Saturday, December 6, 2014

Musings About Economical Beekeeping: “Hives for Nothing, Bees for Free”

One of the beauties of top bar hive beekeeping is how cheaply it can be done if necessary—or any beekeeping actually. Many alternative, recyclable materials can be used, especially since a tbh is so simple compared with a framed Langstroth hive. They don’t need top-notch construction or good boards. This became very evident with an apiary I started with my brother several years ago.

Lots of times people want to have pretty bee hives. Some hives even go as far as having fancy copper roofs—something beautiful for the backyard flower garden. This is nice luxury but not necessary—it doesn’t make any difference to the bees (it’s a beekeeper thing). Consider natural hives in hollow trees or colonies that take up residence in the walls of a building. The common Langstroth boxes are built for the convenience of the beekeeper, not for the bees. 

Living in Honduras has caused me to find alternatives to make beekeeping as economical as possible. Money always seems to be in short supply and people have to find ways to stretch it as much as possible. Since top bar hives are so simple, it is easy to find ways to include alternative materials to avoid buying lots of expensive boards. Buying Langstroth equipment is often not a viable option because of the costs. This even holds true for many people in the United States.

I started an apiary with my brother Dave back in 2008. This was the second year that I had returned to Wisconsin to work seasonally with some commercial beekeepers. One aspect that was appealing about this work was being close to my family. The folks I worked with basically lived in the area where I grew up and where my brothers and sister were living. One of their bee yards, in fact, was only about two miles from my childhood home. 

 The line of beehives--a mixture of a couple Langstroth hives, horizontal top bar hives built to accommodate frames, and trapezoidal top bar hives.

I decided at the beginning of this second season that I needed to have at least a couple of my own hives to play around with on the weekends. I proposed this idea to my older brother and he jumped at it. He had his house just outside of town on some 20 acres of property—more than enough room to set up the hives and not worry about them bothering neighbors.

The idea was not to invest a lot of money. We were going to set them up and manage them the same way I did with my bee hives in Honduras. This meant building the boxes ourselves and using alternative or recyclable materials. We planned a mixture of normal trapezoidal top bar hives and rectangular long hives that could hold frames and use top bars.

Building the Boxes for Nothing

Part of this could be considered luck since much of the materials sort of fell into my lap through my family. But at the same time it was a matter of knowing how to make these materials work for building the equipment and what alternatives would make the project possible. 

The first thing I needed to think about was wood for the boxes. This is where my brother-in-law Tom, a dairy farmer, stepped into the picture. He had some boards partially buried under the straw in the hay mow of the barn. They had been there when he bought the farm—just about 20 years before hand. Add on some more years (it looked like they had once been part of an old barn that was torn down at some point) which meant the boards could have been some 40 years old, if not more.

They were in surprisingly good shape. I just took a belt sander to them to strip off the old paint and the make them a bit neater. The boards were still solid and good enough for the bees.

 Free material means economical beekeeping. Heavy-duty pallets from the door factory courtesy of my younger brother, old barn boards in my brother-in-law’s hay mow, and cement blocks from his neighbor.

The floors for the boxes came from some pallets Tom had lying around his machine shop. I tore them apart to piece together the bottoms.

The wood for the bars came courtesy of my younger brother Dennis. He was a supervisor in a door factory at that time. They would get very heavy material shipped in to make the doors, which came on heavy-duty pallets made of two by fours. My brother could get these for free. After tearing them apart, the wood was perfect for cutting out the top bars. All these nails got recycled also.

 Cutting wood for building boxes--part of these were for the permanent bee boxes and the other part for trap hives.

The hive stands were courtesy of my brother-in-law’s neighbor who had a pile of old cement blocks lying near the road by his property. Tom asked about the blocks and we got them for free—enough to set up a good size apiary.

So we were getting close. The last problem was finding a solution for the covers. Ideally a sheet metal lid would have been nice, but that would have involved money. The other alternative was to use aluminum printing plates from a newspaper. These are the covers for my hives in Honduras. I called around to the local printing shops and newspapers but didn’t have any luck finding some.

