Top Bar Beehive Update

Last spring Ray and I built a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive and installed a package of worker bees and a queen.  Through the spring and summer, we have been reading up on how to

top bar bee hive installation

Here is Ray checking to see that the queen has been released from her cage. Yes! She was free!

take care of our bees (who knew you are supposed to rotate the top bars around?) and we think we have kept them well fed and happy.  Our favorite book, which we refer to often, is “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder.

All summer we have been on the lookout for native and purchased flowering plants that the bees would like, and avoiding plants that are poisonous to bees, such as azaleas and rhododendron.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few buckeye trees around, but there are none on our property.  The Buckeye tree pollen is mildly poisonous to adult honeybees, but it causes fatal wing deformity in the brood.  There isn’t anything we can do about the trees surrounding our property because they are  indigenous to our area, but what we can do is cultivate lots of safe and healthy plants for our bees.  We found a beautiful flowering plant by the side of the road that was completely covered with honeybees, butterflies and bumblebees.  Our son, Matthew, is a Forester and identified it as a  medicinal plant (for humans) called Yerba Santa!  We gathered some of the seed from the plant and hope they will germinate this coming spring so we can plant them in near the beehive.

We also planted a bush called Euonymus japonicus.  We had one at our valley home that was absolutely mauled every spring and summer by honeybees.  We planted the bush about 15 feet behind the hive so the bees will have a short commute.  We also planted two lemon balm plants (Melissa officinalis) because we read somewhere that if you plant lemon balm near a beehive, the bees will never leave.  After all, Melissa means “honeybee” in the Greek language! Even if that’s a wive’s tale, that’s okay, because I found that a sprig of lemon balm, a sprig of basil and a few stevia leaves in a gallon of water makes a wonderfully refreshing drink.  We also planted a pot with spearmint.

Top Bar Beekeeping

You can see the spearmint on the left in the pot and the lemon balm in the planter on the right. The two bushes in green pots behind the beehive are pomegranates.

Of course, next spring there will also be all our fruit and nut trees in bloom, along with the lavender and jasmine we have planted here and there around our new homestead.  We hope to have happy, well fed bees that won’t need much supplemental feeding in the future.

We enjoy showing our bees to our family and friends also.  When my sister visited our homestead, it was time to check on the bees and rotate any top bars that might need, well, rotating!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my sister Deana. Now I think she wants a beehive too!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my dearest sister Deana.

I let her put on my bee outfit and enjoyed watching her reaction as Ray lifted some of the bars for her to see the comb, brood, workers and (of course) the honey! I was truly surprised how brave she was. There she was, right in front of the hive, and she had no fear!  I will admit, however, that sometimes the wonder of it all erases fear.  Our grandchildren were a bit more timid, however, and chose to observe the hive at a fair distance. 🙂

It’s amazing how lucky we have been with our bees.  After reading other blogs about honeybees and several books on backyard beekeeping, it seems we have done a lot of things right, but an equal number of things wrong!  When we first installed our bees, we basically sat back and watched them fly in and out of their hive entrance, and after our second inspection to verify that the queen was laying eggs and comb was being made, we thought our work was pretty much done.  Then we read in Les Crowder’s book that you have to check the hive every other week to make sure the bees weren’t cross-combing.  Cross-combing?  What’s that?

Cross combing is when the bees don’t make straight, vertical comb.  It’s when the comb is rounded or crooked and runs into the next comb.  It’s when your bees have run amuck.

Kenyan top bar beekeeping

Wow! This comb is straight and absolutely full of brood and honey!

After reading this we ran to our hive (well, maybe we didn’t actually run) to pull out some of the top bars and find out if our bees were behaving poorly.  Nope.  Thank goodness, our bees all passed Geometry 101 and their comb was straight, vertical and perfectly shaped. Every single one!  Wahoo!  Of course, that is what lead us to do a bit more reading on what else we were supposed to be doing.

Hmmm…  Chapter 5 in “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder… apparently if the bees think their home is too small, they will swarm in the early spring. Not a total disaster (not all of the workers leave, and usually a new queen has been coronated), but swarming is something most beekeepers like to avoid because the colony that is left after a swarm is usually small and weak.  However it is possible for the hive to build back up, especially if there are still brood in the combs, the new queen is laying, and there is enough honey for back-up.  But, again, it’s not what a beekeeper wants.

How do you avoid a swarm?  Apparently you have to make sure the bees think they have plenty of room left in the hive for expansion.  You do this by moving some of the top bars around, putting empty top bars between full ones, and making sure there are always a few empty top bars in the back.

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn't it beautiful?

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn’t it beautiful?

