‘Tis the season, and it could be that a special person in your life has expressed an interest in beekeeping. There are many wonderful reasons to take the craft of beekeeping up as a hobby.
Obviously, if you love honey, once you’ve established your honey bee colony you have a reliable source of private label honey. However, if you’re interested in the environment, are concerned about climate change, and many man-made problems changing the face of nature, then becoming a beekeeper is an excellent, personal commitment.
Here’s why. If you haven’t l already heard, honey bees world-wide are dying off in massive numbers due to immune deficiencies, genetic defects, and in the moment navigational difficulties brought on by exposure to agricultural use of pesticides. Honey bees are unable to handle the toxic load and they are teetering on the edge. As a beekeeper, and particularly as an urban beekeeper, you help hold the line keeping honey bees alive while scientist and environmentalists forge a practical global plan for regulating pesticide use, or banning certain pesticides altogether.
In cities, honey bees tend to be encounter fewer toxins. While cities may hold environmental challenges for humans, honey bees are less likely to absorb highly toxic levels of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals as they fly from flower to flower, tree to weed. There are several things to consider in becoming a beekeeper and once you’ve taken a course to gain a basic understanding of honey bee biology, you’ll need to decide which species of bee you want to hive and what kind of hive you want to use.
There are three basic styles of hive box, although new designs are coming out as urban beekeeping becomes as popular, says, as brewing your own beer. Making mead falls into this category, and I’ll eventually write about that micro-brewing niche. But, I digress. The hive style most commonly used today is the Langstroth hive. Next is the Warre hive. The new kid on the block in the U.S. is the top bar hive which is a hive style commonly used in Africa. My bees are hived in a top bar hive and I’ve gone into reasons for this choice elsewhere.
This article lays out a few pros and cons about the features of a basic top bar hive. You can easily build a top bar hive yourself, and free plans are available on the internet. In this article, I review one particular brand of top bar hive that you can order on-line, have delivered to your door, and set up with minimal assembly.
Bee Thinking’s top bar hive. Having my bees in this particular style of hive, I can highlight a few things for you to consider if you before choosing a top bar have for your bees. I’ll cover Warre hives in a separate article but in my view, both the Warre and Langstroth hives have challenges when it comes to the weight and mobility of your honey supers and the hive body itself, should you need to move it.
Whichever you go, don’t be afraid to modify your hive box before installing your bee package next spring. Remember, top bar hives allow bees to build their colony as the bees deem best using their own natural wax foundation and determining bee space. Comb cell sizes are different for female/worker bees and for male/drone bees. Varroa mites take advantage of the larger cells of drones to lay eggs in developing drone larvae. The bigger the cell, the more room for a damaging mite to invade a cell and a healthy larvae. When bees build their own comb and cells, the cell sizes differ from man-made plastic foundation dimensions. Human beings, tragically, have been more interested in pushing for “bigger bees.” Bigger bees mean more honey, but that approach isn’t proving to be a sustainable model or good for honey bees.
I clearly admit to being biased in favor of bees controlling and designing their own bee space, which they’ve done for millions of years!
- cedar construction, no need to paint the hive box other than for aesthetics
- cross brace leg construction ensures good stability; the legs make a great delivery system for the Crisco and Boric acid combination which cuts down on ants in the hive box
- wine corks control entrances bees go in and out of the hive; these are very easy to use
- ventilation openings at the top of the box keep moisture from building up in the hive
- optional feeder jar apparatus
- Additional peaked roof lid assists in managing weather-related dynamics; keeps rain and snow out; provides extra insulation which keeps heat in during cold months; under the removable roof, there is enough space to place a shallow pan of fondant or granulated sugar on top of the colony cluster when it’s too cold to feed sugar syrup
- observation window provides at-a-glance info about the colony; i.e., you can see exactly where your colony is clustered, what comb is cleaned and empty, and in which direction the hive is moving as it expands or contracts
- No spacers; bee space is different for brood comb and honey comb. Honey comb is wider, brood comb is narrower. Spacers provide a “hint” for bees to build honey comb foundation where you want them to. Spacers allow for the extra width of honey comb foundation which has more dimensional depth than brood comb. You can make spacers, and if you go for this particular brand of hive I recommend doing this
- No upper entrance. Bees take cleansing flights on winter days when temperatures climb above 40 degrees F. The Langstroth hive box accommodates this need well. Bee Thinking’s top bar hive does not. If you go for this brand of hive, cut out a 1 inch diameter upper entrance in the middle of the box before installing your bees. The upper entrance hole should be about an inch in diameter, just slightly smaller that the diameter of a wine cork — which is how all the entrances in this style of hive box are closed.
- No adjustable/removable bottom board. This is the most serious disadvantage of this top bar design. A removable or adjustable bottom board makes or better hive management. You need to assess Varroa mite counts and the bees need easy access for removing dead bees and other debris from the hive. Keeping a hive tidy is part of your job, too. A removable/adjustable bottom board that is screwed into place in cold weather is a design change this model of top bar hive would benefit from. I believe it’s worth the extra money. Next spring, my surviving colony will be moved into a top bar hive that has a removable/adjustable bottom board, and the Bee Thinking hive box will be modified before putting in a second colony, or nuc, colony into the old top bar hive.
- Follower boards don’t allow worker bees easy access to the sugar feeder apparatus while excluding the queen from wandering out of the brood chamber. To correct this problem, I will modify my Bee Thinking hive next spring by creating two screened follower boards. I’ve ordered a new top bar hive for splitting my colony (if all goes well) or starting fresh with two colonies next spring. Now that I’ve worked the bees in a top bar hive for a full year, I know what changes to make to the hive that is still in its box waiting for me to experiment with design.
On a scale of 1-10, I give the Bee Thinking top bar hive a 7. The Gold Start top bar hive will be the subject of my next beekeeping equipment review. I’ll offer a similar review on every hive style before you aspiring beekeepers have to decide on a hive, or make your own hive, for spring of 2012.