Top Bar Hives, warts and all

This article first appeared in BBKA News, January 2020.


Over the 9 years I’ve been using horizontal TBHs (HTBHs), I’ve seen many experiments in design and use. This article is intended to help those considering one find their way through conflicting advice.

Some early HTBH guides essentially promoted a gentle style of conventional beekeeping in an odd shaped hive which was regularly manipulated. Since then, enthusiasts in the UK have consistently found that allowing local bees to largely run the well-insulated non-framed hive, which is not treated with miticides and only opened occasionally, makes varroa a non-issue.

This survival rate graph indicates this ‘natural’ or low-intervention approach creates colonies at least as resilient as the more intensively ‘farmed’ bees. (Though BBKA surveys ignore colonies under 5 frames going into winter.)

Allowing the bees themselves to determine how the colony is run, and taking a ‘survival of the fittest’ (Darwinian) aproach, I do not replace queens. With six hives, I view a colony failure as simply weeding out the weak and an opportunity to restock with a swarm from a stronger strain. I do not merge weak colonies as there is no way to tell which queen is fitter. Continue reading

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ONBG meeting, October 2019: Hive envy!

Hive envy. Centre: Einraumbeute; behind it, an Eco Tree Hive from; either side: sections of Roseland Hex Hives

17 folk converged on a north Oxfordshire village to share lunch, view some stunning and unusual hives, discuss When Honey Goes Wrong, and view the feral colonies round the village.

Well, that was the plan. The schedule was instantly junked as people spotted the weird hives in the garden and gathered there like bees drawn to honey to peer and prod, and listen to their makers discuss the finer points of how they dealt with condensation, the suitability of cork as a building material, single vs double walls (bees can’t get to outer walls to seal cracks vs rain so careful construction is required), and general operating principles. Continue reading

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Convergent theories

Not the usual haunt of natural beeks

A potential problem with a natural beekeeping group is: members never talk to conventional beekeepers. So 14 of us visited a large (80 hive) commercial apiary… with a twist. It’s run by the Swindon Honeybee Conservation Group, headed by Ron Hoskins, who has been keeping bees since 1943 and is as skeptical about conventional beekeeping practises as he is about ours! However he came to some similar conclusions… about 20 years before natural beekeepers did!

Ron is famous for observing – way before anyone else, back in 1995 – that some of his hives were naturally resistant to varroa, and then using conventional bee breeder techniques to meticulously conserve and amplify these traits. He’s also the most experienced beekeeper I know so well worth listening to for the gems he drops into conversation.

The key difference between his system and ours is that he selects the parents of their bees, based on rigorous measurements of varroa resistance traits in their parent hives, whereas we natural beekeepers permit open mating and let natural selection winnow the unfit ones out. So you would expect the Swindon bees’ varroa resistance to be much stronger than our bees’, and to arrive at it faster, but our bees to have more genetic diversity. The truth is more nuanced. Continue reading

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Learning from the Bees, Berlin – bees au naturel!

The second international Learning from the Bees conference featured a recurring theme: bees in trees. It left two lasting impressions on me:

  • It will influence German beekeeping for years to come, catalysing the spread of natural beekeeping;
  • A paradigm-changing insight making me re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about bees.

So, nothing much to report…

Here, I’ll discuss German beekeeping, how bees live in the wild and what we can learn from this, and related stuff I learned about trees, forests, hives and some cool stuff like a varroa-devouring mite. Let’s start with trees, as other subjects flow from this…

Continue reading

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ONBG+ meeting, August 2019: insulation, cavity size, Golden Hives

Warré hives in Gareth’s apiary. Image (c) Ann Welch 2019

The Oxfordshire group invited members from the neighbouring Hampshire and Wye Valley natural beekeeping groups to join us for a joint meeting at Gareth’s apiary – 34 people from 7 counties converged for the session. These annual co-events allow for wider networking than one group can provide.

The meeting lasted all afternoon and was in 3 sections: an informal opportunity to chat over a bring-and-share meal, a lecture by Gareth presenting the latest findings on insulation and cavity size, and an apiary visit focusing on the Einraumbeutes (Golden Hives) which Gareth has been experimenting with for the last 2 years. Continue reading

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ONBG meeting, July 2019 – what makes a good hive?

Foreground: cork insulated TBH with hinged lid; background: converted National with copper roof and internal cork insulation to give internal Warre dimensions

19 of us converged on the beautiful village of Long Crendon to discuss and admire a variety of hives built by Eric. This led to a wide ranging discussion of a plethora of hive types and their tradeoffs.

Background – season’s overview: This has been an exceptional year for Oxfordshire bees. Broadly speaking, there has been ideal weather and forage for longer, allowing bees to swarm early and often, and prepare for an unusually pronounced June Gap (nectar dearth) which caught out fewer colonies than usual. We’ve collected at least twice as many swarms as last year, and three of the colonies these founded have themselves swarmed – “swarms from swarms” – a very rare event, the bees cramming in an extra reproductive cycle this season.

Eric’s hives

Most people choose one hive type, then continue with it so equipment is standardised. Eric however is more experimental and not interested in drastic interventions like swapping combs between hives, and the abundance of swarms this year has permitted him to populate hives as fast as he can build them. We saw seven, all different, and I think he has more elsewhere.

Eric began with a vigorous swarm a few years ago which he named St Trinians, who saw off all problems. In this first photo they are on the right, essentially unbothered by the wasps plaguing the small new colony on the left. The left hand Warré has a wasp guard fitted, a mesh tube. The bees learn that the  entrance is at the end of the tube but predators try to enter where the hive smells are strongest, next to the mesh-covered entrance. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Continue reading

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At the village fete

We were asked to demo “bees” at our local village fete, so Keith and I obliged with a stand displaying various Stuff for people to touch, smell etc and answered Questions.

The organisers had originally assumed that we were going to bring a hive full of bees, and been Very Excited about this… until we pointed out the health & safety implications! (Of course our main concern was the risk to the bees from comb collapse, lost foragers and general stress, but sometimes one simple point is a more effective argument than many!)

It was a Very Hot Day, over 30C; we had to move our sunshade at one point to stop some sample comb from melting. But to put this in context it was 10C hotter in France, which must have been unbearable. Several people assumed I was very hot in the suit, but it’s a ventilated one and with just shorts and T shirt underneath I was fine: it was a very thorough test of this style. Mine came from Mann Lake; other manufacturers are available these days.

Keith brought along some honey and it sold out – the reputation of local honey for curing hayfever meant it sold itself!

We had 5 types of “hive” to demonstrate different beekeeping styles: a section of a hollow log, a skep, a small TBH nuc, a Warre and a conventional polystyrene nuc with frames. With veils for kids to dress up in, samples of comb, solid wax, close-up pictures of bees, a sample of propolis to smell and prism viewers to look through and “see what a bee sees” there was plenty to engage visitors and talk about.

The church fete itself was exactly how you imagine an English village fete to be – a band, stalls like a coconut shy and others selling books, plants, jams; archery, the Womens’ Institute, tea and cake, vintage cars, pony rides, a vicar and a chap in a boater hat. On returning home there was an Agatha Christie (Poirot) program on TV which featured a fete almost like it, except the modern one also had a Mindfulness tent and a mass Tai Chi session!

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