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Keeping Bees in Log and Skep (woven) Hives

 
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In many parts of the world, we’re finding that naturally raised (no-treat) honeybees have a better survival rate in certain kinds of hives. For many years it was felt that top bar and warre hives were superior to langstroth, for example, for a number of reasons. Recent research and experience indicates that there are even better hives available, at least in this climate.

What we’re finding is that skep (woven straw) and log hives have stellar survival rates. It is thought that this is due to the extra insulation, since the log hives have thicker walls and straw daubed with cow manure and clay (and then covered from the elements) hold heat much better.

Another alternative that we’re experimenting and finding success with is simply adding insulation to langstroth hives, and using bars instead of frames in langstroths to allow the bees to build more naturally. Friends of mine are building langstroths with thicker walls, and people are using wooden boxes and insulation to outside of their existing hives whose wood is deemed too thin. It is probably possible to build top bar and warre hives with thicker walls too, though this can make moving boxes (in the case of both warre and langstroth) unwieldy.

My impression is that recent research and experience indicates that:
Bees prefer to be up high (exact height flexible). This probably prevents mice and other pests and just seems to be how they’re evolved, considering that they live in hollow trees in the wild.
The more insulation, the better. This helps them expend less energy during winter heating themselves, and also allows much smaller clusters (colonies) of bees to make it through the winter. It also might help them keep it cool inside in summer. Bees have been observed in hot conditions to bring water back to the hive and spray/fan it over the comb to cool things down
Allowing bees to build naturally allows them to better structure their comb to regulate temperature, humidity, and the scents that they use for communicating across the hive. This is also part of why opening hives can be detrimental; all of these pheremones escape and it can take several days to restore previous conditions to the hive.
Smaller entrances, especially round holes, can be a lot easier for bees to defend. We’ve noticed that log and skep hives with these small entrances have almost zero problems with robbing. Around here, bees are commonly robbed by yellow jackets or even other bees, but with smaller entrances they are more than capable of defending themselves.
Bees prefer their hives to not be next to one another. Spacing them out across your property as best you can seems to be preferable (I know this isn’t always practical, but it’s something to keep in mind)

My mentors Jacqueline Freeman and Susan Chernak McElroy have both been researching and practicing with these hives styles, among others, for the past few years. During the last two summers Jacqueline (who has kept bees for years) lost all her bee colonies except those in her log hives. She believes that it is because of the wildfire smoke, and that the higher survivability has to do with the insulation and smaller entrances allowing the bees better control over their environment. Susan has focused on skep hives and has had good results on healthy, strong colonies of bees.

We recently had a workshop on making log hives with carpenter Matt Somerville, a man from the United Kingdom who came all the way over to teach it. Our hope is to continue building and experimenting with these. I have experience with langstroth, top bar, and warre and am excited to see for myself what the results will be of using these hives. I’ve been told by people who have used them that once they are set up, especially if they’re on stilts or strapped to a tree, swarms often move into them without having to be caught.

Here’s a link to Matt’s website:
https://beekindhives.uk/author/matt/

Here’s a link to Jacqueline’s:
https://www.spiritbee.com/

This is a great thread that talks about Sepp Holzer's style and take, which is in a very similar vein:
https://permies.com/t/32735/Holzer-Style-Log-Bee-Hive

In the future I hope to post more details about how we made these hives, as well as any successes and failures that I experience or see. We also hope to do teach at some skillsharing events in the future and maybe at the Northwest Permaculture Convergence.
 
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James Landreth: Neat!! Thank you for interesting information :)
It makes sense to insulate the bees, and also to let them defend themselves easier. I look forward to your updates on how the hives you make work out. I'm learning...
 
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Down through the centuries, most monastic communities throughout the Middle East, Europe, Ireland and beyond kept bees.  The monks would weave new hives during the winter months, and then in the spring when they'd split the hives, they'd set up the new colonies in these new woven homes.  

At the end of the season when they'd check on the bees, those colonies that were weak were thrown into a big fire, with all the bees being killed.  The whicker would quickly go up in smoke, as would the bad genetics represented by that hive.  It was efficient and brutally effective.

I witnessed this kind of bee keeping myself at some of the Orthodox monasteries in Turkey and Syria.  Initially, I thought, "How brutal", but you can't argue with their results.  By selecting only the healthiest colonies to go through the winter and be split the following year, they have some of the strongest breeding stock and healthiest hives I've ever seen, completely natural without any external inputs.
 
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Marco Banks wrote:
I witnessed this kind of bee keeping myself at some of the Orthodox monasteries in Turkey and Syria.  Initially, I thought, "How brutal", but you can't argue with their results.  By selecting only the healthiest colonies to go through the winter and be split the following year, they have some of the strongest breeding stock and healthiest hives I've ever seen, completely natural without any external inputs.



