The plan for our new farm includes a having a number of beehives, to complement the three we already have in Sydney.
So when I heard through the grapevine that a Canberra-based beekeeper was looking to downsize their collection of Warré hives, I jumped on it. Beekeeping does end up taking quite a bit of time, so its no wonder that many beekeepers end up trimming down the number of hives they keep.
The hive was in a community garden, where it was happily surrounded by vegetables and fruit trees.
Preparations were made the night before the move, putting on a ventilated lid, sealing up the entrance, and strapping everything tightly. It was then just a matter of getting the hive onto the ute, for the 2.5 hour drive down to the coast.
Within ten minutes of opening the hive back up the bees were busy flying around, surveying their new location. While there isn’t a huge amount flowering on the farm (it’s mostly rainforest), we do have several hectares of weeds that will keep them going!
The plan is is to add a second Warré hive, and a Kenyan top-bar hive, and then see how we go from there. And once we get our plantings underway, they will be very happy hives 🙂
When you drive into the countryside, you often see hives placed in fields, or beside the road. By themselves, or in a cluster, these hives seem perfectly suited to their location.
In urban settings, there are no wide open fields. Hives can’t be placed in forest clearings to catch the honey flow. There is no space to use mechanical aids to lift or move hives.
In many ways, however, urban areas are ideal for bees. There is a constant supply of flowering plants — even during dry times — thanks to the constant watering of household gardens.
Urban hives often prosper, and many inner-city residents are delighted to see more bees in their area.
The challenge remains to put the hives in a practical location, working within constraints and limitations. This post starts with a few guiding principles, and then outlines a checklist of factors to consider.
Use these to assess potential locations for your hive(s), to make your life — and your neighbours! — easier.
- it must be safe to work on the hive
- there must be sufficient space to work efficiently
- the hive will prosper in its environment
- problems with neighbours or other locals will be avoided
❏ It’s possible to get a full, heavy hive in and out of the location (on a trolley for example)
❏ Ideally the hive can be accessed without going through the house (beekeeping is a sticky hobby!)
❏ Ideally, the hive is placed on a flat surface (level ground, or a flat roof)
❏ There’s a solid foundation or platform for the hive to sit on (hives can get heavy!)
❏ The hive won’t flood during heavy rain, or have its foundation eroded away
❏ No tenancy rules are broken (for example, a hive may not be allowed on a balcony of a block of flats)
❏ House lights don’t shine on the hive at night (otherwise bees will fly in through open windows and doors)
❏ Windows and doors overlooking the hive entrance should be protected by flyscreen, wherever possible
❏ The hives isn’t adjacent to any sensitive locations (such as a childcare centre next door, busy dog park, etc)
❏ The neighbours have been told about the hive and are happy for it to be there (promises of free honey often help!)
Access and working area
❏ There is at least 9 square m of working space around the hive (3m x 3m)
❏ The space around the hive is solid and easy to work on (ie no bushes, loose rocks, slippery surfaces)
❏ There is space to stand and work behind the hive (the safest location)
❏ It’s possible to get a hive lifter (or other necessary equipment) behind the hive
❏ There should be sufficient space for 3 people to work on the hive (one owner, and two helpers or novices)
❏ There are clear escape routes if — heaven forbid! — something goes wrong, and you are faced with a hive of very angry bees
❏ There’s no height restriction (a particular consideration for Warre hives, which can get very tall)
❏ Ideally, the entrance to the hive should face East (although the bees seem to cope fine if this isn’t the case)
❏ There must be a clear flight line in front of the hive, of at least 3m
❏ Any fences in the flight line must be far enough away, or low enough, not to impede the movement of the bees
❏ In cold areas, the hive should receive winter sun
❏ In hot areas, the hive should be protected from the full summer sun
❏ Ideally, it should be easy to monitor the hive entrance throughout the year (eg a sight line from the balcony, deck, window, etc)
❏ Hives should ideally have a relatively placid temperament, to avoid the situation of angry bees attacking the neighbours
❏ There should be a reasonable number of hives in the location, so as not to cause nuisance or safety issues
Bending the rules
In urban areas, hive owners face many practical constraints. The balcony might be quite small, or the back yard heavily sloping. The courtyard may be flat and sunny, but surrounded by high walls. Plantings may impede the working area around the hive.
Rules can be bent or even broken, but with care and due consideration. Every compromise must be understood, and always go back to the guiding principles.
Safety must always be a prime consideration, not just for the apiarist but for neighbours and visitors.
Three of my hives are on the roof of our house, for example. This has restricted access (ladder required!), but there is 100sq m of flat roof to work on. This would not have been my first choice, but our backyard was too small for hives. Having implemented a few safety improvements, this location is entirely workable.
If you really don’t have a good location for bees, don’t despair! Many people would love to have bees in their gardens, and be a host for your hive. The general rule is that the honey harvests are split 50/50, but that still leaves plenty for everyone. More importantly, it allows you to be a true beekeeper, and to benefit from an amazing experience.
We’ve had a week of warm weather in Sydney, and this has kicked off “swarm season”. This is where happy hives all across Sydney decide it’s time to divide into two: one group staying in the hive, and the second group off to find a new home.
