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top-bar hives questions

 
Leila Rich
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My parents have always had organically-managed Langstroth hives, but varroa's finally made it there and while they're using thyme oil reasonably effectively at the moment, I imagine the colonies will inevitably weaken and die if they keep using Langs.
If the hives die, they say they'll give up. Talk of bee-friendly/mite-unfriendly hives doesn't elicit interest: old dogs, new tricks type stuff.

But if I can show them it can be done, maybe they'll be interested. I've been fantasising about having bees for years, but my balance and strength are...less than optimal...and the idea of divng headfirst into a hive scares me a bit
I assume it's physically easier to manage top-bar hives than Langs, but is keeping bees a realistic goal for the weak and wobbly?
Of course I could scale Mt Thingumyjig and be Prime Minister if I wanted...but I'm talking realistic here.

Is anyone keeping bees on a small, suburban property? There's plenty of stuff online, but I'd love personal experiences.
My place is small: around 3770 square ft and I'd need to plan a flight-path carefully, mainly to push them up over the neighbour's place, hopefully avoiding their washing line. I think bee poo on the washing would create more strife than a swarm!
I'm being a bit general here, I know. I'd be interested in good links too.
 
tel jetson
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there are folks who manage Langs like Warres. that might get your foot in the door, so they don't have to switch all their equipment. basically, replace the frames with top bars only, and nadir instead of supering. don't open the hive except for harvest. get rid of the queen excluder. reduce the entrance somewhat. build a Warre-style quilt and top cloth, and they'll be all set.

harvest will be different than they're used to. the whole operation will be a whole lot less work, though. no more inspections. no more going to great lengths to prevent swarming. because they'll still be using the Lang hive bodies, the hives will look the same and it won't have the same impact as switching to something that appears completely different and alien.


as far as being too weak, both horizontal hives and Warres should be substantially easier than Langs. horizontal hives require quite a bit more fussing, but you only have to lift one comb at a time. Warres are only opened once or twice a year, but a full box could weigh 40 lbs. to nadir boxes, the whole stack is generally lifted up and one or two (sometimes more) empty boxes are placed on the bottom. having someone to help is nice, doubly if they're strong. or a lift can be built and it won't take hardly any strength at all. plans are available at David Heaf's site.
 
Jami McBride
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I assume it's physically easier to manage top-bar hives than Langs, but is keeping bees a realistic goal for the weak and wobbly?


Regarding anyone hesitating on getting started for whatever reason I'd say find a local group or bee-friend someone practicing natural bee keeping as Tel outlines. If you run into any issues a second mind, eyes and hands will be all you need to overcome it in most cases.

Check out:
http://www.backwardsbeekeepers.com/p/backwards-beekeepers-tv.html

And http://www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm
 
Jay Green
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The Bush Farm site is my favorite go to for beekeeping. I even built my TBH on his plastic barrel design and plan to use his methods for handling varroa mites as well. You might also check out the site http://biobees.blogspot.com/ for more sustainable ideas and articles on beekeeping.
 
Leila Rich
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Thanks people. I didn't realise you could adapt Langs, that could be a great compromise. Looks familiar, uses their stuff...I think something my father would struggle with is not getting in there all the time and smoking the poor sods into submission.
On that note, the NZ Beekeepers Association got all freaked out about American foulbrood in Warre etc hives because they're not checked as regularly as Langs. Aside from the NZ law which basically says frames must be removeable, is checking for AFB a huge drama in 'alternative' hives?
Ok, varroa. Americans have had it for yonks, but it's still fairly new here.
How's things going over there? You're clearly keeping them alive organically... is there anything in particular that helps, aside from thymol and the smaller cells in a natural comb? Most organic beekeepers here have thrown in the towel and/or switched to synthetic miticides.

I'm thinking about getting bees right when it looks almost impossible to just keep them alive. Typical.
 
tel jetson
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AFB is identifiable by smell. opening up the top of a hive with a top cloth on it is pretty easy and doesn't disturb the bees much. just peel back the cloth and get a whiff. smells like bees and honey? no problems. smells like foul brood? burn it. as far as I can tell, the best way to avoid foul brood is to keep colonies healthy. the way to do that is to give them a nice spot to live and not open it up all the time to squirt toxic things in there or move babies and queens around. inspections weaken colonies thereby causing the very problems the person inspecting is trying to detect. it's feedback of the self-fulfilling prophecy variety. if it's a legal requirement, top bars are removable and inspectable with the right equipment. David Heaf's site shows a knife that cuts the combs free from the side of the box for inspection or harvest. something similar could be made at home.

varroa: meh. strong colonies deal with it. others die. the strong colonies swarm and start new colonies and resistance proliferates. any treatment delays arrival at that promised land. my hives are bottomless, so any mites that get removed by the bees drop to the ground and can't hitch a ride back up, but I don't treat with anything. even thymol isn't exactly healthy for bees. it's a natural insecticide, but it's still an insecticide. other folks use sumps or screened bottom boards with removable drawers and sticky paper or oil to catch mites that drop. that's too much work for me.

smaller cells in natural comb: turns out that natural comb actually has a wide variety of cell sizes depending on location in the hive and the use intended for it by the bees. it's pretty complicated stuff, but I'm not convinced that smaller cells add any resistance to varroa. keeping the hive closed and at the temperature and humidity the bees like it to be does help, as does allowing natural resistance to develop by not treating. it hurts to lose colonies, but I believe it's better to lose them now and repopulate with survivors.

if you want to get tough bees that will survive, collect feral swarms. those are the adapted bees that can handle local conditions. feral queens will likely have mated with many drones, so there will be good genetic diversity in the colony, which adds resilience. forget about buying queens. I don't think you need to disregard everything the NZBA tells you, but don't take any of it on faith, either.
 
