natural beekeeping

We have plenty of beeswax!

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Pure, sweet-smelling beeswax 🙂

This is what 2.5kg of pure beeswax looks like.

One of the many advantages of Warré hives is that the bees draw new comb each season, meaning the wax is harvested as well as the honey. This produces a lot of lovey chemical-free wax!

(If you’re wondering about the strange patterns, this is the byproduct of pouring the filtered wax into containers that have water at the bottom, to stop the wax sticking.)

Nothing but beeswax, which produces a lovely honey smell when lit

We do a variety of things with the wax, including hand lotion, home-made fire lighters and candles (of course!).

We still have plenty of wax left over, so knock on our door if you’d like to buy some for your own projects 🙂


Rescuing bees from a compost bin

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A week ago I received a call from someone just the other side of Lewisham, saying they had a bee problem. What I found was pretty funny!

Apparently a swarm of bees had taken residence in the backyard compost bin. In an effort to discourage them, the property owners removed the lid. Despite the difficult circumstances, however, they bees kept soldiering on.

The process of rescuing the bees is relatively straightforward. Going in with a knife and hands, the pieces of comb are carefully removed from the hive. They’re then rubber-banded into empty frames.

(You can see a mix of brood — baby bees — on the right, and partially filled honeycomb on the left.)

To encourage the bees to move into their new home, I placed the hive directly on top of the compost bin. Later that night, they apparently all moved into the hive without any complaints.

What’s amazing is that it’s possible to do all this without getting any stings! Despite me literally attacking their hive with a knife, they were relaxed throughout. Phew! (It doesn’t always go this smoothly.)

Last night, the bees were sealed into the hive, ready for their move down to the farm, joining the three hives already in place.

Once they were unsealed, the bees rapidly spread out to ‘re-map’ their new location. Within a few hours, they’d settled down, and this afternoon I did the final clean-ups of the hive, again without any angry bees.

Beekeeping always throws up interesting surprises!

The bees are bearding, early in the season

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While the winter and spring has been dry in Sydney, it’s still a great place for the bees.

Even early in the season, several of our hives have been “bearding”. This is where the hive is getting very full — and therefore hot — and a bunch of the bees head out of the hive.

Some of the bees fan cool air into the hive, while others climb up the side of the hive as a “beard”. A few days after this video was shot,  we harvested our first box of honey. I think it’s going to be a busy season!

Creating a horizontal WarrĂ© hive

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I’m a big fan of WarrĂ© hives, and I have five in total, with most in Sydney and a growing number at Lewisham Farm down the coast.

When I was first learning from Tim Malfroy, he showed what he called a “coffin hive”, but I’d prefer to call a “Horizontal WarrĂ© hive” (much less scary!).

With a little bit of spare time at the end of winter, I decided to make one of my own.

My horizontal Warré, with the lid off to show the arrangement of the frames

This is basically a WarrĂ© version of a Kenyan top bar hive (there’s also a “long Langstroth” that I’ve seen pictures of). It holds the equivalent of three boxes worth of frames, give or take.

There’s an entrance at both ends, although one is normally kept closed

It offers some of the advantages of a top-bar hive, such as easy access to the hive, with no heavy lifting. It has an entrance at both ends, which can be used to easily split a hive in summer to create two hives (the second entrance is normally kept closed).

It’s obviously also interoperable with a normal WarrĂ© hive, which makes it more versatile.

The hive with the plywood lid on

It’s important that the hive doesn’t warp, otherwise the frames won’t fit. So I constructed the hive from 30mm thick recycled hardwood (mostly Sugar Gum).

I was able to get the wood at half price from the odd-ends pile at my local lumber yard, but it still ran to $403 of materials. So not a cheap experiment, but something worthwhile nonetheless.

Now I just have to catch a swarm, and I’ll be off and running!

I’ll report on how the hive works as the season progresses, watch this space…

The first beehive arrives at Lewisham Farm

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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 original home for the hive in Canberra

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.

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Moving the hive was a lot easier with a trolly and ramps for the ute!

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!

We’re looking forward to sitting on the verandah, watching the bees at work

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 🙂

Wooden beehive lifter (version 1.5)

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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 WarrĂ© 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 hive lifter in action!
The hive lifter in action!

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 lifter from the front, showing the two lifting arms made from shelving brackets
The hive lifter from the front, showing the two lifting arms made from shelving brackets

The hive design also uses support brackets for shelving in retail stores, which are amazingly lightweight and strong.

