Natural beekeeping practices can minimize the stress and work involved in modern apiculture.
How many people dream of having a few bustling beehives in their backyard? Thousands, surely. But here’s a typical scenario: You go to a beginners’ beekeeping class and do everything suggested. You buy equipment and protective gear, order packages of bees, install them in the hives, feed them sugar, treat them against parasites and disease, and then ... they don’t survive the first winter. So you buy more bees the following spring, but the cycle repeats itself.
Faced with high bee mortality rates, mounting costs, and modest returns, even many expert beekeepers hang up their suits. There are half as many bee colonies in the United States today as there were in the 1940s, and the majority of those that do remain are treated with chemicals and trucked around the country to pollinate big commercial monoculture crops, such as almonds. Travel stresses the colonies, spreads disease, and produces honey laced with pesticides. Two-thirds of the honey consumed in the United States today is imported, while the media is full of reports of honeybees dying off on a massive scale.
Fortunately, there’s another way to keep bees: natural beekeeping in horizontal hives. Its principles haven’t changed in a thousand years: Observe how bees live in the wild and mimic those conditions in your apiary. Georges de Layens, one of Europe’s leading beekeepers in the 19th century, offered three keys to sustainable apiculture. First, use local bees that are disease-resistant and adapted to the climate and flowering patterns in your area. Second, keep bees in appropriate hives that imitate a natural tree nest and match the climate of your region. Finally, practice sensible management in tune with the bees’ biological needs, and disturb them as little as possible. Layens gave his name to the hive system I prefer, referred to as either “Layens hives” or “horizontal hives.”
Follow these simple rules, and beekeeping will become what it used to be — a joyful and productive occupation that requires relatively little effort and brings great rewards. Whether you aspire to have a few hives for pleasure and honey, or to make your living with beekeeping, you can do it successfully and with minimal cost. Let’s get you off to a good start.
In his 1835 book Practical Beekeeping, Russian beekeeper Nicolai Vitvitsky writes, “Peasant families commonly have 1,000 hives. Tending these takes little effort, so the owner can work his fields and attend to other matters.”
Today, conventional beekeeping has become so complicated that running even a dozen hives calls for a lot of dedication, expertise, and expense; it’s hard to imagine managing 1,000 hives without a team of employees. The difference is that modern beekeepers — like their counterparts in other branches of agriculture — want to increase honey output beyond what the bees would naturally produce. Increasing production requires more input and management, and it’s hard on bees and beekeepers alike.
If you want to have a few hives in your backyard, you’ll need an approach that’s simple, inexpensive, and enjoyable. This is why, of all the beekeeping systems available, I prefer horizontal (or Layens) hives. They’re thoroughly described in Russian beekeeper Fedor Lazutin’s book Keeping Bees With A Smile (available in the Heirloom Gardener store). Horizontal hives are super-easy to build, robust, inexpensive, ecologically friendly, bee-friendly, and simple to manage. They were traditionally prevalent throughout Europe and Russia, where they’re still used on a large scale. They work well with the hands-off style of beekeeping many Russian and French beekeepers praise. Concerning Layens horizontal hives, French beekeeper Jean Hurpin writes, “I visit them only once per year, and always find the bees in excellent shape with the hives full of honey, harvesting which becomes my sole task.”
A horizontal hive consists of one long box with all the honeycomb frames on the same level. This means there’s no heavy lifting involved. The heaviest thing you’ll ever lift is a single frame of honey, which weighs about 6 pounds, compared with the 50-pound boxes you’d be required to move while managing conventional stacked hives.
In a horizontal hive, you’ll have instant access to all frames without having to shuffle any hive boxes. This will save you strain and help you avoid disturbing the bees. With minimal interference, you can add more frames on the side, or pull frames that are full of honey.
Incidentally, disturbing the bees less means you’ll get few, if any, stings. My children are a big help with the bees, without any fear of being stung. Visitors often comment on how peaceful my bees are. One commercial beekeeper ended a visit to my hives by saying, “You know, Leo, I really didn’t want to like your hives, but I did!”
The shape of the frames I use in my horizontal hives mimics the shape of honeycomb in a tree hollow: At 12 inches wide by 16 inches deep, they’re narrow and very deep compared with standard Langstroth frames. Langstroth frames are 19 inches wide, and vary from 5-3/8 inches to 9-1/8 inches deep. The Layens frame arrangement is ideal for successful overwintering and colony development.
Because horizontal hives consist of one box that you won’t ever have to lift, you can build them with thick walls and good insulation, protecting the bees from heat in summer and cold in winter. By comparison, conventional Langstroth hives are made of 3/4-inch wood whether you keep bees in Florida or Michigan.
Keeping bees in horizontal hives requires simpler equipment. You won’t even have to confine the queen to one part of the hive using a queen excluder grill, because in a long hive, the bees’ brood nest on one end is naturally separated from the honey-storage area on the other end. This natural separation also means you can harvest honey without breaking into the nest. No spacesuit necessary when working with your bees!
Because of their simplicity, horizontal hives and swarm traps are cheap and easy to build, so you can get into beekeeping without breaking the bank. I offer free plans for both on my website, www.HorizontalHive.com.
