Dreams, Schemes & Other Vagrant Thoughts


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:

Photo by Rusty Burlew from HoneyBeeSuite.com (used with permission).

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

Photo by David Heaf from warre.biobees.com
(used with permission).

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)

24 thoughts on “Dreams, Schemes & Other Vagrant Thoughts

  1. I’m with you on this, Phillip. The Warre hive seems to embrace the style of beekeeping that comes closest to “natural.” I’ve stolen a lot of ideas from Warre beekeepers over the years without actually having one, but the day is coming.

    Bth, an electric fence is not all that expensive. We had to put on up to keep our neighbor’s cows out of our yard. The wire is cheap and the t-posts are cheap, even the insulators are reasonable. The shock machines vary with quality, but they start at about $100 US. You should look into it.

    • Yeah, the Warré approach makes Langstroth seem almost wrong. The more I learn about it, the more intrigued I am. As with every approach, it has its pros and cons, but much of it seems to make good sense.


      Keeping out cows is easy, but teenagers looking hard to get into trouble is a different story. I need an 8-foot electrified chain link fence, and a little barbed wire wouldn’t hurt either. I’m serious. That’s about what it would it take. This bunch are determined to destroy what they can. Bee hives would be the perfect target for them, just asking to be smashed to bits. I think it’ll take a hefty investment to secure the area.

      What I would like to install behind the shed in The Mosquito:


      But that would likely bother the bees too.

  2. I just checked out the tone for the “mosquito” and my co-worker who is a bit younger than me complained that there was an extreme high pitched sound trying to pierce his brain (he had no idea i was playing it on my computer speakers) I myself could not hear it. This could work well to keep the teenagers away. Bees might not be affected, time for an experiment!

    • I looked up the cost of the Mosquito. It’s between six and seven hundred dollars for the basic model. I’m so tempted. It’s probably not approved for residential use, but I love it anyway. I read an article that some kids downloaded the sound and used it as a ring tone for their cell phones so that when they got text messages in class, their teachers wouldn’t know. Sneaky kids.

  3. I was just out walking around our field. That thing is huge. What a shame we can’t do anything on it without spending thousands of dollars to secure it first. Anyway…

    I just added a list of the sites referenced in this post to the bottom of the post. Kind of handy. I should do that for now on.

  4. The Warre design does seem to have several good points, especially in replicating the shape of a natural hive. I do wonder how easy they would be for me to inspect – I’m only little, and the Warre hives seem to get very tall!

    • One of the intentions of the Warré design is to minimize inspections to two or three times a year. Only two boxes are for brood. Anything more than three boxes and you can simply harvest the honest, supposedly. So they although they can get tall, they don’t have to.

      I think that’s how it works, anyway.

  5. My worry about only two to three inspections a year would be the risk of missing disease or if they go queenless. I know you can assess the general health of a colony to some extent by watching the entrance – but my bees are in an out apiary and looking at the entrance requires squatting uncomfortably in a narrow gap so I can’t sit for hours watching them, much as I’d like to!

    I’d love to hang around with someone who had one of these hives though. One of the other beekeepers in my apiary used to have a top bar hive but the bees died out last year. He was quite experimental with some of the frame adaptations he did, it was fun to see what he’d come up with next.

  6. Chelsea must have left this page open on “my” computer, otherwise I don’t know how I got here. But since I am here I may as well leave a comment chastising you a bit for letting your ambitions be tamed by a little thing like lack of access to land.

    Actually, I don’t know anything about your situation so I can’t comment, but I can give you a bit of encouragement that it can be done. Chelsea and I started keeping 2 hives while we were living in a basement suite in Vancouver, but our bees were at a location that was ~30 minutes away.

    Now we live in a basement suite in Surrey and have bees at 4 or 5 locations, inconvenient but doable. All of the land owners are letting us keep our bees there for no charge. A couple do it for some free honey and a chance to help the bees, and a couple are small farms that enjoy the benefit of getting pollination in exchange for letting us use their land year round. If we send colonies into pollination, we agreed to leave a couple behind in the home yard to ensure the berries there get pollinated.

    We found three of the bee yards via a Craigslist ad, and we had a number of offers that we turned down since we didn’t need anymore bee space.

    It does get a bit crowded at home since we don’t really have any workshop or storage space and we do our processing in the kitchen. So, yeah – inconvenient but doable for now since we are hoping it is only a temporary condition.

    • Hi Jeff #2 (there’s another beekeeper named Jeff around these parts):

      That all sounds great. That’s fantastic what you’re doing.

