A few weeks ago we took a trip to the not so far away garden of St. Erth in Blackwood. It is a beautiful old garden lovingly maintained and expanded by the champions of heirloom-seed – the Diggers Club. It gives a wonderful insight into the way that edible, decorative and native plants, flowers and trees can complement each other. I especially love the terrace of narrow vegetable beds with simple trellis for tomatoes and beans, espalier orchard and berry and herb walk. We left inspired and eager to dirty our hands with earth. I also took the opportunity to stock up on seeds for a spring and summer market garden – all old, nutrient rich wonderfully named varieties of leek, squash, zucchini, cucumber, pea, bean, nasturtium, comfrey, carrot and beetroot. Oh what harvests await us!
We are so nearly finished with our first two natural bee hives – modelled on Emile Warré’s People’s Hive– a hive quite different from the conventional Langstroth and designed specifically to support the health and happiness of bees, while also being low maintenance for the keepers. The main differences are in the deep, square hive boxes and the use of top bars instead of pre-fabricated beeswax comb set in frames – the top bars allow the bees to build their own natural comb but have sides so the bees are guided away from the sides of the box (and can be removed without much effort). As the bees build comb downwards, additional boxes are placed below – the Queen and brood is not excluded from the rest of the hive. On the top of the hive sits a quilt box with a bag filled with wood shavings or pure wool to absorb moisture and help with the regulation of temperature (something which is exceedingly important to the bees) – then on top of that is a gabled roof to allow for increased ventilation – and in cold parts of the world act as a sloped roof to keep snow off. We used David Heaf’s “Natural Beekeping For All” for step-by-step instructions on how to construct each component.
We sourced our wood from a local timberman who milled cypress logs into planks. Alex then cut and assembled the boxes, quilt boxes and roofs using Tim Malfroy’s conversions for the Warré hive. We ordered top bars and two beetle repelling bottom boards. The outsides of the hives have been brushed with raw linseed oil – the inside we’d like to rub with a little pure beeswax. For the quilt box I sewed two square hessian bags which we filled with our cypress wood shavings. Now we just need to finish assembling the frames and find ourselves some honey bees! We recently joined a local club “the Woodend bee friendly society” and look forward to getting to know other enthusiasts, and assisting with some swarm catching as soon as they become available!
We also went to our first beekeeping field day put on by the Victorian Apiarist Association in Bendigo. We watched the opening of some hives and perused stalls of equipment and bee-related paraphernalia. We bought a stainless steel smoker, hive tool and emlock straps – plus a couple of sheets of pure beeswax foundation and honey from a local apiarist. It was sweltering hot and I felt a bit disappointed by it all – no stalls or talks relating to natural beekeeping or even native bees – instead that overwhelming focus on increasing production, honey yield, conventional methods of breeding/keeping/extracting, fear of colony collapse… Important to know of course, but not what interests me most about bees (or why we want to keep them).
When I was buying the beeswax I asked if I could only have 6 sheets – the man gave me a perplexed look and asked me what I was going to use them for (he is used to selling boxes of 150 sheets you see). I said they were for our two hives – a different design called “warré” that uses top-bars and lets the bees build their own comb and hence why we only needed a little bit of wax to get each box started. “No no, oh dear”, he said, “that just won’t do! You’ll end up with unhealthy hives! We make the foundation so that the bees don’t have to trouble themselves with comb!”
I smiled, thanked him, and walked on… and thought to myself – I want our bees to trouble themselves with comb – I absolutely do.
Read more about about Warré hives here.