Journey Towards Keeping Bees

Over the past few weeks I (Christian) have become intrigued with the idea of beekeeping. I think what got me started on this new kick was an article in the "Mother Earth News Guide to Self-Reliance and Country Skill" about an alternative to the popular Langstroth method of beekeeping (the big white boxes you see all the time). Don't get me wrong, the Lang hives are wonderful things and especially if you plan on commercializing your honey operation, but they can also be expensive and require more specialized tools. For my purposes it was certainly the cost that kept me away from the traditional hive structure. Enter the "Top bar hive" that I read about in the aforementioned article.

From what I have read and heard the top bar hive method really grew out of a need for a low cost, easy to build and maintain hive in the east African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. In fact, you may find top bar hives referred to as "Kenyan Top Bar Hive" (KTBH) or "Tanzanian Top Bar Hive" (TTBH). For probably thousands of years the people there have been keeping bees and collecting honey from log hives which only yield about 1/3 the amount of honey as a top bar hive. Therefore, by using easily attainable materials a beekeeper can effectively triple their production. I was watching a lecture on top bar hives by McCartney Taylor and he said that the average income from honey in Tanzania (I think) was about $200 per year using a log hive. That means that when a beekeeper switches to the top bar hive they are now bringing in $600 per year which significantly increases their ability to provide for needs of their family!

For me the motivation for wanting to keep bees has less to do with profit and more to do with the enjoyments of it and the notion that I might be able to harvest my own honey and wax, and have the added benefit of the bees for pollination of the garden. I mean really, how cool would it be to pull out a jar of honey that was created in your own backyard? Thus I have set out on a mission to learn as much as I can about top bar beekeeping and have even constructed a hive.

There are loads of resources on the internet for this subject and plenty of plans for the actual construction of the hive. There are even a few companies that sell complete hives and/or plans if you want to build your own. Again, part of the appeal to me was the idea that you could make your hive out of materials you salvage or purchase at a home improvement store. So, last week I began my search for suitable materials at the in-law's farm. Thankfully, in the old barn I struck solid, beehive building gold and was able to find all that I needed to build my hive.

The Build

There are plenty of variations on the top bar hive but for mine I chose to make it 36" long and about 15" wide at the top. The basic idea is to have two 12"x1" boards fastened to flat end pieces at about a 120 degree angle creating a "V" shaped trough with an opening at the bottom and an open top that is covered by the top bars. Some designs use a closed bottom but I opted for an open bottom covered with a screen to allow hive debris to fall out while keeping predators and pests out.

Once the side panels were in place I added four legs made out of 2x4s, drilled three entry holes in the side, and fashioned the follower board. This design element seems to be another optional piece. Its role is to constrict the size of the hive when the bees first begin to construct comb. The reason I decided to make one was because I wanted to have a place to put a feeder inside the body of the hive. The follower is simply a piece of plywood that is cut to fit inside the trough that can be moved to increase or decrease the available space inside the actual hive.

Here you can see some of the top bars removed and the entrance holes in the side. The gap at the far end is where the follower board is and the feeder location.

Next it was time to build the top bars. This is the one place where dimensions seem to be really critical. Apparently bees construct comb at a specific width and you want to make sure your bars are close to that width so that the comb doesn't end up spanning several bars. From what I read 1 3/8" was about ideal for top bars so I took some  1" thick boards and ripped them down to 1 3/8" wide strips. I ended up with enough top bars to cover the entire top of the hive except the last few inches where the feeder will sit. This means that I can fill the feeder without disturbing the hive.

The final part of the build was the roof. Again, this is an optional design element and climate and aesthetics will be the determining factors on whether or not a roof is desired. Living in the southeast we do receive considerable rain throughout the year and I thought it would be nice to keep as much rain as possible out of the hive. Alternatively, you can just place a piece of plywood, tin or plastic over the top to keep water out.

Here is the finished product with the roof in place. It simply lifts off.

The Plan

Now that I have a hive the next obvious question is, "Where are you going to get bees?" There are several option here; 1) purchase bees, 2) capture a swarm from another beekeeper, 3) capture a feral swarm, 4) lure in a feral swarm. When I found out that option #4 was possible that was what put me over the top on deciding to keep bees. What I learned was that during the spring and summer when colonies are expanding and "swarming" they send out scouts to find a new home for part of the colony. During this time of year it is possible to lure a wild swarm to your beehive. There are some products on the market that include the pheromones that act as the "come hither" scent put off from bees. You can buy these and "bait" your hive in the hopes of attracting a swarm. You can also use lemongrass oil which is a similar scent along with some beeswax or old comb. My plan is to try to lure a swarm into the hive and have free bees! I really don't know if it will work or what my chances of success truly are but I want to start there. If it doesn't work I can always search for a swarm or purchase some bees from a local beekeeper, but if I am successful I will have free bees and a free hive and that would be wonderful!

As the spring and summer approach I will keep you updated on how the luring is going and hopefully have plenty of material for more posts on beekeeping.



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