The Grovestead

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Category: Honey Bees (page 1 of 2)

Wonder Woman

My wonder woman

Have you ever known someone that continually surprises you with newfound abilities? Who is always blowing past the boundaries of what you thought they could handle? And when you think about them, you are often left in a state of pure wonder?

That’s how I feel about my wife.

As I watched her expertly milk our Nanny goat this morning, after starting from scratch only a few days ago (both for her AND the goat), I was simply amazed. How did this suburban girl, elementary educator, and seminary graduate with no farm experience figure out how to do this? And she’s been doing it faithfully every day since we started, often giddy with enthusiasm.

Ready to milk

It’s not only the goats. She’s also the reason we have pigs this year (sometimes a point of contention), having researched and found a breeder, driving to another town to pick them up and bringing them home to their new stall in the barn. And then moving them two months later and 150 pounds heavier into their permanent home in another shed.

pigs

She has been relentless against the weeds in our oversized garden. It simply would not be possible for me to keep up this year without her dedication. (The beauty of Back to Eden gardening is that after the early spring weed-explosion, you don’t have much to contend with the rest of the summer. But you still have to weed or they can take over.)

She’s helped me chase broiler chickens into the coop at night and made sure the laying hens had enough water on steamy days. She fumbles with the electro-netting fence with me every few days as we try to move a herd of sheep into new pasture. When we had to shear the sheep early due to hot weather, she was right there with me in the stall, holding the ewes down or snipping off wool with the shears.

Shearing the sheep

She woke up nightly at 2am to feed our orphaned lamb. Something even I was unwilling to do.

Bottle feeding runs to the barn

After I dug the holes, she planted 25 pine trees with the kids (future Christmas trees).

Planting future christmas trees

She introduced beekeeping to our farm a few years ago.

Becca's bees

She was my only partner as we installed a 210-foot wooden-rail fence in only 2 days this spring.

Most recently she helped empty bedding from the animal stalls this week. Actually, she is the reason we got started at all. This is the worst chore on the farm folks, and she was knee deep in there with me pitching a winter’s worth of HEAVY manure.

Animal stalls

And let’s not forget, on top of all this, she also has an indoor farm to keep up with every day!

Indoor farm

She is one amazing woman. She is my Wonder Woman.

Farmwife

 


Building a Top Bar Hive

The Top Bar Beehive

We’re trying a new style of beehive this year called a top-bar hive. It’s new to us and most American beekeepers but is actually a very old style. It predates the common Langstroth box-and-frame hives by many centuries and is common in many parts of the world.

The main advantage is simplicity. There are only two components: the trough and flat pieces of wood (bars) that rest along the top of the trough. There is no wax foundation, bottom board, feeder frames, entrance reducers, etc, which makes storage and cleaning much simpler.  It is also makes much less expensive and easier to build. Whereas a starter setup for a Langstroth hive consisting of two deeps and a super can easily surpass $300 or take weeks to build from scratch, a top-bar hive can be built in a day for less than $50, and often less than that if you have scrap materials on hand.

The main reason I wanted to build a top-bar hive was that I didn’t like how invasive the Langstroth hives were to maintain. It’s easy to inspect the top box of a Langstroth hive, but if you need to go any deeper, which you often do to find the brood, that means ripping apart an intact colony. Other beekeepers may not mind it, but I’m not so sure about the bees. After two consecutive total losses each season using Langstroth, I wanted to try something different.

In a top-bar hive the box (or trough) is much longer, usually about 4 ft, and the bees build continuously in one horizontal run. Harvesting honey and inspecting brood can be done with minimal disruption. Check on the brood on one end of the hive, look for honey on the other. There are some drawbacks. Most harvesting equipment is designed for Langstroth frames so extracting honey at the end of the season will be more difficult. But at this point I just want healthy bees so I’m not so concerned about harvesting.

I based my design on the Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Expert beekeeper Michael Bush describes how to build one on his site. I highly recommend Bush’s website and books to anyone starting out beekeeping. His advice is rooted in practice and he has a lot of sage advice to share.

Materials

  • (2) 1×12 pine boards (cut to 4′ or desired length)
  • (1) 1×6 pine board cut to same length
  • (2) 1×12 cut to 15″ for the ends
  • (1) Any material for lid cut four inches longer and wider than the trough dimensions for a 2″ overhang (eg, 52″ x  19″)
  • (30+) bars cut 15″ by 1.5″ wide. Number of bars varies depending on how long your hive is. 48″ inside would require 32 bars.
    NOTE: Michael Bush suggests making both 1.25″ bars and 1.5″ bars, the former being better for brood and the latter being better suited to honey. In this case, you could cut 16 1.25″ bars and 18 1.5″ bars.
  • (30+) pieces of triangular corner moulding cut to 13″ to create a starting guide for the bees.

Steps

1. The first step is to decide how big of a hive you want to build. There is no required size, however most top-bar hives are around 4 feet.

Building a top bar beehive

2. Use a finishing nail gun (or finishing nails) to mount the 1×12 pine boards to the inside top of the 1×6 bottom board.

3. Next, pry the 1×12’s outward until the tops are about 15″ across.

Top bar hive angled sides

4. Nail the 1x12x15 end boards onto the ends of the 1×12 sides.

Top bar hive end

Top bar hive with ends

5. Next, make your bars. Decide how many of each bar you want to use (1.25″ or 1.5″) and cut. This was the only time-consuming part for me. Since I didn’t have a table saw, I had to re-measure each piece I cut, clamp on a guide and cut with my circular saw.

