (commercial) beekeeping practices that we could consider to be less 'bee-friendly', or sustainable for the future. Beekeeping on a small scale, with no commercial pressures, frees us from this limitation. Having said that, there are a number of professional beekeepers now using the Warre hive extensively for their business.

Natural Beekeeping also focuses on aspects such as:
  • small scale;
  • low cost;
  • low environmental impact;
  • simplicity.
Note the important point of 'small scale'. We'd define this as perhaps keeping one or two hives in your own garden. This way you can focus your attention on observing those hives and enjoying the activities of the bees.

Note also that these bullet points (as well as the ethics of concerns for the bees) are appropriate within the principles and practices of Permaculture.

Bear in mind that this is not a complete discussion of sustainability in terms of how we keep bees. We have not considered topics such as:
  • the source of the materials we use in hive construction;
  • the impact of increasing the density of hives (and bees) in our suburbs;
  • the appropriateness of promoting the keeping of European honey bees in Australia, which are non-native and compete with local fauna.
In summary, the Perm-Api group seeks to promote Natural Beekeeping which encompasses Permaculture principles and sustainability.

This article has been amended following feedback regarding its bias - with apologies.

4 Jan 2012

Weighing hives

As natural beekeepers, we seek alternatives to opening up hives and disturbing the bees frequently. With this in mind, how are we able to monitor their progress inside their dark box?

One way to gather data is to regularly weigh the hive. This is commonly referred to in the Warre world as as 'hefting'. Two pieces of information are very useful:
  1. What is the total weight of the hive? If you subtract from that the weight of wood, the rest is bees, comb, and stores. You can make reasonable estimates about the weight of the bees and comb and so can conclude how much they have in the way of nectar/honey. This is critical as you approach winter. Do they have enough honey stored to survive until spring?
  2. What is the change since they were last weighed? This tells you the direction they are going. A growing hive taking on stores will increase weight. Fast increases mean a honey flow and you may need more boxes to make space.
Andrew pioneered a high tech approach and appeared on ABC's New Inventors.

I'm trying a different approach using a scale I found here. It's 95% built - just waiting for Bunnings to restock (after the Xmas rundown) on cable crimps before I can complete it and try it out.

Hive Scale Built by Mr. A Little
 I'll post here to let you know how it goes.

  • The build design specifies 2.5cm ply - which I though looked a bit overkill and was anyway hard to find (in my usual hardware warehouse . . ), or to use thinner hardwood (not easy to find in the required width, except as long and expensive lengths).
  • I used the above pic as a guide to the thinkness of the (good quality) ply I used and it does not work. After reaching around 11kg, the fork starts to bend and it stops weighing.
  • Will have to rebuild from stronger materials and try again, when I get some time. :-)
Update May 2012 - still not rebuilt . . .

Line dancing bees

I watch my bees a lot. The entrances to the hives are visible from the house and I can observe them closely with a pair of binoculars.

I work from home and take breaks from the PC to go and see what they are doing at a given time of day or weather condition. I think it's an essential skill as a natural beekeeper to be able to observe and interpret behaviour.

Recently I looked out and saw the 'Kenyan mob' were doing something which I had not seen before. A few had lined up at the entrance in what looked like a line dance and were apparently licking at the joint between the hive wall and the landing board. I first figured they were licking at the wax and linseed coating I gave the hive.

They all faced the same direction, heads down, bums up (like fanning, but with static wings) and sort of bobbing up and down. Here they are on the first day.

This continued obsessively for days and increasing numbers joined them and they were doing the same at the entrance holes and blocking the foraging bees. It continues today. I decided to use 'good old Google' and came up with this video (one of many) describing the mysterious behaviour known as 'washboarding'.

At least I know I'm not alone . . . and it's (supposedly) not a sign of something bad . . .

No string in hives

Here's what string turns into when you use it inside a hive:

Needless to say, bees were getting legs caught up in it, so I had to open up the hive and cut it all out.

Why was it there in the first place? I transferred a swarm into my Kenyan TBH from a swarm collection box in which they'd ignored the foundationed frames and started building 'wild' comb on the box lid. I used the string and elastic bands to hold the comb on the top bars until the bees repaired the damage.

Once the bees settled and the comb was fixed (about 2 weeks later), fragments of elastic (see below pic) and string began appearing at the hive entrance. Elastic bands hung around with chew marks in them. Unfortunately they could not deal with the string as they chewed it everywhere and it became a mass of hairyness. I'll stick with rubber bands in future, unless there are better ideas out there??

