Chapter 4 Traditional and modern beehives and beekeeping equipment

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Traditional hives
Modern rives
Advantages and disadvantages of frame and top-bar hives
Timber used for making beehives
Equipment required by the beekeeper


Honeybees that nest in the open produce far less honey than those confined in enclosures. There are good reasons for this. Colonies in the open are exposed to predators (see pp. 105-110) and therefore have to employ numerous workers as guards to fight intruders. They have to consume large quantities of honey, which they use as fuel, to enable them to cluster to stop the wind which cools down their combs and to generate enough heat to maintain the proper temperature for brood development. During severely hot days, more bees have to use honey as fuel to enable them to fan and cool melting combs to avoid disaster. This temperature control can only be quite inefficient, because of the colony's exposed condition. The exposed colony therefore has to keep larger numbers of house bees, and will thus have fewer foraging bees available to bring in the needed nectar and other essentials from the field.

It has been seen that the bees' primary natural ranges are in the savannah and semi-arid lands, where temperature variations are extreme. Often the few nesting enclosures available to the bees are in ant-hills and rocks from which honeycombs cannot be easily harvested. Large trees are scarce; few have hollows large enough to house a colony. With the increased interest in beekeeping and the growing demand for bee products and services, bees can no longer be maintained in their few natural dwelling places, but must be provided with special artificial hollows in the form of beehives.


Traditional hives

Beekeeping is not new in Africa. It has been practiced from time immemorial, especially in the Sahel regions. In these large areas, wooden boards or timber are scarce, and therefore grass and mud have played major roles in providing material for beehive construction.

The grass hive

Dry grasses are woven together in a basket or cylindrical form, usually with entry points at both ends. The hive is installed high in tree-tops to avoid termites. Some beekeepers lower it carefully at harvest time, while others drop it carelessly by cutting the suspension rope. Owing to the weakness of the material, such hives' usefulness is usually less than one year, and they are used for seasonal beekeeping only.

The gourd hive

The gourd provides a natural hollow for bees, but most gourds are too small for an average bee colony, so that their use often induces swarming. There are two types of gourds. One is more or less pot-shaped, while the other has a long neck attached to the "pot" section. Both are installed by a suspension cord or by resting the mouth on a wooden peg.

Most gourd hives have to be broken into pieces before honey and brood combs can be removed. In the savannah areas, some tribes eat both honey and brood, and do not care to wait until there is a maximum of honey to harvest.

The log hive

Two main types of log hive are known. In some isolated areas of the Vest African coasts (e.g. Ghana and Guinea-Bissau), the ciba or palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer) produces natural hollows for interested beekeepers to use as hives. When the plant dies, the beekeeper waits for termites to consume the soft inner pith. The tree is then felled and cut into pieces and the ends are sealed with woven grass, a few small holes being left at the ends to provide entry and exit for the bees.

For the second type, found in East Africa (e.g. Kenya and Tanzania), a tree is felled and cut into cylindrical logs which are carefully scooped out to form hollows. They are then sealed, leaving some small holes for exit and entry. In Tanzania, the hive is split into halves, which the beekeeper attaches together before baiting and installation. At harvest time, the hive is split open and the honeycombs removed. The halves are then rejoined for the bees to start the next honey crop.

The East African log hive, while simple in construction, is however expensive and inefficient. Several cheap and more productive hives could have been made with wooden planks from the same tree if only it had not been crudely shaped into log sections first.

The barrel hive

Metal and wooden barrels are sometimes employed as beehives in some places in West Africa. In Guinea-Bissau, for instance, barrels containing pigs'-feet or wine, imported by the Portuguese, were adapted for use as hives. Some of these old barrels are deteriorating, however, and no new ones are available to replace them.

The clay-pot hive

The cheapest and most durable of all the traditional hives is the clay pot, very popular especially in the northern savannah of West Africa. The pot is similar to the type generally used to carry water or other liquids, modified to provide a wider mouth and a small mid-section hole for both exit and entry.

The pots, usually made by the elderly women, are bisque-fired, and the inner part is smoked as part of the baiting. They are then baited with cow dung or other waste and installed on the ground or on pegs in trees. In some areas, the pots are turned upside down directly on the ground, for beekeepers find that when they are installed on a flat plate or wood, bees glue the plate firmly to the hive with propolis, making harvesting tedious. This method of installation, however, has a serious drawback: frequent ant invasions force some bee colonies to abscond.