Bars across Kenyan Top Bar Hive

6. After you have your top bar pieces cut, it is highly recommended to add some triangular corner moulding (or you can make your own) so the bees have a guide on which to start their comb. The guide will also act as a stopper to keep the bar from sliding out of place. Center the guide on the bar and nail or glue in place.

Nailing guide to bar

 

Triangular guide for honey bees to build comb

7. (optional) Create a “Follower” board to keep the bees contained to one side. Generally, bees prefer the smallest space necessary to build their hives. Using a Follower board, you can gradually expand the space available as needed, instead of starting them out in a cavernous box.

Inside a top bar beehive showing feeder behind follower

Cut a triangular piece of plywood or pine or whatever scrap wood you have left. The piece will need to be about 11″ tall, ~13″ wide at the top and ~4.5″ at the bottom. It does not need to be air-tight. Nail the board to the bottom of spare bar.

My Follower board doubles as a food compartment. I drilled a 1″ hole near the bottom and keep a sugar water feeder just behind the Follower. This placement is ideal because its next to the brood chamber but inaccessible to robbers (other bees that come to steal honey and syrup). Also, since it is not a frame feeder, I don’t lose any bees to drowning.

8. (optional) I found it difficult to avoid smooshing bees every time I replaced the lid. As soon as bars are removed to inspect, bees crawl on top of the bars and its hard to get them all off before replacing the lid. I solved this problem by adding small strips of 3/8-inch wood on the underside corners of the lid. Now when I set the lid down there is only a small area where the bees might get crushed and its easy enough to keep clear.

9. The hive is now complete. Add 2×4 legs to desired hight, paint, add your lid and you’re ready to go!

Finished top bar hive

Top Bar Hive Entrances

A note on entrances. I followed Bush’s advice and did not drill any holes in the sides of my TPH. Instead, I leave a 3/8-inch gap before placing my first bar. I actually nailed a 3/8″ spacer in front of the first bar so I don’t inadvertently close the entrance when removing the lid. The big advantage of a top entrance rather than a bottom one is that it 1) keeps out rodents and other predators and 2) provides better ventilation, as warm air naturally rises.

Top entrance on a top bar beehive

When the lid is placed over the bars it rests 1″ above the entrance and leaves a perfect gap for the bees to come and go.


Queening the hives

Queen in her cage

Towards the end of last summer we discovered one of our two bee hives was vacant, a victim of Colony Collapse Disorder. We pulled frames with honey and added them to the other hive to give the remaining bees the best chance of surviving the upcoming winter.

But when spring arrived, the second hive had died off as well. We’re not really sure what happened, if it was something we did or if it was just a fluke. They are learning more about Colony Collapse Disorder and the link with neonicotinoid pesticides, one of the reason we started selling neonicotinoid-free flower seeds. Apparently 2014 was the worst year in a decade for beekeepers, with 40% of hives disappearing on average. With only two hives, the odds were already against us.

So that means this year we’re starting from scratch, again, except for the knowledge we’ve gained.  We’ve learned a lot and we’re determined to keep our hives healthy and thriving this year.

First, we relocated the hives from a shady tree-line to the middle of our apple orchard. We think the bees will appreciate the warmer, sunnier location.

Hives moved to a sunnier location in our apple orchard

Added 2 more hives this year

Second, we are supplementing the hives with more food, such as pollen patties and sugar water. There are differing points of view on this, but from the beekeepers I’ve talked to it doesn’t hurt.

Supplementing hives with extra food, like pollen patties

Finally, instead of 2 hives this year we invested in 4 colonies. Two of them came as “nucs”, just like last year, with the queens already included and a couple frames of brood. The other colonies were queenless—part of a split from another hive. The queen stayed with the original hive but I got several frames of brood and worker bees. This required me to introduce a new live queen bee into the hives.

Oddly, like many farm staples, I’m learning, live queen bees are something you order through the mail. I found a dealer and placed an order for two queens on a Monday. On Tuesday morning my queens were at the local Post Office.

New queen bees arrived by mail

Opening the box revealed two queen cages and about a dozen worker bees.

Queen bees inside the shipping box

To introduce the queen to the colony, I had to make room between the center frames, then insert the box.

Queen cage inserted into the hive

That is all there is to it! The queen cages are plugged with a hard-candy substance. Within a few days, the worker bees eat away the candy and free the queen. The whole while, the worker bees are feeding the queen through the screen mesh.

I left the hives alone for about a week and then inspected them again. Both queen cages were unplugged and the queens were out! It took another few days before I could see evidence of new brood. As of the last inspection there was plenty of new bees hatching and honey-making going on.

 


The Bee-Friendly Garden

The Grovestead's Bee Friendly Garden

A long time in the works, I am happy to announce our Bee-Friendly Garden seed collection is now on sale! This collection of annual and perennial seeds were hand picked for their visual aesthetic, fragrances, and ability to attract and feed honeybees.

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Purple Coneflower

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Sunflower

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Sweet Alyssum

Becca explained it this way on her blog:

I was thinking about how excited I get when I’m driving on an interstate and see one of those blue signs with a little sign for a Jimmy Johns. That’s my favorite place to eat on a road trip. And how basically each person who plants honey bee friendly flowers is setting up a little buffet for honey bees. Bees will fly for miles in a day looking for good pollen and nectar. I’m imagining them getting just as excited to find our little bee friendly gardens as I am when I find a Jimmy Johns.

The Beekeepers

We have a limited quantity made up, so if you are interested in starting a bee-friendly buffet this Spring, be sure to place your order soon!

Click here for details and ordering

 


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