What should you do when something comes between you and your honey bees? Perhaps something like a walker or wheelchair? Well, if you are creative and innovative, you might discover the perfect solution — one that works for you and pleases your bees.
This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 159 No 8, August 2019, pp. 909-913.
Naomi Price of Prineville, Oregon did exactly that. Living with paraplegia,
Naomi knew she wanted a hive that would meet the needs of her bees as well as a
few of her own. Simply put, she wanted the freedom to tend her bees without
assistance from others. “Accessibility is all about attitude,” she said.
Starting with a Vision
Armed with spunky
determination, Naomi set out to make her beekeeping dream a reality. Having
spent years performing accessibility site surveys for various entities under
the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Oregon Structural Specialty Code,
she was the perfect person for the job. She understood that small things make a
big difference. “Just as a 3/8-inch space can be empowering to a honey bee, a
¼-inch space can be equally empowering to me,” she explained.
To start, Naomi
put aside the codes and regulations and began to investigate the honey bees’
housing requirements. She studied foraging, brood rearing, food storage,
communication, ventilation, winter clustering, pests, and even her local
weather patterns. After that, she looked at the history of hive design, taking
careful note of what worked and what didn’t. Finally, she factored in her own
beekeeping experience, including the special features she needed for successful
and enjoyable beekeeping.
Finding a Builder
Richard Nichols, a
Prineville resident, built the prototype long hives. A skilled woodworker with
a passion for beekeeping, Richard was able to incorporate Naomi’s vision within
the practical limitations of building with wood. The finished product exceeded
all expectations and many of the original hives are still in use.
rendition of her hive design — christened the Valhalla — was a variation on the
Langstroth long hive made popular by Georges de Layens in his book, Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives.
Basically, a long hive is a horizontal hive that uses standard Langstroth
frames. Instead of using supers that stack on top of the brood box, the bee
colony expands horizontally, much like the bees in a top-bar hive.
But the similarity
stopped there because Naomi needed to incorporate special features which would
allow for the ease of access she needed. She wanted a system that didn’t
require extra tools and equipment, and one that would be winter-ready without
lifting, carting, and storing hive components.
considerations were incorporated into the prototype hives, including the
Frames. The Valhalla hive uses 24 deep
Langstroth frames. Naomi selected the number of frames based on the nectar flow
near her central Oregon home and the colony’s winter clustering needs. Some of
the frames provide space for honey storage that would normally go in a super.
By using Langstroth
frames, Naomi could easily exchange equipment between her long hives and
Langstroth hives. In addition, four-sided frames can be rested on the ground or
other hard surface without damaging combs, a feature missing in top-bar hives.
But most importantly, a standard nucleus colony can be inserted directly into a
Valhalla hive — another feature that was impossible with most top-bar systems.
Canvas Frame Cover. A heavy canvas cloth placed
directly on the top bars keeps the bees from building burr comb above the
frames. When Naomi is working the bees, the canvas can be gently folded back
from one side or the other, keeping the rest of the bees calm and in the dark.
The workers propolize the cloth, thereby adding an antibacterial barrier just
above the brood nest.
Hive Box. Having a low profile, the long hive is
stable in the face of wind and predators such as raccoons, so it doesn’t
require the inconvenience of a tie-down. And since there are no supers to lift,
hive inspections are a snap.
Hinged Roof. The roof is hinged on the front side so
the beekeeper can easily work the bees from the back. A side latch holds the
roof open, even in moderate wind. In the open position, the lid protects the
brood nest from both sun and wind.
Slatted Rack. A built-in slatted rack extends the entire length of the hive, offering foragers a place to cluster when summer temperatures rise. Below the slatted rack are two side-by-side pull-out inspection drawers that can be used for varroa counts and debris collection.
Entrance. A single bee entrance is in the lower
right corner of the hive. It measure 3/8-inches high by 3-inches long and has a
sliding door to adjust the size of the opening or close it completely. The
small size and adjustable nature means it can double as a mouse guard during
those times when rodents are likely to enter.
The entrance has
no landing board. Naomi notes that, without a landing area, honey bees
experience fewer run-ins with nest mates and fewer intruders. In addition, the
entrance is easier to defend since there is no convenient staging area for
evil-doers. “I have observed the returning foragers fly into their hive with
amazing accuracy,” she says.
