Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Dr. Sharashkin: Part 2

Dr. Leo Sharashkin gave a two-day series of lectures on natural beekeeping and managing Layens hives for my local bee club a couple of weekends ago. Part 1 of my notes is in an earlier post. It covers some general notes on keeping bees naturally and on selling honey for a premium price. Today's post covers some of the tips Leo gave for managing Layens hives.

Before I go into my notes, though, I thought it would be helpful to provide some background info on Layens hives for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Layens hive
The Layens hive was developed in France during the 19th century by George Layens. It's a horizontal hive that uses deep frames. As you can see in the photo below, the frames are narrower than a Langstroth frame, but they are much taller than a deep frame. In terms of volume, a Layens frame is 30% larger than a Lang deep.

Layens frame dimensions.

Layens frames are narrower than Lang frames so that there is less unheated space around the cluster in the winter. They are deeper so that the bee cluster can stay in contact with their honey stores all winter and move upward more easily. (Lang hives have a break between boxes.) In Zone 6, there should be enough honey above the cluster that they never have to move to a new frame over winter. (That is a drawback with TBHs in severely cold weather.) Another benefit to having all the honey the bees need for winter on the same frames as the cluster is that the beekeeper never has to wonder whether he/she is leaving enough stores.

Layens frames touch each other like top bars

Because Layens hives are horizontal and don't require bees to travel between boxes, they have a solid roof like TBHs, there is much less disturbance to the bees during inspections than with a Lang. Also, since they are horizontal, they are much easier on the back, just like TBHs. A fully built frame with honey weighs about 10 lbs.

Seven Layens frames is about 40 liters in volume -- what bees look for in a cavity when swarming. However, it's not enough volume to harvest any honey. So Layens' original design recommended 14 frames. Leo, though, brought an extended Layens hive that had 19 frames. If I did the math correctly, 19 Layens frames is equivalent to about 25 Lang deep frames (which is also half the volume of a Lazutin hive).

In case you are wondering how these numbers translate to honey harvests, at one point over the weekend, Leo said that he averages 20 lbs of honey per hive. However, that is an average that includes dead-outs, new colonies, and honey spent feeding colonies. He said that some hives make much more than 20 lbs.

So that's some background info. On to management notes...

Goals for natural hive management
Leo stressed several times that when managing hives naturally, the beekeeper needs to do the three following things:

  • Increase hives through reproduction (i.e., splits & swarms)
  • Give every colony a yearly brood cycle break
  • Time the brood cycle break in sync with honey flows

Syncing egg production with natural flows
Eggs need to be laid in sync with local forage conditions to take advantage of the flows. Because of the amount of time it takes to develop from egg to forager, eggs need to be laid 6 weeks prior to peak flow.

Egg production also has to stop in sync with flows as well. Otherwise, the bees waste resources rearing brood that emerge and become "hungering mouths that eat all the resources."

This is one reason why Sharashkin recommends using local bees. Egg production behavior is genetically encoded. Local bees will start and stop production at the right time.

The diagram below shows the timing of splitting for Leo's area. The x-axis represents time, and the the y-axis indicates volume. So if you look at nectar flow (the blue line), at the beginning of the year, there is no  nectar coming in in January. However, by the middle of May/beginning of June, the nectar flow is at its peak, but it quickly tapers off by the end of summer.

The green line shows how the bees perform. Around the end of February/beginning of March, the bees start ramping up very quickly so that their brood production peaks about 6 weeks prior to the peak of the nectar flow. Leo splits his hive at that time, around May 1. As the nectar production slows down, so do the bees, though there may be a small increase in production at the end of the year as they raise their winter bees.

Note: This graph shows Leo's conditions. Your own local conditions may vary greatly. For instance, if you live in an area, with two peaks in the nectar flow, you will see your bees build up twice during the year.

Because of the emphasis on producing bees in sync with natural flows, Leo warns against raising bees with sugar because it forces bee colonies to grow and develop faster than they would in nature.

Traditional way to create sustainable colonies
Layens wrote that beekeepers should leave colonies alone for 2 years.

  • Year 1: Leave bees alone and let them collect reserves
  • Year 2: Let the bees swarm and continue to collect reserves. You can use the swarms to increase your apiary.
  • Year 3: You can harvest honey, leaving 50-60 lbs in the hive at all times.

Personally, I don't know how many people have the patience to follow that advice, but if you can do it, Sharashkin says you will have much more vigorous colonies.

Early Spring
Let's say you have a colony that has overwintered successfully. There are two primary tasks this time of year.

  1. Expanding the brood nest
  2. Splitting the colony

Expanding the brood nest.
In early spring, you have to expand the brood chamber. If you don't, the colony will keep doing it's thing, but it won't make any extra honey.

