Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Musings About Economical Beekeeping: Inexpensive Alternative Hive Materials

Through the years I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with various materials for building top bar hives (tbhs). The ideal is always some nice boards, such as termite-proof cedar. Unfortunately this is not feasible for everyone. I’ve seen the difficult economic conditions of people (including myself several times) after living in Honduras for more than 20 years. The ideal is only a dream for many. Having an additional income generating activity, however, is a necessity.

After reading this some people may ask why go through all the trouble to make these boxes when something like pine boards should be cheap enough and much easier to work with. The truth is that not everyone has those extra funds on hands for even this. There are too many people in the world living from hand to mouth. Having to buy enough boards means that they may very well sacrifice on something essential, either related to their health, diet, or children’s education.

There are alternatives, however, that can make a top bar hive practically free or at the very least substantially cheaper. All you need is to use your imagination and ingenuity (and have the time to make the boxes).

The Tin Can Hive

Tin cans have been a common material in many of my tbh boxes in Honduras. I happened upon a big source of large vegetable oil cans and have been using them up little by little. This came about with one of my present apiaries that I have with a Honduran friend, Marcos. 

He was working with a development organization at that time and the project had a food-for-work program. One of the food stuffs the people would get were large tins of vegetable oil. It wasn’t the favorite option for cooking and people would often sell them. The development organization didn’t like this so the people had to bring their own containers for the oil. The cans would be emptied into them, making it more difficult to resell the oil.

Marcos and I came across a large pile of these now empty cans. After looking at them for a bit I realized they could be incorporated into a tbh box, cutting costs. When the top and bottom were sliced off you would have a nice piece of tin for the side of the box.

Another advantage of the tin cans is that they keep the box very light. Normally I cannot physically drive right up to the apiary because of the terrain (the nice flat places are usually used for crops or cattle, leaving the out-of-the-way rocky and hilly places for the hives, especially since they are with Africanized bees). If you want the hives in a coffee area, the terrain is even worse—all up and down in the mountains. These boxes are very easy to carry considerable distances.

They also last. Some are now more than eight years old and still in good condition. The slanted sides of a trapezoidal top bar hive help keep rain off of them and stop excessive rusting. It’s the wood that doesn’t last because of termites.

The bees don’t mind a bit of tin in their hives. This one would get filled up year after year—nearly five feet of bees and comb. This box also includes a screen bottom.

The thin metal walls have caused me no problems, even in the heat of Honduras. I do always try to keep them in at least a bit of shade (although that may be more for me so I don’t overheat when working with them.). If there is comb collapse, it’s usually my own mishandling of the combs.

An alternative to the tin cans is the aluminum sheets you can get from a printing plant, such as a newspaper. They are even easier to work with. They aren’t quite as strong as tin so it’s necessary to transport them with care to avoid poking holes through it. They aren’t free, however, but relatively inexpensive. Ideally I keep them for covers rather than cut them apart.

The Bamboo Wattle Hive

The “Rasta Hive” is made of thin bamboo strips that are “woven” together. A filler material such as the ribs of banana leaves or palm fronds are used to seal up any resulting spaces.

This box (and the ones that follow) came about from my experiences in Jamaica through the Farmer to Farmer program. I have been invited several times now to give workshops on top bar hive beekeeping and other aspects of this activity. Many people in this Caribbean country face the same economic challenges as people in Honduras. In some ways it is worse since pine, readily available in Honduran forests, has to be imported.

The inspiration for these hives came from woven bamboo wall partitions of the cabin I stayed in at Yerba Buena Farm, the coordinators of this beekeeping project. Kwao, the owner, likes to keep the cabins and farm eco-friendly and has incorporated natural materials into the buildings.

Bamboo is a resource that is readily available on the island—it’s actually an invasive species. There are programs underway to eliminate it and replant native hardwood species.

Some care needs to be used to completely fill the spaces that result from bending the bamboo around the center bar. The filler material of choice for me is the ribs of banana leaves. Other material can be used such as the fronds from coconut palm or something the Jamaicans call screw pine. The fol
ks at Yerba Buena Farm have seen that the bees will actually seal up any spaces left with propolis during certain times of the year and then later open them up again.

