As soon as I began keeping bees at the turn of the century, the choice of hive here from the UK was National or WBC or, even if you had larger ambitions, Commercial. The Langstroth was considered as unnecessarily American and anything produced from straw was merely quaint at best, and at worst, a disaster waiting to happen. Now, less than 20 decades after, we additionally have the Warré, the flat top bar hive, the Lazutin, the ZEST, and other heavy boxes, also for straw lovers, some interesting variants on the skep. This has generated two new issues for the beginner: which hive to begin with and the best way to convince bees into it.
In these days it was simple: the National was the go-to choice due to its ubiquity. People who enjoyed the look of the WBC and weren’t put off by the extra work could still use the same frames, albeit fewer of these. You paid around #25 for an overwintered nuc and roughly twice that for a hive and in a flash you were a new beekeeper.
Somehow, in a couple of decades, prices of nucs doubled and doubled again, and again, and costs of the woodenware also improved, such that there’s now an important price to starting in beekeeping. If you go down the conventional route: you can expect to put down about #500 for a hive with bees and a basic kit.
If you take the road less traveled and construct your own top bar hive – horizontal or vertical – you can surely save money on hardware, but now you have another problem: The way to put bees into your hive, given that a standard 5-frame nuc won’t fit into your odd-shaped box, also suitable nucs are as rare as hen’s teeth.
Once I started to teach beginners about high bar hives, we used a rather brutal technique we called”harvest and chop”, which involved performing a drastic and irreversible operation on the frames and combs of a standard nuc to force it to fit the trapezoidal form of a flat top bar hive. It worked reasonably well, but required a bee-proof covering and around the de-framed bars and was substantially messy if there was a complete frame of brood to deal with. A much better method needed to be discovered.
My regular advice was and still is – if possible, begin with a swarm. Ideally, start by baiting a swarm straight in your hive, as this provides powerful evidence that by choosing to be there, they consider it high on their list of ideal homes and they’re more likely to thrive than not. Swarms can be attracted to hives by baiting them with some empty comb from a different (healthy) hive, rubbing wax and propolis around the woodwork, and by adding a couple of drops of my Magic Swarm Bait, which includes one part geranium essential oil to two parts lemongrass oil.
The fantastic thing about swarm baiting is that you can establish numerous boxes that are really just small hives – 10-12 pubs is fantastic for a TBH bait box – and place them in several distinct locations to multiply your chances of succeeding. The not-so-great issue is that you’re relying on bees discovering that your boxes, which can be quite likely in a place containing a fair number of beekeepers, but progressively less likely the further you’re away from civilization. If you are more than just a couple of miles from different beehives or wild-living colonies, your odds diminish exponentially (I suspect that it follows the inverse square law: chances are inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the nearest apiary).
You can become proactive and put yourself around as a swarm catcher, which might produce a better result, providing you do not mind dealing with multiple inquiries about bumblebees beneath sheds, hoverflies masquerading as bees, and actual honeybees that have taken up residence in chimneys, attics, and walls. Not to mention wasps and hornets. With luck, at least once a year, you’ll be provided a football-sized, prime swarm, dangling out of the horizontal branch of an apple tree, conveniently at shoulder height. This is the one to put in in your flat top bar hive, by pouring it in the box as if it had been liquid, or operating it up a slope into your Warré. These bees are in excellent condition to get you off to a great start: filled with honey and excitement, they’ll get busy construction combs and all you need to do is watch in amazement.
But supposing the season is passing you by and no stringing has emerged. You desperately want to get started, and you’re taking a look at ads for nucs, which you guess are headed by an imported queen. Or perhaps a friend has bees in their National, which are looking like they’ve swarmed ambitions. How do you get bees from frames to high bars without hacking wood and brood? Is it even possible?
Lucky, it’s not only possible but rather simple to perform.
To get a standard’ top bar hive (utilizing 17″ bars) you require temporary access to – or ownership of a National hive brood box containing 5-8 good frames of bees and brood, with or without honey super. This is sometimes a nuc that you have purchased and put into a full-size brood box, or it could be a friend’s hive that they don’t mind you playing. (I must state that this surgery may also be performed as described using Langstroth or any other kind of frame hive, provided the bars in your TBH are the same length as those from the framework hive.)
The method is as follows:
Place the busy hive (the one containing your nucleus and extra frames) at the exact place where your top bar hive will later stand, with its entrance facing in the direction chosen to be likely to annoy you or your acquaintances.
Separate frames comprising brood into pairs and then place a leading bar between every group, restoring spacing to usual. (This is the reason why you start with less than a complete complement of frames)
Leave 7-10 days, then carefully check the pubs for combs. The bees will have drawn straight comb on each pub, into that the queen would have laid eggs, a few of which may have risen to the pupal stage already. You may well discover the queen one of those new combs.
On a bright day, move the occupied hive several paces in any suitable direction, and place the TBH in its prior place. You may notice returning foragers coming home, looking puzzled their home has shifted shape, but fast locating the new entrance.
Carefully move the newly-drawn top pub cubes, with adhering bees, and place them side by side from the TBH, checking to see if the queen is about one of them. If she’s, well and good. If not, then you need to find her to move her to the new hive, taking good care that she doesn’t take flight.
Today you have to shake roughly half the bees in the frame hive into the TBH, adding several bars on both sides of those already there. Place follower boards and shut up.
Close to the framework, after incorporating new frames to fill the gaps created by taking away the very best bars.
Today you have a queen-right colony at your top bar hive, with foragers bringing in meals as if nothing has occurred, along with a queenless colony at the National, together with the resources to create themselves a new queen (check they have eggs and newly-emerged larvae). Unless there is a leak, I suggest you feed the two colonies in this stage: one wants to construct a comb, while another needs to draw make a queen.
The principle we are tapping here is that the ability of bees to return to the exact point in space where they know their house to be – or to have been if they left to look for food. This can be used to move bees out of any hive to some other, given the new box can be substituted for the old. The further measure of persuading them to build appropriately movable combs ahead of the move makes the procedure simpler but isn’t essential. You may need to balance the inhabitants in new and old colonies, which is where your judgment for a beekeeper comes in to play.
Transferring a colony from frames to a Warré might be done by similar means, but you would have to make some particular frames and sterile off the areas on either side, to prevent the comb from being constructed where it will not match. An easier method – especially throughout the build-up phase – would be to set the National brood box in addition to a Warré box, with a plywood’mask’ between to reduce the aperture to 250mm and branch boards in the National to prevent sideways expansion. The entry should be under the lower box. Comb-builders will get active to allow down expansion, and if you place at least two boxes under the first, it is possible to leave the National in place until it becomes back-filled using honey. Strap it down, since the arrangement is inherently top-heavy.
An overall principle that I discovered the hard way is that it is no use placing an empty box – even one which contains starter strips of base – above an occupied hive. More likely than not they will refuse to start in the top and work down as you might anticipate, but will instead build up paints upward, and in all manner of uneven shapes – from the tops of the frames at the lower box. The resulting mess will take you some time and likely much cursing to manage. Click here for more details about safely remove beehive.
It might have occurred to you that this procedure also has the impact of creating a nearly Varroa-free new colony since the majority of the mites will be sealed to brood cells at the framework hive. (You can work out for yourself how this may be adapted as a mite control technique.) Conversely, this means that you may be keeping up a parasite problem on your framework hive, which might need dealing with before it becomes serious. The 3week period without a new brood will, however, play in your favor, since the fleas will have a diminishing number of brood cells to occupy and also will be exposed to simple bio-mechanical remedies, such as powdered sugar, as well as to the grooming task of the bees themselves.