Interior Storm Windows
Blowing in Insulation
Insulating a range hood fan
Sealing a Bulkhead Door
Top Bar Bee Hive
Wooden Box

Beekeeping in a Top Bar Hive

Top bar hive
Top Bar Hive
photo credit: Topher Belknap

A method of natural beekeeping

You can read the beginning of this story, how I came to build a top bar hive, here Well, a nice sustainable hive is a great thing but pretty useless without actual bees. Conventionally, these days, one normally orders bees, either as a package (3 pounds of random bees, and a unassociated queen), or a nucleus (nuc) hive (a section of a hive with a queen and associated bees). This is an expensive proposition, with a package running aroung $100 near me. And the bees would be coming from a commericial beekeeper in Georgia. This means that the bees would be likely to have the problems that I have read commercial bees are experienceing in this country: varroa mites, pesticide issues, foundation sized to encourage large bees. Mostly stuff I want to get away from. The local top bar hive beekeeper did not have any spare bees, and she didn't sound like it was likely in the near future. She did however have a swarm list. For this, if someone finds a swarm and contacts her, she calls people on the list until she finds someone who can go get the swarm. She did (reasonably) give priority to people who bought her hives. So, that seemed a reasonable chance, and maybe we would need to wait until next year.

May 10, 02010 Meanwhile I found a place for the hive down near the garden, with a long flight path to the South, and some protection from winds. The recommendation is to put lemongrass oil in the hive to make it smell good to bees, I only had ground lemongrass so I used that instead. Swarm season was (supposedly) a few weeks off. Still, expecting bees to find my hive that way seemed a very long shot.

Swarm in a tree
Swarm of bees in a tree
photo credit: Topher Belknap

May 17, 02010 A week or so later, I was showing the hive off to a visitor, and we were walking up the path, I saw a large brown mass in one of the apple trees. Closer examination revealed that it was a large mass of bees. I quickly called my local beek, and got an answering machine (found out later that the day was a bust one for swarms). Calling other friends who have formerly keep bees yielded similar results. Finally, I got a call back from my uncle who said, just go out and cut them out of the tree, put them in a box, and dump them in the hive. He has little sympathy for nervousness.

So we did. After some simple protective gear, and a spray bottle for sugar water, I got out a ladder, and was designated the ladder holder (an important job as it need to be on a slope, and would have crashed through the hive (and a thorny rose bush) if I let go. My sweetie got up on the ladder and patiently clipped away branches until the whole swarm was exposed. Then she put a box underneath, and trimmed the branches holding the bees. With the branch in the box, the top would not close as I had envisioned, so I ended up carrying a box of bees at arms length down to the hive. There, we dumped them rather unceremoniously into the hive, and closed it up.

Then we did it again. About an hour later, we checked on things, and a remaining clump of bees in the apple tree seemed to us to be growing rather than shrinking. So, we feared that we had missed the queen. This branch was much easier.

Bees in week 1
Bees in hive, Week 1
photo credit: Topher Belknap

May 24, 02010 A quick peek thorough the viewing window shows that we have bees. From this picture, it is hard to know if we have a queen (evidence in favor is that the bees are harvesting and not leaving), nor is there visible signs of comb. The bees look healthy (to me) and were identified by a knowledgable beek as Italians. We are feeding them sugar water (1:1 by volume, heated until it is clear, and then cooled). They go through a pint canning jar in a few days, amazing for such little creatures.

Bees on comb, Week 4
Bees on comb, Week 4
photo credit: Topher Belknap

June 11, 02010 Here we can see comb; they are building at a ferocious rate. I have added new top bars on a couple of occasions. One of the was built with comb down to floor level (though not full width) in less than a day. I got stung when this picture was taken, a bee got irritated, and stormed my veil, got caught up in it, and stung my temple. The worst part being the disappointment that I wasn't gentle enough with them to avoid it. I should perhaps move to a better head protection, to make me more comfortable and relaxed, rather than as armor against the rage of bees.

We are still sporadically feeding them. I hope that they will stop taking the sugar water soon, as I don't want them to keep using it, but at the same time, I don't want to starve them. The quick version of a inside feeder I built has some problems. It allows the bees into a separate section of the hive, where they wander around, and get between the feeder and the follower board (and I have to try to move them so they don't get crushed). I think I will rebuild the feeder so that it is completely contained. Stay tuned.

You can download my plans (in sketchup format) here or from the Google 3D Warehouse