Advice on building a beehive: plans, materials, wood paint and protection, and tools

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive | Posted on 07-03-2011

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Tools for making a beehive

Beehive making toolkit (clockwise from top): saw, hammer, rebate plane, tape measure and wood plane. You can get away with just the hammer, saw and tape measure.

As anyone who’s dealt with builders will testify, sometimes the only way to get a straight answer is to know what question to ask. A bit like playing “Simon says”. Making my own beehive was like that.

What type of beehive did I need? Well, that depended on personal preference and how I wanted to use it, I was told. I didn’t have a personal preference, and how should I know how I wanted to use it? I was a complete novice, remember. I presumed they were all designed to keep bees?

Fortunately, any further confusion was made irrelevant when I was given a set of plans for a modified national beehive. For the benefit of any novices asking themselves the same question however, I’ll say now: get a national unless – like me – you live in a rural area near to crops beloved of bees, in which case get a 14×12 if you have a bad back or a commercial if you don’t. If you want it to look like something straight out of Winnie the Pooh get a WBC. If you’re ever likely to move abroad get a Langstroth. If you live in Scotland get a Smith (apparently), and if you enjoy weight-lifting or just standing out from the crowd get a Modified Dadant. Why no-one ever puts it into those simple terms beats me, but there it is.

Beehive plans can be obtained from the British Beekeepers’ Association (Update October 2013: BBKA no longer appears to sell plans online) for a couple of pounds, or from the Scottish Beekeepers Association or magnificently psychedelic David Cushman website for free. Incidentally, I was very sorry to hear that David passed away in February. I know that his website will have helped thousands of novice beekeepers such as myself.

Choice of building materials was another straightforward issue. Cedar is the ideal wood type to use. It’s stable, lightweight, has some natural resistance to decay and insect attack, and can cope with the eccentricities of the British climate. But I had a stack of plywood left over from some work we had done on the house. Plywood is heavier, doesn’t respond well to preservative treatments and is prone to splintering, but it’s cheap. Especially if you already have a few large sheets lying around the garage. Lots of beehives are made from plywood. True, I had a little scare when someone (a builder, bless them) pointed out that there are different grades of plywood …after I’d started work. There’s interior grade, waterproof bonded ply (WBP) and marine. The only one you shouldn’t try making beehives out of is interior grade. Of course it’s not marked on the ply itself (of course it’s not). Mine turned out to all be 18mm thick WBP.

Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base

Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base

Then, there’s the question of what paint or wood protection to use. A beehive generates honey, so that’s food production. Which means that you can’t slap on any old lead-based, insecticide-ridden paint you like. Well, you can. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to eat anything that came out of it.

Until recently the poor (lazy) beekeeper’s wood preservative of choice was Cuprinol Clear. Due to changes in EU legislation however, Cuprinol can no longer claim that it’s bee safe. (It might still be, Cuprinol just can’t claim it is). Beekeepers’ suppliers sell beehive-friendly paint at around £13.50 a litre. And I’m told it’s very good. The real enthusiasts (in the evangelical sense) though, advocate a combination of boiled linseed oil and beeswax. Beekeeping forums are full of sound, and often conflicting, advice on the subject.

For what it’s worth, I used Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base because – you guessed it – I happened to have some. I’ll be happy to take on board any comments from horrified readers.

Finally, tools. You really don’t need many: a saw, a hammer (or screwdriver) and a tape measure about covers it, at a pinch. Once again, I relied heavily on tools I already had. Here, at least, my motives owed more to sentimentality than penny-pinching. Most of the tools belonged to my late father. To his impressive collection of planes, chisels and saws of every size and description I added a rebate plane to enable me to make the runners out of softwood. That, the frames, foundation, queen excluder and porter escapes were the only items that cost me anything.

By summer 2010 I’d completed my first beehive.

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Beekeeping for Beginners course – part 2

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Making a beehive | Posted on 02-03-2011

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More thoughts, recorded at the time, from the novice beekeeping course I attended almost exactly twelve months ago. This year’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course, run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA), starts on Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. Contact Jane Ridler at the EBKA for further details.

Week 2: More of the same, except that we’re now all on ‘second day at school’ nodding terms with each other. Richard and Jane briskly finish off equipment and tools before moving on to the life cycle of the honey bee.

We’re joined by several new folk who, we’re advised, are experienced beekeepers and will be our ‘bee buddies’ in the practical sessions. When the tea and biscuits are finally wheeled out once more a wave of students rises as one from the centre of the room and surges outwards towards them. They soon each have their own little flotilla of novices, earnestly asking questions and bobbing between conversations, sheaths of notes clutched to their bosoms.

I get involved in a discussion about bee suits. I’ve found a guy in Poland selling them on eBay for around £36 – which is cheap – and ask whether anyone knows if they’re any good. A fellow novice has just bought her suit from ‘Polish man’ and reports that, as long as you follow the clear instructions and order one size larger than you’d expect, they’re fine*. I decide that that’s the bee suit sorted. Eastern European smokers and hive tools are also given a cautious thumbs up.

modified national beehive plans

Modified National beehive plans

(*Three months later she’ll tell me a quite alarming tale of how the zip broke while she was wearing it, causing her to get over a dozen bee stings. Sadly, she got a less than helpful response from the seller, so buyer beware).

Week 3: The third and final lesson covers the beekeeping year (what happens when) as well as pests and diseases, and where to site your beehive.

Before it starts I strike up a conversation with the couple sitting behind me. They already have several colonies, housed in national beehives. He bought them from a ‘retiring’ beekeeper friend, but only after a succession of wasted road trips chasing what turned out to be mangy old equipment offered at over-inflated prices. I sympathise, and mention the idea of building my own beehive. He says he has a set of plans and – true to his word – later gives them to me. They’re for a modified national beehive with bottom bee-space. In woodworking terms I suspect they’re barely one step up from book shelves but to me they’re like blueprints to the space shuttle.

beehive entrance block

My first attempt at a beehive entrance block. See if you can spot the obvious flaw...

Practical beekeeping sessions: My bee buddy is Robert Pickford. Robert is a vastly experienced beekeeper and, it turns out, a first class teacher. Later he’ll also prove to be a more than decent friend, but that’s skipping ahead a bit. For several weeks four of us present ourselves at his apiary on a Tuesday, self-consciously suited and booted in virgin white overalls and veil.

Robert has us making frames, lighting smokers and, of course, inspecting bees. He has hives spread around everywhere and appears to be perpetually playing host to at least three other beekeeper’s colonies at any one time. As a consequence we get to see beehives and nuc boxes of all shapes and sizes, and varying degrees of decrepitude. As I inspect them a mental image springs to mind of the beehive now slowly taking shape in my garage. Robert defends their state by pointing out that, “the bees don’t care what they live in.” We’ll see. They haven’t experienced the limits of my wood-working skills yet.

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