Troubleshooting Beekeeping Equipment
Successfully keeping bees means knowing how to use and maintain beekeeping equipment.
The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver (Quarry Books, 2015), by James E. Tew, presents 100 common problems faced by beekeepers and offers practical solutions in clear and simple terms. Each key area, from hive management and equipment to diseases and honey production, is tackled in depth with photographs, tips and useful insights. The following excerpt is from chapter 2, “Beekeeping Equipment.”
To the uninitiated, beehive equipment and protective clothing can appear complicated. This view is deceptive. The only purpose of the protective gear is to shield the beekeeper from an excessive number of stings; at the most basic level, the beehive is little more than a stack of boxes, each holding about eight to ten framed honeycombs. Everything else is personal choice.
All bees really need in order to set up a colony is a dry, dark cavity approximately one cubic foot square, with a defendable entrance and nothing else already living there. Consequently, bees are amenable to most common hive designs.
Confusion can arise due to the sheer number of designs and styles of hive in use — from the popular Langstroth to the British National and WBC designs, and from Warre to top-bar hives. Some of these styles have been pictured in the book to give a feel for the variety available around the world, but the best advice is always to find out what equipment is most commonly used in your local area. Though daunting at first, with the help of appropriate study materials and possibly a beekeeper friend, all will become clear. Once the initial choices have been made, the novice beekeeper can begin developing expertise, and natural expansion will occur.
My hive equipment doesn’t match
There are many hive designs available around the world, ranging from simple to surprisingly complex. Occasionally adding to the confusion is the fact that manufacturers’ measurements and designs may differ slightly. Mixed equipment may fit together, but not perfectly.
Since bees are not particular about the appearance of the hive, to a great extent it is not a problem if equipment doesn’t match. Different hive types can be improvised to work together in many instances. Nearly any beehive composed of vertical, free-hanging frames can be modified to incorporate different styles of equipment. However, there is a point of diminishing returns. Beehives are already a conglomerate of parts and pieces and to add even more nonstandard parts and pieces only creates further confusion. In springtime, reversing brood boxes may become difficult and would probably require individual frames to be shifted rather than entire boxes. And while the bees may not care about the outward appearance of their hive, the proud beekeeper may derive a certain amount of satisfaction from tending a neat, well-turned-out apiary.
When setting up a new beekeeping operation, the best advice is to opt for common hive designs that are used and available locally. That way, when the time comes that you need additional or replacement equipment, it can likely be acquired from a supportive beekeeper in the area.
Additionally, when purchasing used equipment at sales and auctions, there will be a greater chance that the equipment on the block will be compatible with the equipment you already own.
I’m concerned about hive equipment theft
In nearly all parts of the world keeping bees is presently a very popular undertaking. Consequently, honey bees, in hives or otherwise, are in short supply and the value of equipment has increased significantly. Often, apiaries are located in areas that allow easy access for opportunistic thieves.
The obvious security measures, such as installing electric fencing, an alarm system, or a locked enclosure, may well prove too expensive for the small-scale beekeeper. Marking your hive equipment can act as a deterrent to thieves and is much more readily affordable. It also provides proof of ownership in the event that any stolen equipment is tracked down. Branding wooden equipment has historically been the most common method of marking wooden equipment. Equipment should be marked before painting with an obvious brand mark. Buying a large branding iron may not be an option for beekeepers who have only a few hives to mark — you could look into borrowing the equipment. Your local beekeeping club may be able to help. Though considerably less expensive, smaller branding irons make marks that are more easily obliterated. Hives can be painted characteristic colors, but obviously they can be repainted. An identifying mark can be put inside hive boxes, but that will require access to the equipment in order to identify it.
Presently, technology is being developed for hives similar to that used to find lost or stolen mobile phones. However, this technology is nascent and may not be affordable for most beekeepers. For now, branding wooden equipment is the most common hive-marking procedure.
