Our Path Towards Sustainable Beekeeping and a Better Beehive
It wasn't long after starting beekeeping that I Iearned as wonderful as it is, there are some real issues within the industry. As with most new beekeepers, I started my apiary with package bees. And as with most new beekeepers, my package bees did not make it through the winter. I didn't realize it then, but my first clue that they wouldn't make the winter was when my queens began failing a few months after installation. I called my package supplier and told him what was going on, he said "you must have rolled them"....click. So I found another supplier (who also sells package bees) and purchased two queens. He pulled those queens (that come to find out he ordered from California) out of his queen bank hive; the writing was on the wall and the following March I had lost my colonies.
Welcome to beekeeping!
A Different Approach
By the time my package bees died, I had learned a lot. Most importantly, that package bees are not the way to go. So, I purchased nucs instead. During installation of the nucs I noticed one had far fewer bees and resources than the others, as well as a very poor brood pattern. I called the supplier and he said "you have two options: you can put them back in the box, close the entrance tonight after all the bees return and exchange it, or you can come pick up a new queen when my next batch of queens are ready." I opted for the new queen. Following the same practices as the first year my hives came out of winter bursting with bees. I learned very quickly about swarm control as well as catching swarms.
Too many bees is not a bad problem to have.
Jumping forward through a few years, I had now learned A LOT about beekeeping. But, something was happening in my apiary. My hives were not doing well, and I don't mean the bees. I had hive bodies that were bursting and bowing at the box joints, the top joint rabbet cracking down the frame rest, and all in all in generally poor condition. I started looking into people hive building techniques and found some serious flaws. Poor choice of joinery for the application, pre-drilling holes for ring shank nails, and, generally speaking, hives that were built for ease of the builder rather than for the beekeeper.
Something else was missing from my hives though...
Where's the propolis?
Having attended the Cornell Master Beekeeper program, as well as being a lifelong learner, and reading articles and scientific studies, I had learned a fair amount about the importance of a propolis envelope. So I decided, given my experience as a woodworker, I ought to just start making my own woodware. Union Bee Company's hive production was born.
To the drawing board!
Building it for the bees.
The most logical way to promote propolis was to use rough cut lumber inside the hive, but planned lumber is best for the outside, so 7/8" was the clear choice. Building to inside dimension gave us a 16 1/2" x 20 1/8" hive body, still compatible with standard equipment. But what about the inner cover? Adding propolis traps isn't feasible, and you certainly can't groove the flimsy 1/4" plywood found on standard inner covers. But we're using 7/8" here, we have an extra 1/8" and can use 3/8" for an inner cover without compromising the integrity of the frame nor encroaching on bee space! With the 3/8" plywood we can now add our grooves...30 spaced 3/8" apart was just right. No propolis envelope is complete without the bottom board though, so we utilized our 7/8" rough cut for that as well.
The bees are taken care of, but what about the beekeeper?
A Little Something For the Beekeeper!
That 7/8" lumber sure comes in handy. After some reflection on my work processes, I found my self stuck on handles. Boy is it uncomfortable picking up and carrying hive bodies full of honey, after a few boxes it feels like you're rockclimbing! Looking at some handles on standard hives I noticed the radius is so large that you lose full depth of the handle within 2"! It dawned on me, that loss of 1/8" of depth makes such a difference, I bet an extra 1/8" would as well. So I redeveloped my process and made some handles at 5/8" depth with 2 extra inches of clear depth. What. A. Difference. It's like you're picking up a box designed for humans!
That design change was a keeper for sure!
To paint or not to paint....
We really had a hard time with this one. I am certainly not set up to paint, I don't particularly enjoy it, and I certainly can't do it cost efficiently. But, if I sell 10 hives to 10 people, that results in ten paint brushes and cans of paint that will likely be purchased specifically for painting the hive and then end up in the trash. Now imagine if I sell 100 hives, 1,000? Boy it adds up.
Now add it our ability to control the type of paint people use. Many people don't know what a VOC is, nevermind which paints have a lot of them and which ones don't. That was really decisive fact that led us to make the decision to paint every hive we sell. Will some people paint them a color of their choice, of course. And we support their decision. But for those that don't care about the color, we are happy to have made this decision and to temper our environmental impact as best we can.
Well here we are, with a product we can be proud of. A product that will help beekeepers be successful. And a product made in America. Now comes the part were we focus on getting our message out there!