Finally, horizontal hives are more self-regulating and beginner-friendly. In a vertical hive, you have to constantly modify the hive volume with additional boxes, and must do so at just the right time. You can’t throw all the boxes on at once, because warm air will rise to the empty top box and leave the lower story chilled. Horizontal hives don’t create the same chimney effect, so you can add many frames laterally and give your bees the freedom to expand at their own pace throughout the season.
The choice of a hive system is a matter of personal preference. Layens wrote, “You can be a good beekeeper with any hive system, but you cannot be a good beekeeper if you don’t know what you are doing.” That said, I think horizontal hives are wonderfully suited to backyard beekeepers for all the reasons I’ve listed above. Here’s how I manage them.
I start all my colonies by attracting local wild swarms to swarm traps (also called “bait hives”) hung on trees in spring. After a swarm is in the box, I bring it home and place it next to the horizontal hive. The next day, I open both the hive and the swarm trap, remove all the frames from the trap, and put them into the hive in the same order, starting against the wall by the open hive entrance. I then add 4 to 6 new frames. I close the hive before I dump the remaining bees from the trap onto a piece of plywood positioned at a gentle incline against the hive entrance. The bees will walk inside to join the rest of their colony. If the weather prevents the new hive from foraging, give them a frame of honey, or place a tub with 5 pounds of honey inside the hive. If I’m using a tub of honey, I cover the surface with a layer of wood chips so the bees don’t drown in it.
After that, I’ll check the hive in 2 to 4 weeks to see if they have brood — large areas of comb filled with eggs and larvae, and cells with sandpaper-like caps are all good signs. If I don’t see any brood, I’ll unite the broodless colony with another hive or swarm. If they’re filling all the frames with new comb, brood, honey, and pollen, I’ll add more frames on one side to allow the bees to keep expanding their nest.
In fall, at harvest time — in my area of southern Missouri (Zone 6), this is late October — open the hive and start pulling the frames farthest from the open entrance. I leave up to 10 frames as winter reserves for a very large colony; for a smaller colony, I’ll leave 6 to 7 frames. I put a pillowcase filled with wool, straw, or sawdust over the frames I left in the hive, and close the top. That’s it! Don’t disturb the bees in winter.
In spring, when temperatures reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the first flowers are in bloom, and the bees have been active for a week, open the hive and inspect the nest frames for the presence of brood; eggs, larvae, and cells covered with sandpaper-like caps are all good signs. If the brood is there, all is well — add more frames. If there isn’t any brood, then unite the bees with another colony.
Your apiary will keep growing, and the yearly cycle will continue. Each March, I feel both joy and sadness as I watch the exuberant activity of the overwintered colonies. Joy at the sight of life that has prevailed over the dead of winter, and sadness at the knowledge that none of the bees who performed these joyful dances the prior year remain. But is there a greater gift than witnessing the endless flow of life, even as each individual being eventually fades away?
“Keeping bees requires little effort, and barely any capital to get started,” wrote Georges de Layens in Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives: A Complete Guide to Apiculture. But the experience of many beekeepers is actually quite different. One beekeeper I heard speak at a conference joked, “Buy your kids a beehive, and they won’t have money to do drugs!”
One of the reasons beekeeping has become a costly undertaking is the prevailing habit of buying equipment and bees — which makes it expensive from the get-go, and adds pressure for maximum honey production to recover your costs. The pressure leads to more costly problems, and the cycle continues.
“Make no mistake,” wrote Ukrainian beekeeper Illarion Kullanda in 1882. “Build the kind of hive you can craft yourself with the cheapest materials available in your country.” Following his sound advice, I discovered that almost everything you need to build a hive can be obtained free of charge where you live.
Free lumber. Recycling centers; stores that receive merchandise in plywood boxes and crates or on pallets; construction and remodeling sites; and even schools are often willing to let you take as much wood as you need free of charge. You could also use rough-sawn lumber from a local mill, instead of dimensional lumber from a store. In addition to the cost savings for you, rough surfaces are easier for bees to walk on, and they’ll instinctively coat the surface with propolis, making an antibacterial envelope around the hive.
Free insulation. In many climates, a 1-1/2-inch plank is enough insulation for bees, but in colder climates, you might use cardboard or sawdust, or — my favorite option — seek out sheep farmers who keep their animals for meat only. The wool of meat sheep often isn’t high enough quality for spinning, but the animals still need to be sheared for hygienic reasons, and natural wool is an ideal material for insulating a hive.
Cheap and durable roofing. Look around for scrap aluminum; I use large sheets that a local newspaper sells for $1 each.
After collecting your materials, remember, a hive is just a rectangular box with a cover, and you can build one with a handsaw, hammer, and chisel. It’ll be a faster process with a table saw and electric drill, and a router and staple gun will speed up the process even more, but a Layens hive really is a one-day project.
Leo Sharashkin is the editor of Keeping Bees With A Smile, a comprehensive book on natural beekeeping. He homesteads in the Ozarks, catches wild bee swarms, and raises bees in horizontal hives. Find free hive plans and advice on his website, Horizontal Hive.
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