However, when expanding the brood chamber, you have to be careful that you don't add too much space because that could result in chilled brood or in your having to feed them.

Leo waits until nectar is flowing, bees are starting to build up, and the danger of chilling at night is over. He recommends talking to local beeks to identify the appropriate time for your location. For him, he is in Zone 6, and he waits until the redbud begins to bloom (about the last week of March). At that time, he opens the hive and expands the brood nest by 50%. So if the brood cluster overwintered on 6 frames, he'll add 3 empty ones. If they overwintered on 4, he adds 2 empty frames. The benefits of inserting frames this way are:

  • The brood area remains intact, so they stay warm if night temps drop.
  • The youngest brood is kept closest to the entrance where foragers want to drop off nectar. This reduces congesting, thereby delaying swarming.
  • Although Leo didn't say this, this approach has the advantage of automatically starting to cycle out some of the old comb.

Imagine the hive looks like this coming out of winter.
Brood bars are at one end of the hive near the entrance.

Expand the brood nest by inserting empty frames between the brood bars and entrance.
Expanding the brood nest this way has an advantage over the Lang hive because you can add as much or as little space for new brood as you need. In a Lang, you have to add an entire box, so you are limited to adding either 0% space or 100% space, even if a colony is not sufficiently strong to maintain or fill that space.

Note on feeding: In the event that something happened and you need to feed your bees in early spring, Leo offered an easy way to do this. If there is uncapped honey above the bees, the bees are highly unlikely to touch it because they view it as a reserve. If you absolutely need to fee them, break open the capped honey above their heads (a fork will work for that purpose) and lightly spritz the honey with a little water to dilute it a bit. The bees will treat it like nectar.

Splitting the colony.
Leo makes splits about 2 weeks after expanding the nest when he sees lots of capped brood. (He begins expansion about the end of March, so splits take place roughly around the 2nd week in April.) The presence of drone brood is another indicator that it's a good time to split.

At that time, he takes every other brood frame and every other honey frame and moves it to the back of the hive. Both sides should have eggs, larvae, and capped brood. A solid divider is placed between the halves. Make sure the bees cannot travel back and forth. If there are any gaps in the divider board, seal them off.

Split arrangement

If you know which side the queen is on, that's well and good. If not, notch the lower wall of 3-5 worker brood cells in both sides of the hive. This opens up the cells so that they look more like queen cells. Choose the youngest, tiniest larvae you can find.

Cut bottom of brood cells to jumpstart queen production.

Sharashkin says that splitting in the same hive allows the colonies to share warmth and conserve resources until spring is well and truly underway. At that time, you can move the split into its own hive.

In a Lang, splits should have a minimum of 4 frames, but as little as 2 will do. In a Layens, 2 frames is sufficient for a split, but Leo aims for 3-4.

Note: At some point in the year, the side with the queen will need a brood break. This can be accomplished late in the season by using a push-in cage to confine the queen for 3 weeks.

Note: If you want more honey, make sure the queen is by the old entrance so that she gets the foragers. However, if you want both splits to be more of an equal size, you could start your colony in the center of the hive and let them get used to using either entrance. Then split them up by putting each split on either side of the hive. Returning foragers will use both entrances.

Note: An alternative method to the split describe above is a shook swarm. Very early in the season (for him, early April) shake all the bees into a new box. Give them some new comb and a honey. Doing this early reduces the chances of losing a lot of brood.

Swarm Season
Hopefully, by the time swarm season arrives, you will already have split your hive. However, if you see swarm cells, you can try to head off the swarm by adding some empty frames near the entrance and removing all but a couple of queen cells.

During swarm season, Leo checks his swarm traps at least once a month. His traps are basically a Layens hive with 7 frames, which is 40 L in volume. Having traps that use the same frames and dimensions as his hives makes them easy to transfer if he doesn't get to check them right away.

Colonies that swarm at the end of the nectar cycle (June for him) will need to be fed.

You can read tips for catching swarms on his website.

Bait hive.
In warm climates, Leo recommends an upper entrance.
If your climate is cool, it may be unnecessary.
The beauty of the Layens hive in cold climates is that they provide ventilation for moisture with minimal heat loss.

When closing up for winter, any honey outside of the brood nest is surplus, so if there are any honeycombs, Sharashkin takes all but one of them. He leaves one frame for spring emergencies.

Wintering frames go in the center of the hive with a divider on both sides of the brood. The divider boards should have a 1/2"-3/4" gap under the divider board.

Insulation goes over the cluster frames. The roof of the hive has a 2" air pocket between the frames and the roof to accommodate the insulation. The roof also has screen openings on both ends to allow moisture to escape.

