I am seeking some input here from beekeeper or just smart/reasonable people. I am not a beekeeper. I don’t know much about bees. As a homesteader, bees are my least section of expertise and I am TERRIFIED of them. However, I also know how important they are and I LOVE honey. So today I went to my mothers church, the Unitarian Universalists, for a seminar on beekeeping (and some less practical bee-y stuff) for the Summer Solstice.
Let me get this out of the way now. If you don’t wanna read about my faith/spiritual issues, please skip ahead.
I’m not Christian or even strongly religious in any way. I am more spiritual, and I keep my beliefs rather private. I don’t like telling people about them. I haven’t even clearly defined them in words, per say, but suffice to say they focus on giving back to that which we take from to aid a cycle and balance of growth and destruction… Be it with people, animals or the earth itself. Also a lot of energy stuff and a goddess is in there somewhere. Yeah, it’s vague. I realized why I never talk about it when I went there and was listening to these (mostly older ladies) people babbling about energy and healing and spiritualism and the Circle and all that…
They sounded NUTS. Completely batty!
When I talk about these things I sound nuts too. And I know it.
Let’s be frank here. You can’t say something like “I love the way the energy flows in the late winter, the way it seeps up through the Mother Earth into my soul! It’s like the spirits of the earth letting us know ‘spring is on it’s way!'” or “My Goddess came to me in a dream one night, when I discovered my true path.” without sounding a little bit off your rocker. Even if you believe it with your whole heart. And when you get this bunch of ladies together babbling something about how bee products have such great healing potential, because the bees collect their resources from the most powerful energy gathering points in the plant; the sexual organs… Well… I felt like the whole room should be in padded cells.
I suppose I should note I feel much the same way when I walk into any organized religious meeting. Especially Christian churches. There are more contradictions in the bible than, well, anything? No, really, google “more contradictions” or “more contradictions than”. I just did so to try to find something that had more contradictions than the bible since I couldn’t think of one, and the whole page both times was about bible contradictions. Religions are crazy! At least I know it unquestionably with mine, I suppose. It keeps me honest.
Back to bees now, all the cray cray aside, the beekeepers in question talked about bees, the uses of the products, where each product comes from in the hive and it’s uses, bee allergies, using bee stings as a medicinal treatment and a dozen other things. It was really interesting, although I feel like some of it was that crazy shining through. I only believe something has medicinal properties if it’s proven to me with facts and scientific testing.
For quite some time I have been pondering the best way to keep bees and researched hives high and low! You know that “bee hive shape”? The one that’s woven cones upside down that people associate with the hive? That’s called a skep and was the first ever bee hive. The skep is possibly the worst way to keep bees. You can’t examine the hive for pests and extraction generally destroys the whole hive. Bad for the bees, especially since honey bees are now endangered. Skeps could also be built with a sort of detachable top, that allowed the bees to keep living when they removed the top. Bees build their comb downward, and they lay eggs in the “newest” comb. This was the first innovation in beekeeping; not killing the whole hive. Every unit in the brood is essential to keep it working. Yes, drones and workers can be replaced but a certain amount of the comb must be left for the queen and her brood or the whole hive is kaput. So keeping that in tact is important. The other problem with the skep was the amount of honey you get as opposed to the amount of wax is pretty low. Skeps have been banned in most of the US.
So somewhere down the line they invented the modern beehive, the Langstroth. This is basically a bunch of boxes, with frames that you can remove individually, that usually have PRE-FORMED wax comb. The boxes lower down are the brood boxes, and the higher up boxes have honey. Somewhere in the middle there is often a “queen excluder” which is just a wire mesh big enough for workers to go through but not the queen. This keeps baby larvae bees out of your honey cells. When you go to harvest the honey there’s no risk of loosing any bees (baby or not) and then you use some expensive equipment to cut just the caps off of the honey comb, letting the honey drip out. The bees will quickly refill the used comb with more honey, instead of having to build whole new comb. There’s a lot of honey and little risk to this, but it is expensive and the big boxes (2’X2’X18″) FILLED with honey are heavy and hard to deal with.
There’s another type of hive called a Top Bar beehive, and typically these are just one layer. They are horizontal rather than vertical and have no frames at all. Instead they just have a little bar that goes across the top, and the bees simply build all their own comb off of these bars. Now, because they build all their own comb they are more resistant to pests that live in the brood comb. In preformed comb there’s enough room for whole families of pests to move in, and in the comb they make for themselves there’s only the room for the brood. The downside is when you go to harvest the honey you have to harvest the comb with it. You just chop it out with a kitchen knife. Then the bees have to build a whole new comb before they can make more honey. Also, because the queen has access to the whole box, she may lay her brood everywhere willy-nilly and you may end up pulling a skep and destroying a lot of the hive when you harvest.
A few top-bar designs also have “boxes” for the comb to grow down into, to segregate the queen and her brood… But most don’t. And that brings up heavy cumbersome boxes again.
I don’t want to be harvesting lots and lots of comb. Sometimes it might be nice if I want to make some candles, but I am more interested in the honey. At the same time I am only looking for a few jars each year. I go through less than a half-pint of honey every year. If I had better access to natural honey I might use more, but I can’t see it going TOO crazy. Still less than a pint a year, and maybe a few half-pints to share at Christmas or store away, and if possible and leftovers to sell… Something not too crazy. I know people who eat WAY more than that in a year.
I find myself frustrated because (online at least) beekeepers seem to be in two ballparks; For the Bees and For the Money. Why on EARTH can’t there be something in between? I would like to extract enough honey each year to meet my needs, with ease of use. But I would also like no risk to the brood in my hive and a more natural solution if possible.
Is there a way, in a horizontal top bar beehive, to exclude the queen to one area? How to TBH owners avoid the brood during extraction? What IS the difference between a Langstroth harvest and a Top Bar harvest in lbs of honey? If I use a top bar, how much does it REALLY stress the bees to be making new wax all the time?
If any beekeepers, especially in colder climates, could chime in, I’d appreciate it… Because I just seem to be at a loss for information.