The back of the hive lifter, showing the placement of the ratchet winch.
The back of the hive lifter, showing the placement of the ratchet winch.

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.

Comparing the second (smaller) winch to the original one. Much lighter!
Comparing the second (smaller) winch to the original one. Much lighter!

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…


Cross-linked comb and a big honey harvest

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Honey bees making their own patterns...
Honey bees making their own patterns…

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.

Extracting the honeycomb as one big cake...
Extracting the honeycomb as one big cake…

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.

Not a bad harvest for one weekend!
Not a bad harvest for one weekend!

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!

Three busy beehives on our roof (a video)

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Three full-sized beehives on our roof
Three full-sized beehives on our roof

At the end of last season, I moved some of my hives around, and I’ve now got a full complement of three WarrĂ© hives on our roof.

All of them are at either four or five boxes high, which is generally considered (in Sydney) to be a full-sized hive. And while the on-and-off-again rain has been annoying for Sydneysiders, it’s been great for everyone’s gardens. The result has been plenty of flowering, and busy times for our hives.

I’ve made our first harvest of the season, a full-box of honey from my first hive, yielding 9 litres of honey. I don’t expect this to last more than a week, with a pile of back-orders from friends and the local cafes.

But pictures speak louder than words, and this brief video shows how busy our hives are:

Hollow trees: the natural home for bees

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I’ve always known that hollows in trees are the natural home for bees, but this was reinforced when several trees were cut down over the road.

The camphor laurels were lifting the foundations of the church, and weren’t in a great state anyway. So they had to go.

Hollow trunks in camphor laurels, perfect as a home for bees.
Hollow trunks in camphor laurels, perfect as a home for bees.

The pieces of trunk left behind demonstrate clearly how big a hollow can be within a tree. No wonder I keep finding wild hives in camphor laurel trees, including two in nearby Petersham Park.

The hollows went right down into the ground, making a huge internal space.
The hollows went right down into the ground, making a huge internal space.

Rescuing bees from a rotten poplar tree

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A bee hive at home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree.
A bee hive at home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree.

A week ago I received a call from Gavin, my bee buddy, about a wild hive in a local tree. The bees had made their home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree, one of a row of trees that were all marked to be removed as part of a native revegitation activity by Marrickville Council.

The arborists were up for helping remove the hive, as long as some beekeepers were ready to deal with the actual bees.

Off comes the top of the tree!
Off comes the top of the tree!

The starting point was to take off the top of the tree, which the arborist did at the highest point he could reach. The hollow extended past the fork of the tree, and a small number of bees immediately started using their new hive access…

The tree now cut free at its base.
The tree now cut free at its base.

With the support of the on-truck crane, the arborist (equipped with a borrowed veil) cut through the base of the tree. It was then laid down on the ground, read for us to start work.

Yup, that's a hollow tree!
Yup, that’s a hollow tree!

It was amazing to see how rotted out the tree was, and apparently this is a common problem with poplars. (Of note, there’s research that says that bees benefit from fungi, which assists their immune systems.)

Once the tree was on the ground, I started vacuuming up the bees using a ‘beevac’. This is essentially the same as a sawdust collector that catches material before it gets to the vacuum cleaner, only in this case it’s a collector for bees. (Sorry, no photo of this, I was too busy using the beevac!)

Cutting open the tree.
Cutting open the tree.

With the further assistance of the brave aborist, we opened up the hive, by chainsawing off slices of the trunk. We were then able to cut out and remove the comb, which was a mix of brood and honey.

The remains of an amazing natural hive.
The remains of an amazing natural hive.

Once we’d worked our way along the full length of the trunk, it became fully apparent how large the hive was. It was a very healthy colony, with no signs of pests or diseases, and plenty of activity.

The bees transferred into a new hive.
The bees transferred into a new hive.

Once finished, we emptied the box of vacuumed-up bees into a Kenyan top-bar hive, along with the brood comb. We then left the bees to hopefully settle into their new home.

What surprised everyone was how relaxed the bees were. Despite attacking their home with a chainsaw over the period of an hour, they didn’t go on attack. The aborist received one minor sting on his wrist where his glove had pulled up, but there were otherwise no stings at all.

A truly amazing morning, and great experience for a new beekeeper such as myself.

(Postscript: the bees decided they didn’t like their new home, and the flew away the following day. Ah well, at least they were saved from the woodchipper, and hopefully they’ll find themselves another good home. Better luck next time for us beekeepers!)