A hive of activity

Woodworking

My dear father with his booth at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market in Ithaca, New York

As I mentioned in my last post, one of my near-term goals is to build a new top bar hive. The plan is to travel to my parent’s house this weekend, where my dear father has agreed to help me build the new hive. He has become quite the woodworker in his retirement, building and selling custom furniture throughout the year.

Based on my first year of use, my existing top bar hive Venus has a few drawbacks. In this post I’ll lay out my views on the current hive and how I hope to address these in a new hive. Unless something goes wrong, my next post will present the finished product.

Current Design

My Top Bar Hive

My current top bar hive (pre-bees) with a viewing window open and top bars on top.

My existing hive has done great, and in that regard I have no complaints. The bees have settled in, built 17 or so combs, and seem to be wintering fairly well so far. It is solid and sturdy, and I’ve enjoyed using the observation window to peek into the hive on a regular basis.

From a design perspective for both bee and beekeeper, there are some aspects that I would like to modify. Here are my areas of concern with the current hive; after I detail these I’ll run through how my new design addresses each aspect.

1. Top Bar Length

My existing bars are 14 inches long. Nothing wrong with that, yet I like the idea of having bars similar to the length of a Langstroth frame, which is 19 inches. In theory this makes it easier to transfer to or from a Langstroth frame. So I am planning to build a hive that has 19 inch top bars.

2. Top Bar Width

The existing bars are also 1.5 inches wide. Most beekeepers seem to say that a 1.375 (one and three eights inch) bar is a more appropriate size, so I figure I should give this a try. Apparently bees prefer a 1.25 inch bar for brood comb, and up to 1.5 inch bars for honey comb. The existing 1.5 inch bars have worked pretty well, and I didn’t have any cross combing last year, so I’m not sure the larger size was a problem. Still, I’d like to try the small size as it will allow more top bars per foot of space.

3. Comb Size

Both local beekeepers and some authors have argued that the queen prefers a larger frame, and that the colony may winter better on a larger comb. In a Langstroth hive you build up boxes over time to create larger space, while in a top bar hive you are stuck with whatever comb size you have. My current hives has a 9.75 inch inner height, and a total comb size around 86 square inches per side (accounting for bee space on the edges). This is about the same as a medium Langstroth frame in the U.S., which has an inner area of 17 x 5.25 inches or around 87 square inches per side. So a deeper and larger comb could provide a better home for the bees, both in the spring for the egg laying and the winter for clustering. A deep frame, by the way, is 136 square inches per side – more than 1.5 times the area of a medium frame.

4. Inner Sides

The observation window on my hive is great, but was created by placing glass on the outside of a hole cut in the side board. This means there is an empty space in the hive where the hole was cut. As a result, combs next to the observation window are built wider than combs not in this area, which is a bit awkward when trying to slide or move comb around. I plan to use plain side boards without an observation window to create a consistent comb size throughout the hive.

5. Follow Board

Similar to the prior item, the follower board fits into a slot in the middle of the hive, dividing it evenly in two. This is nice to split the hive, but means you cannot have the follower board anywhere else. It also creates another area where the comb width varies. In my new hive I hope to have a follower board that can be placed anywhere in the hive, and does not interfere with the comb size.

6. Entrance

My current entrance consists of three 1-inch holes at the top end of the hive. This is fine, though I’ve read that the bees can defend a single entrance easier than multiple entrances. So I plan to have a single slotted entrance. Fedor Lautzin claims that bees like a 1/2 inch high entrance, which allows a bee to exit the hive upside down on the top while another bee enters the hive on the bottom. Les Crowder and others claim the bees seem to like a 4 to 6 inch entrance, so I will take this into account as well. There is some controversy over using a side versus end entrance, but for now I plan to stick with an end entrance.

7. Hive Size

Finally, with 30 bars my maximum current hive size is 5,160 square inches of comb (30 combs times 86 square inches per side times two sides, or 30 x 86 x 2). This equates to just under 30 medium frames or 19 deep frames. I’m assuming 8 frame boxes here, so this is almost 4 medium or 2.5 deep boxes. In our area my understanding is that a productive Langstroth hive can easier have 5 medium boxes or a brood nest of 2 deep with supers of 2 medium boxes. The 5 mediums has a max of 6,960 sq in of comb (87 x 5 x 8 x 2), while the 2 deep / 2 medium setup maxes out at 7,138 sq in [(136 x 2 x 8 x 2) + (87 x 2 x 8 x 2)]. So a target of around 7,000 total square inches of comb seems appropriate. A wider top bar and larger overall comb size, of course, will help with this item.

