theoretical beekeeping – some thoughts


As I said last post, I’ve decided to go with a top-bar-hive style. There is one critical “pro” and one nagging “con” of this decision.

Pro – cost. Buying a “basic starter hive” of langstroth style will set me back $100 even before the bees. If I were a master carpenter – or even a really good woodworker – I could reduce that quite a bit, but the cost of foundation would still bite me. Note the IF – does not apply in my case. The TBH can be built by a mediocre woodworker (aka ME). And it takes less wood. And no foundation – or (optionally) a LOT less foundation. Oh, and by using a TBH I won’t be tempted to buy an extractor. Harvest of a comb at a time, not a super at a time.

Con – help. Heck with the internet – nothing beats hands on work. But as far as I’ve been able to find, all the people around with hives and experience (ie, the local beekeeping group plus some keepers I’ve found who didn’t belong) use Langstroths. So my assistance will be by forums and email and other internet sources. I should note I’m not completely adrift. I have people within a couple hours drive who use these and who have made cautious murmurs of willingness to advise. It’s just that I’ll learn by jumping in the deep end.

In general, by going TBH I’m making the following sacrifices in addition to the reduced help available. I’m going to get less honey (or so the theory goes) per hive. (I will, however, produce more beeswax per hive. shrug.) The hive is far less portable, so I can’t hire my bees as pollinators – not something I planned to do, but worth noting. I can’t swap bars about freely – there’ll be a bit of natural curve even with “straight” combs, and without frames (sides and bottom bars attached to the top bar) I have a lot more risk of cross and brace combing. There’s also the fact I will see more combs bound to the side of the hive – a simple thing with which to deal, but an issue nonetheless. Oh, and if the hive needs more room, expansion is… tricky. Basically I have to either move the brood and swarm to a new and larger home, or I have to do some hybrid work. In a word… whee.

OK, let me back up a bit to that “sticking to the sides” part. I have a theory… Before I begin, I need to note that there is a lot of known fact about bees, and a lot more “generally agreed upon” information, and about the same amount that’s ‘depends on who you ask’. Oh, and even more “Idunno”. One of the BIG known facts for beekeepers is “bee space”. Literally, it’s the space needed for two bees working facing combs to work without interference. Too small, and the bees glue the space shut. Too large, and they try to squeeze some comb in there. For most of the western bees, space is 3/8 of an inch – 9.25mm. Plus or minus a millimeter or so (remember we’re talking organic, not precision). As an aside, Asian bees need a bit more space, and African need less. The latter are much more aggressive – they’re the “killer bees” that had people in such a worry mode some decades ago.

What this means is that when I try to get the bees to build so I can remove one comb at a time (for inspection or harvest), I need to build each mount (top bar) wide enough for a double-faced comb plus one beespace (half on each side, shared with the next comb). Now the Langstroth standard works and works really well – 35 mm or approximately 1 and 3/8 inches. That said, I know there’s a problem. See, the bees build two kinds of comb in the wild – well, of productive comb. Call it brood and food. Basically, eggs and larva, or honey and pollen. Yes, there will be some honey and pollen with the brood. There will rarely be brood with the food, though. (If so, most of the advice says there’s a problem.) In the wild, there’s a measurable difference between brood and food comb. [BEGIN EDITBasically, I got mixed up reading my notes.  Brood prefers the NARROWER comb.]  Brood is a bit narrower deeper than food. The standard is a bit oversized “barely” tolerable for brood, and almost too small large for food.

Now in a perfect world, I’d put wide bars for the food brood and narrow for the brood food, and be fine. The problem, of course, is guessing how many narrow wide bars I need. Once the hive has enough brood combs, the unused wides will encourage cross-combs – combs that run across more than one bar – to fill the excess space. On the other hand, having too few is not a problem as bees tolerate it already. Still, I have this urge to, well, to do right. See, I have this suspicion that the closer I come to what the bees want, the more likely I am to have useful and usable results. But… the effort involved pushes theory into the severe smoke and major effort zone. See, I’d start with food brood comb a bit wider, and as if it crossed I’d do some comb adjustment/removal plus shave the bars down till crossing stopped, at which point I’d know my ‘ideal’ is the average of my brood bars. Thing is, I don’t know how much work I’m going to need to do anyway, and I already know how (not) good my carpentry skills are. Shaving a millimeter at a time – well, half a mm at a time from each side of the bar – is pushing my skill level, I suspect. So, that’s something that won’t happen. At least, not now. If everything goes so well I want to do more and expand, well, we’ll see.

