Building an observation hive

When we started beekeeping one thing we read in multiple places was that getting an observation hive was a great way to learn. An observation hive is basically a glass sided bee hive so that you can look into it without putting on a bee suit and disturbing the bees. 

Michael Bush has a great page on what to consider in observation hive design. We used that page and some advice from the beesource forums to design a single wide 6 frame hive. We did an initial sketch in Google Sketchup:

After thinking it over and detailing the design we defined all the wood sizes we needed and had them cut for us. We also ordered two framed glass panes from a picture frame supplier. With all the supplies ready we got to work. We build the two sides, one with a hole in the middle that will serve as the bee entrance:

We quickly built the basic frame, using some right angle metal pieces for strength and two threaded rods at even spacing to attach the frame supports and to make sure the top bar was straight.

This was our first test fit of everything.

Two lengthwise pieces on top and bottom will seal the gap against the glass frames.

We also opened up the entrance side hole to 31mm and fitted a brass hose connector so we can then attach a hose to connect the hive to the outside. We had to use an adjustable drill bit as we couldn't find a 31mm or 32mm bit. These things suck for this job. The hole was already cut at a smaller size so the center part of the bit that guides the hole had nothing to connect to and since the drill only cuts on one side it becomes unstable. Because the bit is so long it swiveled pretty easily even when using a drill press. Only after getting the initial depth done did the drill stabilize as it became locked into its own hole. Next time we need to plan ahead more and use the adjustable drill for the initial hole and them finish the inside with the smaller bit.

A first test fit with everything in place. We made some frame supports with folded sheet metal held in place between two bolts and two washers on the threaded rods. On the right and left sides the frame supports are also folded metal and screwed in directly to the wood. We're still considering making these a bit better. They only have a stop for the frames in the back so the frames can still fall forward.

The glass frames were attached with some simple metal holds on top on both sides, and three nails on the bottom plank to make sure the glass frame fits snuggly (it's not nailed in).

Here's the final assembly. Note the cork top in the middle of the top bar. We drilled 19mm holes aligned with the center of each of the top frames. That way it's easy to open/close them for adjusting ventilation or to setup a rapid feeder.

After getting the finishing touches done we'll be putting it in a small building on the farm and routing a one inch transparent hose from the entrance through the wall of the building so the bees can get in and out freely without being able to enter the building itself. We'll probably do a spring split into the observation hive to be able to observe the bees make a new queen.

Adding comb guides to regular bee hive frames to go foundationless

We've been running foundationless frames on all our hives. It's less work and may have some health benefits for the bees. To do this though we've had to retrofit comb guides to our regular bought frames. We don't make our own equipment. Our hive supplier is cheap enough and we're small enough that it wouldn't make sense to start making them, so we have to modify them to our needs.

We started by using tongue depressors to press into the groove carved on the inside of the top bar of the frame that would normally fit the wax sheet. We found that two of them fit snugly into the frames and initially just pressed them in by hand and started using them. What we found was that even after the bees had put propolis on the depressors they would still sometimes fall out of the frame, probably once the hive got hot and the wood expanded. We had a hive lose a full comb probably as a combination of wood expansion and the comb's weight. Our method for these is now to put in a small amount of regular wood glue into the groove and then press the tongue depressors in. This seems to work fine and we haven't had one fail yet.

Our next issue was that sometimes the bees would actually build comb on both sides of the tongue depressors, so two combs to a frame, instead of using it as a guide. We had this happen with a new swarm. Once they get into that rhythm it's hard to break them off of it as they'll base the location of the next comb on the distance from the previous one, again ignoring the guide on the frame. We've recently tried a different approach which was to glue and nail a wedge to the full length of the frame. We had a woodshop take a 2cm by 2cm section length of pine wood and cut it in half lengthwise between opposite corners. This gave us the triangular section wedge to glue onto the frame. We cut it into several pieces with the length of the internal frame width and glued it on with wood glue and then nailed it in. The nailing was the hardest part, and a nail or staple gun might be ideal for this. So far we've only done a 10 frame box to test this in one of this year's swarm boxes.

The end result are two types of foundationless frame that we use in our swarm traps

When the bees take the hint and follow the guide the end result is nicely drawn pristine white wax.

Attracting swarms to get free bees

We have told the story before about how we stumbled into beekeeping. Our first year as beekeepers we were able to attract a swarm directly into a hive without much effort. Last season we got 4 the same way (although one entered the owl box) and even caught one on video. So this year we have our method pretty much figured out and are hoping last year wasn't a fluke. Here's what we do.

We start by getting a normal hive ready. We use all medium sized frames and boxes. We use all foundationless frames to let our bees build their own wax. Our swarm traps are really a full hive setup, with a base board, a box, 10 frames, and inner and outer covers. We tend to look for hives that have already been used by the bees. This year we have a couple of boxes we removed from the hives to consolidate them for winter that should work better for swarm attraction.