New Design

151215 Erik Hive Design

The new hive design. Click on the image to view a larger version.

So, what did I end up with?

After looking at number of designs and reading a few more books, I settled on Wyatt Mangum’s approach with a couple modifications. The image here shows the end of the hive, the top bar, and a potential cover. The hive is based on 1 x 12 inch pine boards, which are common in the U.S. and can be purchased in various lengths from 6 feet to 12 feet. The boards are actually three-fourths of an inch high and 11.25 inches wide. The main difference between this design and Dr. Wyatt Mangum’s design is that in Wyatt’s hives the top of the end board is even with the top of the hive. In my design the end board is higher to help hold the top bars in place. To achieve this I moved the bottom board so it attaches beneath the end board (rather than to the end like the sides).

Here is how this new design addresses the areas I mentioned for my current hive.

1. Top Bar Length

As you can see if you view the diagram as a larger image, the hive supports a 19 inch top bar.

2. Top Bar Width

As mentioned in the text of the design, I expect to have 1.375 inch wide bars. After some further reading, it seems prudent to have some 1/4 inch spacers as well (simply a 1/4 by 19 inch bar), to support wider bars if (when) the bees decide to make some.

3. Comb Size

The height of the end boards are 11.25 inches. I’ll lose 3/4 of an inch at the top to hold the top bars in place, creating a 10.5 inch high inside. If you do the math and account for 3/8 inch bee space on the side of and below the comb, you get a comb of around 131 square inches per side. Very close to a deep frame (which is 136).

4. Inner Sides

Without an observation window, the new hive will have smooth wooden sides. The comb will be the same dimensions throughout the hive.

5. Follower Board

I plan to build a follower board by cutting a board to the inner dimensions of the hive and attaching it to a top bar. This will allow the follower board to be placed anywhere in the hive, and leave room for bee space between it any nearby comb.

6. Entrance

I settled on a 1/2 inch by 5 inch entrance, 4 inches above the base of the hive. In the winter this ensures dead bees will not block the entrance (they fall to the bottom). I’ve also read that a bottom entrance makes it easier for fallen mites to crawl onto an incoming bee, since the bees are often on the bottom board. A higher entrance, the argument goes, makes it harder for a mite to find a new host. Not sure how true this is, but it can’t hurt.

7. Hive Size

Since each comb is 131 per side, to create a maximum of 7,000 square inches of comb I would need 26.72 top bars (7,000 / 131 / 2). At 1.375 inches each, 27 top bars would need 37 inches or just over 3 feet of space. I rounded this up to 3.5 feet, or 42 inches, to give extra space and allow for spacers or extra top bars. As shown in the image, the bottom board attaches to the base of the end board, so I’ll need a 43.5 inch bottom board to accommodate a 42-inch inner hive length and attach the bottom to the two 3/4 inch end boards. This results in a maximum comb size of up to 7,860 square inches (30 x 131 x 2), well over my original target.

The resulting length of 3.5 feet is shorter than my current hive, which is four feet, while providing more overall space for the bees. You can, of course, adjust the length to be shorter or longer depending on the intended purpose. In Wyatt’s book, he discusses using 1-foot hives for nucs, 2-foot hives for pollination, and 3 to 5 foot hives for honey production.

Summary

I am pleased as punch with the new design, to quote a recent blog post. I like the comb size, the overall length, and the idea of using a hive stand as I do today (without any attached legs). I hope the larger comb size isn’t difficult to handle, and that the entrance works out well for the bees. I am not entirely sure how to waterproof the roof, but I have faith that we can figure this out.

One challenge will be getting bees inside. Since the comb is bigger I can’t just move the comb from my current top bar hive to the new hive. I’m looking into perhaps extending the existing top bars or otherwise tying some comb to the new bars so the bees have something to work with. My current plan is to split one of my current hives in the spring such that the bees make the new hive their home.

All this is predicated on having a hive in hand, of course. If all goes well I will have not one, but two of these hives next week. My dear father has already put the top bars together and cut out a number of the pieces we will need. Here is a picture he sent of the top bars. Wish us luck!

