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.)

Wildflower meadow planted by bee-loving neighbour

One of the striking things about these hives is that they are not in one high density apiary, reflecting bees’ preferred behaviour (Professor Seeley showed swarms preferentially settle away from parents, presumably for forage and as a disease break). Eric’s neighbours have been infected by his enthusiasm and the 7 hives we saw were spread over 3 gardens.

He’s put copper roofs on 2 or 3 hives – I think just because it combines beauty and rainproofing. “If the bees don’t like it, they’ll let me know!”

Insulate!

Eric has studied the research on the benefits of hive insulation closely and his latest hives are much better insulated than normal ones. He was recently given several old National hives, which he’s added internal cork sheets to. The internal dimensions are now the same as a Warré hive. Cork is about 3 times better than other woods as an insulator; the added sheets are 1 inch thick.

Like Eric, his hives are very good natured.

Researcher Derek Mitchell first drew attention a few years ago to the enormous impact insulation levels have on hives (gaining attention even from conventional beekeepers by emphasising increased honey yields). Now Torben Schiffer in Germany is looking deeper into this. Gareth has been following his research and quoted a finding of Torben’s: a thin walled hive may have to gather ten times as much nectar just to keep warm, as a colony in a well insulated tree hollow. In fact the colony in such a hive may have to gather half a ton of nectar a year just to keep warm – before storing any honey.

Another garden apiary. The left hand hive has another copper roof

Furthermore, Torben has found that in a well insulated natural cavity, once bees have gathered enough nectar they don’t just continue to gather it indefinitely. At some point they shift to other behaviours: grooming parasites off each other, propolising the cavity, maybe other things. One cannot help but muse on how wild, unmanaged colonies have been thriving despite lack of help by beekeepers…

Eric and other group members have been experimenting with cork insulation lining the inside of their hives, in roofs etc. Gareth has found last year that his bees loved it and covered it in propolis, but this year they have been gnawing the cork away! “Last year was a gluing year, this has been a chewing year!” People on forums have commented on this too (especially around entrances) and Caroline mentioned her bees are munching their top cloths this year. No one knows why their behaviour is different this season. It may be better to sandwich the cork between other layers as Gilliane did.

Hive types – pros and cons

The important biscuit munching bit

TBHs tend to polarise opinions. Gareth used them for a few years and concluded they are not deep enough to allow proper air ventilation (thermal regulation), and being designed for Africa’s climate and bees, don’t suit ours well.

However they do allow you to handle one comb at a time, which is the key thing for many users with back problems. I have met many beekeepers who are leaving the craft because they can no longer lift a National super; it doesn’t help that those boxes are so wide you have to lean over them to lift them.

I have TBHs and Warrés and feel both have strengths. TBH users are more familiar with what goes on in a hive, as they actively manage the combs. Warrés seem better suited to the bees’ needs and need almost no intervention, though some people find that boring!

Gareth is now beginning to build einraumbeutes (golden hives) which are like very deep, framed TBHs – in effect combining the best aspects of several hive types. The bees build natural comb in the frames. More on those at our next meeting!

Peter praised TBHs as being craftable from scrap wood without access to a precision workshop.

Gareth mentioned a shallow, thin walled, flat topped hive called the bienenkiste which is being marketed in Germany. It’s sort of like a mini TBH, but after studying the online information I’m not a fan. It looks very poorly insulated, and they promote the use of foundation and what I consider a pretty high intervention and chemical-based management style to control varroa. They do, however, have some sensible analysis of modern requirements, pointing out that if you just want one or two low-maintenance colonies for pleasure and a little honey, it makes no sense to keep bees in an expensive, high maintenance hive designed as a modular honey factory for a large operation.

Fringe chat…

The conversation ranged over dowsing and its uses in beekeeping, and shamanic approaches; and the practicalities of using hemp as bee forage once it is legalised in the UK. Being wind pollinated, it produces harvestable pollen, but no nectar which may limit its usefulness.

On another herbal theme, Jane described how Francisco, an organic beekeeper from Chile who visited her apiary recently to see TBHs, had described how an infusion of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) in honey helps humans sleep – and a teaspoon calms grumpy hives!

Swedish childrens’ book (click to enlarge)

Helen showed us a childrens’ book she found in Sweden, Bin by Petra Bartiková and Martin šojdr. We all admired it, it has pages in the shape of combs and accurate descriptions of what bees do. Helen has offered to translate it into English for the publisher.

I gave Dawn some natural comb to bait a hive. Mick commented he had used some of my comb to bait another hive… which now has a huge bumblebee nest in it.

Forage and rewilding

Caroline has migrated from Cumbria to Oxford. She’s finding her urban hive here fares much better than her ones up north, and mentioned that foresters in Cumbria told her that wild bee nests have vanished from the forests over the last few decades, despite a good mix of tree species and some old trees to nest in. Gareth quizzed her closely on this and asked if it was a sheep grazing district (yes) and if there were many moths (some). Were the moths abundant in the forest but not the grazed areas? Caroline couldn’t answer that; Gareth explained that it’s been noticed that now that sheep are treated with the insecticide fipronil, rather than the old sheep dip, the numbers of moths in their grazing areas has plummeted. It’s thought the fipronil is expressed in their urine and contaminates meadow flowers. Coincidentally, that night I saw the Lake District (Cumbria) described as “a sheepwrecked wasteland”.

Peter remarked that his hives’ forage has degraded over the years as nearby woods have become dominated by pines, and he is looking for a new site which will have to be some way from his home. They currently get one big rush of sweet chestnut nectar, and then struggle for the rest of the year.

This led to a wider discussion of rewilding and how people just letting areas go wild was overturning many assumptions of conservation which previously tended to attempt improvement through control. A famous example of this is in Isabella Tree’s book Wilding describing how she and her husband regenerated Knepp farm through benign neglect, with results which have attracted attention from around the world.

Bees in chimneys

After the meeting broke up Eric and I had an interesting conversation with Peter Seymour about colonies in chimneys, for he has experience both in chimney sweeping and bee keeping. In short, they need to come out if the chimney is in use (fire hazard), and it’s very difficult so they probably have to be poisoned. Although you can make a special umbrella-like folding scoop thing, the inside of chimneys are very rough so it will likely snag and stick. The alternative is to not fully expand it but then the queen may escape. It is occasionally possible to push a small colony out from below with, in effect, a cushion on the end of a sweep’s flexible brushes but then I suppose you need a person at each end of the chimney. (Is this accurate Peter? If not feel free to correct me.)


Thanks to all who came and created the buzz, and especially Eric for allowing us to come and peer at his multi-hive property empire!

Next meeting: Saturday, 10th August near Burford

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