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So Here’s a Crazy Idea…

Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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I have been poking around, tinkering with beekeeping ideas, doing reading and research. And buzzing round in my head is an idea, ready to take flight for the first time.

Reading about how to get bees for free. Bait traps, starter boxes, etc.

My first thought is that is that if I am going to all the trouble to set out temporary bee bait type houses, only to then transfer this swarm to its permanent home later, why not set out the very home that the bees will live in as my initial trap? No ticking off the bees when they spill out of their temporary home. No moving the frames at a time when the brood is just beginning. Just a simple move of their permanent hive home to the bee yard…

So that point has been buzzing around and led to the stinging revelation that a bee yard is for the convenience of the beekeeper. The bees already found a perfect home- why move them? Why not let nature take its course? The bees obviously think this is a good place, a safe home, one with lots of pollen and nectar in easy reach… So why not leave them where they are?

Instead, why not design a permanent home, place it where lots of crops that need pollinating are and let the bees takeover? Why not enter a partnership whereby the bees become tenants willing to deal in honey with the landlord? It seems forcing them into my idea of a hive in a bee yard goes against their fair choice. It’s sort of like me grabbing a family off the street and forcing them to live in my idea of a home- and pay rent. Why not instead put out the vacancy sign and see who’s interested?

That means the bees live in the field year round. The bees are there whenever the farmer’s crops are in need of pollination. Local bees are ready, not disoriented foreigners that came in on the midnight express and don’t speak the local lingo. On that point, why is it a good idea to make bees into migrant workers? They likely meet with the same resistance from the locals that humans do when they are forced to immigrate. That and the bees end up with Montezuma’s Revenge or whatever local disease is trending- something they have little resistance to. Bees that are local have built up resistance to whatever diseases are present in their local. Local bees know in advance when the sunflower (insert other crop here) crop is going to bloom and nectar will be high. They are in their home, safe and snug, ready far in advance. The queen starts laying weeks in advance and just as the sunflowers bloom, the locals are ready in their masses, buckets in hand.

So then bloomed the idea that around here, (in North Dakota) there is a dearth of bees. I know they are here, but they are not as numerous as it seems they should be. Part of that’s due to the mentality of farmers here. Let’s just say that airplanes buzz around here more than bees- and they are not carrying nectar. The farmers are all bought in to injecting it into the ground or spraying it from a plane or otherwise turning to manmade chemicals to solve natural problems.

(NEW WORD ALERT- I coined it. Chemanicals- Manmade chemicals.)

I ran into the same problem with trying to exponent deep planting methods for drought resistance. I got told, in no uncertain terms, that this simply won't work. Farmers are only interested in doing what they did last year and the year before and the year before... (But low and behold, now it's the latest thing, since some farming magazine brought out a full color article on the merits of deep planting.)

Anyway, putting up permanent bee colonies in areas where pollination is needed won't have farmers switching to polycrops anytime soon, but it is a start. Honey from bees is something they can do with that strip of land full of trees, other than using as a windbreak. And it gets them to thinking that it might be advantageous to have more than one crop growing at a time...

Sure it's not a poly crop, but it's certainly a start!

So then it dawned on me, the farmer might be much more unlikely to spray his crops for bugs if he knows there are bees in them there trees… He might be willing to accept a few losses to bugs, with the increased amount of pollination from bees. His yields may even increase. (What a concept!) Farmers have a right to a profit, so why fight that basic human emotion and needs system? Why not find things that save farmers the cost of chemanicals and still increase their yields? Why not put the system that’s triumphed over every other economic system at the very forefront? Why not conform the concept to capitalism, rather than making the bees conform to capitalism? It’s sort of capitalism from the bees perspective. A place to live, lots of food to eat, lots of reproduction. Sounds like the bees “American Dream” to me.

This system could be self protecting as well. Why not give the farmer a few jars of honey from those hives in his trees? Does he want honey that bees have made from plants covered in chemanicals? Likely not…

So all that’s sort of combined into a manmade hive with the perfect bee dimensions, mounted up at tree height and solidly affixed. That led into researching homemade tree stands that hunters make. There’s some really simple designs out there that can be slapped together in less than an hour. They are solid, take advantage of the bees being in the trees canopy and form a platform for the bees hut. That platform also forms a perch for harvesting nectar.