I’ve already caught two swarms, one in Camperdown, the other in Rozelle. Both are fairly big, so they’re likely to be “prime swarms”, the first (and largest) swarm from each hive.
Both swarms are now happily in hives, temporarily sitting in our front garden. Later this week, they’ll be heading down to Kangaroo Valley, to some eco friends of ours who live in the middle of a jungle. Lucky bees!
While Warré beekeeping is more natural than conventional beekeeping, there are a few practical challenges.
In Warré hives, empty boxes are added to the bottom of the stack (nadiring), rather than being added to the top. This is great for the bees, as it allows them to naturally keep growing comb downwards. It also eliminates all the management needed of brood boxes in conventional beekeeping.
The downside is that the boxes above need to be lifted in order to insert the empty box. Now maybe this isn’t an issue in Europe, where hives are smaller, but it’s a challenge here in Australia. It’s sometimes necessary to lift four boxes, each of which weight 20-30kg. Heave ho!
Now the boxes can be ‘unstacked’, and then restacked with the empty box on the bottom. This is straightforward when the hive is friendly and relaxed, but I have two hives that are a bit ‘tetchy’. They’re wary when I’m working in the top box, and when I break apart the hive, they go wild, attacking in mass. Not good.
Now Warré outlined the design of a ‘hive lifter’ in his book, and this is shown in greater detail in later natural beekeeping books. So it seemed time to build myself a hive lifter!
Making a wooden hive lifter
The starting point was David Heaf’s excellent page on hive lifters. This outlined a range of designs, and I started with the first one, the guillotine-like design my Marc Gatineau.
I used lightweight Australian native hardwood for the main pieces, and then routed a slot in the verticals to allow the back-piece to run freely. I obtained a small winch from Aliexpress in China, which cost more in shipping than in the product itself.
However, it didn’t run freely. Under the weight of the hive boxes, the guillotine-like mechanism of the backboard running in slots jammed repeatedly. The problem being the tilting force from the lifting arms.
Back to the drawing board.
Version 1.1 took inspiration from Andy Collins‘ lift. To allow things to run freely, it uses drawer runners, which I ordered from I.R.S.
The hive design also uses support brackets for shelving in retail stores, which are amazingly lightweight and strong.
This one worked! At least for a bit, until the supporting plywood buckled under the weight of use.
Versions 1.2 and 1.3 reinforced various elements of the hive lifter design.
Version 1.4 replaced the big ratchet winch with a much smaller and lighter one. The small one is still more than strong enough.
Which I discovered when I over-cranked the lifter when raising a hive, and pulled apart some of the parts with the sheer force of even this tiny winch.
Version 1.5 was further reinforced and tweaked, and is the currently operating version. (Until I made one from metal, which I’ll outline in a future post).
All up, it’s not a complex thing to build, the the cost is no more than $100 of parts, plus a few weekend’s worth of time. (Compared to $1000 for the cheapest comparable commercial offering.)
And it makes an enormous difference when working with hives, particularly during the super-busy summer harvesting season…
A family of possums live in the trees behind our house, and every night they walk across our roof and around our back fence. While adorable in theory, in reality they ate our green roof, nibble on our ferns, and when really hungry, head to the front garden to munch through our vege patch.
What we recently discovered is that they also love honeycomb.
To extract honey, I use a fruit press to squeeze the honeycomb. What’s left over is a thick lump of wax, honey and detritus. I left this on the back verandah for the bees to re-collect the honey, back into the hive.
One night, when watching TV, we heard heavy movements on the varandah. Turning on the lights, there was a possum, munching through the lumps, as bold as day. It was so fearless, I had to wrestle the tray off the possum, who was very reluctant to let it go.
The next night, we found the possum munching the left-over bits off the honey press. The cheek!
Who knew that possums love honeycomb?
A few years back I reviewed the excellent ebook Swarm Traps and Bait Hives. This outlines the simplest way to get free bees: lure a local swarm into a ‘bait hive’ placed at a strategic location.
The idea is that the temporary hive is a more attractive option that a tree hollow, a chimney or the cavity in the walls of a house. Once the bees have settled into the bait hive, it can be moved to a new location, and established as a permanent hive.
This season I set up a number of bait hives. These consisted of two boxes with frames, a flat lid, and a specially-made base. Out of the five bait hives I established, I had a success with one. Pretty good, considering that the strange weather this year really limited the number of swarms that were about.
Watch the video above to see my bait hive strapped to the side of a tree.
One of the boxes of honey I harvested over the weekend shows what happens when bees “don’t follow the rules”. This is how they draw comb in the wild, in a space-filling organic pattern.
This is fine for the bees, but a bit of a hassle when harvesting. The only way to get it out is in one big ‘cake’ of comb, which is then cut away in pieces. Which actually proved to be fairly straightforward in practice, thankfully.
In total, I harvested a box of honey from two of my hives, generating a big honey harvest. 15 litres in total, divided up into 3 x 3kg tubs, 3 x 1kg tubs, 15 jars and 3 squeeze bottles.
Considering my 9 litre harvest from last weekend has already been sold out, I don’t expect this harvest will last long either!