NOT just your everyday, ordinary beehive.
We champion Kenyan-styled “Top Bar Hives”. We hand-build each one from old barn boards and add a few of our own innovations. . .
We’ve built 6 “top bar” bee hives with 6 picnic benches as hive stands. We made a sturdy outdoor work table and smaller benches as seats.
Some people have suggested that we patent our innovations. That’s just greedy. Everything I know I learned from the bees or some beekeeper before me.
For the past 30+ years, my wife and I have always looked for something we could stand shoulder to shoulder and do together.
In 2012, at a presentation in Philly on more natural beehive management by Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries ( http://www.anarchyapiaries.org ),
Hudson Valley, NY, we we found bees and bee-keeping.
We have been avid advocates for, experimenters with, and guardians of honeybees.
What's most wonderful about the way we approach bee guardianship is that we pursue it with an exploratory mindset.
Our philosophy and commitment is to “Pay it forward”. We give you the details behind these ideas to use for the good of the bees and / or some other beekeeper.
This story examines many of our adventures in bee-dom. We want you to learn from the good, the great, and the not-so-pretty. We tell it all.
This site catalogs our many hits, our silly deviations, and our sad mistakes. "Background", "Biology", and "Tool Tips" comprise this story's 3 major sections. We've recently added the "News & Notes" blog feature to make updates easier. Follow the Navigation Bar at the very top of each page.
Explore each section.
Natural Beekeeping Principles:
- Keep bees for the bees' sake. Value them as pollinators first and honey factories second.
-- Preserve the strongest genetic traits of multi-year 'survivor' lines and disease resistant heritage.
-- Fill your garden with nectar and pollen-rich plants (particularly in February/March, June, and September).
-- Avoid the use of chemicals for disease and pest control.
-- Allow bees to overwinter on their own honey. Harvest honey only in Spring when there is sufficient nectar flow.
-- Avoid smoking bees. This can cause undue stress. Use sugar water spray.
-- Chose hives that replicate natural sites used by bees, e.g. hollow tree cavities.
In short, be good for bees. This is the logbook of our attempt to
Bee Good For Bees.
The hive's body is a long, trapezoidal box. It anticipates the bees’ naturally preferred architectural shape for their combs. Experiment. Just hang one wooden slat across the top of your standard beehive. See what they shape they choose.
The bees enter and exit the hive thru a 3/8" slit under the front wall above the landing board.
We smear beeswax on wooden bars and hang them horizontally across the top of the hive body. This encourages the bees to drop their honeycombs down from the top using these triangular 'top bars' as anchors. In nature combs are basically suspended from the cavity's roof.
It makes a cozy cavern, like a downed hollow tree. This is how wild honeybees do it when left to follow their own plan.
Commerical beekeepers emboss over-sized honeycomb hexagons on plastic rectangles or 'foundation' to try to force the bees to produce bigger spans of unnaturally larger cells. It's the 'money motive'.
Be good for bees: Never use plastic foundation.
We also invented this color-coded stripe to be able permanently to identify each bar. We can trace each bar's history back to its origin as it may be transferred into another hive. We add a stripe of color across all the bars in the same hive.
A full-sized, moveable 'backer board' (BB) controls the volume of the hive body at any one time. The same color painted perpendicuar to the stripe marks the Backer Board. The bars behind the BB are spares.
Hives are named by their BB & stripe color: greeN, blacK, bLue, White, Red, Yellow.
We number the bars in sequence as they are added. The first character of our 3-character numbering system identifies the year the bar was added.
"2" => 2012 "7" => 2017
We often get more than 10 bars in a hive.
The hexadecimal system provides 16 numerals as digits in the last column. After the numerals "0 - 9" we get to work with the letters: "A, B, C, D, E, F".
Counting: 0,1, 2, 3, ... , 9, A, B, C, D, E, F
The hive color is designated by the second digit.
0 - golD Nuc 1 – blacK Hive 2 – greeN Hive 3 – White Hive 4 – Blue Hive 5 -- Red Hive
6 -- Yellow Hive
Hexadecimals or not, as backyard beeks, we do not plan to support more than 6 hives at any one time.
In the late fall of 2012, we lost our Black queen. So we merged our first two hives, the White and the blacK, into one.
Additional mergers have taken place since then.
Other codes mark special sources or functions:
BB = BackerBoard
SC = Sam Comfort
QC = Queen Cell Grafts
QX = Queen Excluder
One of our first ideas for a unique addition to top-bar lore was this four-walled, semi-gabled roof.
The sheep on our farm produce lots of raw wool each year. My idea was to stuff batches of raw wool under the roof above an inner cover to better insulate the hive and bees in winter.