Traditional beekeeping utilizes cheap and plentiful local materials for hive construction, some of which would otherwise be wasted, e.g. the ciba palm. But such simple beehives cannot be easily manipulated because bees fix combs to the hive body. Combs cannot be inspected at all, and detached combs cannot be easily replaced. To counter this problem, traditional beekeepers should adopt the top-bar system as a simple, modern way to convert traditional hives into movable-comb hives.


Modern rives

The design of all modern beehives is based on the discovery, by the father of modern beekeeping, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, that when bees build their combs they always leave exactly the same amount of space (the bee space) between them (see pp. 39-40). On the basis of this finding, Langstroth invented a hive with frames separated by this bee space, in which the bees could build their comb. The frames are so arranged that they can be removed individually without disturbing other combs and without crushing bees, and the sides and bottom of the frame provide very good support for the comb.

Langstroth also found that several communicating hive boxes can be stacked one above another, and that the queen can be confined to the lowest, or brood, chamber, by means of a queen excluder. In this way, the upper chambers (called supers) can be reached only by the workers, and therefore contain only honey-comb. This made hive inspection and many other management practices possible, and turned the art of beekeeping into a full-scale industry. Almost all commercial hives in use today operate on the Langstroth pattern, although they may contain from 10 to 13 frames.

Other bee enthusiasts have given their names to similar hives that are essentially modifications of the original Langstroth, and these frame hives are in general use throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and parts of South America and Asia, as well as in some northern and southern African countries. For technical and economic reasons set out on pp. 44-45, however, most African countries, mainly in the tropics, are not yet in a position to use frame hives, and for them the top-bar hive represents a satisfactory compromise, although it is admittedly less efficient and perhaps somewhat more difficult to use, especially for beginning beekeepers.

The top-bar hive

In the top-bar hive, the Langstroth frame is replaced by a simple modification of the top bar of the Langstroth frame, and the bees build their combs hanging down from the centre of the bar. Since the combs are not supported on all four sides as they are in the Langstroth frame, they can break more easily, but because they are fixed only to the top-bars and not to the hive body, it is still possible -- with care -- to remove and replace them at any time for inspection or other management practices.

While boxes built especially to receive top-bars give the best results, clay pots, barrels and most containers used by traditional beekeepers can easily be fitted with top-bars: the important thing is to maintain the proper, equal distance between the combs.

Cut any piece of wood to fit the size of the container's opening. The width of the wood must be exactly 32 millimetres (3.2 centimetres or 11/4 inches). This is a crucial measurement. The tropical honeybee builds a comb which has a thickness of 25 millimetres. This comb is usually attached to the centre of the top-bar. A space of 3.5 millimetres is thus left at either side of the comb. When two or more top-bars fixed with combs are placed side by side, the inner space becomes 7 mm (i.e. 3.5 mm plus 3.5 mm). This space, vital to the bees, is usually referred to as the "bee space". These bee spaces are also found between the combs and the hive body. They serve the bees as paths in which they can move freely.

Fig. 4. Beehives, top-bars and frame. (Courtesy Intermediate Technology Publications, Inc.)

Currently, three types of top-bars are in use. Their names refer to their shape. These are the V-shape or ridge, the groove and the pointed starter.

The V-shaped top-bar (see Fig. 4 (i) c)

This is usually the first to be used by the beginning beekeeper who has no beeswax or comb foundation to serve as a guide for the bees. It is easy to be built by any local carpenter with simple, basic tools. The bees are naturally guided to follow the top-bar's ridge, fixing their comb along the line. The problem with this type of hive is that new honeycombs can easily break away from the bar. Therefore, the beekeeper is warned to handle top-bars with combs carefully. However, given enough time, the bees will reinforce the combs, fixing them firmly to the bars.

The groove top-bar (see Fig. 4 (iv))

This type can be built more quickly than the V-shape, but its manufacture requires the use of electrically powered machines to cut the groove in the centre of the bar. The beekeeper fixes strips of wax about 6 mm thick into the groove to form a guide for the bees. They will then glue this wax foundation firmly into the groove and begin to build their combs along it.

The pointed starter (see Fig. 4 (v))

Like the groove top-bar, the pointed starter cannot be produced cheaply and easily by a village carpenter. Electric machine tools are required for production. This type of top-bar does not require any foundation as does the groove; however, wax can be rubbed along the edge to show the bees where to fix the comb. The bees find this with ease, and the combs built are always firmly attached. Care must be taken by the carpenter to place the pointed edge at the centre of the top-bar.

The Kenyan top-bar hive (K.T.B.H.) was developed by Professor G.F. Townsend and his team of Kenyan bee students at Fuelph University, Canada, for use in East Africa. It is an ideal accommodation for the aggressive tropical bee, and therefore it is highly recommended for use by beginners. The hive is illustrated in Fig. 5 below and its dimensions and technical drawings are shown in Fig. 6.

