One of the first big choices facing the novice beekeeper is “what type of house am I going to build* for my bees?” in this the newest century of this modern era of beekeeping.
*well okay, more likely buy, but building is not out of the question, see more on this later
To be fair for most beekeepers in the UK the answer to the housing question is perhaps also pretty straightforward – they are going to get a ‘National’ hive – a standard hive with standard measurements and standard parts that can be bought easily and exchanged with the majority of other beekeepers across the country.
But the reason for my distinction about us being in the 21st Century is to highlight the issue of changing beliefs and practices in beekeeping and in particular the variety of responses to the “bee crisis”. This is most visible to the layman in the arrival or resurgence on the beekeeping scene of some alternative hive designs.
Chief among these are probably the Warre (a noticeably taller, slimmer design) and the Top Bar (or Horizontal Top Bar – a long horizontal box, commonly on legs which raise it to waist height) and to a lesser degree the possible return in popularity of the WBC – the “traditional” white painted English cottage garden design with layered sloping sides once almost abandoned due to its weight but now being reassessed because of its arguably better insulating properties.
What difference does it make? – as The Smiths might ask, but also sensibly the uninitiated and the plain confused.
Well to the bees maybe none. Although many would argue, everything.
What the beekeepers using any of these hives would argue is either the design is better for the bees or it is the only practical way to make their style of beekeeping workable.
The hive which is most commonly used in the UK is designed to provide the bees with a clearly delineated space for making their nest and raising more bees and a separate area for storing the honey. It has key features which allow the hive to be easily inspected by beekeepers and for the honey to be harvested. It includes a framework of wax (called foundation) to get the bees started making cells and therefore to help them conform to mans design for their model village and to become more productive (start creating honey) more quickly.
The less common designs may include some of these features too, but are also designed to be used differently and arguably these “improvements” are almost entirely for the benefit of the bees rather than the beekeeper. Commonly they tend to leave the bees to make their own wax cells from scratch, spending more time and effort in so doing but ensuring the wax is virgin, clean, free from chemicals and diseases which may be present in wax recycled from one or more previous colony(s). Some of these designs also tend to avoid artificially separating the colony into brood (raising of young) and honey stores. These hives let the bees do that themselves – and guess what, they do too.
Another factor with some of these designs is that it is possible to build some of them yourself, particularly the Top Bar Hive, one of the most straightforward designs for the amateur woodworker or occasional DIYer equipped with little more than a screwdriver and a hand saw. The appeal of this approach is that some hive designs can be expensive, a new National hive made from decent timber and supplied with some frames and wax foundation is likely to cost between £300 – £500. If you are able to put a top bar hive together yourself you have a bee house from as little as you might have to pay for the wood, and, as much of this could be recycled from another source, or even off cuts, this can be very cheap indeed.
I’m happy to not waste money but if I’m honest that is not my main reason for favouring the Top Bar and Warre designs over the National. It’s because I am in this for the bees first and the honey second. I love honey, but I don’t need enough to bottle and sell, if I end up with the odd spare jar for friends or family I’d be chuffed.
I believe after ten years of reading about beekeeping and talking to experienced and forward thinking beekeepers that we should be trying to keep bees in conditions as close as possible to the way they would live in the wild – in a sealed space away from interference by predators (including those pests trying to raid the larder). I accept that we should monitor the bees health and take care to protect them and other colonies from the most dangerous diseases, but on the whole I’d like to optimise the conditions for the bees to get on with it on their own as they did for millions of years before I came along with my bright ideas.
So my plan is to start with a Top Bar Hive, although whether in reality I am capable of building this myself is a question yet to be answered. Watch this space.