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About honey bees and January… and April…

December 31, 2011

About honey bees and January… and April…

Beekeeping is funny, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a spring thing, right?  The flowers are blooming, gardens are growing, bees are buzzing, it’s an exciting, growing time. But to understand how “things bee” get started up in the spring, you have to go backwards into the winter, to see how things arrived at spring. For instance, honeybees finish up the summer season and go into the hive in the fall, where they cluster, and they do something akin to hibernating all winter long. Continuing beekeepers have to force themselves to sit on their hands all winter long–you can’t open up a hive in freezing temperatures, at least not with happy results.

New beekeepers, on the other hand, who are just getting started in the spring, have been planning for their brand new hives since the dead of winter. So these beekeepers discover that ordering bees should be done in January! The honey bee suppliers that I talk with are, like me, usually sold out of package bees by mid-March at the latest.  So new beekeepers are usually johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to ordering their first bees.

But consider the continuing beekeeper whose bees don’t overwinter. April is said to be the cruelest month in beekeeping, at least here in New England. Sometimes you see these hives flying in February, and again in March–but come April that hive is dead. That beekeeper did not even stand a chance when it came to ordering bees; and so, it’s not unusual for experienced beekeepers to order some packages of bees in January as “insurance”. Yes, that seems counterintuitive – if you think that’s odd, you’re right. January by rights is the month for sitting by the fire, and thumbing through your seed catalog, not for ordering honeybees.

The thing to know is this: if you are just beginning your beekeeping journey, be prepared to order package bees as early as possible. January is not too early. And if you are continuing your beekeeping journey, it is not a bad idea to order an insurance package, in the event that April does you wrong. The thing about having ordered a package in January, and then not needing it–is that now you have a cause for celebration! And a sad beekeeper, who didn’t order bees but then learned that their hive was gone in April, will celebrate too – and will be grateful to you when it turns out that you don’t need that package of bees.

So the moral is: order early, order often! It’s far more frustrating to need bees and not have them, then it is to have bees and not need them. I can almost guarantee you that somebody will be happy to get your “insurance package” when April rolls around. Of course, if your bees successfully overwintered, and now you have an additional colony, well – what part of this is a bad plan?

But when it comes to planning–if you think you *might* need bees–order bees. You’re not likely to be sorry. And besides, it’s a cheerful thing to think about bees when you’re huddling by the wood stove in January!


**For quality top bar beekeeping equipment, be sure to visit our webpage at!**


The Comfort of Why…

June 13, 2011

Everybody’s heard it – the insistent, persistent voice of a small child asking “Why?”

They start with one question and then dig deeper and deeper – to your every best answer – there is another “Why?”, another “Why?”  and yet another “Why?”  Eventually the questions become impossible to answer and the line of questioning comes to an abrupt end, sometimes with a bit of frustration on the part of the adult.

But we really never stop wanting to know “Why?”, do we?  As adults, it’s comforting to know that there is a reason for the things that happen.  Without a sense of cause and effect we feel lost and out of control.  More importantly,  if we know why something happens, we know what to do to cause the effect, and what not to do if we want to prevent said thing from happening.

So it’s challenging to live in a world where we can’t always know the “why” of things.  And beekeeping is a prime example of such a world.  There are a multitude of variables involved in the keeping of bees – weather, location, colony strength, queen fecundity, availability and quality of forage, temperature, pests and pesticides – just to name a few of the possibilities.

As a business owner, and even more, as a teacher in the top bar hive beekeeping world – it pains me when I am unable to give concise, scientific answers to the questions I am asked by students – answers that soothe and satisfy, instead of insisting that the student be brave, and to come along and learn to live in the uncertain world of nature and beekeeping.

Occasionally we get a little crazy in our search for the reasons why things happen with bees.  This can lead to some interesting superstitions!  At that point it’s a little like wearing your lucky t-shirt to help the Red Sox win!  It makes us feel better – if it works.

But sometimes the answer is “It depends.”  This is the answer to things like “How much honey does the average hive produce?”  “Will my bees swarm in their first year?”