And then it occurred to me, that beekeepers take their honey in the fall…

Why? Is that because that’s when the most honey is in the hive?

But that begs the question, what if they run out during the winter? What if it’s a freak winter where it is extra cold or extra snow or a late spring? What then? Provide more comb or as some do, sugar feed the bees. But why not come and take the excess honey in the spring, when the bees are just about to make more? Why not let the bees decide how much honey they will eat over the winter and how much they will pay in rent?

Is there some reason not to let honey overwinter? Will it go bad or something?

It seems so much more advantageous to take the honey in the spring, right around the time bees start to make more. Then you know they don’t need their reserves…

So here are some ideas I would like answered by the experts. If your answer is, “It has never been done that way,” that’s certainly acceptable. But if you could elucidate why it has never been done that way, that’s helpful.

1. Why is honey harvested in the autumn? Why not in the spring? Is it just a holdover from man following the routine he’s learned from harvesting grains?

2. Is it a bad idea to build a permanent hive in a farmer’s field, up among the trees? I mean obviously, it’s not going to be easy to harvest, but that’s something I am working on too.

3. How is this really any different than trucking bees up and down the continent, in terms of pollination I mean? Obviously it’s far better for the bees. If there is a local outbreak of some disease, it’s not spread to the country in one fell swoop of a season. Less fuel, less pollution, less cost and far, far less stress for the bees.

4. Anything else, including pitfalls and encouragements, are welcome.

5. Hive design ideas. I can make anything I might need and weight is not an issue. (Have you seen some of these hunters? If those homemade stands can hold them, it will hold bees!)

6. What about tough winter hives? Anybody have experience here in places like North Dakota and Canada?

If folks could comment on this, I would appreciate it. As I heard the owner of the site say on the bee podcasts, “What’s needed is not 300 beekeepers with 30,000 bees each. What’s needed is 30,000 beekeepers with 3,000 bees. (Or something to that extent.) This method localizes bees. It takes advantage of local genetics. It takes advantage of local diseases. (In that it keeps them localized.) And it takes advantage of the local beekeeper.

And it seem to me it’s just helping bees do what they do.

Lastly, I am preparing to start my first hives on a friend’s farm here in North Dakota. Obviously, I am not doing that until spring of 2016. Also, I am not buying any queens or nucs. I am looking to catch local bees with local genetics. So I will be setting out new homes for the bees and hoping the scouts like them.

I have already read several books, including Abbe Warre’s wonderful treatise. I was impressed with his book in general, but especially his closing comments about what his mentor said. In a nutshell, Warre’s comment was that he had taken the baton from his predecessors and run with it as far as he could. It was now the chance of someone new to take the baton and run with it. Well here I am! I can’t guarantee I won’t drop it, but I will run with it. (Funny how he predicted the current crisis in colony collapse. He said “modern” bee methods would ruin the bee and the bee keeper. He was right, it just took longer than he thought. That’s a tribute to the hard headed beekeeper I suppose and the tenacity of the bee. But every system has its limits- no matter how fault tolerant the initial design.)

So let the comments begin. I have a thick skin, but keep your comments civil. I am willing, as always, to share all my data with anyone who wants it, so don’t be afraid to share what you know. I am not going to keep the idea just for myself.

Short Form:

Why is honey harvested in autumn?

Is it a bad idea to build permanent fields in the farmer’s windbreaks, up among the trees?

Please compare your thoughts on “trucker bees” migrating here and there across the nation to this idea.

Ideas, encouragement, pitfalls?

Hive design ideas for placing in among the trees- any ideas or modifications?

What about winter worthy hives up here where it's cold? Anybody doing in the Great White North?

Posts: 5145
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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Jeff: So many ideas.... I'll pick and choose a few to respond to.

Bee hives are expensive: About $325 for a basic configuration... When beehives are left in the open, they are very susceptible to robbing by bees, and to being chewed apart by mice, and being eaten up by insects. So I'd expect that if I left an unoccupied bee hive sitting around that it would be destroyed by predators. Sometimes we have hives in which the bees die, and we don't get it closed up tightly, and other bees move into it. That always seems like a present to me... But a trap box that is transferred to a full-sized box later on seems fine to me.

