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The Ashridge Nurseries Blog

January Bee Blog

For a long time I told people that from where I live to France, is only 150 miles in a straight line, and to be honest, that was a guess. To be sure, I resorted to Google Earth, and surprise surprise! It’s actually less than 100 miles to the nearest point in France. Why is that so important?  Well! For the last three years we have deserted these shores just before Christmas, and spent a few relaxing days in Brittany. The French are much more laid back about Christmas than we are. There is no mad panic, but just an air of seasonal relaxation, or so it seems to us Brits. The French think differently. It’s just a little bit warmer too. Although it was warm here, we experienced 19ᵒC in Roscoff on December 19th. Now that is definitely unseasonably warm.

Beekeeping is big business in France, as anybody who has visited a street market there will know. It seems that the world and his wife are selling honey on every street corner, with everything from chestnut or lime tree honey through flowers of the forest and spring flowers, to Heather and even better – white heather honey.  For some time I had realised that beekeeping equipment is available in Garden Centres, of which there are many, but the choice is limited and I wanted to see a shop dedicated to nothing else.  By looking online, I found a beekeeping equipment outlet in Daoulas, a small town just south of Brest, and the prices seemed good, to boot.

We found the shop with relative ease, and when it was realised that we were English, we were treated like royalty. This shop is extremely well stocked, with everything from bee suits to hives and smokers to propolis remover. Prices were really good too, with a small copper smoker retailing at €26, which is about £19.50 at present. You will have a hard time to find a new smoker here for double that price. We were even given a tour of the workshops at the rear of the premises, where the ‘pride and joy’ is housed. This is a machine that churns out foundation wax sheets for placing in the frames, which are inserted into the hives. The sheets are indented with impressions of the base of a cell and give the bees a start on making those cells. Dependant on where these frames are placed within the hive, the bees will fill the cells with nectar and pollen, or they will direct the queen to lay eggs in them. A large tank stands at one end of the machine, and it releases molten beeswax into a trough. This in turn spills the wax onto a revolving drum, which dips into a vat of cooling water. From that point on the whole thing takes on the proportions of a huge pasta-maker, with a continuous sheet of indented wax being extruded from the business end, and once a suitable length was through the machine, a guillotine (what else in France) cut it into a sheet, and dropped it onto the waiting stack. It all seemed a bit ‘Heath-Robinson’, but it does an efficient job, if somewhat slowly. Back in the shop, I did some bargain shopping, picking up some very good deals.

Blogpic1 Underside of straw skep hive with spacing

Unfortunately there was absolutely no point in buying any hive parts, or closely associated bits and pieces. Although the basic principles of hives are the same in most parts of the world, there are differences of scale, and several variations. The inventor of the modern hive, which has movable frames, was arguably one Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, a preacher from Boston, in the USA. Rather cleverly, he proclaimed ‘his’ idea to the world in 1851, although others had been doing very similar things for a while. Other than the movable frame, Langstroth announced the bee space. This is the amount of room that a bee creates between solid items, to be able to move around the hive. That space is, as near as makes no difference, ¼ inch (6.35mm). Bees will always leave a gap of that size to allow a bee to pass through, or between frames they will leave double that size, to allow two bees to work back to back. If through bad carpentry skills, or some other basic error, we leave a larger space, the bees will reduce it to one or two bee spaces. If we leave a smaller space, the bees will block it up altogether. So, all beehives work on the principles of bee space. Some have larger frames, and more of them, and some don’t have so many. The French have primarily gone with a hive format suggested by a Monsieur Dadant. This is the largest hive type generally available. The most popular hive type around the world is the one invented by our North American preacher friend. The Langstroth hive is used by some beekeepers in this country, but in the USA, virtually everybody uses a Langstroth.

In the UK we tend to use a hive called a WBC, which is probably what you think of when you imagine a beehive. With its tiered sides and gabled roof, It’s most commonly painted white, and is very attractive, but not very practical, as there are many parts to manipulate, and maintenance is a bit of a problem. It is now also considered not to have enough space internally. At the end of the Second World War, the British Government, in all their wisdom, decided that beekeeping was essential to aid the rebuilding of the economy, and at the same time, they decided that hives should be standardised, as although the movable frame beehive had been universally accepted, there were many interpretations of the ideal size. In 1946 The Modified National Hive was introduced to the waiting world, as being the ideal shape and size for British beekeeping, and this is the hive that the
majority of British beekeepers use to this day. Strangely, it measures 18¼ inches square, but the boxes are sensibly sized at 9 inches and 6 inches tall. Commercial beekeepers considered that they needed a larger hive, and so with some fiddling, a slightly larger box was devised that cleverly increased the space available to the bees by 50% and this hive is known as the Commercial hive. Although there are many variations, they all work on the same principles, and from a distance, all modern hives look just the same, and far less interesting than they used to.

WBC2-(1) WBC Hive
national hive2 (2) National Hive


2 thoughts on “January Bee Blog”

  • Avril Burt

    As a beekeeper of some 30 years I enjoy your column.
    Perhaps you might be interested in the growing number of beekeepers who use other hives eg, Warre and Long hives and even make log hives in an attempt to get back to natural beekeeping and perhaps allow the bees to fight their own battles with diseases.
    See Hampshire natural beekeepers.

    • Jack Glozier

      Hi Avril,
      I'm glad you enjoy our beekeeping column. I visited the Hampshire natural beekeepers site and there's some interesting articles on there - maybe we will do a column on natural beekeeping in the future.

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