Saturday, July 2, 2016

Musings about looking backwards in order to move forward

Looking ahead to constantly improve and modernize something isn’t always the answer to the problems we face in today’s world. And this includes beekeeping.

Many beekeepers always want to have “a better beehive.” They want something even more modern that has the latest advances. But I think in many instances the answers come from stepping back and seeing how things where done in the past.

I recently happened across this old photo from rural Jamaica in the 1880s. What caught my attention was the building technique for the house—wattle and daub. Bamboo is woven and then covered with mud to make the walls of these simple houses. This is a technique I had the chance to experiment with for making economical hive boxes. It meant taking the old and using it for something new.

A wattle and daub house in rural Jamaica in the 1880s.

We used this traditional construction technique to make top bar hives during my visits to this island that I made through Partner of the America’s Farmer to Farmer program. It made an already economical system even cheaper for those potential beekeepers looking for ways to make money and improve their lives but struggling to get the capital to begin an activity or expand what they already have.

The latest beekeeping invention is probably the “flow hive.” The inventors of this hive want to make it easy for those people who want to produce their own honey but who don’t want to get involved directly with the bees. There can be minimal intervention with this system. People don’t even need to directly enter the box to harvest honey. The bees are not disturbed.

It has its merits and there are people who definitely have interest in it. The problem is the big price tag that comes with it--$699 for the full system or $339 for just the flow hive super. I don’t know how a general farm laborer in Honduras who earns between $6 to $8 dollars a day could possibly afford this type of bee hive. Even normal Langstroth equipment can be beyond their reach, and more so when you figure in all the extras you should have in order to use this hive like it was designed.

These “advances” in beekeeping are simply not feasible for everyone.

Photo from

The flow hive—honey with minimal intervention. This is the bee hive for those who want honey but don’t really want to interact with the bees.

So what happens to those people who can’t afford what is considered the modern way of doing things? The answers may lie in the past. I think sometimes you need to first take a step backwards in order to eventually take a step forward. 

Jamaica has the same economic problems I see in Honduras. There is too much unemployment and underemployment. Even full time employment often does not pay an adequate living wage. People need to find a way to earn more money in order to put food on the table and cover medical or school expenses. Everybody wants to live decently.
But the lack of money sometimes prohibits them from taking the first step to improve their lives. In many other cases the persons aren’t able to reinvest to increase their apiary. How can a person spend a week’s wage to buy a bee box when their children need new shoes for school? It gets difficult.

The alternative is to use the top bar hive, which is actually based upon the ancient Greek basket hive. Its developers looked backwards in order to help beekeepers in Africa move forward. They needed an intermediary technology between a rustic hive and a movable frame hive.

But even this simple beekeeping system can be prohibitive if affordable materials aren’t available. Wood, for example, can be expensive in Jamaica. Pine, which is normally considered cheap in Honduras, isn’t so much on the island because it needs to be imported. Most of the natural hardwoods can also be expensive. They are trees that carpenters in the United States would use to make fine furniture—wood like mahogany.

What is plentiful and often free in Jamaica is bamboo. In fact, it’s to the point where it’s invasive. It takes over areas that would naturally be hardwood forests of native trees.

The hosts for my Farmer to Farmer visit, Yerba Buena Farms, used this traditional wattle technique for their guest cabins. They used the woven bamboo to make part of the walls.

The “Rasta Hive,” inspired by the wall panes made with bamboo wattle at Yerba Buena Farm in St. Mary.

While lying in my bed in one of these cabins I began thinking and I realized that the technique could probably be incorporated into a top bar hive to make its cost even more accessible to people. Kwao, the father of the family, taught me the process. 

In general, it is easy but it doesn’t go fast. But if the potential beekeeper is in the situation where they need to make wattle hives, they probably have the time on their hands anyways. The result was actually a very beautiful box.

But it’s not just bamboo that can be used to make inexpensive top bar hives. We also made boxes using the center rib of banana leaves and dried corn stalks. You can make them with dried grass or wicker. 

I was in this same difficult situation myself where I didn’t have the funds to invest into beekeeping. I started beekeeping as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. During my service I met my wife and we decided to stay in this Latin American country. I had the idea of doing beekeeping full time.

