I've wanted bees for years and years - and at long last I've got a hive in my garden! They came in the night last week, delivered by the lovely Martin O'Callaghan, who brought them round in the dark and helped to settle them in.
I have been very put off by the complexities of a box hive. I went to a workshop at Ceres, and while it might have been a good one, I was pretty confounded. I couldn't understand the teacher at all. I had a lovely friend who was trying to interpret for me, but when suited up in bee gear, it became pretty damned hard for her to sign. I couldn't make sense of it.
My hive is a top bar hive, not a box hive, and apparently much simpler to manage. You don't need as much training to look after a top bar hive, and the little training I will need, Martin is happy to provide. He communicates nice and visually, so hopefully I won't have the suited up interpreting problems I had in the past.
The wonderful thing about a top bar hive is that the bees live a much more natural life than they do in a box hive. The bees make their comb by building onto a little strip of wax along the inside of the "top bar". They build their comb downwards, in the shape that they like to make it. They make cells of different sizes, depending on what it will be used for. It could be used for the queen to lay an egg, which could become a worker bee, or a drone bee, or even a new queen bee, or it could be used for honey storage. The bees collect pollen from flowers within a 5km radius, turn that into honey, and store to use as food now and during winter.
The people who invented box hives, had this idea that they could force the bees to make more honey, by building the honeycomb for them. With a box hive, you put in a frame that has "foundation" wax on it - ie wax in the shape of honeycomb, with predetermined numbers of worker bee cells, honey storage cells etc. By doing this they could reduce the number of drone bees, considered redundant, since they aren't collectors of honey. They could increase the number of worker bees and honey storage cells. They eliminated the work done by bees to build the honeycomb, and hence freed up more worker bees to focus on collecting honey. With this arrangement, the bees DO create more honey. Vastly more. But the drawback is that the bees are more vulnerable to problems, and hence need quite a bit of management and looking-after.
With a top bar hive, the bees get to choose how to structure their colony, who will do what, how many bees are redundant and so on. With this kind of management, they can make sure they maintain a healthy colony with good resistance to diseases and pests.
So this summer, my job is to add a new top bar every time the hive is getting kind of full. Martin will drop by to show me how to do it. And later in summer, Martin will host a harvest at his home, and all the novices like me who have bought bees from him in the past year, will gather to watch him harvest the honey from his hive, and learn how to do it with our own. I can't wait!
Even better than the honey (apparently at the end of summer I should be able to harvest 10-20 litres), is the fact that the bees are already buzzing around, pollinating the blossom on my almond tree, and gearing up for some top-scale pollination in my vegie garden this summer. Hopefully I won't need to "diddle" by hand any more! :)