It seems to me like moving bee hives works best if the move is at least three miles in distance.... So to move a hive less than a couple of miles means two moves, once to get them further than three miles away, and then another move to get them to the apiary...

Apiaries are nice, because it allows me to go to the apiary and take care of all of the work at once... Apiaries suck because it concentrates the bees in a small area so that they can share diseases and pests more effectively. If I ever start beekeeping on my own, rather than with partners, I'll likely scatter the bees all over everywhere to minimize the disease problems. That seems more important to me than my convenience. In my ideal beekeeping world, I would space colonies about 100 yards apart, and have them widely scattered rather than in a bee yard.

I don't have any reason to believe that bees choose their colony sites based on availability of nectar or pollen. A typical colony might forage over, 13 square miles, and flowers come and go, so I don't see much use in choosing a site based on what flowers are blooming today... Availability of water might have a strong influence on hive selection.

I don't have an opinion on the sentience of honeybees, nor on the ethics of keeping them or moving them locally. I am certainly not willing to attribute prescience to them... I'm very willing to badmouth migratory beekeeping because I think it leads to the rapid dissemination of diseases and pests. However, colonies that spend the winter in sunny California in the almond orchards arrive in my valley full of vigor and bees. While the local bees are just getting started creating new brood, the migratory bees are packing in gobs of honey. The migratory bees might collect 4 times more honey during a year than the local bees. That can mean an extra $500 of honey from a migratory bee colony compared to the local bees. Also the migratory bees can collect rents of up to $150 to $300 per colony.

Boxes full of honey are HEAVY!!! And honey leaks all over everything. I certainly wouldn't want to be trying to get one out of a tree.

Honey is plentiful in the fall. In my climate, about 50% to 75% of bee colonies die during the winter. As soon as a colony dies, the predators are busy eating the honey, and combs. So if I waited to harvest honey in the spring, then as much as half or three-quarters would have disappeared due to predation. And my equipment could be in ruins. Beekeepers have been doing this for a very long time... We know how much honey is required to sustain a colony of bees for the winter. We leave that much honey for the colony. Economically, it makes more sense to take all the honey in the fall, and buy new packages of bees in the spring. (We might send a colony into winter with $500 worth of honey in it, but it only costs $100 to buy new bees in the spring.)

The almond orchards in California are a desert... They are maintained as sand as far as the eye can see, except for the almond trees. What that means in practice for the honeybees, is that they can only live in the almond orchards while they are flowering. There is not enough ecosystem there to sustain the bees for the entire growing season. Sure the farmers could do things differently, but migratory bees are currently more profitable.

It seems to me, that captured colonies are quite unlikely to be locally adapted... The bee industry is rife with transporting bees all over everywhere. Most beekeepers are not acquiring local bees to replace lost colonies. They are acquiring migratory bees, fresh from the almond orchards of California. There are some bee keepers in my area that are intent on raising locally-adapted queens, but the drone population seems to me to be about 70% migratory, so it's an uphill battle.

Creating hybrids with "killer bees" is a significant problem with the migratory beekeeping scenario. We are constantly culling queens because of it. It's nice because the bees are more aggressive in everything, including gathering nectar. It's a pain to work with cranky bees.

Posts: 632
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For reasons that are poorly understood (meaning...we don't know), a swarm of bees looking for a new home prefer to colonize something that has a volume of around 40 liters, or 10 gallons give or take.

That would be too small for them to make enough winter stores. That's one of the reasons bait hives are used. Then you can transfer them to the bigger hive. Here's one resource:

You are more likely to catch a swarm if the bait hive is 8 or 10 feet off the ground (in my experience), and it would be tricky to put a full Langstroth hive up that high. But a smaller bait hive, that's not so insurmountable. And once they start making comb and collecting resources, they are committed. Even if you put them in a different box at a different location, they are still (usually mostly) committed.

Also, a bait hive doesn't have to have all the whistles and bells (and expense) of a full hive. You could knock together 5-10 cheap bait hives for the cost of one full langstroth setup.