Viewing Window. The hive is equipped with a Plexiglas
viewing window with a hinged shutter that allows a quick peek into the brood
chamber without opening the lid.
Inspections are Easy
for more efficient when you don’t have to remove supers before getting to the
brood box. In addition, inspections in the Valhalla are far less upsetting to
the colony. Naomi says, “With no boxes to move, fewer bees are injured, which
means the bees are less defensive.”
By folding back
only part of the canvas cloth at a time, the bees are disturbed even less.
Naomi notes that by leaving the canvas in contact with the frames most of the
time, you can eliminate the need for a smoker — an important consideration when
your movements and ability to handle multiple pieces of equipment are already
temperatures, the cloth also keeps the colony warmer during inspections by
preventing rapid heat loss. And in the fall, the cover keeps robbers at bay while
the lid is open.
pull-out boards make it easy to check for mites and other debris, and since one
board is beneath the brood and one beneath the honey, you can get a clear
picture of what is going on in different parts of the hive.
The Valhalla Evolves
As word of the
Valhalla spread, interest soared. Many beekeepers wanted a Valhalla hive — not
just those with a disability, but folks who didn’t want to lift heavy boxes or
reach high overhead, as well as those who envisioned a better life for their
bees. Before long, Richard Nichols had over 30 hives throughout central Oregon
with more orders on the way.
But life happens
and Richard didn’t want to go into production, so Naomi and her husband, Larry,
decided they needed to find an alternative builder. Plus, after a few years
working with the Valhalla, Naomi was ready to tweak the design.
turned to Vivien and Bruce Hight of The Right Hand LLP in Redmond, Oregon to
incorporate the changes and ramp up production. Bruce, known as “The
Beekeeper’s Carpenter,” is a woodworking craftsman and Vivien is responsible
for the business end of their enterprise. When I toured their workshop, Bruce was
experimenting with alternative roof designs and Vivien was learning about
shipping practices, packaging, bookkeeping, web management, and beekeeping. Truly,
they were as busy as the bees themselves.
Next, the Valkyrie
Vivien named the
new hive “Valkyrie” after figures in Norse legend. She explained, “In the
glorious halls of Valhalla, slain Norse warriors were transported by the
Valkyries to enjoy the thrill of never-ending battle. While Odin ever-awaited
new arrivals, it was the Valkyries who remained vigilant and watchful, presiding
over Earth’s battlefields to choose who would be taken aloft.” In other words,
“The Valkyrie long hive sprung from a faithful constant (the Valhalla) to
embrace the evolving knowledge of bee biology.” So, now you know.
Valkyrie incorporates a long list of improvements and several options.
A Roof of Many Colors
The roof was
changed to a gabled design, providing space for insulating materials to be
placed above the colony. The roof is covered in a lightweight, powder-coated
aluminum sheet that is available in six standard colors or can be
special-ordered in a rainbow of other shades. For convenience, beekeepers can
use dry-erase markers to write inspection notes directly on the lid, which can
be easily wiped clean.
hinges are durable and long-lasting steel, strong enough to withstand wind
gusts while the hive is open. Opening the lid on a Valkyrie with the current
hinges requires a force of approximately twelve pounds.
Interior Frame Rest
The inside of the
gabled lid contains a frame rest. For easy inspection, you can pull out the
first frame and place it in the frame rest, then continue your inspection by
sliding each frame into the empty space. The frame rest area can also be used
to hold hive tools and the canvas inspection cloth that comes with each hive.
A shed roof was
added over the bee entrance to keep rain from sheeting down on the bees and to
provide them with a small amount of shade.
Like the Valhalla,
the Valkyrie holds 24 standard Langstroth deep frames, and a built-in slatted
rack with improved spacing on the ends. The varroa drawers and the two screens
above them are now reversible, so you don’t have to remember which one goes
where. The screens are kept in place with an automatic locking mechanism, and
the drawers are made of white PVC.
A feeder can be
placed inside the hive by removing a few of the frames, so Boardman-style and
hive-top feeders are not necessary. Because internal feeders are less likely to
draw robbing bees and marauding wasps, fall inspections are easier for both
bees and humans.
Second Window. Although one window is included as
standard equipment, a second window — also with a closable shutter — can be
installed to reveal the honey-storage area.
