Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Musings about Top Bar Hive Beekeeping: A Visit To An Apiary

I think everybody’s beekeeping depends on their own unique situation and desires. Beekeeping takes many different forms around the world and there is no one right way. It all depends on the circumstances of the person engaged in this activity. For me it has led to the use of top bar hives, both because of them being so inexpensive but also because they work well for Africanized bees.

Here’s a glimpse of one of my top bar apiaries in Honduras. It’s a “visit” to show how I set up my apiaries and some of the activities involved with it. It shows a bit of what I do but also why I do it my way.

This one is on the outskirts of town which is located in a small valley in the western part of Honduras. It’s in the middle of the valley near the river that flows through it. It’s set up to hold almost 40 hives—more than enough for this site.

The area can be very lush during the rainy season but the contrast is remarkable when the dry season comes. The lush green vegetation gives way to a brown, bone dry landscape. The vegetation is classified as that of a dry tropical forest. It is not uncommon to find different types of cactus growing in the valley. 

What may be surprising to some is that the honey season actually takes place partly during this dry season. The blooms begin at the end of the rainy season and continue during the dry season.

The advantage of this yard for me is its closeness to my house and not really the honey yields. I can zip out there on my scooter in under ten minutes. There are no problems to take the swarms out there that I catch in town. If I can escape from school right after classes, I can easily go there and check some hives for an hour or two. Or I go and just harvest a bucket or two of honey. (My main bee yard is up in the mountains on a coffee farm. This is an all-day affair because of its location so work there is reserved for the weekends.) 

The valley is not the best beekeeping area, but the hives there always give me at least some honey. Due to the pressures of agriculture, a lot of the nectar bearing trees are not as plentiful as they once were. The valley is covered with rice fields and cow pastures. The honey it does produce is of an exceptional quality and always a welcomed added income.

The trip to this apiary involves going through a park on the outskirts of town that is filled with huge old mango trees. It’s a nice place to unwind a bit after leaving the apiary or to have morning coffee when taking swarm traps to the yard. From the park one must then go across this hammock bridge that crosses the river flowing through the center of the valley. The bees are on the farm located on the other side of the river. 

There is a back entrance to the farm but it’s not as convenient with the round-about way needed to get to there and the condition of the road.

The hammock bridge and the trail that crosses the farm. The apiary is located at the end of the trail, maybe 350 yards from the bridge. Although the bridge may make you scratch your head when thinking about crossing it, the owner of the farm takes his pickup on it, even loaded down with the plantains he grows. It moves a bit up and down as you cross it but really doesn’t worry me.

Besides plantains, this farmer also plants corn, beans and sometimes rice. Occasionally cattle are pastured in the fields after the harvest.

The hives are set up on a slope. They are between the fertile flat land below that is found along the river and flat pasture land located above. This immediate area is very rocky and not the best for cultivation—except maybe by hand. I had to move rocks out of the way to create my paths and working area around the hives so I don’t have to worry about twisting an ankle. It’s not so good for corn and beans but more than adequate for the bees.

This is one of the beauties of beekeeping. The hives don’t require the good fertile land needed for crops. They can be set on the marginal land that is not good for anything else.

All the hives are in pairs. They share a hive stand in order to reduce that cost. Two cement blocks have a piece of rebar cemented into their holes. Two-by-fours have holes drilled half way through them and set on top of the rebar. The little well left in the blocks could be filled with burnt motor oil or water for ant control.

Supports are nailed across the two-by-fours to keep the top bar hives from tipping. Set up in the air the way they are, rotting has not caused a problem—termites have. They stay dry but the termites always seem to find some of them and wreak havoc on the wood. The boxes and stands are made of pine, the cheapest and most plentiful wood in Honduras.

The space in between the hives gives me an area to set the smoker, an empty trap hive, extra top bars, or even to sit for a moment.

The covers are aluminum plates from a newspaper printing plant. A bungee cord made with a bit of inner tube and string keeps them on. They hook onto a nail, making it easy to take off or reattach.