So what I’ll be doing at first is standard width top bars. 35 mm/ 1 3/8 in width of nominal 3/4 inch wood.

Something with which I WILL be playing at first is the slope of the sides. OK, some meandering.

There are two generic concepts of the top bar hive – the Kenyan, and the Tanzanian. The difference is that the K sides slope and the T sides are vertical. The theory – no, make it the general principle that everyone agrees with – is that bees like to attach comb to tops and sides but not to floors. (The apparent expection – the bottom of the standard frame – is believed to be an exception because there’s beespace between the frame and the bottom of the hive.) The Kenyan theory is that at a certain point the bees consider a sloped surface a floor instead of a wall. Now, the bees will still attach to the slope if it’s necessary to support the weight of the comb. Which is why one of the requirements of the TBH tender is to have a tool to check and if necessary slice the comb from the wall before removing it for inspection or harvest. (oh – the TTBH almost always needs side separation of large combs such as the brood combs. At least until the bees give up – which may or may not happen.)

And now I go to extended theorizing. See, it’s obvious to me that IF (and oh, that’s a big if) the preceding theories are right, a severe enough slope brings two results. First, it’s closer to ‘floor’ and so less likely to be seen as ‘maybe a wall. Second, and probably more important, there’s a limit on how heavy the comb can bee. Light enough, and there’s no NEED for brace comb – comb built just to support and anchor the usable comb. On the other hand, that same measure means I need even MORE bars. The hive needs room, and it’s either got to be vertical or horizontal. Oh, and too shallow means ‘time to search for a better home.’ Swarming isn’t high on my list of things I want to see. hmmm. Too shallow also means more susceptible to the cold in winter. Sure, winters here are jokes compared to those in Colorado (where I’m from). But freezing temperatures happen, and they kill bees that aren’t protected in some fashion.

I know that the KTBH plans on the internet all have slopes of less than 25 degrees off vertical. And due to the same producers showing pictures of their work, I know they all have to cut comb from the walls. I’m going to try a bit steeper – 30 degrees off vertical. In other words, it’ll be an equilateral triangle cut down to a trapezoid. It’s going to be a bit less than 4 feet long. The top – the untruncated part of the triangle – will be 18 inches wide inside to inside, while the bars that form the roof and comb support will be a whopping 19 inches long. The narrow side of the trapezoid will be approximately 6 inches long, which will make the trapezoid about 9.5 inches deep (interior measurement).

Oh, I’m going to do one thing I’ve seen on the internet as a bonus – largely due to my excitement, though still within my skill level. I’m going to put a window in one side. Now, the “good carpentry” trick would be to cut a rabbit barely large enough to accept the clear. I’m going to cheat by throwing money at the thing. I’ll make a sheet for the whole side. Actually, probably two sheets. As long as the separation is vertical – that is, I have two 1×2 foot sheets across the side – then I don’t have to worry about trying to work around anything while cutting loose comb. And the gap? I expect the bees to close it – remember what they do to gaps too small for beespace? (Just in case, I’ll use some sort of sealing technique. It may end up requiring more board – no, it WILL end up so – but adding a couple of hinges and some blocks to keep the cover closed most of the time will do fine.

So, I’ll have this done. I’m going to use popsicle ribs on the top bars. That is, cut a notch in the center and put a beeswaxed popsicle stick in it to hold it in place – maybe adding a staple or wedge so excess heat doesn’t cause problems from the melting.

And I’m going to set it up beeless.

If I can get some old brood comb from a local beekeeper, I’m going to tie a piece to the second bar. I’m hoping this will work as a bait box.

Oh — forgot to mention the follower. While pretty much standard in KTBHs produced here in the US, it’s not always. Yes, I’ll have one. And it’ll be at about the tenth bar while the box is being swarm bait. Why? Because I suspect too large a box is not acceptable. Once the bees are in I’ll move it further from the end. But…

heh – once the bees are in. I have no idea whether I’ll get bees this way. But I’ve read enough to realize it happens. And even if none find it as bait, having it ready means if I see a swarm I will be ready instead of desperately trying to catch up. (lessons learned from reading other newbies’ adventures.)

We’ll see. After all, I only have to find time between housework and yardwork and gardenwork and getting a motorcycle working, plus all the unexpected joys of life. whee.


