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.
Cool warm hives
Gareth demonstrated a windowed Einraubeute he made. This is essentially a very deep horizontal Top Bar Hive, meaning you only need to lift one frame at a time, but the bees have enough vertical depth to properly control heat and airflow. The combs, on foundationless frames, are oriented Cold Way (edge on) to the entrances.
The highest precision crafting is in the frames, which are large and made of pine so they do not warp in the hive’s humidity. It has many well thought out design features, for example the legs could be removed without opening the hive which helps if you need to move it by car. It features double walls of 20mm cedar with a 20mm gap between them filled with cork as he has ditched internal cork insulation cork after the bees nibbled it in his first such hive. There is a wood shavings quilt box above the frames similar to that in a Warré. The floor is solid, no eco floor and the entrances – at two levels – are scorched to give a visual guide for the bees and to allow a greater degree of warming on sunny winter days when bees make cleansing flights. The floor is removable to allow an inspection of floor debris (a guide to hive health). There is a large observation window at one end, which is normally covered with the double cover placed on the roof in the photo.
Simon Kellam showed us his Roseland Hex hive, which he sells through his company JustBeeEcoHives.com. It is based on a Rose Hive. All boxes are the same size, using OSB frames. No queen excluder or foundation is used. The hex shape more represents the shape of a tree cavity and is more energy efficient for the bees to control the temperature and humidity. The end frames are custom made to fill the void and are really a permanent feature, leaving 6 OSB frames to play around with if desired. The boxes sit on top of an eco floor and a quilt box on the top. The quilt box features vent holes covered with mesh, giving the option for the bees to propolise up. He experimented on 10 hives over a year and they were constantly propolised over. As a result he no longer bothers with the vent option now. There is also an entrance hole built into each box to play around with, blocked up with a cork bung when not in use. Inner walls are roughened up to encourage propolising. He’s never seen any sign of damp or chalkbrood. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of work to make.
He also brought along an Eco Tree Hive, designed to be mounted 3m up. This one had been commissioned for a peace project in Israel, where of course the bees’ challenge is to keep cool rather than warm (it has since arrived there). Another example of a super-insulated hive utilising cork, this one provoked more muttering and sharp intakes of breath as the hivemakers among us examined its craftsmanship. (Click on the pictures for higher resolution views.) These are also available from JustBeeEcoHives.com
I don’t know much about honey, I’ve never even sold any. But new members keep asking about it so I did a little presentation on how to harvest it. I felt the most important information to impart was what can go wrong here, and luckily I had some examples to hand.
I had some really old honey which had begun fermenting, we passed this around so people knew what to look (and smell) for and compared its water content (20%) with some commercial honey (18%) which is still fine after a year. Crystallising honey allows the fluid between crystals to become watery enough for fermentation to start. The only thing that honey is good for now is making mead. We demonstrated a refractometer, which makes measuring water content really easy.
I had some examples of cut comb from the same hive on the same day. All were different colours. This led to a discussion about flavour, wax harvesting and wax moth. Normally this is just an issue with comb, but I’ve once seen wax moth in some cut comb (pictured).
Ann had some good points about how even something as simple as a trap-out box can go wrong when other insects find it, and Gareth told us of propolis dermatitis, where many years’ exposure to propolis sensitises a beekeeper to it. It tends to affect the eyes worst because everyone unconsciously touches or rubs their eyes.
The conversation turned to ivy and OSR which crystallise quickly. Bees are meant to love OSR, with its high sugar content; but Gareth has noticed his bees ignore the OSR near him. I’ve noticed my bees now ignore ivy even when it is covered in other insects, as if they know it will cause problems later. (Most insects don’t have a bee’s flight range and consume ivy nectar immediately.) Simon, from Cornwall, commented that there are more hedgerows in this area and this village has an impressive variety of trees. Gareth has discovered that some OSR strains have less sugary nectar, and anyway it doesn’t produce nectar below a critical temperature. He also suspects they prefer the trees near him.
An interesting analogy Simon mentioned was, a hive is like a sterile isolation ward. Every time you open one it is bad for the inhabitants.
These are much more common than most people realise. People tend not to look up. Swarm collectors often miss the nearby mother colony.
We walked round the village and looked at 7 – 10 feral colonies, spread across just half a mile. Most are in roofs and walls, one is in a Scots Pine. All are high up. The photos show the colonies (arrowed) and where their swarms land (ringed) – note how this is always nearby and below the mother colony. Queens aren’t good at flying on their first outing.
One colony is 17 years old (it does not die in winter or spring, I check once a week from February to May) and the house with many colonies has allegedly had them for 40 years, though the current occupants don’t know if that was continuous. The bees seem to like old stone buildings, but I’ve found plenty of wild bee colonies in modern chimneys and sofits.
The arrow pointing to “previous colony” on one indicates another way Honey Can Go Wrong. A wild colony was a Bit Too Successful and the ceiling collapsed from the weight of honey above, filling the house’s stairwell with bees and honey. The householder had to call in a beekeeper to remove both before he could get a builder in to repair the damage.
We saw a large object fall out of one nest to the pavement. It was a worker, evicting a drone. She really gave him a bashing, eventually leaving him in the gutter.
Many thanks to everyone for showing up with all the food, and particularly to Gareth and Simon for lugging their large hives all this way to educate others.
Next meeting: TBA