Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Small Hive Beekeeping

It's no secret that I love, love, looooove Dr. Seeley's book Honey Bee Democracy. This man's work is phenomenal, and his passion for wild bees... I dig it. So when someone posted the following video clip on FB this morning, it seemed a good time for a break.

Hopefully, you watched the video, but if you didn't, the main points are as follows:

  • Dr. Seeley advocates keeping bees in a way that's normal for bees to live by "using nature as a guide to developing new beekeeping techniques." He calls his method "small hive beekeeping."
  • Current practices are all about maximizing honey production, which is great for beekeepers, but not necessarily good for bees. Traditional methods in certain areas may yield harvests of over 100 kg per hive, but this leaves the colony susceptible to parasites, especially varroa.
  • Instead, small hive beekeeping relies on 3 primary strategies: 
    • Keep bees in smaller hives. He recommends using a 10-frame deep Lang box for the brood nest as well as a super with a a queen excluder in between. He recommends a 10-frame brood nest since it is the modal size of wild nests (approx 40L according to his book).  The super, though, can be a shallow, medium, or deep. 
    • Let bees swarm. A small hive will swarm every year, and the resulting brood break helps cut down varroa. Additionally, the brood nest will start to shrink in July as the bees fill it with honey. Again, this diminishes the varroa mites' ability to breed.
    • Spread hives out. Dr. Seeley recommends a minimum of 30 m between hives. Ideally 100 m between hives. If a colony does succumb to parasites, leaving space between hives will help prevent parasites from traveling to the other bees.
  • Although small hive beekeeping yields smaller crop, the bees will be healthier, and beekeepers will not have to treat. 
Unfortunately, on my 1-acre plot, it's not practical for me to keep my hives 30 m apart, let alone 100 m. However, the other two recommendations... those are things that I'm doing already.

Curious about the volume of my own hives, I did some quick calculations this morning. My nucs are approximately 43 L, and my full-sized TBHs are about 88 L. So they are on target in terms of the dimensions he recommends for a small hive (if using a deep as a super). It's also true that my hives swarm every year, and consequently, varroa has not been an issue.

This video also explains why my colonies seem to act a bit differently than the ones kept by various Lang beeks that I know. Over the past few years, I've noticed that my colonies start to shrink around July until the autumn flow starts up again in mid-late August. At that time, they start to lay some more brood, but they don't get really big. I'd always chalked up this event to my lack of feeding. While not feeding syrup may certainly be contributing to this phenomenon, it never occurred to me that the size of my hives could be another contributing factor. Interesting.

So now, just when I was almost ready to experiment with Lazutin hives, I find out that the small size of my hives (which is the #1 reason I was going to try switching) is what's keeping my bees so healthy. Hmmm... Hive-blocked. Got some thinking to do. Buckle your seatbelts. This could get dangerous.


  1. Very interesting idea - I was wondering if that would make you rethink your plans for bigger hives. This is the opposite of the ideas of treatment free beeks like Dee Lusby and Solomon Parker that you should keep at least 3 deep Lang boxes to have enough bees to survive the varroa, but is in line with Sam Comfort and his small top bar hives. 10 beekeepers, 12 different ideas!

    Do you let your bees swarm? I know you do splits and am wondering if that would count for "letting them swarm". This might make me rethink keeping nucs in my backyard but instead spreading them around my neighborhood where I have my other hives. I was thinking about keeping two Langs together where I had one this past year, but maybe I can spread them out across the property.

    Always something new to try!

    1. Yeah, I think Dee and Solomon are trying to let natural selection pick the bees that can survive varroa. From what I've gathered (which may be a misunderstanding on my part) their philosophy is that brood breaks (whether by swarm, split, or caging the queen) are a way to keep your bees alive until you get enough colonies that you can afford to let some die. However, you don't truly have TF bees unless you can have a huge colony that doesn't need a brood break in order to survive.

      Sam, on the other hand, is a hippie through and through. His way of thinking runs more along the lines of "just let bees be bees."

      I try *really hard* not to let my bees swarm, but every year, I lose at least one. However, I do count my splits as swarms since 1) I try to wait until I have swarm cells to make splits and 2) The splits serve all the same functions as the swarm. The old queen "leaves" with a bunch of bees & then get a clean new home to start over. The bees left behind get a great queen started from a swarm cell as well as a brood break.

      From their point of view, it all happens a bit earlier than expected, but it's easier for me to control the outcomes. The queen, I supposed, misses out on her one chance to fly again, and I don't know how she feels about that. For that, I apologize to her majesty.

      That's great that you're able to spread your nucs/hives out a bit. I wish I could, but wildlife issues make that impossible. It's just not cost-effective because to have bear fencing all over the place for a single hive.

    2. I also wonder if there is some "natural selection" taking place when the bees actually swarm. When we do a split, we are selecting the bees that go with the old queen rather than the hive deciding who stays and who goes. But in general, I do agree with you that a split would count as a swarm otherwise.

      Fortunately, I don't have to worry about bears in my neighborhood, but do worry about them in some of the outyards (although haven't needed a fence yet). That would be an expensive proposition!

  2. Thought of you after reading this article by Wyatt Mangum:

    1. Thanks for the link, HB! It's interesting to read how the underweight hives are able to "catch up" given a consistent summer flow. I'm interested in knowing more about the correct honey management techniques (maybe I need to go re-read his book). Will also have to look up the article by Abrol. Thanks again!

  3. Thank you for useful post! We also have bees (more than 30 years). I give some tips for begginers) Every year you should disinfect the bee hives by blowtorch to survive a season. It will help you save the bees from many diseases and pests. We collect harvest of honey at the galvanized pail I guess, it's a must have item for all beekeepers.
    Have a good luck with your hobby!

    1. Hi, Silana! Thanks for the tip about the blowtorch. I agree wholeheartedly about keeping things clean.

      30 years! Wow! I'm sure you can pass on more than a few tips!

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  7. Interested in small hive beekeeping ? Have a look at .
    The Small Hive Project started in fall 2017, when a hobbyist beekeeper designed a small horizontal hive for backyard beekeeping. Four prototypes will be populated in spring 2018 to test the hive. You may wish to participate in the project by building your own copy of hive and publish your beekeeping experience in a Hive Report.


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