natural beekeeping

Creating an open-source Kenyan top-bar beehive

Posted on

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…

First honey harvest for the season

Posted on Updated on

10 frames from my main bee hive, bursting with honey
10 frames from my main bee hive, bursting with honey

In Sydney, honey bees never go completely dormant over winter. With not even frost where we live, they can keep foraging on the native plants that flower during winter.

With the two weeks of solid rain at the beginning of spring, absolutely everything is in flower at the moment. That makes for a very strong ‘honey flow’, and abundant early harvests.

Last week I was therefore able to take the first harvest from my main hive. On a very warm Saturday morning, I had the help of a bunch of other local natural beekeepers (organised via the Natural beekeeping in Australian and NZ mailing list.)

The whole top box (8 frames) were totally full of honey, some laid down over winter (dark in colour), and some fresh from recent flowerings (light in comparison). We also harvested two frames from the box below, making 10 frames in total!

The honey press, filled to the brim with honeycomb, ready for extraction.
The honey press, filled to the brim with honeycomb, ready for extraction.

Making use of the Sydney bee club‘s honey press, I was able to harvest 13.75 litres of honey. That’s a good start to the season!

Honey pouring out!
Honey pouring out!

That makes for plenty of jars, so give us a yell when you see us about and about, and we’ll sell you a jar or two 🙂

Swarms and more swarms

Posted on Updated on

A small wild hive in the bushes at a friend's house.
A small wild hive in the bushes at a friend’s house, caught after a bit of tree trimming…

This blog has been a bit quiet because it’s been full-on swarming season in Sydney. This has made a mess of my plans, as I drop everything and rush off to catch bees.

With such a warm winter, and plenty of early Spring rain, the bees have all decided to spread out to new homes.

So far I’ve caught six swarms:

  • Castle Hill: as previously blogged, an easy going swarm in a tree, caught by cutting off the tree branch and shaking into a box.
  • Maroubra: also up a tree, but high enough to make it quite a challenge, with success only coming by nightfall.
  • Ashfield: a prime swarm (the first big swarm from a hive), from a nearby wild beehive in a tree trunk (more on this one later).
  • Beaconsfield: a small wild hive  — complete with comb — in a bush (see above). This was in the front of a good friend’s house and after trimming the bush, I was able to shake the bees into a box, then take the remaining comb.
  • Next door: a win for my bait hive (see below), catching a good strong swarm.
  • Drummoyne: a wild hive high up in a tree — got stung a lot trying to catch it, and still didn’t get the queen — will have to go back for another try.
  • Ashfield (again): another swarm from the same tree trunk, this time smaller and very conveniently located at chest height.

Some of the swarms I’ve kept, and others I’ve given to local natural beekeepers who have all the boxes, but no bees (good karma in a future life). I’m sure these won’t be the last swarms of the season…

PS. The next few posts will also be about bees, but I promise we’ll get back to wider eco and permaculture topics shortly! 🙂

One of my new bait hives, established beside the former convent, next door to our house. Within a fortnight it caught a swarm!
One of my new bait hives, established beside the former convent, next door to our house. Within a fortnight it caught a swarm!

A swarm of bees travels from Castle Hill to Lewisham

Posted on

The swarm of bees, hanging off a tree branch
The swarm of bees, hanging off a tree branch

On Sunday I received a call from a Daniel, fellow beekeeper, to say that a swarm had been reported in Castle Hill.

Since I’m in the market for bees, I dropped everything and headed out North West. (Luckily I’ve been keeping a complete “swarm kit” in my boot for this purpose.)

The property is owned by Ron, who has a single Lansgstroth hive in his front garden. He actually saw the swarm leave his hive, and fly up into the adjacent tree.

Not the most convenient place for the swarm to land...
Not the most convenient place for the swarm to land (you can see Ron’s hive in the background, painted green).

While the swarm was a good size, it was 10′ up the tree, making logistics a bit challenging. With the help of Ron, we pulled the branch down a little with rope. I then went up the ladder, and sawed off the branch.

The swarm was shaken into my waiting boxes...
The swarm was shaken into my waiting boxes…

My hive was setup on the ground, with frames in the bottom box, and the top box empty. I shook the bees from the branch into the hive, but a heap of bees were still flying around.

We waited. After 10mins, the number of flying bees was visibly less. After 15mins, pretty much all the bees were in the hive, and I declared victory. The lid went on, and the hive was strapped up for the drive home.

When I got home, I took the bees up on the roof, and opened up the box. Within minutes there was a huge cloud of bees around the house, which was very odd!

As it turned out, the bees swarmed again the moment I opened up the box. And then decided that the bait hive sitting just 50cms away would be much better, and they swarmed into that.

So all’s well that ended well, and I’m the proud owner of two hives of bees 🙂

Now I just need some bees for my new top-bar hive, and for a hive at a friend’s house…

Another natural beekeeping Q&A session coming up in Sydney (September 2014)

Posted on Updated on

Lewisham_20131124_6603_trim

Most of the natural beekeeping folks in Australia were originally trained by Tim Malfroy (including me). He is without a doubt the leading local expert in this space.