After we setup the hive we then take a small ziplock bag and stuff a paper towel inside and then wet the paper with lemongrass oil. We then close the ziplock almost all the way leaving a small entrance for the smell to get out slowly. That bag gets dropped to the bottom of the hive. We also drop a couple of drops of lemongrass oil on the flying board to help attract swarm scouts looking for locations to test out. You can replace the lemongrass with a number of industrial attractants although we've never tried them.

Once we have the hive fully assembled and with the lemongrass attractant deployed we set it somewhere where it's not in the way and make sure the hive is level. That's particularly important as we're using foundationless frames. Bees will follow gravity and build their wax hanging down vertically. If the hive wasn't level the combs wouldn't be aligned with the frames. So far we've set out 4 hives in a few spots. We've doubled down on the wooded area where last year we caught two large swarms. We're now completely out of hives and thinking of how many we want to order from our typical supplier.

Our main idea is to set out full hives that we can then just move into the bee yard without any other intervention. Moving them once they are full is a little harder than if we were using a lighter box but we've managed fine so far. If you want to look into this in more detail there was a pretty large study done on what characteristics will attract swarms. The main outcome of the study is the following list of characteristics of the optimum swarm trap:

  • Set 5 meters off the ground in a well shaded but visible area (distance from the parent hive doesn't matter)
  • An entrance that's about 10-15 square centimeters large at the bottom of the box and ideally facing south (shape is irrelevant)
  • A box that's about 40 liters in volume (both deeps and mediums should be fine, the study only really tested 10, 40 and 100) and also airtight and dry
  • The smell of wax and lemongrass or other attractants. A frame of old black brood comb is often recommended here.

Spring is upon us and the bees are flying

We had the first few early spring days at the farm. All the early bloomers are in full force and birds are everywhere.

The bees were in full force as well taking advantage of all the early flowering going on. In our climate bees never really stop but you can really tell that their activity has slowed down when it gets colder. The experience from the two seasons though is that August is actually much more of a worry because there's nothing to eat. We really need to find some plants or trees we can add to the farm and possibly irrigate to get over that period more gracefully.

At this point though they seem to be in great shape. 

All 6 hives had activity with one of last year's swarms clearly booming. 

How we stumbled into becoming beekepers

When we got the farm there was an old bee yard an uncle used to run. It had been abandoned for at least a decade and yet there was still one surviving colony. We let it alone at first but then decided we wanted to turn the bee yard space into a plant nursery and move the bees somewhere else. We got a local beekeeper to come and do the move. He decided it was a good time to also do a split and try and turn the one hive into two. Both decisions turned out poorly. The split colony was robbed by other bees and the original colony eventually decided it didn't like its new home.

Fresh out of bees and empty new equipment we decided we might as well set it all up and hope a swarm would decide to move in. Neighbors had told us they had seen swarms moving about a couple of times so we had a at least some indication there were wild bees around. We put the hives we bought on the new stand, cleaned everything up, and just hoped for the best. Come spring we noticed bees coming and going from one of the hives carrying pollen. We knew that was the tell-tale sign of a working hive and were ecstatic.

After nervously opening the hive a little bit we realized we had screwed up. We had stacked all the boxes on top of each other and the topmost one didn't have any frames in it. Bees being bees decided to go ahead and build their home on the top of the cavity, hanging from the lid.

We scrambled for help and got a beekeeper friend to come over and help us correct our mistakes. We filled the remaining space with frames and waited for the bees to gradually move down until the ad-hoc comb was just honey and we could extract it. Eventually by late summer we got to that point  and had a working hive in a standard box. After a bit of feeding with sugar water to compensate for the honey we had extracted the hive overwintered fine.

By this spring we had read everything we could find online and a couple of great books on beekeeping and felt confident enough to try and get more bees. We decided to put out some swarm traps and split the one hive we had. It was a huge success. We ended up catching four swarms including one on video and one in an owl box we had built. We also split the original hive three ways. We ended up with six hives. For those keeping count at home we had seven at the peak but the owl box cut-out didn't go well and we lost that hive. It was a pity, it was a great swarm.

When we originally though about taking care of the bees we looked for a local beekeeper to take over. As it turns out this is a pretty low effort addition to the farm work. In less than an hour a week we can inspect the hives and do the occasional change (adding a box, feeding, etc). We've been taking notes and continuing to read up on the subject. The hardest part though is learning to read the hive. Finding the queen is always particularly hard. Anyone want to try and find it in this set of photos? We haven't been able to do it.

You can see higher resolution pictures on our Flickr if that helps.

We originally thought we didn't want to become beekeepers. It seemed like too much work and a little scary to be honest. As it turns out it's a pretty simple affair, at least in our location. We get bees for free just by setting swarm traps (a topic for a future post). And since bees are wild animals you don't need to do much if you don't want to. We'll expand on our management model in a later post but we mostly leave them alone. We don't give them wax foundation, we don't treat for any diseases and we only extract the honey they can spare to avoid having to feed them at all.

