On Gardening

The latest buzz in beekeeping

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

All seems right with the garden again. The honeybees are back.

After a beeless 2009, I have restocked my pair of hives, each receiving a package of three pounds of bees and a young, fertile queen. You shake the bees out of their shipping box into the hive where they fall in a compliant ball. Think group hug in free fall. I could feel the love.

Four days later, I lifted the hive covers to see how the bees were settling in. They had started doing what bees do, taking on various duties in the service of the colony: some constructing comb from the wax they secrete, others attending to the egg-laying queen, others foraging for pollen and nectar. Bees talk to one another through scents and body language. I observed one in a wiggly dance, roughly translated as: "We're not in Georgia anymore. There's a locust tree flowering in the next garden, and this is how you get to it."

Apart from their immense value in pollinating plants and giving us honey and beeswax, honeybees offer hours of theater to the gardener and, especially, to the beekeeper who can literally take the roof off their home and peer in.

That was not always the case. Between around 1200 and the early 20th century, humans domesticated bees in straw skeps, which are the classic domes of rolled straw that came to symbolize the honeybee and her industry. But as iconic as they were, skeps had an inherent flaw: The beekeeper had to destroy the colony to collect the honey.

After a few hundred years, beekeepers figured out that if you placed an empty skep above a loaded one, you could tap the hive in a way that the bees would move out of the old skep and into the new one, leaving the honey to be harvested. This practice is recounted by entomologist Gene Kritsky in his charming new book about the history of beehives, "The Quest for the Perfect Hive" (Oxford University Press).

The single skep, a thing of craft and beauty, has another fundamental limitation. It doesn't expand as the colony grows in number and quantity of stored honey. In a good year, a hive of 3,000 bees in April will become one of 30,000 bees in September, when the insects will have made more than 100 pounds of honey for their winter larder and 45 pounds more, or about 11 gallons, for the beekeeper.

The ancient Greeks figured out that if you put bars across a pot, the bees would build comb in a way that honey could be removed without destroying the hive. But it wasn't until the 19th century that inventors such as Ukrainian beekeeper Peter Prokopovich, who should be remembered for his name alone, came up with the idea of inserting hanging frames for the surplus honey.

His boxy, wooden hive and others based on it represented a major step forward in bee cultivation, separating harvestable honey from the other workings of the hive, but it still required the comb to be cut out, a messy and damaging step. Bees are extremely fussy about their interior spaces; honey is their treasure and the hive a secure vault against robbers. If a gap is small, they produce a dark brown gum called propolis, which cements everything together. If the space is too large, they will make comb to bridge it, annoying to the beekeeper.

Enter a Philadelphia clergyman named Lorenzo Langstroth. His patented hive of 1852 looks a little different from the one in my garden. It props up to reveal various boxes and supplemental glass jars, but it has one element that makes beehives practical to this day: just the right amount of nothingness. Langstroth discovered that if you left a space of three-eighths of an inch on each side of the frames, you created a void that the bees would leave alone. This space allowed frames to hang free and be easily removed for honey extraction.

The hive was further refined into the 20th century, simplified and standardized and made easily expandable as the honey flows allowed, but it kept the key feature of Langstroth's bee space.

In an age of exponential change and novelty for its own sake, I really like the idea of using beehives whose basic design has not changed since the 1920s. Kritsky, a professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, argues that a new wave of innovation in beehive design might, for example, reduce disease or allow better monitoring of pests. There is a move toward a more efficient and lighter eight-frame hive instead of the classic 10-framer, but the basic elements remain the same. And beekeepers, a frugal lot, are resistant to change because they have invested in equipment and gear linked to the old design, including centrifugal extractors that cost hundreds of dollars.

"We don't know" if new designs will improve the lot of bees and beekeepers, "because nobody is doing it," says Kritsky. "I'm not saying throw out the Langstroth hive completely."

To restive and staid beekeeper alike, however, there is something alluring about the old straw skep. In addition to the tapping method, skep beekeepers preserved colonies by stacking one skep above another to establish a trove of honey for the beekeeper to take. The same principle applies to modern wooden frame hives.

Kritsky recalls learning how to make a skep, an endeavor that begins by forming the finest straw reeds into cords by bundling and twisting them and binding them in water-soaked briars. "A well-made skep is extremely sturdy," he says. "I actually saw a man of 200 pounds stand on a skep he had made. And protected from the elements, it lasts over a century."

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