20 of us picnicked at an out-apiary in rural Oxfordshire, to network, observe horizontal Top Bar Hive inspections and discuss the practicalities of out-apiaries.
This out-apiary is sited in a corner of a small estate, whose owners are very committed to encouraging wildlife, and don’t use pesticides! The grass away from the main house is chest high, full of wildflowers and the hives are sited next to a band of mixed deciduous woods and a lake, fed by a stream. I’ve seen deer, rabbits, a fox, geese and swans; and apparently there are badgers (but they don’t bother the TBHs).
When setting up an out-apiary, there are a number of issues to consider, including:
- Security. Keep the location generally obscure, and not visible from a casual access point. Hives can get stolen, especially where no one is on site. It is bad etiquette to tell people where others’ hives are located. Even non standard hives are at risk – thieves will shake the bees off the combs into a box.
- Forage. Mixed sources are essential. The worst place for a static hive is in the midst of a monocrop area. It’s going to be a forage desert most of the year. You also need to consider water availability.
- Access. Would you have to carry things a long way? This out-apiary has one drawback, the hives are a long walk down a hill from where you can park. Will you have help when you set up or need to move a hive, etc. If they were being used for honey farming, you’d have to haul 20kg supers back up that hill. Not an issue for me, as I only ever take 1 or 2 bars.
But if you do decide you want an out-apiary, landowners can be surprisingly happy to let you put hives there. Many are keen on wildlife and encouraging pollinators. Just knock on the door and ask politely, you never know they may be very glad to host your bees. Just be aware, some landowners may expect a rent paid in honey; but most seem happy to just have more pollinators on site. Make it clear from the outset when enquiring that the primary function of the hives is in helping preserve the bee population, that you are encouraging natural bee behaviours and as such take no or very little honey.
Networking, learning, serendipity
Gathering in a circle, we introduced ourselves. Some were familiar with TBHs, but some of us were Warré or National users, so we used an empty Top Bar Hive to demonstrate how they are used. This empty hive had just been gifted to me by a member of the group, Helen, and one reason for this meeting was to situate it in my out-apiary. She wanted to make room on her allotment for another hive she’s built, but she also became suspicious there was something wrong with it as the colonies she puts in it only lasted, on average, a year! I’ve looked at her records though, and discussed the wood type she made it with (untreated) and I believe it’s just a statistical fluke – there were good reasons why each colony died, like one was a swarm I gave her which acted very oddly and in retrospect, now I know more, was probably queenless. Well, let’s see how it does 10km away in a different environment.
This hive is, incidentally, actually the hybrid Warré/TBH she developed after building her first TBH and considering how to improve it. I think it is a fantastic bit of innovative engineering design and I’m very grateful to have it.
Lunch allowed for unstructured chat and introductions. We ended up with about 4 parallel conversations, with worthy topics ranging from foundationless frames to how commercial hives have smooth walls which are trickier for bees to propolise. Gulen described how she found her “empty” hive had been populated by a swarm – when she tried to move it. Karl and I furtively discussed how little clothing we could get away with under our bee suits in hot weather – just shorts we concluded as we have double-walled ventilated suits.
We also discussed comb structure – I’d brought along some interesting old combs, to illustrate features one might see inside hives. People who use foundation just see flat, regular arrays of cells, but allowing the bees to build natural comb lets you see all sorts of wonders. A recent Ars Technica article covers some of the real weirdnesses that are seen sometimes – non hexagonal cells and “rolling” comb sections together to join them.
We also had a slab of polystyrene-like material. Only one person guessed its true nature – dried fungal mycelia! A new hive type, the Mycelium Hive, is being developed by Guy Thompson, using Warré dimensions internally. Gareth will be beta testing a prototype.
Both the occupied hives were bought from Heather Bell, but I added an extra layer of pine planking for improved insulation and thermal mass. So the walls are about 38m thick.
You should never open hives without a good reason. In this case the purpose was partly educating new TBH users in techniques, and to this end I wanted to show how to harvest a bar of honey from the established colony. But I also had a question about the new colony, and wanted advice from Gino and Gareth who are more experienced in this hive-type.
We suited up because I have found the large, very active, established hive 7 can get quite defensive when opened. We started by observing non-invasively, looking through windows and hefting the hives. We opened the quieter colony in hive 6 first.