Cutting out a swarm from the owl box

We put up the owl box much too late this year for an owl to nest in it. It seems it was perfect timing for swarm season though. Even though we had a few bait hives out and caught a few swarms in them the owl box proved too attractive for a very large swarm. Here's what we found when we opened it after noticing a bunch of bees coming and going from it.

We decided to do what is known as a cutout. It consists mostly of cutting off the individual combs and attaching them to frames to be able to house the swarm in a normal hive. We started by smoking them to make them calmer.

Then we started to cut down and put the combs on frames prepared with a string mesh on one side to hold the comb in.

After a while we had all the combs down and resting on frames.

We used some more string to make sure the combs didn't fall to the other side...

...and placed the frames on the hive.

We used a piece of cardboard to scoop some of the bees left-over in the owl box into the hive

After a while you could see the bees fanning to attract the strays into the new hive.

We finally anchored the hive next to the owl box and left it there to let any remaining bees find their way back.

Although this initial process was mostly a success there were a bunch of things that didn't go well after that. Putting the comb in the frames this way without any kind of attachment to the top bar made a bunch of the frames sag and drop into the bottom bar. For future cases we were convinced that stitching the combs into the top bar would be a better solution than the wire mesh stuff. Another flop happened when we decided to move the hive after most of the bees had moved in. Even though we took precautions to force the bees to reorient and not return to the original location a bunch of them found their way back and clustered in the owl box again. Right now the hive is not in particularly good shape which is a pitty given that this was probably the strongest of the 4 swarms we attracted this year.

Swarm moving into a bait hive

Come spring we decided to put a few bait hives around the farm to attract any passing swarms. The one hive we had last year was a swarm that moved by its own accord into an empty box we had around. A bait hive is simply a normal hive that has some form of attractor put into it and is placed in a good location from the point of view of the bees. In our case we used lemon grass oil as the attractor and used old hive boxes as they're known to prefer older wood. We scattered the hives around the farm to try and cover as much ground as possible.

Our first swarm moved into the bait box that was right next to the solar wax melter. We then moved the wax melter to the side of a second bait box. A week or two later that box started seeing a lot of bee activity. Swarms will often send scouts ahead of the swarm to look for good places to move into. We decided to setup a camera to catch the swarm moving in. We used a simple HD camera on a small tripod. These cameras are awesome value (they even record underwater) and use SD cards for storage so any cheap 32GB card will record 5 or 6 hours of video. We just set everything up around noon and left it recording. At the end of the day we went through the footage and found the key 20min where everything happened:

It was great to see the first bees land and start fanning with their butts in the air, releasing pheromones to attract the rest of the hive. This was actually a small swarm. Even today it's still a very small hive but building strongly.

Building a solar wax melter

As I was looking at a piece of leftover metal sheet from building the owl box I realized we could use it to build a solar wax melter. Bees make comb to store honey and polen and as "wombs" for new bees. Once they've reused the comb a couple of times if you take it out and extract honey from it what's left isn't just wax. It'll have left-over cocoons, polen, etc. To get clean wax you need to split those things up and the easiest way is to just heat it up making the wax fluid. You can do this on a stove but why pay for the energy to do it when the sun can provide it. A solar wax melter is a very simple device. It's just a small green-house of sorts where the comb is put on a ramp so that the wax will drip out as it's heated. 

The idea here was reuse. We started with an old wine box, the leftover sheet metal and an old plastic container to collect the wax. We're probably going to replace the plastic container with a glass one as heated plastic can give off harmful chemicals.

After a lot of measurement and back and forth we decided to set the metal flat on the box and just create the angle by putting some feet on one side of the box. So we folded the metal so as to create a funnel like exit into the box, to try and make sure only the liquid wax gets through and put it inside the box.

We used the dividers from the wine box nailed to the sides as feet, setting the box up at a fifteen degree angle. To finish it up quickly we bought an Ikea picture frame, took out the back and just set it on top, using the frame itself to keep it in place.

That proved the concept pretty well and we got good wax right away.

Eventually after being outside in the rain for a few days the Ikea frame self-destructed and so we did a simple fix. We took the glass out of the frame and glued a small block of wood to one side so that it holds the glass on top of the box without sliding. This has been working fine and the fact that the glass is much bigger than the box should help protect it from rain.

We've been putting in old wax and bits that we cull from hives and have built up a nice block of wax. It's mostly clean although a couple of bees have been able to get through the crack at the bottom and end up stuck in the wax.

The smell of melting wax seems to attract bees, especially scouts looking for a place to swarm into. This year two of our swarms moved into bait hives that we setup next to the wax melter. An unforeseen upside.