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Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Dog Eared Beehive

Western Italian Bees - Apis mellifera ligustica - Honeybees
Western Italian Bees - Apis mellifera ligustica - Honeybees
Why Build A Beehive

This story begins with our being adopted by a colony of Western Italian honeybees.  It was really odd.  We were talking the week before about possibly starting a beehive and the following week we had a swarm building a nest in the hollow bricks of our retaining wall.  We are concerned it will become too hot and they may fly away, so we decided to build a low cost beehive.  First, we wanted to be sure we could keep a hive in the city, so we researched the local Apiary laws.

Lucky for us, we have ample room and based on our lot size we don't require permission to keep a few hives on our lot.  Green light means go!

A Few Dog Eared Planks

To get started at minimal cost and ease for "newbee" keepers, we decided on building a top frame hive, hybridized from a few plans we found online.  Because we want it to be durable and inexpensive to build, we selected cedar dog-eared planks.

While cedar isn't the only choice for making a beehive, it is quite acceptable:
Cedar: Cedar is a beautiful wood, and it smells divine. The natural oils make it less prone to warping, less susceptible to bug infiltration, and less likely to rot than other woods. Though you can paint it, you certainly don’t have to because of its naturally durable qualities. Left untreated it will weather to a lovely, light gray patina. Frankly, were it not for the fact that it’s more expensive than pine, many would use it for every beehive. Many varieties of cedar exist, and depending on where you live, cedar lumber can sometimes be tricky to find. Western red cedar is the most widely available type across the United States.
The planks are about 6', so we trimmed them down to 4' and 2' pieces for making the top frame sides, roof and ends.

Making The Planks 'Right'

We need the sides to be flat and smooth for biscuit joining, so the planks were run across the table saw with the blade at 90 degrees. They look so much better with just the sides smoothed down.

Following the smoothing and flattening, we marked two planks side by side and then used a plate joiner to make cuts for the biscuits.  The biscuit cuts are a bit difficult to see on this sample image, but the transformation of the good 'ol dog ear planks is very cool!  Hard to believe these pieces started out looking like some sad old fence planks...

Cooking With Biscuits

Following making cuts, we used a polyurethane based construction adhesive that is weather-proof and water-proof to hopefully match the durability of the cedar planks.  We selected this method in order to minimize the amount of metal used in creating the hive and to make as seamless a join between the planks as possible.

Clamping It Down

Once the biscuit joins are put together we need to solidify the deal by clamping down the planks.  We exerted force on the top and bottom of the side walls.  We also exerted force across the interior/exterior ends to force the planks flat during the curing process.

We did the same for the end walls.  By forcing the planks to cure flat,
straight and with a seamless join, we are basically creating our 11" sides of the top frame hive.

Checking The Work

We waited 24 hours, removed the clamps and checked the boards to view our work.  It worked!  Very well!  The small Western red cedar dog ears joined together straight and pretty level.

The long side and roof planks turned out just as well, and we're excited to move forward further along with the project!  We just need to sand off the leftover paper towels and trim off the exuded glue.

Putting Pieces Together

The un-assembled pieces came out looking very nice.  The biscuit cuts are set up, the bottom is laid out, the walls are fitted well.  The next part is to do a test fitting and make sure everything will be snug enough to keep the bees safe and everything else out.  So far, so good!

I'm not sure how many times its been mentioned in this blog, but it is hot in Phoenix.  Our winters are pretty mild and our summers are always in the triple digits.  This can make for a hot beehive, so we opted for an open/screened bottom that can be covered during the winter months.  We also opted for a landing board and opening that the bees seem to like with the brick construction they've already moved into (pictured below).  This is somewhat visible at the bottom of the photo on the left.