So, that’s what we did.  We moved some of the bars around, in a pattern suggested in Les Crowder’s book.  But, while moving the bars around, Ray noticed that one bar had come apart and the weight of the honey in the comb had made it drop to the floor of the hive.

Darn.  Shoot.  Bad luck.  Well, I guess all we could do was harvest that one.

Of course, I’m being facetious here.  We were actually more than happy to get a sample of our honey!  Besides, our Beekeeper and Master Gardner friend, Kim, said we should harvest some honey.  Why?  “Because”, she explained, “it’s like deadheading a rosebush. If you keep clipping off the spent roses, the plant will continue to make more roses.  So if you harvest some honey, the bees will be stimulated to make more honey!”

Okay!

Harvesting honey from a top bar beehive

Here is the honey dripping from the crushed honeycomb through the paint strainer into the ice cream bucket. High tech harvest!

My mom had given me some nice ice cream buckets, which I assumed were food grade, so we used a paint strainer and the bucket to separate the honey from the comb.  I had to crush the comb a bit while it was in the paint strainer, but I was lucky that this comb only had raw and ripe honey, no brood.  I would have felt bad if there was brood in it, but apparently there usually is, so I will have to get used to sacrificing a few brood to be able to harvest honey.

Since this comb had raw, unripe honey in it (honey that hasn’t been capped yet and therefore has more water in it), I knew we had to use it right away.  Honey that hasn’t been capped is likely to ferment, which wouldn’t be so bad, because fermented honey is Mead!  Although we do plan to make our own Mead next year, we decided to use our fresh honey instead drizzled on biscuits, French toast, waffles…

I may be prejudiced, but I think our honey was the best tasting ever!  It was dark and fairly thick, and Master Gardner Kim informed us that it probably was cedar honey, which made sense!  We have cedar trees on and around our homestead, and the dark color with a slight hint of “forest” in the honey led us to believe she was probably right.  Although we harvested only one small comb, we got about ¾ pint of honey.  It didn’t last very long 😉

Natural beekeeping

This is our first harvest of beautiful golden, tasty honey. I can’t wait to harvest more next year!

During our observations of the hive, we have noticed the bees coming in with various colors of pollen.  For a while in June, they all carried heavy bags of yellow pollen.  A few weeks later the pollen was a darker orange.  In August, we noticed the bees carrying an almost pure white pollen!

Then, it happened.  While watching the bees coming and going from their hive entrance, observing the color of the pollen they were bringing in, I guess I got too close.  I got stung.  On my eyebrow.

Since I haven’t been stung by a honeybee in years, I didn’t know what my reaction was going to be.  So, I ran into the trailer (screaming like a little girl) and took a Benadryl, an aspirin and put an ice pack on the sting.  The truth is, it hurt.  A lot!  After about an hour, however, I knew I was probably not allergic to bee stings (I was still alive), and the pain started to fade from there.  I think the anxiety of a possible allergic reaction may have exaggerated the pain.  But the next morning, when I looked in the mirror, I saw quite a site!  The entire area around my eye – the eyelid, my cheekbones, the inside of my nose and my crow’s feet – were all a bright pink color.  Not just bright pink… iridescent bright pink!  It looked like a four year old put some hot pink eyeshadow on me in the middle of the night!  Disco Fever anyone? Every time Ray looked at me for the next couple of days, until the color faded, he would chuckle.  So did I.  It was really quite funny.

Keeping Bees Naturally

Aspirin, Benadryl and an ice pack – recommended remedy for bee stings.

Up until I got the bee sting, I was becoming more and more comfortable around the bees.  That’s probably why I got stung.  I had become too complacent.  I was foolishly standing less than two feet from the entrance to the hive without any protective gear on and no smoke.  Also, I was aware that the hive had successfully fended off a few attacks by yellow jackets, and so were probably at high intruder alert.  That bee sting was totally my own fault.  Too bad a bee had to give her life because of my stupidity.  Lesson learned.

So where are we now?  It’s autumn here on the homestead and the days and nights are getting cooler. The bees are still coming and going, bringing back pollen and a deep reddish brackish color of pollen, which I actually think may be propolis.  Propolis is used by the bees as a sort of glue to help shore up any holes in the hive, preparing for the winter cold.

We will probably open the hive only one or two more times before winter actually sets in.  We plan to give them some sugar water during the winter just in case they didn’t get enough honey to last through until the first honey flow in the spring.  So, there isn’t much more we can do at this point but wish them luck and pray that they make it through the winter.0001

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Kenyan Top Bar Beehive – Part 2

After deciding to raise honeybees, mainly for their pollination of our garden and orchard, but also for their honey and beeswax, we decided to build our own beehive.  If you missed part one, you should go back and read it HERE.

