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Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Fri Feb 27, 2009 5:55 am
by beesontoast
Whether you approach it from the point of view of conservation, entomology, crop pollination or simply a love of honey, beekeeping is an engaging pursuit and a fascinating window on the natural world.

So what does it take to become a beekeeper?

The essentials are simple enough: some sort of hive, a hat and a veil, an old, white shirt and some gloves - and at least the tacit agreement of the people who share your living space. It doesn't matter whether you are a town or a country dweller, so long as there is an abundant and varied supply of flowering plants from early spring onwards. In fact, bees often do better in well-gardened, urban areas than in the 'green desert' of modern, industrial farm land.

Judging by the questions potential beekeepers ask me, they have three main areas of concern: the cost of equipment and bees; storage space for spare hive parts and other equipment, and the difficulty of lifting heavy boxes – especially when full of honeycomb.

If you go down the road of 'conventional' beekeeping, using the standard 'National', the 'WBC' or one of the other variants of the 'movable frame' hive, then these concerns are very real. You can expect to spend £250-£300 on woodwork and basic equipment; you will need a shed or similar space to store spare parts and you – or someone you can bribe – will need to be able comfortably to lift and carry 15-20 kilos at a time. These three factors discourage people for whom money or space are already tight, and those who have a disability or are simply unable to lift and carry substantial weights.

Luckily, there is an alternative.

Like many British beekeeping novices, I began with a 'WBC' hive – the kind with sloped-sided outer boxes familiar from children's books. Soon, I acquired a couple more and began to realize that if I was to continue along this road, I would have to build myself a big shed in which to house all the spare woodwork and other paraphenalia that was rapidly accumulating – and I would have to find a way to pay for all the 'extras' I would soon be needing.

At this point I asked myself - does it really need to be this way? - and that innocent question led me on an exploratory mission of reading, study and experimentation that showed me conclusively that, no – it does not need to be that way: beekeeping does not need to be complicated, expensive or dependent on machine-made parts and equipment.

My search for an alternative approach led me to the top bar hive - one of the oldest and simplest types of beehive - that requires little skill and few tools to build. A good start on the road to sustainable simplicity, but is it a practical hive for modern beekeeping?

After some years of experimenting and testing various designs, I believe I now have a top bar hive design that is easy to build, practical and productive, while being comfortable and easy to use for both the bees and the beekeeper.

So what are top bar hives?

The principle is simple: a box with sticks across the top, to which bees attach their comb. Mine have central, side entrances, sloping sides and a pair of 'follower boards' to enclose the colony. There are many variations on this theme and all have the essential guiding principle of simplicity of construction and of management. There are no frames, no queen excluders, no ekes, no mouse guards, no supers, no foundation and there is no need for extractors, settling tanks, filters, de-capping knives... in fact no need for any other equipment or storage space, other than that provided within the hive itself. And if you have just spent an hour leafing through suppliers' catalogues, wondering how you can possibly afford to keep bees, that will come as some relief!

Building a top bar hive is no more difficult than putting up shelves and can be done using hand tools and recycled wood. Top bar beekeeping really is 'beekeeping for everyone' – including people with disabilities, bad backs, or a reluctance to lift boxes: there is no heavy lifting once your hives are in place, as honey is harvested one comb at a time. From the bees' point of view, top bar hives offer weatherproof shelter, the opportunity to build comb to their own design – without the constraints of man-made wax foundation – and minimal disturbance, thanks to a 'leave well alone' style of management.

So where do you get bees from?

You can buy them or catch them, or if you are lucky, they will adopt you! Catching or luring a swarm is by far the most fun – and much easier than you might think. Bees swarm in response to their instinct to reproduce – mostly in spring and early summer – and the sight of a swarm in flight is certainly impressive. However, contrary to popular belief, this is the time when they ar least likely to sting you: their only concern at that moment is to find a new place to live. So if you offer them the right sort of accommodation at the right time – such as a pleasant-smelling, cosy beehive – they are very likely to move in of their own accord. Many people become beekeepers by enticing a passing swarm using a few drops of citronella or lemon grass oil, or better still, rubbing the inside of the hive with pure beeswax.

Capturing a swarm is not difficult either – hold a basket or cardboard box under their football-sized cluster on a tree branch and give a good shake! It is not always as easy as that, but it is rarely as difficult as getting a cat out of a tree.

If you think you want to keep bees, I suggest you first get to know a local beekeeper who is willing to let you visit and handle their bees. Most beekeepers' associations have 'meet the bees' days during the spring, giving newcomers a chance to see inside a hive and test their responses to being surrounded by bees.

And stings? Yes, you will get stung from time to time, however careful you are. Local swelling, redness and itching is a normal reaction: faintness, breathing difficulties and collapse are true allergic symptoms and are potentially life-threatening. Most people who keep bees become less sensitive to stings over time, but sometimes it goes the other way and occasionally an experienced beekeeper may suddenly become allergic. So if you have any reason to suppose you may be sensitive to bee venom (only about one in 200 people are) be sure to carry Benadryl or an Epipen (adrenaline injection) or ensure that whoever you are with is properly equipped to deal with an emergency.

Bees are in trouble right now – from pesticides, industrial farming, pollution, parasitic mites and viruses – and we need all the 'natural' beekeepers we can get to build up their numbers and give them a chance to solve their own problems. So, if you want to keep bees, build yourself a hive before the swarm season, and you could be tasting your own honey by the end of the summer!

Philip Chandler
www.biobees.com

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Fri Feb 27, 2009 10:24 am
by Loobyloo
Lovely article, interesting and well written and making me seriously consider keeping bees once I am settled down.