Triple-Layer Blankets. A triple-layered
pad made from alpaca wool can be placed above the canvas cloth for year-round
insulation and humidity regulation.
Insulated Hive Stand: The custom-made
hive stand is designed to keep the top of the hive body (not including the gabled
roof) 30 inches from ground level. This works well for most wheelchairs and
most adults. However, the stand can be custom-ordered four inches higher, if
needed. The stand includes a sheet of rigid insulation that protects the colony
from icy-cold or super-hot ground temperatures year round.
Blocker Board: A blocker board (or follower board) is a
management tool that allows you to limit the size of the brood nest until each
successive frame is full. Once the frames are full, you can move the board over
and add another frame, keeping the brood nest compact.
The Valkyrie in Practice
beekeeping practices can be tweaked to suit the Valkyrie hive. Naomi studied
ideas used in Langstroths, top-bar hives, standard long hives, and even Warré
hives to see what would work with her own vision of beekeeping. She has a few
favorites that are worth considering.
Installation of Bees
As I mentioned
earlier, a stand nucleus hive can be installed directly into the Valkyrie.
However, when installing a package, Naomi recommends the “walk in”
For a walk-in,
place a ramp from the ground up to the hive entrance. Over the ramp, drape a
large sheet, such that it extends to the ground on both sides of the ramp.
Attach the queen cage inside the hive, then dump the bees on the sheet. The
bees will walk up the sheet into the hive.
The advantage of
this method is that ill or diseased bees often walk off to die rather than
joining the march, an “altruistic” separation that helps keep the colony
healthy. In addition, any free-roaming parasites such as hive beetles are left
on the sheet. A quick dusting of powdered sugar may leave behind a few varroa
mites as well.
A Convenient Sugar Feeder
Many types of
internal feeder can be used in the Valkyrie, but when winter feeding is
necessary, Naomi’s favorite is the SockerMat. Swedish for “sugar food,” the SockerMat
is simply a mixture of sugar and water kneaded into a dough and pressed into a
deep Langstroth frame.
The frame can be
constructed with 1/8-inch hardware cloth (Naomi’s favorite) or with plastic
foundation. For the wire version, cut the wire so it extends to the outside
perimeter of a standard deep frame. Next, lay the wire on a flat surface and
cut two passageways, one in the upper left and one in the upper right corners.
These openings or “hiking trails” should be cut so that once the wire is
attached to the frame, the open space is about 3/4-inch on each side. Once cut,
attach the wire to the frame with staples or thumb tacks.
If you are using
plastic foundation, do the same thing. Some plastic foundation comes with
removable tabs that can simply be punched out. Be sure to reinsert the plastic
so the passageways are in the upper corners.
For the sugar
mixture, you can use regular granulated sugar, superfine sugar (baker’s sugar),
or a combination of the two. Place the sugar in a bowl and add a small amount
of water, just enough to dampen the sugar and make it stick together — not too
wet! A handful pressed into a snowball should hold its shape.
In order to fill a
frame, cut a thin piece of wood to fit inside the frame. Place this under the wire
or plastic as a support while you press the sugar into the frame, using your
hands or a rolling pin. Once full, allow the sugar to harden. The wire frame
can hold about six pounds of sugar, while the plastic foundation will hold
about half that amount. Alternatively, you can purchase a SockerMat frame fully
Naomi likes to
place a frame of sugar outside the bee’s honey supply, so they eat the honey
first and have sugar as a backup. But as most beekeepers know, the bees often
disregard this advice and eat the sugar first. In any case, it’s reassuring to
know they have a backup supply.
A Dream Come True
The Valkyrie long
hive is currently being used across the country from Washington east to
Montana, Minnesota, Maine, and New York. They’ve also been shipped south to
Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, and Georgia. A private school in San
Francisco chose the Valkyrie for its rooftop apiary, and another was shipped to
Michigan for handicapped veterans. And at Oregon State University, Dr. Ramesh
Sagili purchased a Valkyrie for the campus apiary.
One woman’s vision
of what beekeeping could be is enriching the lives of bees and beekeepers in
every corner of the continent. Congratulations to Naomi and all those who
helped her think outside the Langstroth box.
Honey Bee Suite
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