Once the body of the hive was built, we needed to add the actual top bars, an entrance reducer (I will talk about that later) and a feeder.

This is sometimes called a "follower".  We used it to separate the body of the hive from the mason jars.  That way the bees couldn't get into this area and we would be able to replenish the sugar water without too much disturbance.

This is sometimes called a “follower”. We used it to separate the body of the hive from the mason jars. That way the bees couldn’t get into this area and we would be able to replenish the sugar water without too much disturbance.

We decided to put the feeder inside the hive at the back.  That way, we wouldn’t be feeding every sugar loving creature out there and fewer critters and insects would be attracted to the area.  The downside of putting the sugar inside the hive is that we have to lift the roof to get to the feeders.  While that really shouldn’t be a problem, we decided to put two pint mason jars into the hive so that we would need to feed them less often, which means lifting the roof less often.

Ray cut two circles into a piece of wood and then attached that piece of wood to another piece of wood cut into a wedge shape (sometimes called a “follower”), to fit snugly inside the hive.

Two pint sized mason jars hold the sugar water solution to feed the bees.  When attached to the "follower", the bees cannot enter the top chamber of the feeder.  Small holes are punched in the metal lids to allow the bees to get the sugar water from below.

Two pint sized mason jars hold the sugar water solution to feed the bees. When attached to the “follower” (not attached yet in this picture), the bees cannot enter the top chamber of the feeder. Small holes are punched in the metal lids to allow the bees to get the sugar water from below.

This assembly was then attached to one of the top bars, so that it could be hung from the top of the hive, just like all the other top bars.  A one inch opening was left at the bottom for the bees to enter from the main chamber of the hive into the feeding chamber.  With the jars in place, bees could not get into the top where the mason jars are, which helps when refilling the jars.  We just used the canning jar lids and poked several small holes in them.  Yes, they dripped a little bit, but the bees were sure to clean this up anyway!

Our next task was to make the actual top bars.  Again, we used poplar as the main crossbar, but then we used pine lattice as the downbars.  As you can see, the top bars are actually made of two pieces:  the main crossbar that rests on top of the hive body, and the downbars, which is what the bees attach their comb to. We simply cut the top bars to length, cut a groove down the middle of each bar, then glued the downbar into the groove. Done!

How to make a beehive

The down bar was glued into the groove of the top bar to complete assembly.

I did a lot of research on top bar versus traditional Langstroth hives, and it was suggested on several websites that we coat the downbars with a little bit of honey so that the bees

Make a Kenyan top bar beehive

My little trough to melt the honey/beeswax/pollen mixture so that I can dip the top bars in.

would understand that this is where the comb is supposed to be.  This is especially important if your bees come from stock that was raised with the traditional Langstroth hives, where a comb foundation is already given to the bees.  I found some organic raw honey that also had pollen and honeycomb in it and used it to coat the downbars.  I made an aluminum foil “trough” for the honey mixture, placed it on an insulated cookie sheet and set that over a pan of hot water.  This gently melted the honey mixture and I was able to dip each downbar about 1/4 inch in, which was perfect!

The top bars all loaded with honey and ready to go!

The top bars all loaded with honey and ready to go.  Now all we need are bees!

The last little piece of equipment for the hive was the reducer.  All a reducer does is actually make the entrance/exit hole into the hive smaller, and all we needed was a block of wood!  The reducer is needed for a new hive to help guard the hive from predators, like wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, etc..  When a bee package is purchased, it usually comes Beehive part 2-6with a queen and about 3 pounds of bees.  That sounds like a lot of bees, but it really isn’t, so with the reduced number of bees, they can’t protect a huge opening.  So, we placed a piece of wood on the landing board of the entrance/exit to the hive.  This closed up about two thirds of the opening to the hive. Sorry, I didn’t get a picture of the reducer on the hive. Every month or so, the wood will be cut smaller, so that after several months, the reducer shouldn’t be necessary at all.  That doesn’t ensure that the hive won’t be raided by the predators, it just helps the bees build up their hive numbers so that if they were attacked, they might be able to to stave off the predator and claim victory.

About an inch of olive oil in a small tupperware container will prevent ants or other crawling bugs from getting into the hive.

About an inch of olive oil in a small tupperware container will prevent ants or other crawling bugs from getting into the hive.

One last thing we added was olive oil.  Olive oil?  Yes.  Where the hive will be sitting there are a lot of ants.  Ants can quickly take over a hive, if you aren’t watching.  However, they cannot (or will not) cross over oil.  So, with each leg of the hive in a plastic tupperware container, we poured in about 1 cup of oil.  With a new hive, every precaution  helps!

Now, all we need are the bees!

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