Installing Bees

Sometimes we're in the clouds, and sometimes we're above them.

Sometimes we’re in the clouds, and sometimes we’re above them.

The project is going well, things are going more or less to plan, but I’m getting nervous! I get 4 colonies of bees this month. I have no experience of keeping this species of bee and I know of nobody “keeping” them in horizontal Top bar hives. I’ve got 8 of the horizontal Top bar hives which includes 2 large Nucs, I have 2 Warre type box-pile hives consisting of 3 boxes each and 1 Newton, based on the European type of movable frame hive but modified for top bars in the brood chamber. Everyone thinks it’ll be a doddle, no matter how often I point out that it’s a very limited experiment to find the hive most suited to the requirements of individual local Beekeepers! However I am starting out with confidence, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a born optimist, and anyway as the saying goes “we learn by our mistakes”.

Looking in a different direction.

Looking in a different direction.

I read an article by a Japanese beekeeper1 whose husbandry is so “hands off” that there is no more demand on the beekeeper’s time, than if he were keeping his bees in traditional fashion, in log hives or a hole in the wall of his house. However, unlike traditional methods of beekeeping here, honey can be harvested without serious trauma to the colony and measures are taken to limit absconding and swarming. These measures consist of making sure the bees have plenty of space, sheltering the hive from the midday sun to help the colony maintain an even temperature and protecting the bees from a fairly wide variety of pests. The stresses caused by human interference are almost completely eliminated. These measures along with replacing the Queen regularly, will, the writer suggests help to suppress the urge to swarm or abscond. This method of husbandry presupposes the availability of replacement Queens and the horizontal Top Bar Hive will come in handy here. I’m a bit of a pessimist about the effectiveness of measures taken to reduce the urge to swarm, after all as Beekeepers know swarming is the process of re-production vital to the bees in their natural habitat and Nepalese bees are, if my research is to believed, more likely to swarm or abscond than A. mellifera.

Bearing this in mind I’ve hedged my bets by making the Warre type boxes the same size as the Newton boxes with identical inside measurements although the timber is locally produced and because it’s hand sawn, measurements are not very precise.

From the left 2 Nucs under one thatch, TBH 1, Warre 1 and Warre2.

From the left 2 Nucs under one thatch, TBH 1, Warre 1 and Warre2.

I’ve modified the Newton to follow R.W.K. Punchihewa’s techniques of management, set out in his book “Beekeeping for Honey Production in Sri Lanka”2. His style of management is quite a bit more “hands-on” than that required by the TBH or the Warre hives and calls for the use of a centrifugal extractor to harvest his honey crop. He uses top bars instead of brood frames and in my Newton, which was purchased, I modified the brood frames to serve as super frames, replacing them with homemade top bars. His practice involves moving top bars/combs around in the brood chamber as the nest develops, removing full sized combs from the edge of the nest, cutting them in half and fitting them into super frames to receive honey. His book has admirably detailed descriptions of his technique, the above procedure, alone, amounting to 24 pages including 34 step by step diagrams. Since I’ve been engaged on this project I’ve spoken to quite a few rural Beekeepers and only found a small number that manage their bees in any detailed way and an even smaller number that use an extractor to harvest honey. My conversations suggest to me that, in rural Nepal A. cerana husbandry involving movable frames or top bars is almost certainly, numerically speaking, a poor second to “keeping” in a log hive or in the house wall.  Access to tuition or to Punchihewa’s book would not be easily available, and so his way of doing things might be difficult to promulgate to the majority of beekeepers in rural areas. Just in case it turns out to be very successful and interests Beekeepers in the area I’ve come up with a design for an extractor that I hope I can get manufactured locally before the honey harvest is due.

TBHs 2 & 3 on top of the shower.

TBHs 2 & 3 on top of the shower.

With the help of Koman Singh, my host’s son, I’ve made 6 hives and 2 large Nucs based loosely on the style of Top Bar Hive in J.P. Chandler’s book “The Barefoot Beekeeper” 3. Replacing Queens annually, replacing colonies lost due to absconding and strengthening weak colonies ready for the main honey flow will I am confident be a very important aspect of A. cerana husbandry and I’m hoping the horizontal TBH will prove useful in this respect as well as giving a good honey crop. I’ve had quite a bit of interest in this hive, due, I think, to Its ease of manufacture and its similarity to the log hive. Fingers crossed and I hope it lives up to my expectations.

Newyon 1 just over the edge from Warre 2 about 10 ' below

Newyon 1 just over the edge from Warre 2 about 10 ‘ below

The Bee Inspectors will throw their hands in the air when I suggest the use of any Top Bar Hive and especially the Warre vertical top bar hive, but personally, I never encountered problems when I encouraged one or two colonies to build comb in foundation-less unwired frames, in the UK. It seemed to me that the bees were very enthusiastic pulling comb in this way and although I never measured it, it always seemed pretty well as quick as using foundation. The only time I did encounter a potential problem was when the Bee Inspector wanted to hold a foundation-less frame horizontally to inspect for Foul Brood, this comb, which was not attached to the sides of its frame was a little wobbly. He demonstrated, to show me the error of my ways, but bless him never allowed the comb to fall off. Luckily, with A. cerana there are currently hardly any disease problems in their natural habitat and the Beekeeper managing cerana does not need to routinely treat for endemic diseases as we do in the UK. There is however serious disease potential for commercial Beekeepers, who farm A. mellifera in the Terrai region, the low lying areas bordering India, and these exotic Bees have to be heavily medicated. All preformed foundation in Nepal is made from their wax and the degree of medication they are subjected to, makes this foundation distinctly unattractive to me.20150302_095611

Top bar ply cover boards, a sample bar for the TBH and one for the Warre.

Top bar ply cover boards, a sample bar for the TBH and one for the Warre.

Management and Hive design Ideas :

1 Fujio Hisashi, “Profitable beekeeping with Apis cerana” – Bees for Development Journal 94

2 R.K.W. Punchihewa “Beekeeping for Honey Production in Sri Lanka” ISBN 955-9282-01-08

3 JP Chandler “The Barefoot Beekeeper”

Useful reading


IBRA leaflet 4 1990 “Apis cerana

ICIMOD website “Improving livelihoods through Beekeeping”

Journal of Apicultural Research 11(3) : 141-146 (1972) “REPRODUCTION IN APIS CERANA 1. MATING BEHAVIOUR” F. Ruttner, J. Woyke and N. Koeniger

Various other leaflets journals on the internet from such organisations as “Bees for Development” and IBRA.

Note: I’m publishing without proof reading as I’m expecting the power to fail at any moment!