The economic situation of the people I was working with really hit home upon completion of my service. Ideally I wanted to go with the “best” beekeeping method, which meant to me at that time to use the Langstroth movable frame equipment. But how could I justify spending the money on this system when I also had to put food on the table and provide other necessities my family required? Money was tight.

The obvious answer was to go with top bar hives. I needed to put into practice myself what I had been promoting with many beekeepers in my area.

And even then it got to the point where I needed to find a way to make tbhs a bit more economical. The answer came when I found a big pile of vegetable oil cans that was part of a food for work program. The recipients of the oil usually wanted to resell it. The program required them to bring their own containers for it so it would be harder to sell it. The result were all these empty cans. 

We cut the cans apart and got a nice piece of tin. This was incorporated into the sides of the boxes, meaning we didn’t have to use a complete board. An inexpensive box became even more economical.

People may shake their heads thinking about a bee hive made using tin cans but in the end you have to do what you have to do. (The boxes actually look nice and hold up very well.)

The tin can hive that I use in Honduras. Tin is incorporated in the box to avoid having to use a full board.

In general, it seems that wattle and daub is a technique that is becoming lost in Jamaica today. During my visits with the Farmer to Farmer program, I had the chance to see most of the island. It appears that all new constructions are being done with cement blocks. 

The same is occurring in Honduras. The people there have their own form of wattle and daub that only the poorest of the poor use in rural areas. Most people in Honduras also want cement block houses, or at the very least adobe. The techniques of the Jamaican and Honduran forefathers are no longer used, even though it served them well.

The bamboo wattle top bar hive is a way to get started in beekeeping. The same holds true for a tin can hive or grass hive. Some people may look down on you for building your boxes this way, but, again, you have to do what you have to do. 

Once honey is being produced and sold, the beekeeper can begin to incorporate alternatives that cost more. They can even switch over to Langstroth hives. Or maybe they will be perfectly happy with bamboo hives. I know I’m happy with my tin can hives.

Look backwards to move forward.

The bamboo wattle hive.

. . . . . .

I have just arrived back in Jamaica for another month long Farmer to Farmer assignment. In addition to field days on top bar hive management, I hope to continue to experiment with these inexpensive hive boxes made from natural materials. There is always someone who needs an alternative. (And there are always other materials I want to try!)

You may like to read a previous blog post about these hives, “ Musings About Economical Beekeeping: Inexpensive Alternative Hive Materials .”

If you found this post interesting or useful, please share it on social media. I also appreciate comments and I’m always open to answering whatever questions you may have. Throw them at me.

Reflexiones Sobre Apicultura “ is my companion blog in Spanish with these same posts.
I’m also on Facebook-- Facebook--Musings on Beekeeping

Saturday, April 16, 2016

More Musings about Swarms and Trap Hives: Learn from My Mistakes

Almost all beekeepers learn from trial and error. I know I have. I’ll admit that I’ve made more than my share of mistakes when dealing with swarm traps. Learn from the messes I’ve made and maybe you can avoid yourself some grief.

My preferred method of getting new hives is through catching swarms with trap hives, as I explained in my previous post. Swarms are plentiful in Honduras and easily caught. Bait boxes work very well.

However, I prefer to use top bar hives  for my beekeeping and I have to work with ornery Africanized bees. I don’t have all the conveniences in Honduras that I would have back in the United States. These issues have probably caused me to have more than my share of bad experiences.

So, here are some things that I have learned and that you should maybe keep in mind.

Wear a veil. Or at the very least have it on hand.

Sealing up the entrances on my trap hives is usually an easy process—I just puff a bit of smoke and stuff the sponge in it. It’s sealed and ready to move. Because of this, I often don’t want to bother with a suit or even a veil. It doesn’t matter that my bees are Africanized. The trap hives are easier to carry without having to put on the cumbersome equipment. 

But just about the time you think everything is good the sponge gets knocked out of the entrance or the bees find a hole someplace. You start getting zapped. And worse yet, since it’s night, the bees crawl and cling to you. They won’t simply fly away. You take some back with you to the truck—and they usually end up stinging you just as you’re taking off your veil or suit. 
So I usually tie on my simple mosquito net string veil. I’ll keep it pulled down comfortably around my neck but it’s easy to pull up if necessary.