Tyler Ludens
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tel jetson wrote:
if you want to get tough bees that will survive, collect feral swarms.


Are there any good resources online about building trap hives and other information about attracting feral swarms? We have a healthy feral hive in a hollow oak tree on our place and expect they swarm sometimes. One day I heard a swarm fly past me but couldn't look fast enough to actually see them, but it was an eerie sound!
 
tel jetson
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Tyler Ludens wrote:
tel jetson wrote:
if you want to get tough bees that will survive, collect feral swarms.


Are there any good resources online about building trap hives and other information about attracting feral swarms? We have a healthy feral hive in a hollow oak tree on our place and expect they swarm sometimes. One day I heard a swarm fly past me but couldn't look fast enough to actually see them, but it was an eerie sound!


this pdf here is a pretty good guide. for reference, two Warre boxes are right around 40 litres, the size recommended for a bait hive.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Thank you, that is extremely helpful.
 
Leila Rich
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I've never heard of bottomless hives. Just did some reading: totally commonsense.
I don't want to prop up an unhealthy hive, but the NZ info I've been getting is pretty miserable re organic beekeeping and varroa.
Sounds like it's more a failure of understanding the bees, coupled with a lack of imagination.
I haven't seen a bee in ages, let alone a wild colony. Apparently there's very few surviving wild hives, but if I can find one, it clearly has the reistance I need.
 
tel jetson
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Leila Rich wrote:I've never heard of bottomless hives. Just did some reading: totally commonsense.
I don't want to prop up an unhealthy hive, but the NZ info I've been getting is pretty miserable re organic beekeeping and varroa.
Sounds like it's more a failure of understanding the bees, coupled with a lack of imagination.
I haven't seen a bee in ages, let alone a wild colony. Apparently there's very few surviving wild hives, but if I can find one, it clearly has the reistance I need.


local beekeeping organizations generally maintain swarm lists, and there may be a local swarm coordinator. so you put your name on the list, and then you get a call when it's your turn to collect a swarm. you can also give your name to pest control/exterminators and local governments to call you when they get calls about swarms. I'm not familiar with the situation in your part of the world, but these are easy steps to take that can't hurt.
 
tel jetson
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if you do plan to gather swarms, you'll want to have a swarm kit ready far ahead of swarm season so you don't have to scramble to get ready when the time comes. here's what I use:

  • 5-gallon bucket with lots of little holes drilled in the lid and sides. for putting the swarm in.
  • long turkey or goose feather. bees like feathers better than brushes. I've also used pine foliage with good results.
  • dilute sugar syrup in a spray bottle. this should probably be prepared as needed instead of in advance. distracts the bees and keeps them from flying.
  • ladder. obvious. don't do anything stupid, though. I carried a chainsaw twenty feet up a ladder on an unstable slope. worked out okay, but I was just asking for dismemberment, and I won't do it again.
  • loppers. the easiest swarms are on small branches that can be cut of and placed in the bucket intact.
  • gloves and veil. optional, but I got a face full of stings once on what should have been a routine swarm. hard to drive away when both eyes are swollen shut.
  • lemongrass oil. a drop in the bucket soothes the bees. another drop in their new home keeps them around.
  • lavender oil. for when you get stung. doesn't stop the swelling, but kills the pain. a baking soda poultice pulls the acid out, but takes more time to apply. once you've been stung enough, this will be optional.
  • camera. swarms are very cool to see, and folks like to see documentation.


  • that's what's in my kit. some folks use powdered sugar instead of honey syrup. that works, too. don't use smoke, though.
     
    Leila Rich
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    Thanks tel, I'll contact my local bee people. My "weak and wobbly" self won't be climbing ladders to collect swarms
    I'll work on getting a bee buddy.
    There's lots of hive plans online, the biobee site http://www.biobees.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=5357 has various plans for Warre and top-bar hives.
    I'm liking the bottomless Warre hives. A hive I can add to appeals: I want to avoid swarms as much as possible, since I think that could really freak the neighbours out. Any plans you've found simple and sensible? I'm NOT handy and plan to find someone who is to help.
     
    tel jetson
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    Warre hives are probably the easiest to build, apart from the horizontal hives made out of 55-gallon plastic drums. biobees.warre.com is where I initially got plans, though some deviations seem to be working well.

    on bottomless hives: definitely not proven. detractors worry that it leads to more robbing and predation, and higher honey consumption over the winter. my hives seem to be doing well, though.

    on avoiding swarms: apart from giving the bees more boxes so they don't feel the need to split, I wouldn't try to avoid swarms. it's the colony's natural means of reproduction and it's your best bet for expanding your bee population. it's an indication of colony health, vigor, and local adaptation. if you're paying attention, swarms are easy enough to see coming ahead of time. and having bait hives out well in advance of swarm season can keep your own swarms from leaving to upset neighbors. it isn't a sure thing, but it increases your odds substantially. scouts start looking for potential new nest sites far in advance of the colony actually swarming, so having the bait hives out early will help.

    there are also some folks experimenting with swarm traps. it's a fairly simple contraption that is attached to the entrance and automatically captures the swarm so it can be placed in a new hive easily. also not yet proven, but maybe worth checking out.
     
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