Fig. 6. Kenyan top-bar hive (K.T.B.H. ) - Specifications

The rectangular hive can be fitted either with top-bars or frames or both at the same time. A rectangular hive built according to Kenyan top-bar hive specifications can utilize the standard top bars; however, if the hive's width is modified, then the top-bar length must reflect this change.

The Tanzanian transitional long hive (see Fig 6 (iii)) is a single-box rectangular hive that uses frames (see Pig. 6 (vi)) instead of top-bars. Usually it contains 27 to 33 frames. All the frames are patterned after the Langstroth type, but the dimensions differ to suit the tropical African bee.


Advantages and disadvantages of frame and top-bar hives

Advantages of the frame hive

a) The comb is fixed firmly to the four sides of the frame. This facilitates easy harvesting, and the beekeeper has little fear of damaging the comb.

b) The strength of the built-in comb also allows easy transportation, even over bad roads. It also affords easy control of a colony of bees without fear of breakage before the arrival at the new destination.

c) Honey is extracted by means of the centrifugal honey extractor, which makes it possible to remove the honey without damaging the comb. Empty combs are returned to the hive for the bees to refill with new honey, thus saving the insects from wasting time and energy to construct a replacement comb. Honey harvests are maximized, as the beekeeper can obtain several honey crops within the year. In Canada, for instance, a frame hive with a strong colony of bees may produce over 200 kg of honey per year. Thus, it is ideal for a serious large-scale honey production programme.

d) During hive manipulations, very few bees are crushed between frames, whereas dozens of bees can easily be killed by careless handling of top-bars.

e) The hive is so designed (with queen excluder and supers) that the queen and brood are confined to the lower chamber. Supers contain only honey, and the lower brood chamber is undisturbed when honey is harvested.

f) Stealing a double- or triple-storey hive with a colony is a difficult feat for a thief. The Kenyan top-bar hive, on the contrary, can be carried away easily.

g) A swarm of bees can be hived with ease. Bees can easily pass through the numerous spaces between the frame and at the top of the hive.

h) Hive boxes can be stacked easily. This makes it easy to expand and contract the hive to meet the needs of the bee colony.

i) Drugs can be applied with ease through the openings.

Disadvantages of the frame hive in tropical Africa

a) A frame hive with two supers costs three times as much as a Kenyan 27-top-bar hive.

b) A high degree of craftsmanship is required to build the hive. Frame dimensions must be precise. Local village carpenters are not usually skilled enough for the job, and suitable tools for large-scale production of frame parts may not be available. Even if they are, it is never certain that the craftsmen have the patience to construct the hive correctly. Hives ordered for use in Ghana by the Technology Consultancy Centre failed to achieve the desired goals due to lack of precision in construction.

c) Wood for frame construction must be seasoned for at least a year. Very few carpenters or entrepreneurs can tie up their capital in this way.

d) The need to keep a stock of frames to replace those removed during the honey harvest creates an additional cost.

e) The need to import centrifugal honey extractors, decapping-knives, trays and other sophisticated equipment cannot be ruled out. In many countries, currency to order these from abroad cannot be obtained easily by local beekeepers.

f) If frames are unguided, honeybees find it difficult to start the combs correctly on the frame. The beekeeper has to install a wired comb foundation which is not available. The only foundations that can be ordered from abroad cannot be successfully used by the tropical honeybee, because the African bee is smaller than the European bee, and the cell size on imported foundation is too large for African bees.

g) A hive with supers is heavy and difficult to carry as a head-load; therefore, a vehicle may be required to move colonies if the need arises.

h) Because the frames do not fit together as the top-bars do, it is very difficult for the beekeeper to control the numerous bees which pass through the spaces between the frames and the top of the hive. This problem is very serious with the transitional long hive, which has as many as 30 frames arranged in a single-storey rectangular box. Such a beehive needs a special large smoker, and even such a smoker may not be able to produce enough smoke to "cool" the aggressive bees. The new beekeeper, upon seeing hordes of bees escaping, may run away, leaving the hive uncovered.

In the light of these serious problems, it is advisable for the beginner to start with the simplest type of movable-comb hive, which is, of course, the top-bar hive.

