The second of Pam's articles exploring the value of top-bar hives and stressing the importance of standardisation of hive dimensions.
Human's first exploitation of bees was through honey hunting for the sweet, delicious treat of honey. The medicinal value of honey was probably also known to people. Cave paintings bear testimony to the way honey was collected and similar honey hunting methods are still used today.
People found they could improve their chances of collecting honey by attracting swarms of bees into specially made receptacles (hives). This first step towards managing bees made finding them more certain and, more importantly, clearly established personal ownership of the resource. Early hives were simple in design and constructed of local materials - grasses woven into baskets, hollow logs, bark or clay containers - and these styles of hives are still used widely today. This is a proven technology that has stood the test of time and should not be abandoned unless the alternatives are clearly understood.
Bees appear not to mind where they live as long as it is safe and dry. The type of hive used is more about the beekeeper's convenience than the bees' preference and so the beekeeper should think hard about what benefits he/she will gain from changing to another hive type before making a move. However, there are some disadvantages to local hives. The biggest is that possibilities for beneficial management of the bees are limited. Styles of movable-comb hives do offer some advantages. One of the most widely mentioned is that harvesting honey is quicker and easier.
Furthermore, the quality of the honey can be checked before removal to see if it is ready. Harvesting ripe honey is the biggest factor in ensuring honey is of high quality and is saleable for a good price or for export. Honey with water content greater than 21 % is not acceptable generally and 18% is around the optimum for best quality honey. High water content means honey will ferment and become useless for table consumption, although this is not an important consideration if the honey is to be used for making beer or mead.
The hive, unless it is far too small, is rarely the determinant of honey yield. Nectar yield is generally dependant on physical factors such as the weather or the availability of nectar yielding flowers. However, the size of the colony, and the amount of swarming or absconding are critical factors in -honey production and can, to some extent, be controlled by the management processes possible with top bar hives. In addition, the beekeeper can collect and hive passing swarms of bees rather than waiting for them to make their own choice. Splitting an established colony becomes a possibility so that there is less dependence on swarms to fill hives. More astute beekeepers control their own swarms and collect other swarms as they pass! Finally, the genetic development of the colony can be enhanced by selecting and breeding queens for more desirable traits - such as better temper, less absconding or more productive stocks.
The key to good beekeeping management is standardisation of the top-bar size. In BfDJ 66 I explained about the width of the top-bar being correctly sized to accommodate the bee space. This time we are looking at the length of the top-bar. Confusingly, because the top-bars fit from edge to edge across the hive, this relates to the width of a hive and is often quoted as 44 cm internal measurement for African top-bar hives.
To carry out management techniques the beekeeper needs to be able to move combs from one colony to another, so it is important that all hive widths are the same. It is most frustrating to try and move combs between hives when they just do not quite fit. Careful attention to the length of the top-bars (and consequently the width of the hive) is essential if they are to be useful for good management.
For the beekeeper's own convenience it does not matter what width is chosen as long as the hive is big enough and all the hives belonging to the beekeeper are the same. He/she will still gain the benefits of being able to exchange combs between hives quite freely. However, when a beekeeper comes to sell hives these will attract a lower price if they are of nonstandard sizes because they will not fit another person's hives. This is why a national standard should be chosen and adhered to.
The length of the hive is not particularly critical. What it should relate to is the width of the top-bar which in turn is a function of the bee space. Thus, if the top-bar width is 32 mm the hive length should be 32 mm multiplied by the number of combs desired. For example, if 25 combs are specified then the correct hive length should be (32 x 25) mm = 800 mm (80 cm) I have noticed, for instance, in some top-bar hive plans that the length specified is 90 cm and the number of combs is 28. This does not quite fit as (32 x 28) mm = 896 mm (89.6 cm) which leaves a 4 mm gap for ants or other undesirables to get in. It should be noted that hive measurements are best expressed as internal measurements especially when using local materials for the hive. This allows for different thicknesses of material to be accommodated without having to change the specifications.
Short hives can be very useful as swarm catcher hives.
[Bees for Development Journal #67]