Take the smoker. You never know if you’re going to need it. You can’t trust all the bees will be inside, even though that’s what you hope for. More times than never there are some outside the entrance that need a little coaxing to enter. Other times there’s a lot of them hanging outside.

Remember the sponges. Don’t forget to bring something to stop up the entrances (or enough in case there are several traps you’re moving). I prefer pieces of sponge since it seals the entrances nicely. 

If I happen to forget them I can usually find some old plastic bags lying around on the ground that work in an emergency. In a worst case scenario, you use some grass or leaves (although I don’t trust them staying in the entrance like other material).

Carry an extra sponge or two in your pocket. Too many times I go to stuff one in the entrance and I drop it. It’s easier to pull another from your pocket than to climb out of the tree for one.

And then also be careful that it doesn’t come unplugged. Be careful about what it might brush against—even something like your leg. Again, there is nothing worse than having the bees come out at night since they crawl and cling to you.

Bring a feed sack for those leaky boxes. I check the box for holes before hanging them. But for whatever reason I end up getting some again. 

Bringing along some big feed sacks was the solution. If I think there’s going to be a problem with the bees coming out of the trap, I will slip it into the bag and tie it shut. It’s extra insurance against having problems and gives me a bit more peace of mind when moving them to the apiary.

My wife will sew one and a half feed sacks together to make the bag big enough for my traps.

Bees in a bag—the solution for a leaky trap hive.

Duct tape. The fix it all (or maybe I should say “seal it all”). 

Check the boxes for holes before hanging them. It’s easier to fix those problems before bees move into the box.

Otherwise use that duct tape. You could also bring along some plastic bags for stuffing into smaller holes or cracks.

Move the swarm traps carefully. These are top bar bait boxes that I use. The combs aren’t going to be inside a frame. If the bees have had time to grow their nest, they are going to have combs of new wax that could be heavy with brood. Fragile.

The new swarms will take some movement and swinging around, but it can’t be excessive. If you bump it just right, you will have comb breakage. Watch out for those tree roots or rocks that you might trip over. Set it down carefully so it doesn’t tip (nothing is flat on the coffee farm where I have an apiary).

Moving them in a vehicle can be tough, especially on the back roads of Honduras. The roads have lots of ruts and lots of rocks. It doesn’t matter if you go slow. There is lots of jarring. If a trap needs to be moved up to my coffee farm apiary, I will actually ride in the back and hold the trap hive, trying to cushion the jolts on the worst parts of the road.

I actually like to move them better with my scooter. I can strap two trap hives easily to the back on a little platform I made. It’s easy to dodge ruts and rocks and go more slowly to the apiary.

The result of tripping on a rock.

Check for comb breakage. If you think you had some combs break or collapse, try to get into the hive the next day. It can be saved if you don’t wait too long. I usually see the combs falling in such a way that most of the bees can crawl out from under them. I normally see a minimal number of bees getting crushed. You might lose the queen but if there is brood, the bees can raise another. 

Get a headlamp. Pick up one of those little LED flashlights that you can strap to your forehead. It helps a lot to have both hands free. Otherwise have a small penlight that you can maybe put in your mouth.

It also helps to have one with a red light. Bees can’t distinguish that color. For them at night, it’s as if there isn’t even light. 

Careful though with a normal white light. It will attract any bees that have escaped. You might pick up a sting on your head.

Check the flashlight batteries. There is nothing worse when you are out in the woods taking down a trap hive and the batteries die. I learned this the hard way.

This was many years ago when my oldest son helped me take a trap full of bees to an apiary I had just outside of town. It was maybe a 20-minute walk. We hung the trap on a stick between the two of us, to avoid comb collapse and make carrying it easier. We were in the field walking toward the other hives when my flashlight started to die. It also started to drizzle, meaning the moon was covered by clouds. 

I decided to just leave it off to the side of the path and I would go back early in the morning to deal with it. We got back to the gate of the field and the flash light died completely. I couldn’t see a thing. I have terrible night vision. Then the lights go out in town also. It’s now pitch black. 

My son had better eyesight so he basically had to lead me. I remember thinking that coming up on the road was a small bridge. I kept hoping we wouldn’t go off to the side and down into the stream. We finally got to the houses on the edge of town and stopped at the first little store where they had a candle lit.

The lights came back on after about 20 more minutes and we got back home.