One of my mentors, Mark Antunes, of Honey Hill Farm and the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association, warned me, "Maybe the wool up there will collect moisture and get moldy. " Condensation and moisture buildup inside beehives can be more of a problem than winter cold.
Good ventilation is very important. Our hives are far from air tight. But I never did try the wool insulation idea -- leaving the wool insulation in the top of a hive placed out on the bee yard. Maybe I'll try one day. I'll watch it carefully, Mark.
Our hive design has added a (normally covered) plexiglas window on each side so that we can see comb growth and bee activity inside the hive.
The inside of the hive is normally completely dark. Therefore the windows are covered most of the time. Bees communicate using buzzing sounds, dance movements, chemical signals, and tactile messages.
Having an opening on both sides provides backlight that illuminates the interior. Through a window on just one side one could only peer into darkness.
That’s a very robust hive. Sometimes, even with glass panes, the look in through the window is just obscured.
A thermometer tape also gives a direct reading of the temperature on the other side of the plexiglass.
Wanting to expand our apiary, I bought 5 well-crafted top bar hives from an elderly beekeeper who was retiring. They were a different configuration. But I thought we could work with that.
A few of his hives appeared robust, healthy.
But I quickly found that he had not really worked inside those boxes for months. There were spiders and ants, mice, hive beetles, wax moths, and varroa mites.
A large tree feel in a thunderstorm, damaging his hives. The wet and cold destroyed many of his weakened bees. They did not survive. An act of God saved us from importing those problems into our colony.
We next induced one of our hives to raise its own queen cells. We moved their queen with a bar of brood, two bars of honey and pollen, and a good shake of her own workers into a new hive.
The 'left behind' bees soon discovered they were queenless. They immediately set about stuffing eggs cells with Royal Jelly, transforming them into several queen cells. Here's one.
The first new queen to emerge tore open the cells of her rivals and destroyed her competition. A large, long-bodied cell on the right side of this comb is ripped down its side as evidence.
The new queen -- here marked with a blue paint dot -- set about her mating flight and returned to start laying up to 2,000 eggs per day.
She successfully built up her own colony.
It's now our Blue Hive.
The up-turned white bucket holds sugar syrup which we make to feed the bees when a drought is upon us and there is not enough flower nectar available.
The bucket sits in the bottom of the hive, upside down on those short wooden supports. There are pin holes punched into the bucket’s top to let the syrup ooze out in droplets.
That’s the theory.
Doesn’t always work that well because sometimes the top falls off when setting it into the hive box and the syrup floods the bottom, entrapping the colony in the sweet, sticky food offering -- drowning too many bees!
Screw lids held better. But the pin holes still sometimes leak too fast.
An overhead tray feeder that we developed is based on ideas found in the Ashforth feeder, used in Great Britain.
We call it a
“Top Bar Integrated Overhead Tray Feeder”.
The overhead tray may supply: cane sugar & water, fondant, and / or pollen substutute safely enclosed in a box overhead above the honey area.
Our tray is 3” high, 14” wide and 18” long.
All tray, wall, and baffle pieces are cut from ⅜” x 3” pine. Three coats of polyurethane waterproofing are sprayed on. The floor and the lid are of waterproofed, ¼” masonite.
A space 1 ⅜” wide is cut from the bottom of the tray at one end.
In our first version of this feeder, a specially crafted 1 ⅜” wide top bar is glued into the space across the bottom edge of the tray. It had two shoulders and a centered slot.
That version ultimately did not work because the bees used our 1 ⅜” wide top bar to hang honeycomb 1 ⅜” away from the previous bar, closing off the slot.
We had violated the 'bee space' rule.
To make a bee passage that worked better,
I cut and centered a channel ⅜”-wide and 8” long through the side of one standard-sized top bar (1 ⅜” wide by 19” long).
I placed the neighboring top bars tight up against it; so the slot preserved the one 'bee space' width. The next comb dropped at the standard 1 ⅜” distance away.
On one side of the slotted top bar, I added a wall 3” high to close off the end of the tray. A wall 1” high was glued on top at the opposite edge of the channel. A third wall -- the baffle -- is 2 ¾” high and the width of the inside of the tray. It is set 2” away from that end of the tray. So, after the slotted top bar is fitted in, a ⅝” gap separates low wall from the baffle. An underflow passage ⅛” high and 6” long is cut under the baffle.
When the top cover is lowered and tight, this baffle blocks the bees’ access to vast bulk the syrup. A small syrup seepage flows under the baffle into the gap between it and the low wall.
The bees come up through the cut channel. They follow a wire mesh screen corridor to climb the low wall safely and gain access to the shallow pool of syrup.
