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The Hex Hive

Bees build round shapes for queen cells and hex shapes for workers and drones. This observation of the natural hives was key moment in Ricks thinking about how bees thrive best. Replicating circles seemed more challenging than hexagons. Therefore, he started with a wooden hexagonal pot, made of 2′x4′ material latched together, which he placed in tree crotches. He started with 16-20 experimental structures in trees.

Immediately, he noticed how much calmer the bees temperament became.

It soon became apparent that saving the energy of the bees was a hugely important factor in the success of the colony. To support the secondary tree-like conditions, Rick deliberately constructed the hives from thicker material (1 3/4″) than conventional hives (3/4″). This had a many-fold impact; protection from heat and cold, a greater ability to wick any water away before it penetrates the wood, better able to withstand any attacks from larger animals. Most interestingly, Rick observes that the bees worked earlier in the morning until later in the evening, since they had more energy after being spared from needing to insulate the hive.

Rick also came to the conclusion that small round entrance holes made better sense for his hives. They are easier for the bees to protect themselves from intruders. He found that the bees would micro-coat the circular entrances with propolis to sterilize them and to control airflow.

Bees in nature work with gravity. Given the natural space of, say, a hollow tree they will start at the top and draw the comb down. This realization has been fully incorporated into the  design of the Hapiary hive. The hives are installed with all of the pods in place from the beginning. True to this initial observation, the bees start drawing comb from the top of the hive. This allows the Queen to always follow the cleanest, newest comb as it descends within the hive.

The experiments have produced many iterations over 18 years. Finally, it was time to test these hives in a controlled environment to see if they could enhance the chances of bees being able to thrive again.

Testing

We took three of the hives we made and three made by the Bee Keeper’s Association of Minnesota under the vigilance of one of the chief bee researchers in the country, Marla Spivak, and placed them in one of the most beautiful hilly Wisconsin fields imaginable. Our entomologist was totally responsible for finding the location. Never mind that Bob Jeanne studies Yellowjacket Wasps, a natural predator of honeybees, and that our bees would have to share flying space with these creatures. Bob is interested in comb. We’re interested in comb too. It’s all good.

How do you compare two radically different approaches to man-made bee habitat and honey harvesting? Strength of the hive, weight of the honey. Good first steps but the physical makeup of the natural environment surrounding the hive as it is influenced by the different approaches is as interesting and perhaps a better measure of the ultimate success of the hive, meaning this year we will attempt to put more distance between the two hive types. Study pollens, see how and to what extent what grows year-to-year is influenced by the different approaches.

So far we’ve discovered that the process of testing itself was possibly having more of an effect on the success of the hexagonal hives than natural factors. We had to restrict the entrances to the hive pods in order to take populations. Lack of ventilation caused these hives to swarm prematurely which had some positive effects, we think. The bees have changed characteristics, the striping is different and they seem to be larger. They are already different bees.

Observations

The gathering of nectar and pollen is essential. Not only for the production of honey, but also for the collection of propolis that, when combined, provide potential bacterial immunities for the colony members. The plant world tries very hard to provide what is needed for bees to remain healthy as bees are an important contributor to the survival of all their species.

With pollen and nectar, bees create a substance called propolis. Propolis is a sticky substance that bees use to seal up undesirable open areas in the hive. It’s been long thought that the various pollens collected serve as a deterrent to encroachments by various infestations. This might be an example of how bees engineer combinations of substances to provide as sterile an environment as possible for the queen and nursery. It’s important to keep this in mind because the interaction between the bees and the beekeeper can have an enormous impact on the health of the colony.

Bees accessing the inside of the hive also bring the possibility of contaminates or infestations being brought in. The routes the bees take to fill comb shouldn’t result in contaminating the nursery. Combs are drawn downward resulting in the newer comb always being on the bottom. The queen will always choose new comb in which to incubate her new brood which should be at the bottom of the hive in new comb away from the entrances, easier to sterilize and protect.

You want to stress out a bee hive? Take the food supply gathered all summer for heat and sustenance through winter, and remove it from the hive. The less heat that is required to maintain hive temperature, the more honey is left in spring. Hive thickness is crucial to providing insulative qualities and the practice of purging the hive of unwanted honey in the spring becomes instrumental in the regeneration of the hive.