Syriac monasteries? Can you give more information about the methods used there?
 
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Awesome info James. Enjoyed reading the post the other day. There was one relevant point I wanted to bring up but can't recall what it was & don't see it now. Please keep us posted. This matches my own beekeeping thoughts & bee lessons learned the hard way almost exactly. You are fortunate to have such good mentors. Mine wanted to dump chemicals on everything.





 
James Landreth
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Thanks Pearl :) I appreciate the kind words.

Marco, that sounds in line with what I understand beekeeping to have been like in much of the world. As you're probably aware, no-treat beekeeping emphasizes natural selection. By allowing weaker colonies to die out we actively allow for selection of stronger traits and genetics. Our bees are highly resistant to varroa mite, for example. It's been found that feral bees will actually find brood cells infected with varroa and puncture them, thus breaking the reproductive cycle of the mite. Pretty neat stuff.

Thanks Mike. Yeah, I was very fortunate. Lots of people come to beekeeping hoping for a kinder, more sensible, gentler way of doing things. I'm hoping to make information like this more accessible so that every day people can do this kind of beekeeping without having a mentor right there to guide them through it
 
Marco Banks
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Güneş Bodur wrote:

Syriac monasteries? Can you give more information about the methods used there?



I was able to visit a Syriac monastery near Mardin Turkey some years ago.  It's a fraction of the institution it once once --- there were only 3 monks still serving there.  Oppression by the Turkish government has closed so many of these institutions over the past 100 years.  Only a fe remain, and they're just holding on.

The were no longer actively keeping bees, so I didn't get a chance to witness anything first hand, but I was in Cappadocia where they have tours of the ancient cave churches there, and various groups still do demonstrations of traditional practices like keeping pigeons, bees, pressing olive oil, etc.  Some of the old cave homes carved into the soft sandstone hills have spaces that used to be where they kept the bees.  They'd actually carve a small room off of one of the cave passage ways, and then bore a hole to the outside.  The bees would come and go through that hole, and would stay in the cave with the people that lived there.  Same with the pigeons -- they'd raise them for meet and for the fertilizer they'd provide.  Modern Turks use the standard Langstroth hive.  When I visited Kars, there were huge honey operations out in the fields.
 
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My understanding was that harvesting honey from a skep hive is rather disruptive. As in, you kill the hive first.
How is the harvest obtained, either from skep ir from log hives?
 
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Lina Joana wrote:My understanding was that harvesting honey from a skep hive is rather disruptive. As in, you kill the hive first.
How is the harvest obtained, either from skep ir from log hives?



Some skep based beekeeping was destructive, but techniques existed to make it less destructive. There is a series of videos of "heathland beekeeping" on youtube that show traditional skep use.

In some situations conventional hives don't work because they depend on extraction of honey from frames using centrifuges, which preserve the wax. Heather honey in particular cannot be extracted this way because it forms a thick gel that does not flow. It is usually extracted by cutting the comb and squeezing it in something similar to cider press. Skeps and warre hives have considerable advantages then, as they don't depend on complicated frames, and straight honey comb.
 
Michael Cox
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My experience is that bees really don't care what they are kept in, and will survive happily in almost anything provided it meets their basic needs of insulation, space and defensible entrances. Most conventional hives are deficient in their degree of insulation which impacts how they cope in both heat and cold. Any hive design that improves insulation is an improvement in most cases.

There is a of fuss online about various "natural" hives, some of which make beekeeping a lot harder than they need to. Convenience for the beekeeper need not be neglected for a hive to still be excellent for the bees.

Personally I use conventional langstroths, but mine are super insulated polyhives. They are excellent for my needs.
 
James Landreth
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In natural beekeeping harvesting is often done after deadouts, which happen frequently anyway in this day and age of pesticide usage and other stressors. But it is true that there are less intrusive designs these days
 
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My personal research led me believe that horizontal top bar hives are superior to any other type of hive box.

Some of the advantages are:

Brood area never touched therefore allows bees to continue their bee way in there.
During harvest, minimal bee death is achieved and near zero disturbance to brood.
Hives humidity and temperature is not affected during the harvest. Bees work hard to keep these two parameter in balance.
Log like setup allows them to build a natural nest, as they like it.

On the other hand, I also believe that the hive type is not a big factor in natural beekeeping. What is important is that your relationship with the bees.
 
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It is wise to be informed of any pertinent laws/regulations about beekeeping ( or any other agricultural venture) prior to getting started in it. In my state, having 1 beehive automatically makes you eligible for an inspection by state agricultural officials. And keeping bees in a skep or log set up is illegal here. Just something to be aware of...
 
James Landreth
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That's true. A guide is going to be published soon, and I will post it, that documents the legal standing in all US states and some parts of Canada. I believe a university in Oregon is working on it
 
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