The Kenyan's colony had a tough start in life but now doing OK. They are steadily (but comparatively slowly) building comb along the top bars - up to 11 bars now from a start of 4 cut combs.

Remains of a rubber band which I first thought was a mouse tail!

Warre-ing the Langstroth

In the book 'Beekeeping for All' (here translated from French by David Heaf), Emile Warre described his 'People's Hive' - now commonly referred to as the Warre hive - and some accompanying 'natural' beekeeping practices.

Warre Hive - diagram copied from warre.biobees.com/plans.htm
We can apply his basic practices of management to any type of hive, but often with some limitations due to the hive's design.

Take, for example, the Langstroth hive, which is by far the most common type (probably 99.9%!) in use in Australia. Warre favours top bars (TBs) with no frames, boxes of certain dimensions which are square in plan with no upper hive ventilation. The Langstroth does not align with any of these. On top of that, legislation in Australia requires the use of removable frames, regardless of hive type.

So, if we've invested in Langstroth hardware and wish to move some way towards the Warre hive design approach, what can we do? Selling everything and starting again isn't usually a good option. Modifying the Langstroth hardware seems a logical stepping stone.

Assuming we can't cut down our (occupied!) Lanstroth boxes from rectangular to a square shape and also that we need to keep our frames, then there is one physical aspect we CAN address quite easily - ventilation. This relates to the Natural Beekeeping concept of 'retaining nest scent and heat'. Heat is central to Warre's beekeeping and this is extended in Johan Thur's book Beekeeping: natural, simple and successful to include 'Nestduftwärmebindung' - retaining nest heat and scent.

We can achieve this by management practice, that is, not opening up the hive except when it's absolutely essential. We can also achieve it physically by modification of the Langstroth roof. The typical Lang roof has four holes around 15mm diameter, under the roof is a mat which has at least a bee space around the sides. This arrangement allow positive ventilation of air through the hive via convection. As the bees warm the air inside, it rises to the roof and vents easily, to be replaced by cool air drawn in through the bottom entrance. If you have any doubt about that, try sniffing at the holes and notice the hive's aroma escaping.

Arguably one might consider this a good thing, fresh air coming in for bees to breath easily, removal of unwanted gases and humidity from ripening nectar. It might also help the bees stay cooler in the hot Australian summer. Then again, what's good for summer temperatures might be the opposite when winter comes and the bees need to conserve energy.

Either way, Warre specifically designed a roof which:
  • protects the top of the hive from sun and rain - using a gable roof with an air space beneath;
  • retains the heat of the hive - using a 'quilt' made of wood shavings or other natural materials;
  • absorbs excess moisture from the hive - again using the quilt, this time as a moisture buffer;
  • wicks moisture out of the quilt to the atmosphere - using hessian cloth as a top bar and quilt cover material;
  • provides an upper barrier/ceiling for the bees - using the top bar cloth;
  • prevents rodents entering the quilt material - using the cover board.
I built one for my own Lang by adapting Warre's plans for use with Langstroth dimensions. The total cost was $20 in materials and probably a day to build (measure twice, cut once!).

Here's what I've noticed since placing it on the live hive (which is shaded by a tree):
  • it looks more like a 'real' hive - quite fetching! So many people have told me Langs look too much like filing cabinets!
  • less problems with rain water building up on the landing board.
  • the top bar cloth is convenient because it completely convers the box, so you can quietly remove the roof and listen to the hive and maybe peel back a corner a few cm to see how the top box is filling. All this without exposing the bees.
  • above 24-26 degrees C, a few (1-6) bees appear on the landing board and start fanning to vent hive air. This never happened at these temperatures with the Lang roof.
  • at 30+ degrees more bees start fanning.
  • in the recent heatwave the bees started bearding at the entrance at 6-7pm on the 36 degree day. We had at 41 degree day due the next day, so I reverted to the old Lang roof but retained the Warre top bar cloth, as an experiment. During that evening there was still bearding taking place - but with less bees outside the hive.
If you'd like one for your Lang, I'd be happy to build some more - $$ negotiable!

Here are a some pictures:

Spare Lang box with roof removed

With starched (and ironed!) hessian Top Bar Cloth added

with quilt added - note it has a hessian bottom (stapled and taped) to hold in the wood shavings

the finished roof which sits on top of the quilt and covers the joint between quilt and box