7 thoughts on “theoretical beekeeping – some thoughts

  1. I’ve looked into doing this, then discovered a guy down the street raised bees, so there was plenty of pollination action for our farm.

    I’d recommend Russian bees to start with. Select your bees for Hygienic traits. There are bees that will detect mites in brood and remove said brood all on their own. This is a much bigger win for you than medicating the bees. Eventually the mites are no longer impressed by the medication and your bees that can’t deal with the mites on their own are overwhelmed.

    BTW: Killer Bees are hybridized African-European bees. They got the aggressiveness of the Africans but the reproductive and hive size of Europeans. Pure African hives aren’t a huge threat since they tend to be smaller in number than Euro hives. Killer Bees are no joke, but they aren’t the end of the world either. They are kinda like Coy-dogs. Worse than Coyotes, but not the death on wheels that some people would have you believe.

  2. heh – PH, you missed some of my points above. Point the biggest shows with the “select for hygienic traits” comment.

    I’m setting up for swarm bait this year. Now NEXT year…

    OK, first let’s kill that “russian” idea. Russians are innately more hygienic (killing not only varroa but tracheal mites as well). That lasts till you get your next generation of queen. If you use internal regeneration – letting the colony develop and fly a virgin queen to replace the old one – then the crossbreed is a lot less aggressive about housecleaning. Basically, to sustain this particular issue the queen needs to be replaced by a purebreed every year – every two years, at most. Now, the cost isn’t that big a deal (~$35 plus shipping – call it $50 per), not really. But doing this every year grates on my sense of natural balance. If I had to, I would – but there are some alternatives.

    First and foremost, NEXT year I’ll probably buy a VSH queen from Glenn. The cost is higher – this year, for example, the queen was $100 plus $45 for shipping. But – and it’s a huge but – the VSH trait is strong in subsequent generations. It appears to be a dominant genetic trait. This means one buy and I’m more or less sustaining. It also means that any swarms that get away improve the feral populations. And since the VSH trait has been placed in breeds other than Russians, I don’t have to do the Russian Queen dance – trying to get non-Russians to accept a Russian queen (which is a major difficulty, or so I’ve been told.)

    That said, I’ve some other things. One of the reasons for TBH is that it encourages natural size cells. The reports are mixed, but GENERALLY natural (smaller) cells have better control of the mites.

    I’m also going to use a screen floor – possibly a closed screen, but I’ll just have to see about that. In this case the research is consistent – screened floors reduce the mite population.

    I plan to avoid chemicals unless it’s literally life or death (mite population in excess of 50%) and the next trick doesn’t work. There’s this fungus, you see, which has been successfully tested as killing the mites while having no impact on the bees or honey. Fungus impregnated strip is inserted, bees attack it and free (and spread) the fungus, mites ingest and die over the next two weeks.

    So I’m using non-chemical controls that reduce mite populations for a year (if I get a swarm), and then I’ll boost the hive resistance with a VSH of similar breed. Remember – hobby, not second profession.

    I expect to learn a lot, of course.

  3. Learning… in farming operations… usually means something dies.

    To recover from the mistake usually takes a year or longer. (breeding cycles)

    Not trying to discourage you, but it has been an eye opener for me.

  4. PH, wrong breeding cycle – though chickens are closer.

    The only bee still alive in the hive that was alive 60 days ago is the queen. That includes the egglaying cycle.

    That said, the year + recovery is right because of nectar flow.

    Remember, I did a little farm work when I was growing up. It’s why I don’t intend to be a farmer if I can help it — too much like real work, and a lot more risk than most folk recognize. As a hobby, “Well, lost the hive” isn’t the first phrase of a bankruptcy discussion. And if it dies, well, they’re not pets. Or family.

  5. Hmmm… somehow I can imagine that saying “oh dang, we lost another bee” won’t upset me quite as much as “we lost a baby chick last night” Maybe that isn’t fair to the bees. But still… we seem to be learning a lot of things the hard way. And it kind of stinks.

  6. heh – yeah. In addition to my cost assessment, there’s that factor. Been there. I can’t see naming any of the bees – setting aside figuring out which of the several thousand is ‘benjie’, they have far too short a lifespan, and aren’t cuddly. Since I may have to kill a queen, can’t see even naming her.

    As to learning the hard way in your case… yeah. My sympathies.

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