A Top Bar Beehive
To prepare for backyard bees we did a fair amount of research and wound up at a day-long seminar held by the Beekeepers’ Guild of San Mateo County. It was ... intimidating. We heard lots of inconsistent advice, much of which came from, ahem, strongly-opinioned people with long white beards.
We needed a smoker. We needed a bee suit. We needed to be very concerned about parasites, disease, and vermin. We needed to build a big stack of white boxes that contains half a million bees and produces eighty to a hundred pounds of honey at a whack, twice a year. We needed to go in with a bunch of other hobbyists on the garbage-can-sized thing that spins the honey around to extract it. Most of all, we needed to get ourselves intentionally stung every time we went near the bees, for vaguely-stated reasons about allergies.
It sounded like it was going to be a) expensive, b) time-intensive, and c) terrifying. I was ready to bail out after the first break ... but then we heard from Oakland's Ruby Blume, who quietly demolished everything that had been said.
We needed: a box. With twenty or thirty properly-shaped sticks (the “top bars” in the title) fitted closely over the top. We didn't have to worry about colony collapse disorder or mites, and probably wouldn't need a smoker if we were patient and moved slowly. We'd harvest honey, but in smaller, more frequent batches, and we'd process it using nothing but kitchen tools and gravity.
The hive works like this: bees in the wild naturally clump together, hang down, and form beautiful catenary arches, just like the ones Gaudi admired so much while building Sagrada Familia. If the top of the hive consists of a bunch of properly-sized parallel guidelines (those top bars, again) the bees will hang in arches and build parallel combs, one per bar. Each bar can be neatly lifted out of the box, examined, and either harvested or put back.
When I open the hive I wear one of those nine-dollar Home Depot paint suits, with nitrile gloves and a cheap bee veil over my head. (They come flying out and go right for your eyes when you piss them off, so the veil is pretty much mandatory.)
I've never smoked the bees. I've been stung twice, once while dumping the bees into the box when we first brought them home and once after squishing a bunch of them accidentally by sliding a bar back in too quickly. They hate getting squished; I can't blame them a bit.
A good-sized comb is massive. It contains eight or nine pounds of honey and is genuinely uncomfortable to manipulate one-handed while you're brushing excess bees off with the other. The hive is directly under a huge old lemon tree and close by our blackberry hedge; the resulting honey tastes sweet, tangy, or savory, depending on what you pour it on. We had an amazing amount of produce this year. Every single flower was vigorously pollinated. I didn't get half the blackberries off the hedge before they started to dry up. Yes, there's a tiny batch of blackberry mead in the basement right now; we'll taste it on New Year's Eve.
They're pretty quiet right now; it's what passes for winter in East Palo Alto, and they've sealed themselves in and only fly on warm days. I check in on them every week or so—I put in a plexiglass window on one side of the box, which makes it really easy—and so far they look like they're doing fine.
We'll know in the spring whether we're really beekeepers or not. So far we are only bee-havers, since they haven't made through a full year yet.
Update: well, crap. The bees died in the cold snap. Apparently this happens to about one out of five hives; doing after-the-fact research about how I built our hive and set them up for the winter suggests that I did a bunch of stuff wrong. We’ll get it right next year; in the meantime, I have two gallons of recovered honey (about 25 pounds!) on my kitchen counter.