The Poly Hive

This is a little experiment. Penny Robertson, Secretary of my local Leiston and District Beekeeping Association in Suffolk, told me in 2014 that she was not aware of any of the LDBKA’s  >100 members using, or ever having used, a poly hive. So I installed this one last summer and this is what I saw last weekend – with the thermometer showing a chilly 4C !

With the bees flying at these low temperatures (note that 10C is generally viewed as the lowest safe temperature for bees to fly) it is possible to offer both positive and negative interpretations about Castle hive’s unusual excursions. Here’s how:

An Optimist might rejoice that the bees are so well insulated in their poly-hive that they are able to fly in unusually low temperatures. A Pessimist might respond that this could equally be a function of their breeding line, rather than their lodgings, a classic case of nature, rather than nurture. Furthermore, he might add, there is no obvious advantage to be flying in dangerously low temperatures, so perhaps something about their the poly hive is forcing them to fly. Perhaps they need water to dilute their honey stores, or the fondant and pollen feed which I can see them eating on top of the frames. Ah-ha, replies the Optimist – that suggests that they are benefitting from an early build-up of brood, which will position them well for the Spring – unlike the draughty Snape and Iken cedar hives. Then again, perhaps the bees in the traditional wooden hives are regulating their hives so that some natural condensation is retained inside for diluting their stores to make them edible for brood-raising, so they do not have to fly, counters the Pessimist. Hmmm.

So will I be enthusiastically recommending the use of polystyrene hives to the good beekeepers of the Suffolk coast in 2015 ? Too early to tell.

But while the jury’s out, here are some other considerations about using the poly hive. The Pessimist would note that, as configured, it has bottom bee-space, so the semi-rigid transparent plastic sheet supplied as the roof to seal the hive, makes it fussy to close up the hive, jiggling the sheet around to avoid squashing bees between the plastic roof and the frames. Also, the walls of the hive are too wide to attach a frame holder, which are very useful to keep a couple of frames pressed up close to the outer wall of the hive at inspection time, rather than putting them on the ground, leaning against the hive. The Optimist would strike a more positive note, pointing out that the hive floor has a nice sloped landing board, that the polystyrene body makes the hive lightweight to handle, and that all the poly infrastructure can be intermixed with wooden brood and super boxes, if required. And finally, it is easy to strap down to a paving slab to keep it from blowing away in the wild coastal winds.

So it will be a while before I can assess the outcome the first year of my Suffolk poly hive. And when I’ve made my mind up, I’ll take the Optimist and the Pessimist down to the Jolly Sailor to buy them both a pint of Adnams bitter.

The WBC Hive

WBC Hives at Monk House
Shabbee-chic! WBC Hives at Monk’s House.

It’s surprising that the archetype of British beehives is not more widely discussed. The WBC hive has been with us for 125 years and it is to the WBC hive that the mind’s eye travels when bee-hives are invoked. The WBC acronym is derived from the initials of William Broughton Carr, its Victorian creator, and the single distinguishing feature of the WBC’s function is that it is a double-walled hive. Not much of a discussion, I grant you, but it’s a start!

Examples of this “cottage garden” style of bee-hive can be found at Daylesford, the iconic organic farm in Gloucestershire, on top of London’s Fortum & Mason’s Piccadilly HQ, at Monk’s House, home of Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard (pictured here, courtesy of Jane Finlay) and on the roof of Bermondsey’s art-deco Alaska Building, where Nikki Vane maintains the hives which make her award-winning honey. All distinctly class acts.

I don’t used WBCs on my Bermondsey Street rooftop, despite my wife’s preference for their beauteous form, since the “lifts” which form the pagoda’d outer shell of the hive would be unmanageable in the narrow roof gullies in which I work my hives. And anyhow, the actual boxes which house the engine-room, invisible inside the exterior shell of splayed pyramids, are standard, workman-like National varieties, which are exactly what I use for the Bermondsey Street Bees.

It has to be said that, with regard to the WBC, as is ever the case amongst beekeepers, opinion is divided.

In the past, criticism has been levelled at the WBC’s extra bulk (and expense), which leads to longer inspection times; at its relatively small brood surface area for honeybee colonies to develop; at the difficulty in moving these hives-within-a-hive; at its insulating qualities which, while admirable in the Winter months, are apt to slow a Spring morning’s warmth from rousing the hive’s inhabitants; at its complicated landing-board, “porch” and entrance arrangements; at the requirement for some extra kit – a conical bee-escape so that any bees trapped between the inner corpus of the hive and its outer skin can find their way out of that “no-bees’-land” – and which could possibly admit wasps or other pests into the space between the “lifts” and the hive. And, as has been amply demonstrated, there’s the bother of having to learning a whole new bee-hive language of “lifts”, “porches” and “conical bee escapes”.