Then sometimes, the only answer is “I don’t know.”  This is a hard one – both for the teacher to offer, and for the student to hear.  It’s frequently the answer to “Why didn’t my bees thrive?”  It’s especially frustrating to have two hives side by side, and to see one thrive and the other fail – and not be able to discern the why of that.

So one of the hardest lessons in beekeeping is learning that we can’t always know “Why?”.  It’s knowing that, and still keeping bees anyway – for the love of the bees, for their pollination skills, and for their wonderful “nectar of the gods” that convinces me that the world is full of  “thinking beekeepers” – caring, resourceful, thoughtful people – who will be the folks who help to shift the paradigm from industrial agriculture and its attendant beekeeping practices to S.O.L.D. farming – Small, Organic, Local, and Diverse.

Because that certainly looks to be the only sane direction in a world where you can’t always get the answer to “Why?”.

Just how big should a top bar hive be?

February 20, 2011

Just how big should a top bar hive be?

There is often lively discussion on beekeeping forums about the appropriate size for a top bar hive.  And frequently this data is given in inches – such as the length of the hive, or in numbers, as in the number of top bars the hive will hold.

But from the bees’ point a view, an important consideration is the VOLUME of the hive.  Just how big is the space they are planning to live in?  Being able to calculate the volume tells you more about the size of the cavity WITHIN the hive – and since bees are “cavity nesters” – meaning that they will go inside this cavity and create the structure of their nest – the honeycomb – then VOLUME is probably what the bees are concerned with.  It doesn’t really matter how tall a tree is, or even how big around it is – if the volume of the hollow cavity inside the tree isn’t large enough for the bees purposes then it isn’t a suitable home.

Now some of us can measure the time since we sat in a geometry class in units called decades, so conjuring up a formula to calculate area or volume might be a bit of a challenge.

Combined with the fact that most top bar hives have sloped sides in an attempt to ask the bees not to build their honeycombs attached to the sides of the box – which creates a trapezoid instead of a rectangle — and now things are really complicated!

Just how do you do the math on a three-dimensional trapezoid?

Well, here’s how it works:

The formula for the area of the trapezoid is this:

A = (( a + b) / 2) x  h  –> where h is the height, and a and b are the lengths of the parallel sides, in other words, the top and bottom.

When you have that number, the area, you multiply it by the length of the inside of the hive, and voila – now you’ve got the volume of your top bar hive.

So if we were to calculate the area of a Gold Star Top Bar Hive – it would look like this.  We are showing here the dimensions of our “follower board”, since that exactly matches the interior size and shape of the hive body itself.

Follower Board

a =  15 inches
b =   6.1875  inches
h =  9.5 inches

Note:  The decimal equivalent of 3/16 = .1875.  This makes the math easier.  (For some of us, fractions were a long time ago too!)

So, a + b would be 15 + 6.1875 = 21.1875 inches.
Then you would divide 21.1875 by 2.  This will get you 10.59375
Multiply that by 9.5 and get 100.64.  This figure is square inches – the area of the trapezoid, i.e. the follower board.

Then, to get the volume, you multiply the area 100.64, by the length of the interior of the hive.  A Gold Star hive is 44.5 inches long inside, and voila` – now you know that the volume of the cavity inside a Gold Star hive is 4478.5 cu inches.

Now we think that’s a lot of math, and apparently somebody else did too, because some kind and smart person made it much easier – by creating an on-line calculator that will do the math for you – all you have to know is the dimensions of your trapezoid.

Much easier!
Here is the actual formula: 

volume = L * (b1 + (b2 – b1) * h1 / h + b1) * h1 / 2
where:  Base1 (b1)
Base2 (b2)
Total Height (h)
Partial Height (h1)
Length (L)
This calculator works to calculate a “partially filled tank”, so for a “filled tank”, you would set the partial height (h1) and total height (h) as the same number.

So gather up your dimensions, plug them into the Online Conversion calculator and then you’ll know a bit about what the bees are looking at when they look at your hive!

Trapezoidal Tank