My beekeeping ambitions are tamed mainly by the fact that I don’t have convenient access to land. If I had access to more land, even just a little bit of land, I’d be tempted to expand from four hives to twenty this year instead of eight, and then build them up even further the year after that. I’d study up more on honey bee behaviour, queen rearing, hive management and honey production and I’d construct other types of hives besides Langstroths. I’d invest considerably more time and money into beekeeping and understanding honey bees. I love hanging with the bees.
I even have a business plan worked out. But I can’t entertain anything like that at the moment because it would be an exercise in frustration. I don’t want to think about it until I know I can make it happen. It’s bad enough that we have a huge field on our property behind our shed…
…and we can’t do anything with it because neighbourhood vandals use it as a hang out for drinking and smoking dope. They also burn it down at least once a year and destroy any kind of garden or anything else we build back there. Don’t talk to me about frustration. Just look at that field. I could load it up with enough hives to keep me happy for the rest of my life. But first I’d have to build an electrified barbed wire fence around the whole thing.
So I block it out, pretend it isn’t there, and calmly bide my time until I can work out a way to make something more of this beekeeping thing. But if I could, I’d take a crack at top bar hives, both Warré and Kenyan top bar designs.
The Kenyan Top Bar Hive
I used think all top bar hives looked like this:
But then I learned that “top bar” more or less means any type of hive that doesn’t use frames, and there’s more than one type. The hive in this photo from Honey Bee Suite has a gabled roof (it also happens to have attracted a swarm), but the bottom half is the actual hive, sort of shaped like a hollow log. The sides are slanted in and the top bars, as the name suggests, are placed across the top. The bees build foundationless natural comb down the middle of the bars.
A word for the uninitiated. Here’s a photo of an unassembled medium frame from a Langstroth hive:
The long stick next to the piece of plastic foundation — that’s the top bar. Not exactly the same kind of top bar used in top bar hives, but close enough. All the other components of the frame aren’t used in Kenyan hives because top bar hives, by definition, are frameless. There’s more to it than this, but I don’t want to say more until I can speak from own experience. Here’s a video, though, from someone who can speak from experience — David Burns:
I was initially attracted to the Kenyan top bar hive because it seemed more natural. These days, however, I view the term “natural beekeeping” as a contradiction in terms. But if I had to pick a hive that most closely emulates the conditions found inside a hollow tree where feral honey bees like to live, I’d probably throw my vote to the Warré hive.
The Warré Hive
I’ve always been interested in Kenyan top bar hives, but I became more intrigued with the Warré hive design and method of beekeeping after listening to this podcast. Warré hives have stacked boxes similar to Langstroths, but the width and length of the boxes aren’t rectangular. They’re square, more akin to the actual dimensions of the brood nest. Another difference is the use of only top bars instead of frames, exactly like Kenyan top bar hives. The bees, therefore, build natural foundationless comb off the top bars. Once they’ve filled a box, a second box is added below the first box instead of on top. The idea is that the bees build downwards like they would in nature. The brood nest supposedly moves down the hive as the new combs are constructed and the old comb is back filled with honey. The combs of honey can be harvested, crushed and strained, or they can be placed in cages that prevent them from flying apart inside an extractor, and then returned to the hive.
The bottom entrance of the hive is small compared to the size of a Langstroth bottom entrance, but a quilt box is added to the top of the hive to provide some ventilation and absorb moisture. The beekeeper has to check for crooked comb and add extra boxes to prevent swarming, but otherwise the Warré method seems relatively hands-off. I haven’t had the greatest success with foundationless beekeeping in my local climate so far, but I think it would be fun to set up a Warré hive some day… when I can get access to more land.
Perhaps in a few years, if you stick around, you’ll find me here going on about all the crazy things happening with my Warré and Kenyan top bar hives just like I’ve been doing with my Langstroth hives for the past two years. Maybe I’ll be able to afford an electrical fence by then. More than likely, though, I’ll still be where I am, only I’ll have hives set up on some country land as well. I’m content to take it slow and enjoy the ride until then. But when the day does come when I can make beekeeping into something more than just a hobby, I’ll be ready. You better believe it. I wish I’d discovered beekeeping twenty years ago. I feel motivated now to make up for lost time.
P.S. (March 22/12): See Notes on Warré for my review of Warré’s book, Beekeeping for All.
Honey and Lemon
Thus ends the longest rambling post I’ve ever written on Mud Songs, and if you’ve made it this far, you’re a trooper. Give yourself a hand. I’ve been laid up sick with the flu for the past week and I’m just starting to come out of it now. It’s been a lousy week. But the greatest comfort I got from anything, even more than Buckley’s Mixture, Cepacol or Tylenol with codeine, was the honey and lemon I’ve been drinking since day one. It didn’t cure me of anything, but it sure made me feel better. My throat was so sore I could barely swallow. Boiling water, one thick slice of lemon and a big gallup of honey in a mug. It hit the spot every time. I don’t know why it’s not sold in cafés. I’d buy it. Simplicity is delicious, and if it has honey in it, it just feels good.
Sites I referenced during this NyQuil-induced rambling:
• Warré Beekeeping (David Heaf)
• The Practical Beekeeper (Michael Bush)
• Honey Bee Suite (Rusty Burlew)
• Long Lane Honey Bee Farms (David Burns)
• Organically Managed Beekeeping Podcast (interview with Matt Reed)