Putting 5 or 10 hives out, in an attempt to catch 1 or 2 swarms could cost you $1,200 to $1,500 or more.

"Real" hives can also get stolen, which is why people like to locate them where they are more secure, less likely to be stolen.

So, your ideas are not wrong, but there are legitimate reasons that a bait hive offers some advantages for catching a swarm, or 6.

There's nothing preventing you from using two mediums or one deep as a trap hive. Then you just add boxes as needed and don't even have to transfer them.
Posts: 466
Location: Elizabeth City, North Carolina - Zone 8a - Humid
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Here is a link to a YouTube channel of a guy who makes bee hives that are simply about as close to nature as you can expect to get. He does not treat. Even has some videos of the bees swarming on 2... that is right TWO different occations and moving back into his hives allllllll on their own. So he has let them decide to stay there.

Pat R.

I REALLY want to do some of these log hives... but with leaving the bark on so they will last for decades. With an entrance towards the top of the hive for better ventilation/easier dropping off of nectar by the bees/less vegetation interfering with flight path/and harder for mice/skunks/etc to turn the bees into prey.

Bees swarming into three kid's log hive on their own...

A Single Warre' hive box (in a tree)with a quilt placed on top. It is now on it's THIRD year. NEVER been opened or managed other than the insulation on the outside.

Bee's moving into Hal's log hive...

Bees moving into Bee Beard log hive...

edited by moderator to fix video links
Posts: 64
Location: Western Montana
goat hugelkultur fish hunting chicken bee
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Hey Jeff!

I like your writing style and wit. I also have had many of the same ideas. Many of which I have not tried, but have heard of many people around the world doing similar things.

To answer your short list of questions:

1. Honey is generally harvested in the autumn because that is when the honey flow is over and and the honey is ripe enough to take and it won't spoil. Many permaculture beekeepers wait until spring as to leave plenty for the bees in winter, and there being little chance of unripened honey. This saves work by not having to feed back. Most commercial guys want the honey out of the comb before it has a chance to granulate (and thus making it difficult to extract). One can, if knowledgeable enough, harvest many times a year. But the beekeeper must be certain of the ripe condition of the honey.

2. Lots of beekeepers have permanent bee yards (apiaries), and it is a great idea! Putting them up in trees is dangerous for the bees and the beekeeper. Putting them on a flat roof or a platform is a much better idea. Honey is heavy, and with the wind moving the trees, its best if the bees actually live inside the tree like they do in nature. You could put log hives up on a platform or rooftop, and easily accomplish the up in the air idea and be safe and sturdy. The bees would naturally colonize appropriately sized log hives, and once you are set up there you go. Be sure to check with your state whether or not you can have hives that don't have moveable combs. If you can't have log hives, then top bar hives would be a good bet. Lots of people hang top bar hives from trees around the world. My guess is they don't have the climate that north dakota does (wind/cold). You could also build earth shelters(wofatis) and place the hives on the top near the drop off and it may give the bees of the sense of being high up. Other wise I think a shipping container would be best. Bees on top with a wind break, stairs up and down, and you could turn the container into a processing and storing space. All in one unit. Placing individual hives long distances apart doubles or triples the workload because of the start/stop and travel. Thats why people have had apiaries for thousands of years. Way more profitable for the beekeeper. I think you need a bee house on top of a building/earth shelter.

3. Well not trucking bees around is better for the bees and for humans too! The only reason they are trucked around now is because honey is devalued and beekeepers have to send their bees in order to make a living. If the sugar industry hadn't killed the honey industry, the world would be a different place. I don't think beekeepers like shipping their bees, but they also do like money. When California and other states can keep enough pollinators alive that they don't need honey bees for pollination, then we will see and end to this pollination dependancy.

4. First off let me say I admire your enthusiasm and creativity! Your idea for setting up hives for the bees is awesome, and surely you will catch some swarms! You may catch local feral bees, or domestic imported bees from the beekeepers in your area. Keep note of differences between your hives. Since bees fly large distances, they are able to inhabit almost anywhere. There are definitely areas that are better than others for many reasons. You have put so many ideas down that I can't address them all. But you might find answers to many of your questions in my online beekeeping course designed for permaculture beekeepers.