Think twice about using cardboard trap hives. They will work. And they are cheap. I’ve used cardboard for the sides of the bait box to reduce weight. I stapled some plastic to it in order to make it more rain proof.

After a certain time, however, the bees will begin to chew it up. I remember one trap hive where the bees completely chewed up the cardboard, leaving just the plastic. It was kind of unnerving moving that one, knowing I could have easily poked a hole through the plastic and let some angry bees out.

Don’t keep the bees in the trap hive for too long. Although my swarm boxes can usually hold a new colony for three or even four weeks, there is a limit. The box is not that big and if the colony grows enough they will want to swarm.

Queen cells. This is what happens when you keep the new colony in the swarm trap for two months instead of transferring the bees to a permanent box sooner. The colony built up big enough and fast enough to where it swarmed again.

Get permission/advise the landowner. Permission is just common courtesy. But after you have that permission try to let the landowner know you will be out there checking the traps. 

My wife and I went out one night to take down and move a bunch of trap hives—around 12 of them. At one of the spots, I stopped by the owner’s house and let the wife know that I would be coming back at night to take the bees out of the tree. She said that wasn’t a problem. The problem was that she didn’t tell her husband.

I’m just getting the trap hive to the ground when three people showed up, one carrying a shotgun (or maybe just a 22). He wanted to know what was going on out there in his pasture. Right at that time some bees started to escape. “Get back. The bees are coming out,” thinking more about his safety than the fact he had a gun in his hand to use on me.

It all turned out fine after I was able to explain the situation.

Make a knot that is easy to untie. If you can’t get the knot untied, you end up cutting the rope. Then you have the risk of not having enough sting to easily lower the bees to the ground. (This also implies keeping a small knife in your pocket.) Or worse, you can’t see decently since it’s at night and you cut the wrong string. The trap hive then just about falls out of the tree.

Protect the trap from birds and mice. They like my trap hives as much as the bees do. I now nail/staple some half inch wire mesh over the entrances.

Nail this on the inside so the sponge can still be stuffed in the entrance to seal up the trap.

The result of a bird wanting to use my box for its nest. 

Carry the heavy traps between two people. This is especially useful if you have to take them any distance. I slip a long stick under the hanging/handle stings. One person is on either end of the stick. Sometimes I will even put two traps on the stick. It is also easier to buffer the jars to the traps this way.

Trap hive locations need to be planned. Don’t put them too close to someone’s house if you know they may be uncomfortable with the potential bees. But other times you have no choice.

I once noticed bees flying around the eaves of my house like they were checking it out for a new nesting site. So I decided to hang up a trap hive under the roof. Better they move into that and not the roof itself.

It probably went like that for four, maybe five days. Finally, the swarm arrived, but right as the neighbors where breaking the piñata for their granddaughter’s birthday. Just across the fence, maybe 60 feet away. Everyone ran into the house and then I had the neighbor knocking on my door.

After I explained what was happening everything was good. I even set up the ladder and got right next to the bees to show them there was nothing to worry about.

It’s bad timing when the swarm arrives just as the next-door neighbors are breaking the piñata for their granddaughter’s birthday.

Choose carefully how you hang the trap hive in the tree. It has to come down eventually It’s a lot more difficult when it’s full of bees and you have to do this at night.

So envision how that will be at night before you decide to hang it.

Hang it in a place where it is easy to get at it. Make sure you’re not going to put yourself in danger of falling. Make sure you can easily reach the entrances to stuff them up. Make sure it’s going to be easy to lower the bait box down.

I mentioned in my previous post about setting a trap hive in the crotch of a tree. It was a nice stable spot but the weight of the big swarm that moved in wedged it there. The tree also had a slippery-type of bark and you had to keep one hand on a branch to avoid falling.

It was a bit of a nightmare to lift it up and out of the crotch and down to the ground. We actually ended up breaking all the combs and we lost the hive.

The trap hive wedged in the crotch of a tree.

Notice the bars on the left with the yellow wax from the trap hive that had the comb breakage. They ended up going into the other new hive next door.


For information on using trap hives with top bar hives and Africanized bees, see my previous post,  Musings about Swarms and Trap Hives: Getting “Free-bees”

What tidbits of information can you add for dealing with trap hives? Please share with a comment.