151223 New Top Bars

Some of the top bars waiting for me in Ithaca, NY.


After an exhaustive web search of at least 20 minutes, maybe even 30, I was unable to find the definitive origin of the idiom hive of activity on the web. I did find an Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms reference that had the entries searchable online, but this phrase apparently does not appear in the work. If Oxford doesn’t have the answer, then surely you do not expect a poor American to find it.

My guess is that the phrase originated during the middle ages when a beehive was seen as the paragon of efficiency, or perhaps during the industrial revolution when factories and factory workers were perhaps compared to the work of bees in a hive. If you know of an origin for this phrase, or a book that would have this information, I would appreciate the reference.

Since this post is about getting ready to build a hive, it of course seemed quite appropriate.

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7 thoughts on “A hive of activity

  1. I’ve built six top bar hives so far and have used 3/8 inch high by 4 inch wide entrances with good luck. I placed a small landing board under the entrance so I would have a lip to sit an entrance reducer on if needed. This spring I will be trying a periscope side entrance as suggested by Phil Chandler.

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    • Do you ever find the entrance clogged and wish you had something larger? The standard Langstroth entrance is huge by comparison, so I wonder how the bees will find the smaller size I’m planning. Interesting idea to make room for a reducer, have you have used one with your hives?

      Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Have you considered going Tanzanian and using straight sides? Easier to build and the right dimensions achieve Langstroth frame compatibility.

    Does your father have a router with rabbeting bit? You could then still have your window. Rout an interior rabbet around the window hole to a depth of the glass thickness. A clip at either end suffices to hold the pane in especially after the bees start propolyzing.

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    • Yes, I’ve thought about a horizontal hive in the Tanzanian style. I kind of like the sloping sides of the TBH for now, but certainly an option in the future.

      Yes, he does have a router and could probably make a interior frame for the glass. Depending on how it goes this weekend perhaps I’ll ask him to do that. Thanks for the thoughts.

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  3. How exciting to start on your new hives!

    Love the photo of your dad and his furniture, and it’s so special that he’s going to help you build your hives. That is a true labor of love, and you’ll always think of him when you check your bees.

    Couple of questions.

    You mentioned wanting to put your bars in Langs sometimes, and I wondered if you’d be putting in empty bars to get drawn out or full bars to populate the Lang. Wondering because if you’re putting drawn bars into a Lang, you’d definitely want them to fit height-wise as well. (I brought this up since you mentioned your followers being 11.25″ tall, but I think a Lang deep frame is about 9″ with a little extra space in the bottom of the box. Mediums are even shorter. Just something to think about.)

    Also, like theprospectofbees said, you can use a router to get flush windows. My husband did that for me. Basically, he built the hive sides like picture frames. He cut four pieces of wood to make the frame and routed the inner edges on the interior side of the frame (for the window) before joining them.

    BTW, regarding your concerns about the handling the bigger comb, my first two hives had 18″ bars and an interior height of 11″. As long as I didn’t turn full bars upside down, it was ok. Compared to my current combs, which are a little longer and shorter, I think those tall combs were more likely to develop micro cracks and fall in the heat (because of the cracks) if they got turned upside down. Kept upright, though, they seemed fine. So maybe while you’re in Ithaca, you could convince dear dad to make a bar stand, too. 😉

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    • Thanks, Julie. Appreciate your comments.

      Not sure if/how I’ll interact with a Lang, I just like the idea…. The bottom should be about the same as a deep, actually. Of course, if I switch to all mediums this year that wouldn’t really help. Ultimately I think the longer top bar allows for more hive space for the bees, and given all the alternatives I thought matching a Lang might make sense.

      If you’ve seen the post I put up, you’ll know we didn’t make a window. Enough adventures without trying to cut out a square, I think. Loved that my dad knew what he was doing, though. I’d say “we should do this,” and he would say okay and make the cut. I think I’d be much more timid around the tools and measurements by myself.

      Thanks for the advice on the bigger comb – we’ll see. We didn’t make a hive stand, although I think two stacked mediums would probably work just fine.

      Hope you and the bees are safe up north. I’m not sure how much New England is getting. We’re still getting pummelled down here, two feet and counting – I’ll have to post a picture.

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