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