10 reasons to have a hive partner

Following on from my post Reflections on a year in beekeeping, I have been lucky to share my bee adventures this year. Here are 10 reasons why every beek should have a hive partner.

#1 Beekeeping is a two-man woman job. An extra pair of hands (and eyes) is handy for hive inspections. You can both lift parts of the hive when they are sticky (particularly propolised queen excluders) and work with levers and smoke to close the hive without squishing bees.

#2 You have to make a lot of frames. 11 frames per brood box and 10 frames per super (National hive). With a hive partner you can knock these up in half the time when you need to put another brood box or super on the hive. At least, that’s the theory.

#3 A super of honey weighs around 60 pounds. If like Queen Elizabeth I you have the heart and stomach of a beekeeper but the body of a weak and feeble woman, you will need a hive partner to help lift a full super of honey. This is true.

#4 There are about 50,000 bees and only one of you. A hive partner helps even the odds.

#5 Queens can be tricksy. Even experienced beeks can sometimes have trouble spotting and caging queens – she is good at running and hiding. Try holding up a frame covered by about 2,000 bees, spotting the queen, caging her and marking her as the workers try to free her – with only two hands. Good luck! Three beeks couldn’t cage and mark our flighty queen.

#6 Two beeks are better than one. Staying one step ahead of the bees and predicting what they will do next is not easy. When you find a queen cell, or perhaps five, it helps to discuss a plan of action with a hive partner preferably over tea and cake.

#7 Extracting honey is a lot of work. Clearing bees from supers is the easy bit, but it helps to have a hive partner to shake off stragglers and take home bee-free frames. Then there’s decapping frames, spinning off the honey, filtering, jarring and labelling. It’s more than an evening’s work for just six frames one hive, so it helps to share honey extraction with a hive partner.

#8 Beekeeping is an expensive hobby. Bees are high-maintenance. Assume one extra hive for every colony for a shook swarm or bailey comb change, nucs and spare hives for artificial swarms, spare frames, jars and labels, mouse guards, sugar and fondant, medicines… It’s easier to spread the cost of a year in beekeeping between two beekeepers!

#9 You will have more than one hive. Once you are started on this dodgy path there is no stopping. By the end of your second year beekeeping, it’s likely you will have at least two hives to keep.

#10 Beekeepers don’t have holidays. We don’t joke about this. You don’t know what naughtiness your bees will get up to while you are away. A hive partner can cover your holidays between March and September.

And finally..

#11 Beekeepers need tea and cake after hive inspections. I forgot to add this, but it is essential. Make sure you get a hive partner who bakes.

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Eight simple rules to build a beehive

It’s not every girl that asks for a new beehive for Christmas, but I am odder than most. ‘One national please’, I requested, ‘Complete with ventilated mesh floor, brood body with frames and dummy board, harmless plastic queen excluder, two supers, crown board and roof’. It was all going so well, ‘Yes, you can order it all from Thornes – flat packed’.

Rule#1: If you own a pink hammer never order flat packed

My new hive arrived after Christmas in an impossibly large box, which caused a proportionate amount of grumbling from my dad who insisted on carrying it himself up three flights of stairs. Why do men insist on carrying things without assistance and then grumble about it? The box sat in my living room for three weeks waiting for the next, most important, arrival – an Uncle David to help put my hive together.

Rule#2: Never underestimate the ability of men to talk DIY

Five minutes later, David had recovered from discovering that I had not opened the box to admire its flat-packed contents. Ten minutes later he had started to assemble the hive parts as easily as Lego. (Imagine that, Legoland hives for bees.) There was a Slightly Tricky Moment when we tried to work out ‘bee space’, but this was cleared up by the innate ability of men to communicate to each other in DIY. One phone call to the ever-helpful and kind Don, a beekeeper at my association, and: ‘I know bee space’ said David. Bee space is 8mm – the magic space that allows two bees to pass each other when building comb.

Rule#3: Let gravity do the work for you

While I may not have understood why we were doing everything that we were doing, I ably assisted with enthusiastic hammering. I also learned that if you hold the hammer at the end of the handle, gravity does most of the work for you. Who knew? Also, there are different types of hammers. David gave me a lighter one for making frames.

