Thursday, July 9, 2009

Top Bar Beekeeping and the Nucleus Hives: To combine or not to combine?

So as mid-summer approaches, we find ourselves thinking about winter, and over-wintering our bee's. It also has us considering what path we want to take as beekeeper's. Are we in it for commercial production?For manipulating for maximum honey production? Or do we want natural, productive, happy and disease free bee's? Yes, the answer was that simple for us too. It's just a matter of making use of all the materials we have invested in. Not to say that every beekeeper out there is a commercial beekeeper that trucks hives cross country to pollinate and produce maximum stores of honey; but if you're a beekeeper that only practices beekeeping using the conventional methods, then aren't you really just participating in their weathered ways of beekeeping?

Beekeeping started out as a hobby, but the more we've read, researched, and learned, the old ways of beekeeping could be what is making our bee's sick in the first place. We've now dedicated ourselves to the research of honeybee behavior, and how we're manipulating the bee's, and ultimately extinguishing their population with our practices.

We have 12 colonies (13 if you count the hive that we sold!) four top bar hives, and eight Langstroth hives.

The hive we sold was also a top bar hive, we now have a new design that is easier to construct, has a bigger observation window on the side and is much lighter! Though the top bar hives are not as portable as the Langstroth hives, when you think about it, beehives do not need to be portable.

The great benefit of using the top bar hive is that it is self-contained. A standard Deep Super (Langstroth box) holds 10 frames and measures roughly 9 5/8 inches deep. On average, a strong colony will have two of those deep boxes for brood, or baby bee's. On top of that, a first year beekeeper could figure to have three supers of honey stores. The honey supers are more shallow than the brood boxes, measuring about 6 inches deep, but are still the standard ten frame hive. Within each of those frames is a stamped piece of wax foundation. You will also need a coil of wire to crimp into the foundation to hold it into place (meaning you need a foundation crimper as well.)

Using standard Langstroth hives, you must have this equipment on hand, but you cannot store the un-used equipment on the hive. The bee's are designed to fill the space they are provided with, but to do so at too quickly a rate overworks the bee's and stresses them out. The stress causes them to gorge on more of their stores; to have to consume more food to work harder to either heat more space or work twice as fast to establish that space. So the material must be stored appropriately elsewhere.

The foundation also poses another problem. It conforms the cell size to one universal size. This is easy for the beekeeper, but detrimental to the bee's. If that particular genus of bee is smaller than the cell size, then the excess space is left open to disease, mites, and bacteria. If that particular bee's genus produces larger bee's than the cell size given, the bee's are forced to develop sub-standard brood and thus rendering some of the population developmentally delayed, or even mentally retarded. Over time the constriction of the cell size will gradually de-evolve the bee, and they will begin to show deficiencies that they could previously stave off. Does that sound like foundation is the way to go? That's like saying that once size fits all, for everyone, even if you are a colony, a million bee's strong.

Though Keith and I have decided we definitely want to continue using our top bar hive system instead of the Langstroth hives, we have two weak Langstroth Nucleus hives we got in the spring, late May, that have stopped progressing, and we aren't sure the next step we should take. They are in the standard Langstroth hive body, but they are a hybrid hive of both Langstroth frames and top bar frames (The pictures at the top of the blog are of an enclosed standard frame, and that of a top bar.) we cannot decide what we need to do with them to get them strong enough to over-winter? We are considering re-queening the colony, by buying a new, mated, queen and installing her into the hive after removing and killing the defective queen. We are considering combining the two weak hives into a top bar hive and letting the superior queen kill the weak queen, and use the strength of the bee's combined to take splits in the spring and possibly get two or three colonies out of it. We are also considering a method we have never practiced: Two queen colonies. We sat in on a seminar about it at a beekeeping convention this winter, but we aren't sure they are strong enough to be that productive. One queen may gain dominance and kill the other queen, in which case we would still hopefully end up with one decent colony.
The deadline to re-queen a colony in time for them to build up adequate stores for winter is August 1st. So I will surely let you know the status of our dilemma!


  1. I certainly can relate to your thinking. I did a lot of research about beekeeping and there's a lot of opinions about what to or not to do. I opted to go traditional at first and then decide where to go from there.

  2. Hey guys. Glad you joined Walter Bee. My writing certainly isn't as technical as yours, but I'm an organic gardener and beekeeper and I'm sure we share lots of ideas on natural ways to raise bees. My bees won't be subjected to the chemicals I feel are killing them. The next supers I add will not contain foundation. I think the bees will know what to do.

  3. You hit the nail on the head, Lynn. Keith and I are completely in agreeance that using the foundation and standard methods of beekeeping are what are making our bee's sick in the first place. We've omit chemicals from our hives, and no longer use frames with foundation. My Fiance and I build our own hives, as well as the top bars. We have found that they do have the tendency to bridge comb, or cross it perpindicular to the lay of the top bars. For this reason only, we provide them with one inch of foundation, simply for their burr comb, and let them do the work naturally! The progress our hives have made thus far in the season has been tremendous! They've made the progress we expected would take two years; and we installed them on April 26! Good luck with everything and let me know the status of your progress!!