OUR PARTNERSHIP WITH OUR BEES
Updated: May 16
(Our way of one size box beekeeping ).
We didn’t want to put beekeeping in the title as that just sounds too ‘whip and chair’. The one thing we have discovered is that things are a lot easier, and less painful, if you work with your bees. We don’t think of ourselves as owners of slave bees, but as considerate, well-meaning landlords offering them a home because their natural choice has sadly diminished in modern times. However, anything else is a bit of a mouthful of words so we’ll use ‘beekeeping’ everywhere and ask you to excuse us for not being ‘Beelitically Correct’. Actually, ‘beekeeping’ is fine, as we strive to keep them dry, healthy and as happy as a bee can be. Let’s stick with beekeeping.
We love to share knowledge with others as we are always learning something new from them. This mutual exchange is how things improve. We fully expect to make alterations as we experience new and better ways. This is an outline of what we do at the moment, as much more detail can be found in the excellent book referenced at the bottom.
· Our aim is to let the bees do what they want to do as far as we possibly can
. We don’t use Queen excluders
· We don’t feed our bees sugar syrup
· We don’t treat our bees with chemicals (not much of a treat anyway)
· We always leave the bees plenty of their own honey to live on.
· We let the bees produce as many drones as they wish.
· We don’t import Queens & bees, preferring to produce them from own colonies so that they are better suited to the environment we live in. North Devon UK in our case.
So, welcome to the fun and exciting world of one size box beekeeping.
TIM ROWE & THE ROSE HIVE METHOD (RHM)
We learnt the basics of beekeeping from the excellent education team of the North Devon BeeKeepers Association (NDBKA), using British national hives. Everyone should learn the basics and become familiar with the most popular hive in the UK. It gives you a common baseline from which to develop your own path, as well as making it easier to relate to fellow 'beeks'. The standard practice has worked for over a century and a half and we still apply much of it in our beekeeping.
However, we were introduced to Tim Rowe’s ‘Rose Hive Method’ and read his charming book in one sitting. Instantly we felt that this was the way we would like to keep bees; and so we did. We have pretty much been following the RHM ever since. Tim draws on 35 years of experience to 'challenge conventional beekeeping' and sets out a method of keeping bees using boxes and frames of the same size. His ideas are intended to improve conditions and reduce stress for the bees. So far they have worked pretty well for us.
THE ROSE HIVE
At this point we must point out that the RHM could be applied to other hive formats so read on and don’t dismiss the method because you don't want a Rose Hive. The Rose Hive actually uses National floors, roofs, and crown boards etc, so it is only the box and the frames that differ. We know of one beekeeper who works with his bees following the RHM using national ‘supers’. (For non-beekeepers, the most common hive used in the UK is the modified National. It uses a mix of deeper brood boxes with shallower ‘super’ honey boxes above them separated by a Queen excluder so that the two areas are distinct). Anyway, this is what a Rose Hive looks like:
There is only one size of box in a Rose Hive, as you can see, and it is rather cunningly called a ‘Rose box’ or a one size box (OSB). It is somewhere between a national brood box and a ‘super’ for those of you that are familiar with beekeeping. (2 rose boxes are roughly the same as 'brood and a half'). Here is what the box looks like:-
Tim’s book includes plans if you wish to make them yourself, as he intended the boxes to be practical, accessible and affordable. They can also be purchased complete from Thornes. We’ve purchased all of ours, but ‘sharpen’ them up a bit by countersinking the screws and filling over them before painting them with a breathable, water-based garden paint.
MORE ON THE ROSE HIVE METHOD
So, let’s explore the exciting world of the RHM / using same sized boxes. We feel that we have only just scratched the possibilities of letting the bees do what they want to do, which is the intention of the RHM. As we try out different things we’ll happily share the outcome with you, good or bad, in due course.
There are 12 frames (from Thornes) per box. We usually include 3 frames with ‘starter strips’ with the remainder being full foundation. The reason for this is to allow the bees the freedom to build what they want in those empty frames rather than force them to produce worker brood following the foundation pattern. The bees commonly fill the frames with beautiful drone comb and that is OK. We want them to produce as many drones as they would like. Our experience is that if there are plenty of drones the colony seems calmer and there is a better chance of virgin queens being well mated when the time comes. By restricting the number of drones or culling them as varroa control how can we expect our Queens to mate well and perform at their best?
SO, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T USE A QUEEN EXCLUDER?
What the colony decides is best is the answer. We don’t use a Queen excluder to restrict the size and shape of the brood nest, so the Queen can theoretically lay anywhere. But she doesn’t tend to. When you start from scratch, the first box will probably be filled rapidly and another will be needed on top. Pretty soon that box will have 5-8 frames of brood mirroring that of the box below in a squashed football shape. Now if the brood nest is still expanding (say until mid-June) the next box is added in the middle. This is a bit scary at first, but the bees soon fill it. We add a few frames of drawn comb so that the two halves have a link whilst any foundation is drawn out. When it is drawn, the nest is now a large rugby ball shape. Quite often the nest spreads over 4 boxes before it peaks and it is truly beautiful to see. It’s what the bees want to do as they have not been restricted. Inserting boxes into the nest allows the bees to join up the nest quickly, rather than having to relocate the arc of pollen and stores before expanding the nest upwards if the box were added on top. Although there is no excluder the nest is distinct and eggs are not found randomly all over the hive as may be feared. After mid summer’s day, or when the nest reaches its peak size in your area, any further boxes can be stacked on top to be filled with honey by the large workforce that will hatch out in the next few weeks. As the brood nest contracts the empty comb cells are back filled with honey.
