We’ve recently become serious about honey bees. Last year we started a little Mason Bee colony – unlike honey bees, Mason Bees are solitary and do not live in swarms. They gather pollen but they don’t make honey. They are excellent pollinators for the garden and require almost no attention at all. Our little colony thrived and we had a lot of fun observing the bees.
Our interest piqued, we started learning more about honey bees. The social organization of bees is fascinating, but the complexity of beekeeping is also a bit daunting. Two things finally made us take the leap to becoming urban beekeepers: we read Novella Carpenter’s book Farm City, in which she talks very casually about keeping bees on her back porch; and we discovered top bar hives.
Top bar hives are an alternative to the standard Langstroth hives. They do without frames and foundation, in an effort to mimic the natural environment of feral bees – i.e. a hollow tree in which bees build brood and honey comb unconstrained. The idea is that this will reduce stress and result in healthier, more disease-resistant bees. No frames, no foundation, no chemical treatments, minimal disturbance of the bees – that also means a much easier and cheaper beekeeping experience. Suddenly beekeeping seemed manageable.
Long story short, we joined the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association in January, we’re attending their beekeeping class this weekend, and in April we will receive our first package of bees – 10,000 of them. Oh, and we even have a hive for them. While it’s quite easy to build your own top bar hive, we found a very nice hive available from a beekeeper in Portland. It comes with all the bells and whistles (like an observation window) and is solidly built from local cedar wood.
No doubt, we’ll make many mistakes and learn a lot along the way. But the thing we’ve already learnt and will try to keep in mind: the bees know best. The more we can let them do their own thing without our meddling, the better it will “bee”.