The paint finish on my hives is failing
If hive bodies are painted at all, the inside surface is rarely coated with paint. Consequently, moisture from the high humidity hive interior wicks through the wood and related joints to cause the paint finish to fail from the inside — not necessarily the outside.
The average hive body, in constant use, generally lasts about seven years.
There are several possible methods to help the hive bodies and supers last longer and make them look neater. The easiest procedure is not to paint the woodenware at all. It will take on a weathered, rugged look that is not unappealing. Interestingly, over the years, bees will coat the inside of the unpainted wood with propolis and wax and this will coax more time from the hive boxes than would be expected.
The second method is to paint the equipment — inside and out — at regular intervals of about three to four years. Commercial beekeepers will sometimes spray paint large quantities of stacked equipment at once, especially if the equipment is used for honey production.
Thirdly, you could use an exterior stain product with an UV inhibitor.
This is normally a product used on the exterior surface of houses and cottages. Such finishes are particularly popular in Canada. This gives a natural and appealing color to the equipment but abundant time should be allowed for the finish to cure, not just to dry.
In any case, painting the edges is a troublesome task. So troublesome, in fact, that many beekeepers forego the effort. While paint does help protect the exterior wood surface, primarily the equipment is being painted for esthetic reasons.
The inner cover of the hive is glued down
Either the colony has become very crowded or the inner cover was incorrectly left in the inverted winter position. In either instance, the bees have built heavy bands of brace or ladder combs between the top bars and the inner cover surface, making it difficult to open the hive.
This issue is a common occurrence. This can be seen in the general design and fitting of the inner cover. From the outside, the joint between the top edge of the super and the lower edge of the inner cover is readily accessible with a hive tool. If a colony is seriously crowded — even if the equipment manufacturer respected bee space measurements — combs containing either honey or drones will be jammed into all available small spaces. Indeed, inner covers on hives that are not opened for several seasons will become so tightly stuck that they may actually break apart when forced off the hive. Just beneath the inner cover, frames, both wood and plastic, will also be soundly stuck to the hive body. In general, this hive will be difficult and messy to manipulate.
The only solution is to regularly scrape off propolis and brace combs whenever the colony is opened. An alternative would be only to remove selected frames and to keep those frames reasonably clear of propolis and extraneous combs. To a degree, always providing ample hive space would mitigate the behavior. The bees will diligently work to glue and seal all components back into place almost as soon as the beekeeper completes the task of removing these natural materials. This activity primarily occurs when plant resins are available or when nectar flows are ongoing.
Plastic hives accumulate water during the winter
Nearly all artificial hives will accumulate excess moisture under certain conditions. Since they are nearly impenetrable to water, unventilated expanded polystyrene hives will be particularly troublesome in this regard.
During winter months in temperate climates, most beehive styles, whether made of wood or plastic, will accumulate moisture. Some moisture is a requirement within the healthy hive: the humidity within the brood nest needs to be at least 60 percent. Yet, possibly due to hive design, a significant amount of water can accumulate within the hive, which is caused by the metabolic activities of the wintering bees. Warm air rises from the wintering cluster and when it hits the top of the hive, the air cools and ice forms. Over the winter season, quite a bit of ice can collect. This is essentially no problem until spring, when the ice melts and drips cold water on the cluster below.
The natural nest has some extraordinary techniques for dealing with moisture. In beehives, the primary solution is to ventilate the hive near the top, just as houses are ventilated. This allows the moisture-laden air to escape without forming much ice.
Plastic hives, being essentially impenetrable to water, can accumulate a surprising amount. This was primarily an issue with early styles of plastic hive equipment. Even with several inches of water in the hive bottom, the cluster seems to winter very well. Adding a screened bottom board to a plastic hive allows water drainage and improves air flow, while also allowing Varroa mites to fall out of the colony.
Reprinted with permission from The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver by James E. Tew and published by Quarry Books, 2015.
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