HARVESTING THE EXCESS HONEY
We often take any honey left over from winter as long as the nectar flow is good and the bees can sustain themselves. In the Autumn we will harvest any complete boxes down to the top of the brood nest and leave the bees to fill the remaining boxes with winter food stores of pollen and honey. In these parts the Himalayan balsam is popular with the bees later in the season.
The bees are left with plenty of honey for the winter. Anything they don’t need can be harvested in the spring as mentioned above. Most of our colonies need 3 boxes, but some will fit into 2. We don’t feed the bees sugar syrup as this simply isn’t as good for the bees as their own honey, let alone the concern that it could end up in the honey we sell. This is an important aspect of our partnership. If the bees are kind enough to let us have the honey and wax they don’t need, then the least I can do is leave them with enough of their own food to survive and stay healthy. It would be wrong to steal it all and then feed them something inferior.
We decided to go treatment free right from the start. We use the wax in most of our products and want to keep it as ‘pure’ as possible. We will expand on this in the future, but perceive a gradual move to let the principles discovered by Mr Darwin work upon the bees as they have for billions of years. Many fellow beekeepers have taken the same stance and have not seen a dramatic increase in colony losses. We've only lost one colony thus far (they absconded, rather than died) and that was soon replaced from a colony that is thriving in our environment. Varroa are present in a lot of our hives, but the colonies seem strong and healthy nonetheless. Tom Seeley in ‘the Life of Bees’ suggests that bees should be able to develop some mechanism to cope within 5 years, so we are approaching that milestone with fingers crossed. It can’t be ideal to subject the bees to chemicals just as they are setting themselves up for the winter, or opening their home in the middle of winter to drizzle acid over them. This is a point of difference to Tim Rowe’s book as he does believe in treating, or at least did back when it was written.
LEAVE THEM ALONE
Once over the initial, and understandable, even essential enthusiasm to open the hive and see what the bees are doing our level of intrusion has dropped. We are trying to improve our skills at identifying what is going on by observing behaviour at the entrance. We will credit the advice when we remember who advises to watch the entrance, make deductions and see if they were correct after the inspection. Now, the most intrusive visit is spring cleaning and carrying out some form of swarm control if needed. Otherwise we use the suitcase method to quickly check along the bottom of the frames for swarm cells and usually stop once we see eggs rather than try and find the Queen every time. After the risk of swarming has passed we usually leave the brood nest undisturbed until a final health check before they prepare themselves for winter. By then the nest has shrunk so that the inspection is much quicker and less stressful than if it were over 4 boxes.
This is where the Rose, or at least the OSB, comes into its own. In the spring the boxes can be swapped such that the oldest comb is on the top. Any new boxes are inserted into the nest as it expands leaving the oldest comb at the top. As the nest shrinks this box is vacated by the brood and can be removed without the violence of a shook swarm or the need to perform a Bailey comb change.
After harvesting, all the sound and clean frames of drawn comb are safely stored until needed. Being the same size throughout, this can be used in the brood area or anywhere in the hive, either by the boxful or individual frames.
SPLITS AND SWARM CONTROL
Splits are particularly easy with the Rose/OSB. To create another colony derived from our favourite Queen (Mavis - lovely and gentle, productive, over winters successfully, shrugs off varroa and doesn’t poo all over the washing), then all we have to do is remove a box that can produce a new Queen and set it up with a new floor roof etc. It needs eggs and larva, plenty of brood and sufficient stores without leaving the parent colony unviable. Theoretically, up to 4 colonies could be created from a strong colony, if there was a need, with the right timing. We’ve also used this as a means of swarm prevention if we sense a colony is plotting behind our backs. Reducing the brood mass and providing extra space has worked well in the past. If we haven’t noticed the signs in time and control is required then the usual methods, such as Pagden etc, are open to you. It is worth becoming familiar with a method of swarm control without finding the Queen as tracking her majesty down can be a challenge with the nest spread over multiple boxes. Fortunately, we’ve found the incidence of swarming much less without the Queen excluder. Famous last words!
· Not as widespread as the National so sources of boxes and advice is much more limited
· Quality of the boxes is not as fine as red cedar and do require some maintenance, but that is not onerous and others are using boxes approaching 10 years old
· The boxes can get a bit heavy. They are heavier than cedar to start with and hold more honey. A full Rose box can weigh 25kg. (Interestingly, Michael Bush in America reduces his boxes in plan so that they take less frames but keep the larger expanse of comb that the bees prefer).
· Finding the Queen can sometimes be a challenge, but there are ways around it.
· We absolutely love the flexibility offered by using the same size boxes and frames. The ease of creating splits, working out old comb and having a stock of the same sized drawn comb at the end of the season is to be recommended.
· Some of our duties in helping keep the hive in order are much easier and less stressful to the bees
· We find the bees are less prone to swarming given the lack of restriction and the ease of increasing space.
· The boxes are cheap and easy to make
· All other hive parts are British national format and commonly available.
We have found the RHM suits us very well. It goes a long way towards satisfying our desire to let the bees do what they want to do. The bees seem to respond well to this and other techniques, such as never feeding sugar syrup or using chemicals. There are sure to be other improvements we can make, so this should be considered as work in progress. Eventually we hope that our bees develop to become better able to cope with any threats and to flourish in the environment in which they live.
The Rose Hive Method by Tim Rowe available from Amazon or via the following link.
The Lives Of Bees by Tom Seeley is an excellent book. We will post a review separately but:
Michael Bush uses one size boxes (not Rose) and we are learning a lot from his website at the moment. He too has a book available.
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QUESTION EVERYTHING before deciding your own way.