See the holes in the roof? Those are screened vents.
There is also 2" of space between the roof and the tops of the frames.

Warm air rises to the top of the cluster and preheats the honey they are about to consume. It also warms up the space between the cluster and divider boards. The gaps beneath the divider boards also provide ventilation, sucking moisture out of the hive.

Note: Sharashkin said that you can either winter with frames in the center of the hive or frames at one end of the hive (which is what the first diagram illustrated showing bees coming out of winter). However, the diagrams he provided regarding wintering showed all frames in the center, so that's how I've shown them here.

The diagrams above show the hive without any frames on either side of the cluster. The frames that get pulled are frozen for 48 hours. Sharashkin then allows the frames to come to room temperature and lets any condensation evaporate (you can use a fan to speed up evaporation). He then stores them in a hive that is totally sealed (all cracks are taped up.) However, if you are in cold climate, he says you can store empty frames in the hive behind the divider boards. Just be sure to leave a gap between frames somewhere behind the dividers for ventilation.

Sharashkin recommends insulating hives in a cold climate. Two methods he recommends are:

  1. Double-walled hives using straw, wool, or wood shavings as the insulation. He recommended using a natural material because they allow moisture to pass through the walls of the hive. 
  2. A mixture of fresh manure, straw, and clay or dirt in equal proportions with a few handfuls of ash mixed in and enough water to make it workable. This would be applied to hive walls and allowed to dry. He says it lasts quite a long time, even in severely cold climates. 

Dr. Sharaskin gave another talk called "Not by Clover Alone," which discussed the importance of varied forage. To be honest, I didn't take that many notes. However, one thing that interested me was a side comment about how thin-walled Langs came into being. Originally, Langstroth had proposed much thicker walls (double walls with insulation, if I'm not mistaken). However, these thick walls took up a lot of space, so as beekeepers began migrating bees, hive walls were made thinner in order to get more hives on railroad cars.

For awhile, I've been considering starting a Layens or Lazutin hive, but I've had trouble deciding which to try. Leo really inspired me to try the Layens. I now have a better understanding of how and why its management differs from a double-deep hive like Lazutin's, and I can see how it fits my overall goals better. So maybe in the springtime, I'll have a couple of new hives...


  1. Thank you for sharing. Really interesting hive design and approach. Hope you are able to try one (or two!) out.

    1. Fingers crossed. We have a lot going on this winter/spring, but I hope to try one next year. If not, the following year for sure.

  2. I attended one of his lectures because I wanted to thank him for all his work on his website. I am deaf though so you're blog is especially helpful to me.

    1. So glad that you found these notes helpful. Do you have Layens hives? Would love to hear experiences from someone who uses them.

    2. I have 3 long langs built from the plans on Horizontal Hives. I had just bought a great little extractor when I became interested in the horizontal and did not want to switch. I have plans for six but am re-thinking that and may switch to the Layens. Any thoughts on beekeeping with the Long Langs and treatment free would be most interested and thanks again for your wonderful blog.

  3. Thanks for another great summary. The Layens hive does sound like a good alternative to Langs. My only concern would be YAFS (yet another frame size) to have to deal with. ;-) Did he talk about how he harvests honey? Does he have an extractor that takes Layens sized frames?

    When you split in the same box, I wonder how many bees end up going back to the original entrance. Does he close up or mask the original entrance to make the bees reorient?

    Looks like some woodworking is in your future!

    1. You're sure you don't want another frame size? LOL! Look at it this way -- if you keep collecting different types of hives, your apiary could become a very interesting hive museum of sorts. ;-) BTW, has plans that show how to build a jig that allows Lang frames to be used in a Layens hive. It's under the Plans tab.

      Leo says he uses a regular Lang extractor that accepts deep frames, so no special extracting equipment is needed.

      That's a really good question about the splits. He talked about that for awhile, but sadly I failed to take very good notes. He doesn't close/mask the original entrance, but he said that depending on what you want to accomplish, you can do different things.

      -- As you pointed out, foragers will return to the old entrance, so if you want to make more honey, make sure that the original side of the hive is queenless. This will leave the side of the hive with the queen without a lot of foragers. Without a lot of nectar coming in, her production will be slower.
      -- If you want to make a lot of bees, then make sure the queen is on the original side of the hives. However, if I recall correctly, if you do this, you may have to confine the queen late in the season for 3 weeks because she doesn't really get a brood break.
      -- If you have a Layens with a long side entrance, or with 3 entrances along the side, then you have another option. You can start by having the brood nest in the center of the hive with only a center entrance open. Then you can move each split to the ends of the hive. Close the central entrance and open the side entrances. This divides returning foragers more evenly between the splits.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!