My wife Sofia holding a comb with brood. The boxes are a bit over four feet long but don’t generally get filled from one end to the other by the bees. This has to do with the beekeeping conditions in the valley. By contrast, these same boxes are easily filled completely in my apiary in the mountains in the coffee zone.

Harvesting honey from the hives. Top bar hive use a simple cut, crush, and strain system. I go to the apiary with my buckets. The bees are brushed off those combs with ripe honey. The comb is then cut into pieces and dropped into a bucket. I fill them according to how much lifting I feel like doing. A bucket filled as much as possible will weigh about 55 pounds. I do have to carry them about 100 yards over rocky ground to where I park the scooter so I usually keep them a bit lighter.

When the bucket is full, I pull the sack over it and tie it shut to keep the bees from robbing.

Trap hives with recently caught swarms. Basically all the hives in this yard were started with swarms. Since Honduras has the Africanized bee, swarms are plentiful and easily captured. Some I caught right there on the farm while others were caught in town. 

These trap hives have the same dimensions as the permanent boxes. Wax is dripped around the inside and lemon grass rubbed on the outside before they are hung in trees. Everything is designed to stay bee tight so I should only need to plug the entrance with a bit of sponge and take the bees away. 

Things don’t always go as planned, however. One of these trap hives was a bit leaky (older box that was deteriorating) so it was necessary to put it into a bag for transporting. The bees that managed to come out were trapped inside of the bag.

A pair of new colonies set up on a hive stand.  After taking them to the apiary and opening up the entrance, I usually won’t touch them for at least a week (unless I suspect some comb broke while moving them). I want them to settle into their new area before opening them or moving them into a permanent box. 

Small swarms sometimes stay in the trap hives for several weeks until they get big enough to where I want to transfer them into the permanent box. I usually like to have six or seven good sized combs. These boxes generally have eight bars from which comb can be built. If it is one of the last swarms of the season, they may even stay in the trap hives during the duration of the rainy months since growth is limited.

Trap hives are like opening a Christmas present. You never know exactly what you might have gotten until you unwrap it. 

Some of the trap hives are set up with transit spaces cut into several of the bars. The idea here is that I may eventually start to super some of my TBHs. This way I already have the spaces cut into some bars. If not supered, I just keep this covered with a piece of aluminum plating I use as a cover. These bars are usually kept at one edge of the brood area. It could be coved with a quarter part of a plastic queen excluder when supering.

A swarm in one of the trap hives. I always hang trap hives around the farm, to both catch the swarms my own hives may throw or those from the wild colonies in the area. There are two huge Guanacaste trees at the edge of the farm that I know have colonies in their hollow limbs. Most all the boxes I hang on the farm get filled with swarms. 12 trap hives could very well mean 12 new colonies. One tree actually caught three swarms with me hanging one box after another as they got filled. Africanized bees create abundant swarms.

An experiment in the apiary. These boxes have the comb on top bars which include the transit spaces. They are also made to take a standard Langstroth frame. These swarms came from some rectangular-shaped trap hives I had made. They will either be supered or eventually moved into a long Tanzanian-style top bar hive.

Beekeeping workshop. This yard’s location is also advantageous for the occasional beekeeping workshop I give. It is easy to bring groups here because it is so close to town. The initial orientation for the field experience can be held in the comfort of the park. Then it is just a short walk across the hammock bridge to the farm where the yard is located.

Note the contrast in vegetation in these photos compared with some of the others. Everything was much greener during this workshop with members of several newly formed beekeeping groups. This was held in July, a bit more than a month into the rainy season. The dry season is from the end of January until the end of May.

Madreado trees (Gliricidia sepium) along the highway on the way to the apiary. This is one of the prime nectar sources in the valley. The trees literally become covered with these pinkish flowers from which a very nice golden-fluorescent colored honey is made—one of my favorites. Often these trees are used as live fence posts for pastures. This gives people an incentive to plant them or maintain them.

Here are two videos showing a bit of the apiary and the hives.


Version in Spanish (versión en Español) in my companion blog "Reflexiones Sobre Apicultura."