The solution came from looking at the garbage bin on my brother-in-law’s farms. It was filled with the remnants of the large plastic silage bags he would fill with cow fodder. He had some normal cement silos but also used these silage bags. These would lie on the ground and get filled with chopped corn or hay. Full, the bag could be some five or six feet high and maybe 100 feet long. The plastic was thick, meant to last a couple years. 

Big pieces of this would get dumped into the garbage bin as the silage bag was emptied—large but not quite big enough to cover the top bar hive (but the pieces did work fine to cover the trap hives we later made to catch swarms).

A side business of my brother-in-law’s farm was filling these large bags for other farmers. What would happen is that at the end of the season there might not be enough silage to completely fill that last bag. The end would get cut off and there would be a big piece of plastic left over (think about 20 or so feet). He gave us some of this left-over bag. We cut it into pieces big enough to cover the hives.

Top bar hives don’t actually need a formal cover. The bars themselves close up the hive. Something is needed to just keep the rain off of them. We made some simple bungee cords from bailer twine and a piece of inner tube to help keep the plastic on the boxes.

Our simple trapezoidal-shaped top bar hive— with comb built naturally by the bees.

Add onto all of this the bee veils and gloves made by my wife who is handy with a sewing machine. Many times I just wear two pairs of normal cloth garden gloves to protect my hands, the outer one with a sleeve sewn to it. The veils are made from mosquito netting or fiberglass window screen. Although I did have a normal bee suit, I usually just wore an extra shirt made with a heavier-type cloth. It’s nothing fancy but more than functional.

Getting the Bees

We did invest in some of the initial bees—but at a discount since they came from the folks I was working with. When their bees come back from almond pollination in California, they are normally very strong. The almond nectar helps them to start brooding and building up--too many bees in fact for Wisconsin that early in the Spring. Making packages and splits was necessary. If not, all the hives would be swarming once the blooms began in earnest.

A part of them, however, was free. We managed to catch several swarms with trap hives. These, like the permanent top bar boxes, were also made from recycled material. In this case we had some pieces of chipboard from the door factory and the pieces from the pallets. Some recycled bailing twine was used to hang them.

 Trap hives to catch swarms means free bees. My brother and I managed to get several extra hives started this way.

My brother and I also had the opportunity to remove a wild colony from the wall of a shed that was going to be torn down at one of the local feed mills. We installed this in an old Langstroth box I got from my employers. This was easiest because we could tie the comb we removed into frames. The colony was big, going from the floor to the roof. The top part was full of honey, a nice added bonus.

 An extra hive started courtesy of a colony cut out at a local feed mill. The bees were housed in the wall of a shed that was going to be demolished to make room for another large round feed bin.

That first year we got honey, a nice reward for the work put into building the boxes. My niece and nephew even took some of the honey to the regional state fair as a 4-H project and won blue ribbons for it. 

After three season of working back in Wisconsin with bees, the situation changed with the job I had there. I returned to Honduras full time, going back to my former teaching job with fifth and sixth graders. 

My brother still manages the hives—about 12 of them every year. The honey is sold at the local farmers market, giving him spending money for family trips and archery shoots (a serious hobby for him and his kids). Dave also mentions that he now has one more activity for when he eventually retires.


Setting up the bee yard--we began with several five-frame nucs and later got several three-pound packages. 

 Checking out the progress in one of the horizontal long hives. These were a combination of top bars and Langstroth frames. They were started with some five-frame nucs we purchased. The remainder of the box had top bars. The idea was to eventually have the brood area with natural comb on top bars and then frames for honey that could be harvested using an extractor.

 A rectangular top bar hive started with a five-frame nuc installed.

The comings and goings at the hive entrance—in this case a top bar hive made from old barn boards.

My brother Dave and I during the colony removal from the feed mill shed. There was comb from floor to ceiling with an extra bonus of honey.

 Our first honey harvest--we couldn’t resist not going into the hives to get a sample of our (and the bees) efforts in making beautiful Wisconsin clover honey.

 My neice and nephews, active 4-H members, eventually harvested, bottled, and prepared some of the honey on their own to take to the regional fair—with good results.

The fruits of our labor.

My brother Dave and I with trap hives and bee boxes.

Version in Spanish (versión en Español) in my other blog "Reflesiones Sobre Apicultura."

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