Nowadays, though, WBCs have the advantage of a standardization of internal hive parts with the National hive format. It has also adopted the open mesh floor which is now essential kit for Integrated Pest Management (IPM, since we are currently traversing acronym-ville) and is offered by manufacturers with the option of larger, 14” x 12” brood boxes (which require an extra “lift”, it is true) to provide a sufficient brood nest to power a productive hive. And who wouldn’t welcome the idea of their bees living inside a “double-glazed” hive, after this mid-January cold snap ?

So let’s hear it for the WBC hive, the stately home of the beekeeping world. Painted white, it exudes classic calm and harmony and sets off the vigorous greens of an English spring to perfection. An elegant façade, certainly, but reassuringly revving with industry on the inside !

Eye Of The Storm

Eye of the Storm
Eye of the Storm

Each winter, there’s a patch of weather which furrows the beekeeper’s brow. The BBC’s weather forecast suggest that the high winds, sharp showers and zero degree temperatures forecast for the next 10 days look like being 2015’s pinch-point.

My beekeeping concerns are two-fold:

  • My London hives are sitting on a fourth-storey roof parapet, fully exposed to the elements. They are heavy with stores, insulated with 100mm Celotex in their roofs, their brood boxes are wrapped in bubble-wrap, to keep the wet out and to offer a degree of insulation, they are lashed to metal D-rings with industrial-strength straps and they also have their varroa-boards in, to prevent gusts of wind ripping up through the open mesh floor to chill the brood box. For my urban hives, temperature loss in the winter cluster of bees through wind action is my main concern.


  • On the Suffolk Coast, the hives have the same insulation and bubble-wrap epidermis. They sit on hive stands just 9 inches above the ground, strapped over heavy paving slabs in a sheltered spot in my garden. My main concern here is that the wind off the North Sea could be so savage that it will catch the hive walls like sails. My consternation for the rural hives is that they will “capsize”, or be blown over.

Now, let me take a step back into the world of probabilities. I haven’t suffered any hive upsets in any winter weather event in any previous year. But in this period of extended separation from the bees, the natural inclination of the beekeeper is to fret.

You can be sure that trepidation will be my constant companion until the end of this month.


A Mid-Winter’s Day Dream

On top of a wintry Cotswold hill, I took a moment to imagine a bee-loud summer evening, with the warm sun settling into the horizon as the smell of honey exhales from the hive…

Red Admiral

Red Admiral
Red Admiral

I was amazed to see this Red Admiral on a wind-swept Tower Bridge Road at noon on 10th January 2015.

A reminder for beekeepers that Nature doesn’t read the same books that we do. (And check out the spooky mid-winter shadow, too !)

Frame Of Mind

"Here Are Some I Made Earlier"
“Here Are Thirty I Made Earlier”

The first thing you need to know about beekeeping is that it is not glamorous. Let’s face it there’s no “Strictly Come Beekeeping”, no “Ready, Steady, Beekeep” nor even “The Z-Factor” on TV. And there’s a reason for that.

The building blocks of beekeeping are pretty humdrum. And the manufacture of them is quite mundane. In fact, if you are have a low threshold for boredom, look away now – or risk being transformed into a stick of sea-side rock with the word “Tedium” imprinted throughout. I’m going to talk about frame-making.

When I showed up for my first group mentoring in the gentle craft of beekeeping, dear reader, I was sat down at a bench in a community garden off the Walworth Road and shown how to make frames for National beehives, assembling softwood parts and sheets of wax foundation by banging in short black frame nails with a wobbly hammer. Things started to look up after 25 minutes when a mug of tea, proprietorially chipped at the rim, was placed by my elbow, but the thrill soon subsided. More exciting yet, another person showed up about 15 minutes later to join the mentoring programme – so, finally, we could get started on the wonderful world of beekeeping! Lesson one ? Frame-making, as it turned out.

Well, to be fair, that was an honest introduction to an aspect of beekeeping. Frame-making is dull, repetitious and yet requires a degree of concentration to ensure that the pins bite into the wood to secure the joints… anyone who has had a frame of bees fall apart in their hands and has ended up with their Wellington boots full of bees will tell you.

But I like to clear my thoughts, arrange my tools on the table and concentrate on achieving a literal “frame of mind” before I settle down to business. And so these rhythmic actions, a mantra for my hands, lull a declension of my hard-wired consciousness: I enter a shared space, meditating on the soft slabs of bees which will shimmer on each frame I construct and rovingly meditate on the measure of my little finger-nail, 7/16”, the natural pi of beespace, which distances each wax comb to allow two bees to pass, back to back, on each side. I am emulsion, the bees washing through me like a pebbledash constellation.

And then it is all over. There’s a waffle-stack of thirty wax and wood oblongs – my life measured out in beehive frames, with a little help from my day-dreamt, transcendental bees. Not glamorous, as I warned you, but at least you don’t need a yoga mat. Job done !