5. If you look at bee keeping around the world, there are many hive designs ranging from living trees that have cavities created by humans slowly over the years, to people making top bar hives out of plastic barrels, to beautiful and elaborate bee houses, the variations are endless. Because north dakota is so cold and windy, I would suggest looking into bee houses. They provide protection in the winter and shade in the summer. I've got tons of ideas for you!

6. Dee Lusby always recounts how she kept bees up on the high line in Montana in langstroth deeps. But she says the key is having large colonies with lots of honey stores for insulation to get them through the winter. So yeah lots of people do it. I am in Missoula, MT which isn't like north dakota but still can be cold. I can only agree with Dee Lusby from what experience I have seen, large hives with lots of honey stores make it through the winter. Small ones freeze, light ones starve. The combination of the two is a death warrant. Pretty simple really.

I hope this gets you going and thinking more about what to do!

Marty - Awesome videos! This is exactly what I want to do! But I am scared of getting caught!!!
Posts: 224
Location: east and dfw texas
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As you can tell from the post here It all comes back to MONEY .
your idea isn't novel but it is good do you want bees for profit or for good of the bees or some were in between.
your idea of a hunters stand to me is something I have thought of it just needs to be big enough to get up on and have room to work. and could have a lift built in for the heavy lifting.
the European areas have trucks of honey bees that are enclosed and they don't take the bees off the truck just move the truck around to the flowers. lots of different ways to do it.
same principle just move the bees to the food and prevent the Darth ( lack of food)
Posts: 618
Location: Volant, PA
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I wondered the same thing, I enjoyed learning some reasons why!
jacob wustner
Posts: 64
Location: Western Montana
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Hey Jeff!

I was thinking about your idea of log hives up in trees on hunter stands, and I have more critiques. First, if you want the bees to survive year after year, you will need large enough colonies to make it through your winters. This would require large log hives, that would end up weighing way more than most humans(400-500lbs) when filled with honey and pollen. And if for some reason one came loose and fell, it could be disastrous. With lightweight hives you wouldn't have good enough insulation from the wind, and they still would be heavy when filled with honey(300-350lbs).

I was thinking about the wind and how people don't usually put hives in windy areas for a good reason. So my platform idea is kinda out because the wind would tear it apart, unless it is constructed really well. If you put it in a shelter belt or a thick stand of large trees, then you probably would be fine. I think most people have found through experience that everyone (the bees and beekeepers) are safer when there isn't a lot of up and down moving of hives or honey. That is a large amount of work and is dangerous.

So maybe the flat roof top, or the top of an earth shelter would be best for your idea. The bees get their vertical and you can safely access them when you need to. I don't know how many bears you have over there in ND, but here you can't leave hives unprotected from bears. They will find them with their excellent noses!

Anyway, food for thought...
Jeff Rash
Posts: 90
Location: Arizona & North Dakota
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Thanks for all the feedback!

Actually my thinking has evolved a bit to use metal piping to create raised platform for the bees. The these bees can be inspected by the county bee agent without having to climb up anything or otherwise involve a herculean task. Surplus honey can be harvested back to the landowner as payment in kind. That's because the bee house rides up and down on the vertical pipes like railing does on an automated gate.

This would mean that private landowners hereabouts can still donate the use of their land, but I don't have to be situated anywhere in particular on their land. I can pick areas that are ideal for bees, but not frequented by destructive people.

So think of four posts in the ground, rising vertically. This makes a sturdy cage with a pulley mounted at the top. A platform that rises up and down these poles is where the hive sets. On it are maybe two or three nuc boxes, designed to get a good colony of bees going and safe through the winters. From there, they will run out of space and naturally swarm. Those swarms will hopefully wind up repopulating the natural places bees find homes quickly. But the good thing is, I am thinking the landowners will come to think of these bees as part of their family, part of their land. Given the fact that they don't have to worry about the bees, that this is approximation of a wild tree hive and that the hive is left much to its own devices, I hold some hope out for the idea. (Plus it can still be inspected by the state and county AG people.)

It's as you said though, the pipes will need to support a lot of weight. A Spring project for sure!

That feels good. Thanks. Here's a tiny ad:
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