So it’s great to hear that Milkwood have organised another natural beekeeping Q&A session, in Sydney on September 6.

The last one was great, for the networking opportunity, as well as the chance to learn more about the wonderfully complex field of beekeeping.

I’ll be there, hope to see you there too!

Natural beekeeping is growing in Australia

Posted on

Harvesting honey at the last natural beekeeping gathering in Sydney.
Harvesting honey at the last natural beekeeping gathering in Sydney.

A few months ago there was an informal gathering of natural beekeepers in Sydney, organised via the Natural beekeeping (Australia & NZ) mailing list.

A bunch of us trooped up to Hornsby, to spend a very enjoyable afternoon chatting about our experiences as Warré beekeepers. We also discussed native beeps, harvested some honey, ate some delicious home-baked bread, and sampled some mead (strong stuff!).

Sydney

Another informal gathering has been organised for Sydney, details as follows:

Darlo Village Hotel
Tuesday 3 June 2014 at 6.30 pm

All are welcome!

Melbourne

Warwick Bone has also indicated that there’s  a natural neekeeping group in Melbourne, a Special Interest Group under the auspices of Permaculture Victoria.

They meet the third Monday of the month, at Borderland Cooperative, 2 Minona St, Hawthorn, 7PM – 9PM.

A growing movement

There’s now a real sense of energy in the natural beekeeping community, and this will only grow as we continue to gather together. Natural beekeeping is now a regular topic of discussion in the (otherwise-conventional) Sydney Bee Club, and I can only imagine this is happening in other bee clubs.

Diversity breeds resilience, so it’s very encouraging to see so many different types of beekeeping now being practiced, often side-by-side.

To keep in the loop on all this, join the Natural beekeeping mailing list.

Many shades of honey

Posted on Updated on

Two jars of Lewisham honey, harvested a few months apart
Two jars of Lewisham honey, harvested a few months apart

The thing about urban honey is that the bees forage from a huge variety of trees and flowers, depending entirely on what people are growing in their gardens.

This makes every honey harvest a ‘hybrid’ affair, rather than being a ‘pure strain’ honey like manuka honey, or blackbox honey.

The photo above shows how varied the harvests can be. The honey on the left was harvest in December 2013, while the honey on the right was collected in March 2014. Just four months apart, and all from the one hive, but so different!

We like the surprise that comes with each harvest 🙂

Starting up a second hive (also on our roof)

Posted on Updated on

Our new bees, busy already!
Our new bees, busy already!

Our first hive is going extremely well, with over 30 litres of honey harvested so far, and plenty of warm weather left yet.

But why stop with just one hive! We have plans to sell our honey to the two local cafes that are less than 100m from our house.

It turns out they each use over 1kg of honey a week (!). So one hive produces more than a single family (with many friends) can consume, but not enough for semi-commercial use.

Last Wednesday I therefore headed up to Hornsby Beekeeping to pick up another package of bees. Once I got back home, I “poured” the bees into the new hive without difficulties.

The new hive is coming up on a week old, and seems to be going fine. I’ll give it another week, and then will check that the queen has settled in OK.

Our beekeeping family grows 🙂

Yesterday’s heat and today’s honey harvest

Posted on

Our beehive hiding from the sun.
Our beehive hiding from the sun.

Hot weather

Honey bees work as an amazing ‘superorganism’ that maintains the hive as a single working entity. This includes keeping the inside temperature at a warm 35°C, regardless of the outside weather.

Which is fine, except when the outside temperature is at (or greater than) 35°C, at which point having 50,000 bees in a hive tends to make it overheat. In response, the bees “beard”, hanging on the outside of the hive to keep things cool.

Sydney is just at the beginning of a hot few weeks, including a 36°C day yesterday. So to give the hive some extra protection, I leaned up a plywood sheet for shade, as shown in the picture above.

Even so, when I got home at 8:30pm at night, the bees were bearding massively on the outside of the hive. Priscilla also rang me to say that birds were trying to have a drink at the bird bath, but were being driven away by the bees. Apparently it made for quite a sight!

Harvesting honey

Thankfully today was a cooler day, so I took the opportunity to open up the hive.

Lucky I did, as I ended up harvesting two full boxes of honey (16 frames in total). That’s a lot of honey!

With comb in all the other boxes, no wonder the bees were hot: the hive was full. I’ve now added two empty boxes, which should give them a bit more space, helping them to keep cool in the hot weather.

Now to drain out the honey and fill some jars. I think this will easily come to 20L of honey, or more  🙂

Our first beeswax

Posted on

Our first block of beeswax (fork just for scale -- not for eating!)
Our first block of beeswax (fork just for scale — not for eating!)

One of the upsides of our hive catastrophe is that it provided a lot of honeycomb. After the honey was harvested, the rest was ready to be processed into beeswax.

There were a few steps in the process, including the use of our home-built solar wax melter (the topic of a future post). The photo above shows the final result.

It’s a lovely yellow colour, and hopefully pretty pure. Now we just have to work out what to do with it!

Possibilities include:

  • beeswax candles
  • lip balm
  • ointments (combined with various essential oils, etc)
  • furniture wax

Any other suggestions?