natural beekeeping

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.

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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!

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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 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 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 Warré 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!)

Creating an open-source Kenyan top-bar beehive

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As a result of a mention in New Scientist, I stumbled across the Open Source Beehive project, which aims to do two things: create simple plans for bee hives that can be used by all, and to design sensors that can monitor the hives.

The core of the project are plans for both Warré and Kenyan (Colorado) top-bar hives that can be cut out a single sheet of plywood. The hives are designed to be produced using a CNC (computer-controlled) cutting machine.

I loved this idea, as it brought together two of my passions: beekeeping and technology.

A CNC-cut Kenyan hive

Kenyan (Colorado) hives are different from traditional hives in that they run horizontally, rather than vertically. Shaped like a horse trough, the bees draw comb on simple top-bars that run across the hive.

I downloaded the plans, and sourced a local company who could cut the pieces, the very friendly Big City Productions in Alexandria.

The CNC cutting machine in action, creating the pieces for my hive.
The CNC cutting machine in action, creating the pieces for my hive.

It’s an amazing thing to see the the fully automated machine work across the sheet of ply, cutting out even the most intricate of pieces. An hour later, the hive was completed. The total cost, including the cost of a sheet of eco-friendly hoop pine ply and the use of the CNC machine, was about $400.

The result is a pile of pieces that beautifully slot together without screws or nails. All that was left to do was to protect the hive with a few coats of linseed oil.

The fully assembled Kenyan top-bar hive.
The fully assembled Kenyan top-bar hive.

Now for the bees

Only a few weeks later I received a call about a swarm of bees in Ashfield. Hanging from a tree directly beside the footpath, this was a big swarm. It was also rather protective, as attested by the multiple stings I receiving while catching the swarm in a box.

While waiting for the bees to all follow the queen into the box, a mother and her kids walked by. After congratulating me for “looking after the bees, as they’re dying out”, she casually mentioned “and you know about the wild hive?”. Um, no?

Bees flying into their wild hive in the trunk of a tree.
Bees flying into their wild hive in the trunk of a tree.

Just a dozen metres away, on a major road, she showed me a lovely wild hive in the rotted-out trunk of a camphor laurel tree. I think I caught the prime (first) swarm from this wild hive.

The bees climbing up a white sheet, into their new home. Amazing!
The bees climbing up a white sheet, into their new home. Amazing!

I took the swarm home, and shook it out onto a white sheet, leading up to the entrance of my new Kenyan top-bar hive. What happened next is one of the true wonders of nature: the bees started climbing the sheet, and once they found the entrance to the hive, they started streaming in.

Tens of thousands of bees, all piling into the hive, within the space of 20mins. Amazing!

A vigorous but aggressive hive

Bees flying into the new hive.
Bees flying into the new hive.

From the outset, the hive proved to be incredibly vigorous. Within a few days it was foraging as strongly as my 18-month-old main hive. When we opened it up a fortnight after it was established, half of the entire hive was brood. Within just a few more weeks, it was completely full of drawn comb.

That’s the good news. The bad news was that the hive was very aggressive, attacking me the moment I opened up the hive. It also had a nasty tendency to sting people when they were just walking near the hive.

(That would seem to reinforce the idea that by breeding docile bees, we’ve potentially also weakened them in terms of their vigor and disease resistance.)

While the hive was placed in the land of the former convent, well away from people, it came to the attention of the church. Who — not unreasonably — asked them to be moved to a new home.

The hive in the back of my ute, on its way to a new home.
The hive in the back of my ute, on its way to a new home.

By amazing coincidence, a cousin had just completed a beekeeping course, specialising in top-bar hives. (What’s the chances of that!) Living on the far South coast, he was looking for bees to get him started.

So at Christmas I took the hive down South, in my new ute. Where it was handed over to my cousin, for the rest of the trip to its new home in the trees.

My top-bar hive, in its new home amongst the trees.
My top-bar hive, in its new home amongst the trees.

I’m pleased to see the hive end up in the hands of someone passionate about natural beekeeping, in such a lovely bushland setting.

Lessons learned

The idea of creating a hive from a sheet of plywood is a great one, and the open-source plans worked well. Since the creation of my hive, the Open Source Beehives project has continued to evolve the plans, resolving a few issues with the original design.

Would I recommend others to use these plans? Absolutely, yes.

The bees bearding at the front entrance of the hive, within a month of the hive being established.
The bees bearding at the front entrance of the hive, within a month of the hive being established.

The only proviso is this: in Australian conditions, the Kenyan hive is probably too small. It has the interior volume equivalent to 2-3 Warré boxes, which isn’t a lot.

Within 6 weeks of my hive being established, it had already re-swarmed. This was no doubt due to the large size of the swarm, and its strength. I suspect it won’t be the last time it swarms this season.

I’ve suggested to the open-source folks that they consider creating a larger version of the Kenyan plan, perhaps cut out of a couple of sheets of ply. We’ll see if they take up the idea.

Watch the video

While I haven’t ended up with a top-bar hive, it’s been an incredibly interesting journey, from cutting and assembling the hive, to catching the swarm.

I’ve documented this in the video at the top of the post. Enjoy!

Onwards to the next project…