Sunday 17 May 2009

Honeybees – A suitable home

If you decide to keep honeybees then the first thing you need will be a suitable home to keep them in. In the wild honeybees primarily live in hollows in trees but they can and do live in any dry and empty cavity they deem suitable. Because YABeeP is following sustainable bee keeping practices we strongly recommend that members use top bar hives which attempt to replicate hollow trees rather than the highly artificial and expensive modern hives used by conventional bee keepers. A further advantage of top bar hives is their simplicity and cost.

There are many variations of Top Bar Hives but they fall into two basic types. They are the Vertical Top Bar Hive and the Horizontal Top Bar Hive.

Vertical Top Bar Hive
Also known as the Warré hive after it's inventor, a French Abbot Emile Warré (unknown to 1951), this
hive consists of a series of small boxes that the beekeeper stacks vertically on top of each other rather like a conventional hive. This provides an empty cavity as would be found in a standing tree. The boxes are simply empty boxes with just bars on the top with a guide line of bees wax. Vertical hives are expanded by adding extra boxes below those already occupied by the bees, so some lifting is required. They have the general look of a traditional beehive.

For detailed information on the vertical or Warré hive you can download the Warré hive plans here (876 KB pdf download) or see Nick Hampshire's excellent photo guide which starts here. A translation of Emile Warré's book 'Beekeeping for All' into English can also be downloaded from David Heaf's website here (This is a large 8.81 MB pdf download so it may take a while).

If you make a Warré hive I would strongly recommend that you adapt the floor section to incorporate a varroa monitoring tray and bottom feeder - for plans see this post. Varroa were not around in Warré's time but are a major issue today so a varroa inspection floor is important.

Horizontal Top Bar Hive
As its name suggests this hive is a horizontal box which has its top bars in the roof. These hives replicate the cavity bees might find in a fallen tree. Being horizontal it requires no lifting of bee boxes, unlike in vertical hives, and so it is argued that they are particularly suitable to the disabled, elderly and those who are uncomfortable moving heavy objects. Although of a fixed size, the internal cavity in a horizontal hive is kept to a size suitable for the bees by the bee keeper moving a sliding ‘follower board’ as the colony expands and contracts.

My own view is that the horizontal hive is NOT the best beginners or even a good 'natural beekeeping' hive. I started with them but soon discovered their many disadvantages and changed to vertical hives. Unless you are very lucky you will have problems with cross-coming and have to frequently open the hive to 'manage' the bees comb building. Opening the hive is one of the worst things you can do. I keep the two horizontals I started with operating for other members to see the issues with them, but as they die out I will not replace them. 

For detailed information on the horizontal hive you can download the free horizontal hive plans here from the Barefoot Beekeeper website where you can also download a free section of the book 'The Barefoot Beekeeper' to 'try before you buy'. If you do choose to go the horizontal hive route then I would recommend this book. The Barefoot Beekeeper plans show you how to make the basic horizontal hive though I suggest that you make some adaptations to these which YABeeP can guide you through - e.g. viewing window, end entrance, hinged roof, sawdust sump, and more. To see some of these adaptations and further guidance on assembling a horizontal hive see these pages.

Make your mind up
Both are very easy to build yourself from plans freely available on the Internet using basic woodworking skills - after all they are just empty boxes! The timber can either be bought from a yard for around £25 depending on the wood used or they can be easily made at no cost using recycled timber from pallets for example.

The difference between the two types is not just in construction style. They can also reflect different approaches. The vertical hive allows you to go much further along the sustainable route of leaving it to the bees as it is difficult and not necessary to open and inspect when occupied. This is not a bad thing as it means the bees are not disturbed. The horizontal hive on the other hand can be opened for inspection for those who prefer to 'keep an eye on things' and actively manage their bees - a more hands-on method which arguably gives more control for the bee keeper, but this is at the cost of interfering much more - can you see now why I don't recommend them?!

It’s a question of looking at both types of hive, understanding the difference in how they are maintained, deciding how far you want to take sustainability and which hive most suits you best then choosing that route. Basically “you pays your money and takes your choice”. Whilst a vertical hive can be argued to be a little less ‘fun’, in that you don’t get to actually play with (that is disturb) the bees, it is far more bee-friendly and therefore more sustainable. It is also easier for new beekeepers in that you don't have to inspect it on a regular basis. A Warré would certaily make an ideal introduction to keeping bees. However, both types are far more bee-friendly than conventional hives (click here to see why Sustainable Beekeepers don't use conventional hives) so make up your own mind.

It’s hard to choose!
Your choice of hive will also depend on the amount of time you have available as well as how ‘hands-on’ you want to be. If you want to be as involved as possible and relish the thought of handling (disturbing) the bees then a horizontal hive is probably for you. However, if like me you want to leave the bees to take charge of being bees, have little time for inspections or are perhaps wary of handling the bees on a regular basis then the vertical hive will definitely suit you best. You only need to work on your hive twice a year if you run a Warré hive as the good abbot suggests.

If you’re really not sure which hive type to choose then why not start with a couple of the easier to manage Warré? In these worrying times for the honeybee, Sustainable Beekeepers are not immune to having their bees die off. Having two hives doubles your chances plus it will allow you to take less honey from each hive to satisfy your needs leaving more for them. After all, the bees spent many an hour making that honey for their own use, not yours.

We suggest that you attend a YABeeP meeting before finally deciding on your hive type so that you can see both hive types in action before you jump in.

© Robin Morris - YABeeP

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