The honeybee pollinates 70% of the crops that contribute to a significant quantity of the world’s food supply. So the threat of honeybee extinction has catastrophic implications, including crop failure, starvation and the inability of some trees to pollinate, leading to deforestation, the collapse of the water cycle and more climate chaos. This is a scenario we cannot allow to happen.
The varroa mite is a significant factor in bee decline. It can only reproduce in a honeybee colony. Like a tiny vampire, it attaches itself to the body of the bee and weakens the bee by sucking out its body fat. It also spreads diseases like the deformed wing virus. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honeybee colony.
Varroa originally occurred in Asia but has spread worldwide due to the practice of shipping bee colonies to pollinate crops and farm honey. Only Australia is free of the mite, but it is expected that will not be so for long.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service and the US Department of Agriculture recorded honeybee losses from 29% to 45% between 2010 and 2015, varroa being one serious culprit. Poor nutrition and pesticide exposure are also factors, especially among commercial beekeepers.
In my last blog The Beautiful World of Bees, I mentioned that using conventional national hives is very disruptive for honeybees. Bees keep the heart of the hive - the brood nest where the Queen lays her eggs that hatch into baby bees - at a constant temperature of 32°C and optimally 35°C.
With a national hive, it is commonplace to dismantle the hive to check, frame by frame, for unwanted Queen cells, pests like wax moths, and bee diseases, and to add more frames in the centre of the brood box if needed. This temporarily reduces the temperature of the nest and requires energy from the bees (aka honey) to re-establish equilibrium.
In addition, if the beekeeper removes too much honey during the harvesting season, it necessitates feeding the bees with syrup or fondant made from white sugar to help them survive the winter. Add to this the systemic use of chemical treatments to treat bee diseases and pests like varroa mite, and you have honey farming, not beekeeping.
Natural beekeepers have a very different approach. A national (conventional) hive uses rectangular frames with premoulded wax foundations. These work like templates and determine the size of the cells in which the Queen lays her eggs. Top Bar hives only have strips of wood that lie across the top of the bee box; these allow the bees to draw out comb as they would do in the wild and this makes for a more natural ‘nest’.
A Top Bar is essentially a long horizontal box that tapers at the bottom with 20+ bars placed along the top. (Ideally pieces of western red cedar with a narrow filament of wood attached to them: 43 x 3.5 x 3.5 cm). The beekeeper rubs wax along the length of the filament and the bees then build their comb downwards from the bar. They ‘know’ exactly the space to leave between bars – called the ‘bee space’ – it is just big enough for a bee to pass easily between two combs (9.525 mm or 3/8 inch is the ideal). It also means the nest is kept at the optimal temperature for bee health. Clever bees!
Building natural comb
Allowing bees to build natural comb has a number of advantages besides being beautiful. It makes the size of cells smaller (and thus the bees that hatch from it). This reduces the lifecycle of the grubs and means they hatch faster, reducing the time a varroa mite can feed on the grub or unhatched bee in a capped cell. (Bees like to groom each other once hatched, removing mites that then drop through a mesh floor at the bottom of the hive and die.)
Natural comb cannot be spun centrifugally for honey as with national frames, so when bars are harvested (only when there is excess in the height of the season), the whole comb is removed. Honey is extracted by squashing the comb and then sieving it. It is 100% unheated, natural honey. The wax is then processed for candles, polishes and balms. It doesn’t go back into the hive. And since wax can store the residue of pesticides that bees bring into the hive on nectar and pollen, it is important to make sure old wax is removed and the bees produce new wax. Top Bars encourage new comb but they do not allow the beekeeper to take big honey harvests.
In a Top Bar hive, the nest where the brood are laid and hatch is in the centre of the structure and each side of it are ‘follow’ boards; moveable pieces of ply on a bar that define the edge of the nest. Once the nest starts filling with brood and honey stores the boards can be moved back and more bars added, making more space for the bees to build comb. But at some point, the hive fills up and the bees want to swarm.