The position of the 3rd wall, the baffle, can be moved further back and shimmed in place to accommodate ‘take-out’ containers or ‘ziploc’ baggies as food holders. The entrance or mouth of the feeder is centered in the width of two top bars between the brood cluster area (toward the front) and the honey area (towards the rear) of the cavity. A cleat or an extra top bar (or the remaining spare bars) underneath provided rear support for the feeder tray if needed.
I filled my four trays with sugar water. I had added a tinge of lemongrass oil, as an attractant to entice the bees to move upwards through the feeding channel. The brew was aromatic. I placed one tray in each hive, and went away for the day to attend the Eastern Apicultural Society convention. When I returned, the air around my hives was filled with frantic, chaotic whirring and diving. I had never seen this much activity before. There was a wholesale robbing war raging.
I shut off all the entrances, doused 4 dark sheets with water, and tossed the sheets over each hive as a blanket cover. These stayed in place for the remainder of the day. By nightfall the robbing had stopped. I removed the sheets. The local bees under each sheet were calm. In time, they simply returned to the entrance at the front of their own hive. I came to suspect that the robbers had been scouts or forgers from their near neighbors in my own colony, attracted by the pungent aroma. After examining each tray, I found bunches of dead bees stuck all over the syrup in the goo. None of the loose covers were in place. Each had slid sideways. Foreign bees had entered – not through the restricted channel – but from anywhere there had been the slightest opening.
Our first version of this feeder did not have the small latches that now close the lid down tightly. The cover simply sat loosely on the upper edges of the feeder tray. Each feeder tray now has its own tightly sealed cover with metal latches holding down all four edges.
The semi-gabled roof did not enclose and seal the hive body as well as it does now. I rebuilt the roof’s sidewalls so that they hug closer to the upper edges of the hive side walls and extend another inch downwards past the lip.
This roof now provides a tighter-fitting exterior cover, creating an interior space, overhead to contain the “Top Bar Integrated Overhead Tray Feeder”. Secured under each hive’s new snug-fitting roof, this feeder is protected completely inside each hive box. There is no external access.
The feeder can only be entered from deep inside the hive by coming up through the feeder channel. It does not stimulate or readily enable robbing. What we supply them to eat varies with the season and the reason we’re supplementing their natural, forage-based feeding. In the very early Spring, when they are coming out of a flowerless winter to stimulate egg laying, we add cane sugar in a 1:2 mixture with water. This proportion simulates the sweetness proportions of field nectar. In the late Spring we supplement their foraging with a 1:1 mixture to stimulate cell building and colony expansion. More brood is laid, adding new worker bees.
To increase food stores in preparation for winter we also supplement in the fall with 2:1 proportion of sugar and water or with fondant, an even thicker, commercial preparation sold in 50 pound bags to bakeries and restaurants. Containing an even higher proportion of pure sugar, fondant feed has the consistency of really thick butter. We use an ice cream scoop to pile it in plastic bins to sit inside the feeder trays.
Here is a squadron of bees taking fondant into their honey stomach for transport down into the hive for conversion into honey for feed or for storage. On a warm afternoon in late October, we have added a large portion of fondant so that we won’t have to open the hive again soon. The weather has been rainy and the daytime temperature has regularly been below 60 degrees. This batch will add to the bee colony’s efforts at winter storage.
All this "feeder tray" engineering proved a bit too cumbersome and complicated to maintain consistently.
These small buckets with wooden mats as floats hold a decent quantity of syrup nicely. Even though bees climb all over them, the close fit of the floats against the sides protects many bees from drowning while the holes drilled all the way through the recesses in the mats allow adequate access for feeding.
But, as with all the interior bucket feeding methods, since the feeders are always smothered with bees, some bees drown. The buckets take up a lot of space, get built up with burr comb, and are just cumbersome to insert and refill.
The pages of our log book were getting filled with running text. Who was going to go back and read all that boring, repetitive detail? It’s also very hard to write down enough about important observations and it's hard to skip the generalizations and the jargon.
We created a new format for log book pages that makes it a breeze to get the precision needed and to picture what’s going on, front and back, of each bar. This we might copyright. But change it a little and it’s yours.
This was our old format, just text – before we introduced quick graphics.
Legend: || = uncapped honey
== = capped honey
L or # = larvae/pupae
W or // = worker brood
D or \\ = drone brood
E = empty cells
QC = queen cells
In the Spring of 2013 we prepared to do a “hive split” -- separating a queen, some brood bars, several shakes of nurse bees, and some honey/pollen stores into an empty new hive -- leaving their old home full of worker bees and drones but queenless.
These are some of the actual log notes
-- easy, quick, visual, memorable.
The split worked. Not once but twice. Six months and another split later, the colony is now composed of six strong hives.
Six is enough for the level of support we can put in.
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209 Maple Ave, Harleysville, PA 19438, US