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!

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…

A swarm of bees travels from Castle Hill to Lewisham

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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…