The idea for the wattle of the “Rasta Hive” came from the wall panels of the cabins at Yerba Buena Farm. The banana leaf rib filler material helped eliminate most of the spaces between the bamboo strips. The few that remained were propolized shut by the bees or left open as a secondary entrance.

The wattle hive is not the fastest type to make. The most time consuming part seems to be preparing the materials. The right type/size of bamboo must be found and then washed, split into strips and the edges trimmed. The final product, however, is beautiful. It would be the perfect hive for someone’s flower garden or backyard.

The Banana Leaf Hive

In my readings on beekeeping I have come across straw hives being made in Europe. A jig was used to pack and sew the straw together to form pieces for the sides of the box.

I was thinking that something similar could be done to make top bar hives. Jamaica again gave me the chance to experiment a bit with this alternative. Straw per se isn’t available in Jamaica so I started looking for other alternatives—such as the ribs of banana leaves that I used in the bamboo wattle hives.

You do need to have a lot of them on hand but luckily everyone seems to grow bananas. It is no problem to get the leaves. It is just a matter of putting in the time to strip the ribs out and collect enough. Actually making the hive is fairly simple.

Basically the leaf ribs are packed directly into the sides as tightly as possible and then sewn so they don’t start to bulge outward. I even went as far as making the floor with the leaf ribs.

A temporary strip of wood was added to help pack the banana leaf ribs. After sewing the ribs to the outer strips it was removed, leaving the box ready for bees and their combs.

One of the unknowns is how it will work if there are small hive beetles present. It may give them good hiding places if not packed together tightly enough. The other is how long they will last. They will need a good cover. You could also throw some varnish on the outside but then you are defeating the purpose of keeping them economical.

The Corn Stalk Hive

After making the banana leaf rib hive, my mind started to churn with finding other materials. While taking a break in the hammock one afternoon I saw Kwao and his boys come down to pick some corn they had planted near my cabin. Watching them, I thought why not use the corn stalks. When dry they are very rigid and also thick, making collecting enough fast.

The box in the pictures was made at the end of my last trip to Jamaica. Time was limited so the stalks didn’t dry out as much as I ideally wanted. The first impression is that the box will work just fine for bees.

After attaching the top strip of wood, the excess corn stalks that stuck out were eliminated. The final product can include a bamboo roof.

I think the same can be done using the smaller branches of bamboo as wall and floor material.

The Wicker Hive

Wicker is another material available in Jamaica for hive making. This one was made by Yerba Buena Farm. The process is a bit more complicated but can be learned. The eleven-year-old at Yerba Buena farm did so and has made different projects for the house. Care must be taken to get the weave as tight as possible or lots of spaces result. In a hot tropical climate the extra ventilation may be good. The problem is that it is much more prone to robbing.

But like the bamboo wattle hive, the result is beautiful.

The Grass Hive

This is another one made by Yerba Buena Farm. Although it appears a bit rustic, the bees liked it, according to Agape at the farm. Using the same grass but with the frame I made for the banana leaf hive, I think it would come out really nice.

The Burlap Bag and Cloth Hive

These two hives don’t seem to be long term options but can be used in a pinch. One is made using a simple burlap bag while the other is with some sort of heavy cloth. Although the bees seem to like them, the problem is that they eventually start chewing the cloth, creating holes and more entrances.

But at the very least this is a way for a new beekeeper with limited resources to get started. They should probably last one season, hopefully until the beekeeper can get their first harvest and reinvest in some sort of more permanent material.

Although burlap bags can be gotten cheap, or even free, the material doesn’t last long. The bees have other ideas about where they want their entrance.

Does anyone have other ideas for inexpensive bee boxes? Let me know.


The box can always be used as a fruit basket while waiting for the bees to put into it!


  1. Tom, I really enjoy these blog posts. The hives you created are beautiful and its intriguing to see the materials that are used. I hope you keep writing your musings! Roxana

  2. Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you're enjoying my blog. It's fun to try and make hives using different materials. I've got a couple other ideas in my head that I really want to try. I hope everything is good with your bees. Tom