Rule#4: Have a cup of tea and admire the best beehive in all the land

A few hours later, David had left and a complete National hive stood grandly in my living room. I promptly made a cup of tea and sat down to admire it. I was sorely tempted to get out my paint box and stencil the brood and supers with flowers and honeybees, but resisted the urge. I am not sure how safe it is to paint a hive – opinion about this varies – and I didn’t want to suffocate Queen Jasmine and her bees with toxic paint fumes.

Rule#5: Post your step-by-step ‘How to build a hive’ on Facebook and amaze all your friends

Step 1: Build a floor with varroa board, entrance block and wire mesh for ventilation.

Step 2: Make the brood box. The queen lives here and lays eggs, while workers raise the larvae.

Step 3: Knock up 11 deep foundation frames for the brood box and 20 shallow foundation frames for the supers. The workers draw out the wax foundation into honeycomb for the queen to lay eggs in the brood box and to store honey in the supers.

Step 4: A handy harmless queen excluder. The slots are big enough for workers to pass between but the queen is too large to get past it.

Step 5: Place the queen excluder over the brood box to keep the queen in the nest and prevent her from laying eggs and rearing larvae in the honey stores. You don't want to eat honey with bits of baby bees, yuk!

Step 6: Make a couple of supers and fill with 10 frames each. One super of honey for the honeybees, and one super for me!

Step 7: Put the crown board on top of the supers to prevent naughty honeybees from climbing into the roof and making messy brace comb. The crown board can also be used as a clearing board in summer for honey extraction by placing it between the supers and the brood box. The slots are covered with rhombus escapes which allow workers to go down into the brood box, but don't allow them to get back up. This empties the supers of bees so that they can be taken away for honey extraction.

Step 8: Put on the weather-proofing roof and you have one National bee hive ready to put in your bees. And don't forget a handy Uncle David to help you put it all together!

Rule#6: Don’t tell your dad that you built a hive without him

One week later, my new hive and I waited for my dad to kindly drop us off at the apiary for a shook swarm. ‘How did you build that?’ he asked, amazed, and was then miffed that I had asked for help from another DIY expert. However, he was soon appeased when he saw that some of the wood in the brood and supers had moved apart. I was dismayed – how had this happened? Apparently, wood needs to breathe. ‘You should have kept the wood outside for a while to let it breathe before putting it together,’ said my dad smugly, before producing a scary-looking power drill and reinforcing the brood and supers with huge nails. No wasps are going to get into that hive and rob my bees now!

Rule#7: Keep your bees alive!

Retreating at the first sign of a bee, my dad left me at the apiary to set up the hive. I was so excited. A little bee landed on a frame as I was putting it into the brood. Not knowing if she was one of Queen Jasmine’s ladies-in-waiting or an interloper, I gently shooed her away. She flew to a nearby leaf and then sat there and closely watched me put the hive together.

Sadly, the tale of my new beehive does not have a happy ending. Without dwelling on terribly upsetting details, the shook swarm revealed that Queen Jasmine and her family had not survived the winter. A few were left, bravely hanging on, but there were many little dead bodies to be cleared away and burned with the frames.

Deep breath, and don’t embarrass oneself by crying in front of other people.

Rule#8: Get yourself a hive partner

One cup of tea later, a much needed and appreciated hug from Emily, a few sympathetic pats on my shoulder, and I returned home a little heavy of heart but determined to find out more about this horrible disease, nosema, which had destroyed my hive and at least two others at the apiary. There is a medicated fondant that you can order from the US which protects bees against nosema throughout winter when they are at their most vulnerable. Ok, nosema, this means war!

Later that evening I received a lovely email from Emily asking if I would like to share her hive and I happily accepted. So I have a new hive and a new hive partner, and beekeeping is now much more fun!

I named our queen, Rose, and our hive is really flourishing! Already the bees have been trying to make a new queen or two, and we have had to split the colony into a nuc. In a couple of weeks we may well have two hives! You just never know what adventures you will have in beekeeping.

All’s well that ends well!

Read similar stories from beekeepers: sadly colonies can die at any time of the year, although lessons are always learned: The day my first ever colony died by The Surrey Beekeeper.