      But one fact I neglected to mention is that we don’t have a car or a truck — and we don’t want to get a car or truck. We’ve been able to work in a city for several years where we didn’t need a vehicle. It’s inconvenient at times, but we’re generally happy not to spew out pollution from a car or truck every day (and not to pay driving insurance, gas money, maintenance costs, etc.). We’re not tree hugging extremists, but we save a lot of money by not owning a car. We’ve been waiting for electric car technology to get with the program and provide us with an alternative, but I think it’s a long way off as long as oil companies continue to have a huge political influence. Money talks.

      I don’t think we’d have any problems securing land outside the city. We’d be doing what you’re doing now — living the dream. But we want to hold off buying a gas powered vehicle as long as we can. We’ve managed to go this long, but I suspect we’ll bite the bullet and get some kind of a car by this time next year.

      We also really resent not being able to use our own land behind our house that would hold 100 hives if we wanted them. I can’t think about it. It makes me furious.

      • Is public transport any good where you are? I don’t have a car either, I get a couple of buses to my local association’s apiary where I keep my bees. It takes about 45-60mins but it’s worth it to keep bees. I know we’re lucky with the number of buses & trains etc we have in London though, some places only have something ridiculous like one bus a week.

  7. Yeah, no vehicle does make it difficult. I was happy to use transit exclusively for a few years when I lived in Vancouver, but the service isn’t great in Surrey.

    We’re not living the dream yet, we still use a chevy cavalier for the bulk of our beekeeping. We recently bought an old pick-up truck and it is much more useful for beekeeping, but comes with more of all those costs you mentioned.

    Is there any kind of car co-op where you live?

    • Nope, we don’t have co-op or time-share cars here like they do some other major cities. (St. John’s is more a town than what most would consider a city.) I would love it, though, because I could easily get by with using a car only once a week.

  8. Can you have other livestock on the place? We urban homestead on the edge of a town of 12,000 or so and once a year we keep a bull for our cows. Most people with hoof stock are very interested in a few weeks or so of free forage. All it would cost is the fence. (I know, I know!) Metal posts, 4foot woven wire and two strands of barbed wire on top of that is far cheaper than cyclone. Plus, two strands of electric on long insulators so its CLEARLY on your property and only for keeping the hoof stock away from the wire fence. The fact it can also shock the snot out of the local vandals is besides the point.

    Then you can wire off your hive space up next to your house with a single strand of electric.

    Just thinking out loud, that much ground left unused would make me nuts too.

  9. I don’t even need to look it up. Cows are not allowed within cities limits. Next!

    We’re looking to getting a fence built next year.

    At the moment we want to start building our own hive boxes to save on shipping costs, but even something as simple as that is turning into a headache. How do people without pick-up trucks build anything with lumber?

    The ideal beekeeper owns a pick-up truck and possesses basic carpentry skills and the appropriate tools.

    For a guy who lives in the city with none of the above, most D.I.Y. projects are an exercise in futility.

  10. If you wait until next weekend I will be in town and I can help you with a lumber run. Let me know if that is any good.

  11. Are you sure that the beehives wouldn’t creep the hoodlums out? If you put up a fence, and DANGER: STINGING INSECTS signs? Maybe you could put up a cheap electric fence and have a kid zapper.

    Is there no one you could barter with for borrowing a truck or a car to get your lumber? Or could you hire a truck for a day to get your lumber? I use my compact Hyundai Elantra as a truck to haul straw, lumber, angle iron, etc for my urban homestead. So what if it pokes out of the trunk? I just tie a red flag on it.

    For big projects, I borrow a neighbor’s truck.

    • Beehives would only attract the hoodlums in my neighbourhood. They’d likely see it as a challenge. I’ve seen them go to great efforts to smash or burn anything behind our shed that hasn’t already been smashed or lit on fire. They’re a determined bunch.

      What I need it a motion-sensitive gun torrent, one that shoots blobs are tar. Anyone who’s been in our field would be easy to spot then.

      Jeff (Jeff #1, not the second Jeff from Honey Beat who has also commented here) — he said he’ll be in my neck of the woods with his truck soon. If it works out, he’s going to help me with a big lumber run.

      Other than Jeff, I don’t know anyone with a truck. Most people I know live downtown and have cars, not even mini vans.

    • Right on. Kent has a sale on knotty pine. $3.99. Knotty pine is probably scraping the bottom of the barrel, though, isn’t it? Still, imagine making a deep for $4. Even if it turned out to be $10 per deep, it still beats paying almost $25.

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