Bees procreate by swarming. The old Queen and an entourage of flying bees leave the hive with half the honey stores in search of a new home. Conventional beekeepers try and prevent their bees from swarming by grubbing out new Queen cells (so the old Queen will not leave the existing colony). Destroying unhatched Queens necessitates opening the hives every 10 days in the height of summer and adding more and more frames and boxes - called supers - to store the honey in.
Natural beekeepers do not open their hives regularly and they do not grub out the Queen cells since it is the bees’ own ‘insurance policy’ to always have new Queen cells in waiting, just in case the current Queen has an accident. Natural beekeepers also allow their bees to swarm, as it is their natural behaviour and how they multiply their population. Swarming also breaks the lifecycle of the old Queen. She flies away, leaving a new Queen and her brood, and only starts to lay new eggs in her new home. These require 21 days to hatch, giving the varroa less new bees to feed on and more chance for the existing bees to groom each other and get rid of the mites. This break in the cycle interrupts the varroa, and helps keep infestations in check.
Jim the Bee, my Top Bar hive maker and teacher, told me that in Dorset none of the natural beekeeping group has a problem with varroa. So we can deduce that giving bees the autonomy to make comb, leaving them to swarm and only harvesting excess stores and leaving them enough honey to survive the winter, builds up their immune systems and makes for healthier, more resilient bees. Bees are no different to humans: feed us fast foods and sugar and we get sick. Feed us home grown organic veggies and lovely fresh food and we generally thrive!
Being part of the solution
So having learnt to keep bees conventionally but never over-harvesting honey; instead, leaving bees adequate stores, and being as gentle as possible with checking my bees in the summer, I decided that I needed to compare nationals to Top Bars. I saw a classified advert in Permaculture Magazine advertising a day’s workshop to build you own Top Bar hive out of western red cedar in a day. No skills required. That is how I met Jim the Bee at Rylands Farm, a care farm near Dorchester in Dorset where he teaches beekeeping and woodworking.
I love carpentry, but I am no joiner. Jim measures and pre-cuts all the pieces of the hive before the day. So I started building the base in the morning, joining the four edges. Once the rectangular frame of the box is made, we added the mesh floor and a base that can be lowered in warm weather and screwed up in winter. Clever stuff.
Then I added a glass observation window, which enables checking inside the hive without opening it up, and Jim’s bespoke ‘periscope’ entrance; this provides the bees with a little landing board and a defendable access for the guard bees that ward off wasps and robber bees. The roof is a rectangular frame with three triangular boards to which lapped roof boards are attached. The main ‘nest’ box with the roof on top then sits on four sturdy legs.
This may sound a little complicated but Jim has worked out a clever system of templates that ensure you drill holes and fix in the right places. You can also take a pal along to help you build your hive whilst talking bees and natural beekeeping, stopping for tea and making new friends. Jim is on hand to help with the build, section by section, and everyone also makes 30 of the top bars when they have a spare moment. There is no sense of urgency and we go at our own pace.
I can honestly say I had the best of times. I met lovely people, learnt all about Top Bar beekeeping, and came home with a fabulous 1.24m long quality beehive. There is something deeply satisfying about using both the head and the hands to make a structure that will house bees.
Years ago I decided I wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem - a permaculture saying. With all flying insects in such serious decline (75% loss in 25 years) and honeybees threatened by an array of diseases, pesticides and sudden colony collapse, natural beekeeping is one approach we can practice to help increase our bee population. And something everyone can do is to only buy natural honey from local beekeepers who don’t ‘farm’ their bees.
Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture Magazine. She is the author of Fertile Edges – regenerating land, culture and hope – and The Biotime Log.
You can build a Top Bar hive in a day with Jim the Bee in Dorset here.
Free Top Bar hive plans are available here.
Main image: Honey bee extracts nectar, John Severns, Creative Commons
Images below: Making a top bar hive, Maddy Harland