Advantages of the top-bar hive

a) This hive is cheaper and easier to produce than a frame hive. Any semi-skilled carpenter can make it. Only a few simple carpentry tools are required.

b) There is little or no need to import anything. All materials required can be obtained locally.

c) The hive can be opened easily and quickly. There is little or no need to employ a hive tool. Top-bars can be constructed to overlap the sides of the hive body slightly, and this makes it possible to use the thumb to pry up the top-bar.

d) Top-bars occupied by combs can easily be detected, so that the hive is opened from the empty side. This avoids crushing the bees between the top-bars when lifting the first comb.

e) Bees in the top-bar hive can easily be controlled when harvesting or inspecting the combs. The smoker puffs smoke through the opening created by the removal of one top-bar. Few bees can attack, since the beekeeper drives them away with smoke. When the top cover is removed from the transitional long hive, all the frames' 7-mm spaces are exposed, which permits numerous attackers to fly out and attack the beekeeper.

f) The top-bar hive is lighter to carry, even when the colony is inside.

g) More beeswax can be produced. Sales of beeswax increase the beekeeper's earnings and solve a great national problem. Beeswax is a multi-purpose industrial raw material required by factories and craftsmen.

h) There is no need to employ a queen excluder, which at the moment is not available. In practice, the bees keep their brood chamber separate from the honeycombs. Clean honey can be taken away, leaving brood combs undisturbed.

i) Honey production can be high. A well-managed hive with a good strong colony can produce between 50 and 120 kg of honey annually.

j) Honeycombs adulterated with pollen can be of high value. Pollen is a nutritious food supplement; the only way the nutrition is passed on is through honey harvested from such combs.

k) Only a few extra top-bars need be held in stock to replace worn-out or damaged bars.

In general, the top-bar hive is significantly cheaper and easier to use than hives with frames. The following disadvantages, however, cannot be overlooked.

Disadvantages of the top-bar hive

a) A newly-constructed comb and all combs filled with honey must be handled with the utmost care. It is not advisable to move a top-bar hive, occupied by bees and combs, on lorries along bad roads full of potholes.

b) Honey can only be extracted by destroying honeycombs, either by using the solar wax melter to dissolve the comb cells or by crushing them and squeezing out the honey. Bees have to build up new ones in their place, and this involves time, material and resources of the honeybees.

c) Bees are often crushed between top-bars as the beekeeper rearranges the bars after removing them from the hive body. This problem can be serious when colonies are manipulated at night. When bees are crushed in this way, it is difficult to fix the last top-bar into place. Crushing bees is usually not a serious problem with frame hives.

d) A top-bar hive is relatively easy to steal, as it is light and compactly designed. It is more difficult to steal hives and supers arranged one above the other.

The hive entrance

The tropical honeybee colony seems to attach great importance to the design of the hive entrance. After colonizing a hive, the workers select among themselves suitable "masons" which use propolis to re-shape the entrance to conform with their own taste. They rebuild it, taking into consideration strategies to deal with their enemies. They close up the entrance if it is too large, leaving a space not more than 7 mm high. This prevents birds, reptiles and larger insects such as beetles and butterflies from entering. If the entrance gap is less than what the bees require (due to an increase in population and foraging activity), they will widen it by chewing the wood or removing propolis. The re-shaping of the entrance helps to protect a weak colony. It also helps to prevent water from entering from the outside platform even if the hive is tilted upward.

The landing board

The tropical honeybee seems to be satisfied without a landing platform, but one must be provided because some heavily-loaded foragers sometimes fall on their back when landing. If a lizard or a toad is close by, such a forager will be swallowed in no time.

The swarm-catcher is a small beehive, usually containing only five or six top-bars or frames. Thanks to its small size, it can be carried high up in a tree. The beekeeper then visits it frequently to find whether the box has attracted a swarm. If it has, the box is lowered or carried down and the bees, together with their combs, are transferred carefully into the beehive, which is four to six times the size of the catcher box. The top-bar or frame of a swarm-catcher should have the same dimensions as that of the beehive to facilitate easy transfer of bees and combs from one to the other. The shape of the catcher box for Kenyan top-bar hives should not be different from that of the beehive. If it is, new combs built by the new swarm cannot be easily transferred into the main hive unless the beekeeper reshapes them to conform with the shape of the hive.

The queen cage is a small container designed to hold and carry the queen and a few "attendants", usually between six and ten worker bees. This is important only when the queen is being transported from one place to another. In the absence of a neatly-designed queen cage, a match-box can be used. It is important to perforate the box with tiny holes to give the bee the needed ventilation. This is done by simply heating a metallic rod and drilling it into the light wooden cover of the matchbox.


Timber used for making beehives

The beekeeper should consult forestry authorities and wood craftsmen for advice on the best locally-available timber to use for beehive production. The wood must be termite-proof, resistant to the rotting effect of the sun and rain, warp-proof, and non-bee repellent.