Considering Smooth Or Rough Interiors

Western Italian Bees - Apis mellifera ligustica - Honeybees - Smoothing block with propolis
Western Italian Bees - Apis mellifera ligustica - Honeybees
smoothing block with propolis
We next considered just leaving the insides of the beehive rough, the texture of the wood.  It seems like it would be a no-brainer, because bees that build nests inside rotten trees often deal with a rough interior.  As it turns out, leaving the interior rough, makes additional work for the bees.  It also clicked on why the bees are swarming around the exterior of the slump blocks they moved into and leaving some kind of residual wax.  They are making it smooth.  Bees actually prefer a smooth interior and will spend an inordinate amount of time to make the living conditions perfect.
The bees often smooth the bark surrounding the hive entrance, and the cavity walls are coated with a thin layer of hardened plant resin (propolis). Honeycombs are attached to the walls along the cavity tops and sides, but small passageways are left along the comb edges.[4] The basic nest architecture for all honeybees is similar: honey is stored in the upper part of the comb; beneath it are rows of pollen-storage cells, worker-brood cells, and drone-brood cells, in that order. The peanut-shaped queen cells are normally built at the lower edge of the comb.
Many people are now recommending that we score or scratch the smooth service of the insides of our hives, forcing the bees to add propolis as they would in a natural hive in a tree. Bees also add wax to comb to give it strength. It is believed by some that house bees use propolis to polish brood cells between brood cycles. 
We really want to encourage a strong hive.  Frankly, we don't know what we're doing, much like many people that build hives and blog about it, so we're just trying to somewhat emulate what the bees already picked out just in wood.  In any case, we decided to leave the wood somewhat rough, but paint the interior with beeswax, then paint a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil on the exterior.  Luckily, I have some yellow wax pellets purchased for making DIY lotions, soaps and shampoos that we can melt down.  Beeswax smells so good! ... It's really no wonder why bees are attracted to it.

Topping It Off

The top of the hive has to sit on the honeycomb bars snugly enough to keep other insects out but loose enough to be fairly easy to remove.  We made the roof line with evenly spaced support bars for the roof planks to rest on, and a top bar with beveled edges to accomodate the 90 degree edge cuts of the roof planks.

Once fitted we braced it all together. Then added the roofing panels and created a top strip to join the roof at the peak.  The underside looks great and is very sturdy.  The design is lightweight and well sealed. The cavity between the
roof and the top bars should be great for insulation.  To ensure water tightness, we added a custom cut top bar to sit on top of the roof peak.

We are getting so close to the end of the project, and we are so ready to finish this project!  It has taken more time than expected... But, more to go...

What Type Of Top Bars?

This was an interesting decision.  Some people fully endorse flat slats with grooves, and others endorsed
peaked slats.  Following an exhaustive research, we decided on the peaked slats.  They provide more area for the bees to fasten the wax, which in turn makes a more secure attachment that can carry more weight.

We ended up cutting the slats at 1" and then added spacers of 1/4" along side each.  This was quite tedious.  A wider board was created to have the ability to shorten or lengthen the interior of the hive, if needed.

Disturbing Beehavior

I read somewhere that constantly disturbing the hive and poking around tends to make the bees more defensive.  Defensive bees are more ready to behave aggressively and defend the hive of minor disturbances.  To prevent this, we ended up cutting an observation window into the south side of the hive so we can make spot checks on hive progress without getting into and disturbing the hive.

Honey bees and wasps are not the only creatures preparing for winter. Colonies in the fall may be attacked by raccoons, opossums, or skunks. Regular visits by any creature—including a beekeeper—may make honey bees more aggressive. ~

Getting A Leg Up

After all this work, we put some legs on.  The hive is about hip high after adding some very stable legs.  The legs are doubled up, half-width dog-ear planks with tops and bottoms cut at 20 degrees, to match the sides of the hive.

Putting It All Together

So, we finally got the hive put together.  This project took an unbelievably long time.  Much longer than we had planned on it taking, but we don't expect any swarming activity until next spring anyway.  The bees have been very calm and staying inside their block retaining wall hive and working in our garden quite productively.

Finishing It Off 

The hive is constructed from cedar wood, so we really don't have to do anything to protect it, but we do want to make it water-tight.  For that part, we melted some linseed oil and beeswax together, and painted it down.  The linseed oil and beeswax really brought out the grain of the wood.

Now all we have to do is add lemongrass scent to make it more attractive and wait... Good thing we grow lemongrass and have easy access to the wonderfully aromatic roots to rub down the interior.

Welcome home, bees!  Our board is open!

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