Hive 6 was established just 2 months earlier, a swarm from an 18 year old wild colony I monitor. So it has a long history of surviving without treatment. And it’s booming, with 10 bars already. Moving the first bar very carefully – because it’s new white wax on a warm day, which can easily collapse – we could see bar 9 was almost solid worker brood. No need to open the nest further. This colony is doing fine. No signs of deformed wings. Very calm. Hefting the hive showed it was very light on stores – they’ve put everything into breeding rapidly to build up workers for the summer forage.
But, I had a question. When I put the swarm in, I had left some old bait combs near the entrance, thinking these nice straight combs would act as useful guides to ensure new comb would be straight. But they avoided this comb and went to the extreme back of the TBH and built forward, rather than starting from the entrance and working back. So there is no populated comb next to the entrance meaning, the hive is perhaps more vulnerable to robbers / wasps. So, should I move combs? Rotate the hive and open the rear entrance? This is where the input from Gareth and Ginos’ experience was needed.
They recommended that I leave the hive undisturbed because I had modified the current entrance to be a tunnel entrance, easily defended; the bees were very numerous (the entrance had constant traffic despite being remote from the nest); and the bees were thriving. So we left it.
Hive 7 was populated 5 years ago with a swarm from member Ann W, and so it already had several years’ history of non treatment. It has always been a strong populous colony, and made plenty of honey stores, good genetics. However, Gino immediately sounded the alarm. “There are an awful lot of drones at the entrance. And I thought you said this hive was defensive? They’re too laid back. I wonder if they are queenless.”
So rather than just demonstrating how to harvest a single comb of honey, we opened the hive more fully and worked our way through the honey area right to the brood area, where we found capped drones but no worker brood. “Drone laying queen” decreed Gareth. “This hive is dying. She’s run out of sperm.”
The entrance traffic was mixed drones (a lot) and workers, and the workers were still foraging strongly and purposefully – not dawdling around. This showed the hive considered itself queen-right, so the problem was a drone laying queen, not drone laying workers.
There was no reason to investigate more than 2 combs into the brood nest – we now knew what was happening and closed up the hive.
“Will you requeen?” asked one spectator. We explained this would not be a good idea because we are trying to preserve and propagate survivor traits. All my colonies in this area are from nests which have been miticide-free for years. Buying a commercial queen would introduce genetics from a treatment-dependent line into the area and set us back.
Another option would be to introduce a comb of eggs from the other TBH and let the workers raise a new queen. We ruled this out because I did not want to weaken the newly establishing colony. Gareth said it was unlikely to work as typically, with an otherwise queen-right hive, you have to do this three times (once a week) before they accept them, which would be too many combs to steal from the newly established hive 6. Also, by the time any queen did emerge it would be too late for her to mate well (ironically, very few drones around in September).
So we will leave them to dwindle and die, and repopulate the hive with a new swarm next season. This colony has given 5 years’ good service mixing its strong genes into the local population.
Spotting a still sealed but abandoned queen cell, Gareth opened it – it rattled when he shook it – we were pretty sure there would be a dead drone inside: the bees would be trying to raise a new queen but without stored sperm the queen would be unable to lay a female egg. However the remains were too shrivelled to tell what sex they’d been.
Wild nests in the area
There are at least two colonies of free living bees on this estate. One is long-established in the roof of the main house, the other is in a tree about 100 metres from the hives, probably populated by a swarm from them 3 years ago. We looked at these and discussed tree cavities, as on our Blenheim visit in July, but as they are about 8 meters up there wasn’t too much to see.
So what happened to the honey?
I thought you’d never ask. The next day I returned and transferred the honeycombs from the dying hive to the new colony which was large on brood but light on stores.
But at the meeting, after the hive inspection we returned to the picnic table and uncapped and smushed the single comb we’d harvested from Hive 7 onto some bread Will baked that morning, and tucked in to our ill gotten gains. It was divine – fresh from the hive, unprocessed, all the volatiles still there on fresh bread. We all got very sticky. Some people were surprised how different it tasted to their own urban honey: we suspected the bees had been harvesting lime (linden) from the light taste. Gareth mentioned many people underappreciate tree honey.
And then we dispersed. All that remained to show the meeting had ever happened was a remarkably sticky table, as if Winnie the Pooh had passed by.
Thank you to everyone who came, Will for the bread, hive 6 for the honey and the estate owners for allowing the meeting.