The wood of three tree species, all found in the tropical evergreen rain and deciduous forests, manifest these desirable qualities: Terminalia ivorensis, Chorophora excelsa and Piptadeniastrum africanum.

The common name of Terminalia ivorensis is "émiré". It is a hard wood yet light in weight. It is used for fencing, building and as roofing beams. Termites find the wood sour-tasting, yet the flower provides the honeybee with sweet nectar. The wood is sawn into boards of various sizes: in Ghana, up to 65 centimetres wide and 6.5 metres long. Most beehives produced in that country are made of this timber, but the wax-moth larvae found in it can seriously damage both the hive body and the top-bars. Before the larvae turn into pupae, they eat away the wood to form shells which protect them during the pupal period. The beekeeper must be alert and quickly remove all combs from the hive if the bees abscond.

Chorophora excelsa ("odum"), a most popular wood in Ghana's forests, is often used by wood-workers to manufacture furniture and for general building purposes. It is hard, heavy and expensive. A well-constructed beehive of this wood has a life span of not less than 40 years. At the Technology Consultancy Centre in Ghana, it became necessary to use this wood for hive production when the wax-moth larvae problem was detected in émiré. The larvae can do no appreciable damage to odum. In fact, top-bars should only be constructed from hard wood; Chorophora excelsa is the best for the job. Care must however be taken to select only the best quality, what the timber market terms "grade one". (Grade two contains "slabs" which are good only for firewood.) Beehives made from Chorophora excelsa are usually heavy. The wood must be allowed to dry for at least a year to ensure thorough seasoning before construction.

Piptadeniastrum africanum is also a hard wood, but it is not very popular on the market. Because of the low demand for it, beekeepers would be wise to utilize this relatively inexpensive wood rather than the higher-priced Chorophora excelsa.


Equipment required by the beekeeper

The smoker is next in importance to the beehive itself. No honeybee will ever allow a beekeeper to harvest its honey without a fight. The tropical honeybee is noted for its aggressiveness, and the beekeeper is warned not to conduct any brood control or harvest without using his smoker.

The smoker has two main parts: the container, which is a metallic can, big enough to carry enough dry material to last at least 40 minutes; and the bellows section, which puffs air into the container to drive the smoke out of the can. The container is loaded with wood shavings, smouldering cow-dung or any dry material which provides white smoke. (No oil or kerosene should ever be used in a smoker.) The smoke renders bees docile, so that the beekeeper can work undisturbed.

A hive tool may be necessary to pry up and remove the frames from the beehive. The Kenyan top-bar hive may not need a hive tool, but a knife instead.

A knife may be required to pry open top-bars or frames which are usually glued to the hive body by the bees. The knife is also useful for cutting a portion of the comb attached to the hive body, separating two combs joined together, and cutting out the honeycomb from the top-bar during the honey harvest. A knife can perform almost all the functions of the hive tool, but the hive tool cannot be used to cut bee combs as neatly as is required.

The brush or quill: Bees must sometimes be brushed gently into a container or a hive. A brush with soft hairs is useful for this, but if the beekeeper can easily obtain a strong, large quill like an ostrich or turkey feather, there is no need to acquire a brush. Indeed, the quill of a big bird is better than any artificial device for this purpose.

The feeder can be a jam jar or a special container turned upside down and so arranged that water trickles slowly from it for the bees to drink.

Protective clothing: Most traditional honey-tappers prefer to strip themselves naked than to wear clothes when harvesting honey at night, but the modern beekeeper is advised to acquire suitable protective clothes to keep the bees from reaching his flesh. Thus a bee suit, gloves, veil and a pair of boots should be acquired before the honey is harvested or any work involving the opening of the hive is undertaken. When working with bees during the daylight hours, light-coloured clothing (preferably white, yellow or green) should be worn; for night work, dark colours are better.

The bee suit is sewn to cover all parts of the body except the head, hands and feet. Bee suits are worn to harvest honey and to control the brood nest during the daylight hours.

The veil is the most important. The beekeeper can easily make or purchase a straw hat (or any type of hat with a brim). Netting is sewn firmly around the hat and attached at the back by a piece of cloth. The veil protects the head, face and neck from attack.

Bee gloves must be sewn with good, flexible white leather to protect the hand and fingers from stings and help the beekeeper to scoop up bees with his hands if the need arises. Indeed, bee stings on the hand or fingers are among the most painful, and the beekeeper is urged to acquire gloves to ensure that he works with little or no difficulty.

A pair of long boots is also important to protect the feet from stings. When they are not available, a pair of light shoes and thick white socks can be worn. Dark or black socks should only be worn at night when the bees, vision is poor.

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