Hives and hive making
If beekeeping is to have any value as a development tool it must be accessible to the poorest people. Bees do not really mind where they live as long as it is safe and dry. The hive is for the beekeeper’s convenience and profit. There are three basic choices of hive – local-style, (usually fixed comb), top-bar hive and frame (moveable comb) hive.
Many beekeepers would like to be able make their own hives. The simpler and cheaper a hive is to make the more people will be able to take part in beekeeping. Being able to make a hive gives a person the freedom to get started in beekeeping or to expand the beekeeping business at their own pace. It removes the need to wait for other people to provide hives, or grants/loans that have to be paid back, even if the honey crop fails.
Traditional hive making materials
In the past beekeepers everywhere have made hives out of bark, clay pots, logs, straw or woven baskets. The hives were made out of materials that could be collected freely in the locality. Today, many beautifully and skilfully made and productive local-style hive can be seen all over the world.
There are so many types of local style hive that a person wishing to construct one would be best advised to approach a local beekeeper for personal instruction about the style and construction normally used in the area.
Choosing materials for top-bar hives
Top-bar hives are usually built from wood. While this is an excellent material, there are some reservations about its use. The most important is that current beekeeping techniques are about encouraging sustainable development. It may not be sustainable to cut a large tree in order to get hive materials. At worst, this can exacerbate deforestation and encourage erosion; at best it uses wood that might be better used in other ways. It may be better for wood to be used for the other valuable activities – maybe furniture for the home or to sell to raise cash. Hives can be made of less costly material – see other articles in the Information Centre about this. Unfortunately, in some cases neatly made, all wood hives encourage theft of hives.
In any area there are many materials that can be used to make hives. A good way of finding out what materials might be suitable for top-bar hives for instance is to look at what materials are being used in local-style hives in the locality and see if it possible to adapt ideas from this. For example woven hives, and hives made out of strips of materials. These are useuable after plastering with mud and/or cow dung – often in the same way that houses are made waterproof.
An excellent compromise is to use strips of materials such as bamboo or straight sticks or matting made of rush or bamboo to make the hive sides (or panels) with the front and back ends (gables) made out of out of scrap timber.
The ‘wood’ that comes from the leaf bases of the raphia palm Raphia farinifera makes excellent strips of material for the hive sides in many parts of tropical Africa. Leaving the outer skin on will add to its durability. Where this plant is not common or durable enough there will be other choices. Other materials include split sisal poles Agave sisalana, woven floor matting, wooden off-cuts from the carpenter and various types of bamboo both split and round thin sticks have also proved very effective.
Hives made this way must be well plastered before use to protect the material and to fill up the gaps between the strips of wood or basketwork to make it waterproof. Also, it is essential to fill the gaps or hive pests such as ants and hive beetles will be able to get in.
Modern materials are often suggested to make hives. These include oil drums, polystyrene and corrugated plastic boxes, pottery and gourds, wheel rims and brick built. These are very durable where more natural materials may not be so good. However, unless there is local experience available about these care and experimentation must be taken with these choices. Natural materials allow the evaporation of water essential for cooling the hive and also the complex exchange of gasses produced by the bees’ metabolic processes because of their porous nature. Other materials can create problems with heat build up and condensation leading to absconding by the bees.
Making frame hives is much more expensive because they require the fabrication of complicated hive parts. Furthermore, this style of beekeeping needs additional complicated equipment such as extractors. This is not viable where the intention is beekeeping as an activity to reduce poverty.
Cost and durability
The materials used to build a hive will affect the cost and the length of time it will last. The ‘cost’ of the time taken to make hives must also be taken into account. The cheaper a hive is to make the shorter the time the investment takes to pay back. This has to be balanced against sufficient durability. A hive has to last at least one season for sufficient crop to be collected to make beekeeping pay.
When good hives can be built from local materials that are easily and cheaply available and the beekeeper’s investment and profit can be maximised.