(although I would spend all my time thinking about Eddie Izzard: 'I'm covered in beeeeeesss!' :lol: )

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Fri Feb 27, 2009 11:07 am
by red
excellent article. any photos to go with it?

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Fri Feb 27, 2009 11:45 am
by beesontoast

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Fri Feb 27, 2009 6:42 pm
by evelyn
I have been considdering bee keeping for a few years but i keep putting off taking the big step because i live on a housing estate and i am worried that my neighbours would complain.

As i have lots of bees visiting my garden any way would the neighbours even notice?

Eve

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Fri Feb 27, 2009 10:32 pm
by beesontoast
evelyn wrote:
As i have lots of bees visiting my garden any way would the neighbours even notice?



Probably not - most people cannot tell a bee from a wasp, unless they are gardeners (and sometimes even then). However, if word got out (someone sees you dressed in a hat and veil) you will get the blame for any stinging incident in the neighbourhood, no matter what causes it.

Then again, a top bar hive doesn't look like any kind of beehive anyone would recognize...

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Sat Mar 07, 2009 9:22 pm
by ocailleagh
Excellent article, I've been thinking about keeping bees for quite some time now. Just two questions though...could you provide a few instructional diagrams? And why is wearing white important?

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Sat Mar 07, 2009 9:45 pm
by beesontoast
Full building instructions and everything else you need are here http://www.biobees.com

Beekeepers wear white because the bees seem less liable to sting light colours than dark. You may discover this yourself if you wear your blue jeans when inspecting a hive! :flower:

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Sun Mar 08, 2009 3:16 pm
by ocailleagh
Ah, I wonder why that is...
Glad I kept my therapy whites from college though, the rest of my wardrobe is black :-p

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 4:54 pm
by Sadoldhippy
I am doing a BKA course and had no idea that there was an alternative. Since finding out about top-bar hives I have decided to keep bees like that rather than the standard way, it is just so much more in keeping with my ideals and the planet. Thank you for putting the information out there.

Have Fun

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 7:29 pm
by Clara
We're on the verge of getting our hive.....but i have a question (possibly a very dumb one!) about logistics - how does one move a hive full of bees? in our case we have not only 25km of winding mountain roads to negotiate, but also a 1km foot path (some of which is navigable by wheelbarrow, some parts the hive will have to be carried) - ideas?

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 6:53 am
by beesontoast
Clara wrote:We're on the verge of getting our hive.....but i have a question (possibly a very dumb one!) about logistics - how does one move a hive full of bees? in our case we have not only 25km of winding mountain roads to negotiate, but also a 1km foot path (some of which is navigable by wheelbarrow, some parts the hive will have to be carried) - ideas?


It is perfectly possible to move a hive full of bees, but in your case, it would be a lot easier to install a hive and then bait a swarm into it - in other words, let the bees figure out their own transport problem!

However, I'm not clear if you already have a hive and need to move it, or want to acquire one. If you buy bees, you would usually buy a 'nucleus hive' (or 'nuc') which would be a small box with (usually) 5 frames of bees and brood - quite easy to carry, but best done after dark or in cool weather.

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 8:16 am
by Clara
beesontoast wrote:
Clara wrote:We're on the verge of getting our hive.....but i have a question (possibly a very dumb one!) about logistics - how does one move a hive full of bees? in our case we have not only 25km of winding mountain roads to negotiate, but also a 1km foot path (some of which is navigable by wheelbarrow, some parts the hive will have to be carried) - ideas?


It is perfectly possible to move a hive full of bees, but in your case, it would be a lot easier to install a hive and then bait a swarm into it - in other words, let the bees figure out their own transport problem!

However, I'm not clear if you already have a hive and need to move it, or want to acquire one. If you buy bees, you would usually buy a 'nucleus hive' (or 'nuc') which would be a small box with (usually) 5 frames of bees and brood - quite easy to carry, but best done after dark or in cool weather.


OK - can see that OH might not be too happy being told to carry a box full of bees round the mountain in the deepest dark of night! We have been offered a hive with bees for 75euros, which seems cheap enough to just get and get on with it, though we haven't yet bought it or even committed to.....how does one "bait" a swarm though?

Presumably if we do decide on getting the inhabited hive, OH would have to wear protective gear? And what should we cover the hive with whilst it is in transit by vehicle - can't help thinking that a car full of bees is a BAD idea!!!

TIA Clara

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 12:20 pm
by beesontoast
Clara wrote:.....how does one "bait" a swarm though?

Presumably if we do decide on getting the inhabited hive, OH would have to wear protective gear? And what should we cover the hive with whilst it is in transit by vehicle - can't help thinking that a car full of bees is a BAD idea!!!

TIA Clara


To move a hive, you need to strap the lid on (and the floor, if loose) and plug the entrance, ensuring that there is still some ventilation. If moving it during the day in Spain, you would need to use a mesh roof to ensure adequate airflow: bees overheat and die very quickly in closed boxes.

Loose bees in a car sounds bad, but any that do escape will spend the entire journey trying to get out of the windows, so its not quite as bad as it sounds!

Baiting a swarm is done by setting up a hive and making it smell like home to bees. Rubbing the inside with beeswax and propolis is good; citronella, lemongrass and geranium essential oils are also used. There is a lot more info about all this on our biobees forum, if you want to follow it up.

Re: Thinking about keeping bees?

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 1:17 pm
by Clara
Thanks that's really clear and helpful advice. I think we'll probably just buy the complete hive but I like a challenge so might see if I can convince a neighbour to use one of his empty hives for baiting!