Category Archives: DIY

Split boards

Since moving to Scotland my DIY activities have been restricted – by lack of time, by lack of space and by lack of any major shortages in the equipment I use. However, a couple of spare sheets of Correx became available after some non-bee projects and I decided to use them to knock up a few split boards for swarm control and requeening this season.

As an aside … I love Correx. It makes great roofs, temporary floors and landing boards.

Split boards are simple square boards with beespace both sides and – usually – a single entrance. With an entrance door (rather than a simple gap) closed they can double up as crownboards or can be used to stack supers late in the season.

They can also be built with mesh panels to allow the warmth and smell of the lower colony to spread through the hive. However, in this instance these were to be about as simple as possible so I omitted the mesh.

Opposing entrances

For additional flexibility you can provide two opposing entrances with doors. With these the split board is starting to look dangerously like a cut down Snelgrove board. The vertical split method I use involves turning the hive 180° on the seventh day. With opposing entrances on the split board (and a corresponding double-entrance floor) it’s possible to avoid any heavy lifting – simply close the front door and open the rear door on the split board and vice versa on the floor.

Split board ...

Split board …

Assembly instructions

Really? How simple could it be?

I don’t have a table saw (or space to hide store it) so asked the nice people at Haldane’s in Glenrothes to generate some 20mm x 9mm strip wood. They did this from oak (!) offcuts for about a tenth the price one of the DIY chain stores would charge for equivalent softwood. The latter would have been preferable, not least because I got some wicked splinters from the oak, but it was what they had to hand and would have otherwise gone to the wood burner.

The Correx I had was 4mm thick. I’d have preferred 6mm, but as this was ‘spare’ from another project, I had to make do. I was originally going to use two sheets arranged at 90° to each other to provide rigidity. However, the first single-sheet prototype I built was plenty rigid enough so I stuck with that design.

Corner detail ...

Corner detail …

I cut the oak strips to 44cm in length, arranged them around the periphery of the 46 x 46cm Correx sheet and nailed all but two – on opposing sides of the top face – in place. ‘Overlap’ the corners (see image right) to provide additional strength. It’s worth noting here that my nail gun was only just strong enough to penetrate ~20mm of oak. The few nails that protruded were driven home with a hammer, brute force and a lot of ignorance. With care, frame nails (gimp pins) can easily be used instead.

Doors

In preparing the wood for the last two sides I made two slanting cuts to create the ‘doors’, nailed everything down and added a simple hinge from a gimp pin. It’s worth noting that it’s much easier to place the door ‘hinge’ (pivot?) centrally, rather than at one end of the door. Firstly, there’s less chance the end of the door will foul the adjacent wood. Secondly, to open the door you just need to push one end inwards with the hive tool; there’s no need to add a handle (a screw or nail that protrudes) to open the door outwards. This means there’s nothing to protrude and catch on clothing, on adjacent stacked boxes or on the lower lip of the roof when you’re using it as a crownboard. Finally, the bees won’t care.

Doors closed ...

Doors closed …

I gave the wood a couple of coats of (ironically) One Coat Ronseal Fence Life which should protect it from the elements.

Cheapy, cheapy

The Correx was about a tenner a sheet – delivered 5+ sheets at a time – from which I could cut sufficient for 10 split boards, with useful offcuts to build nuc crownboards or landing boards from. The hardwood strip wood was about £2 per board. Therefore, aside from a few nails, the finished boards cost about £3 each. This compares very favourably with the £28-36 charged by most suppliers for a Snelgrove board. Of course, I appreciate that the latter are more complicated and offer additional confusion functionality, but these are perfectly serviceable for a vertical split and there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained by using something you’ve bodged lovingly crafted yourself 😉

By the time this appears these boards might even be in use …


There’s a good explanation of split board construction in a post by Calluna4u on the SBAi discussion forum (“the thinking beekeepers web forum”). Calluna4u has a wealth of experience as a commercial beekeeper and prepares these boards in industrial quantities. His design differs slightly as it’s for use with hives arranged four to a palette. His post contains links to suppliers for 6mm pre-cut Correx in Dundee which might be useful to Scottish-based beekeepers.

Honey warming cabinet element

Ecostat 100 kit

Ecostat 100 kit

I recently spent an enjoyable evening giving a talk to the Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers Association. In questions after the talk I was asked where to buy the Ecostat heating element used in my honey warming cabinet. It’s not always listed on the website of the suggested supplier, Patrick Pinker (but is as I write this).

These incubator elements are usually purchased be people rearing chickens or gamebirds. An alternative supplier listing Ecostat kits in 50 and 100 eggs sizes is Strangford Incubators in Northern Ireland. You will almost certainly need the 100 egg size to generate enough heat to melt OSR honey properly.

Shop around before you purchase as there can be quite a variation in prices … £64 vs £93 (including P&P) for the two suppliers listed here  😯

Starter strips

You should expect to replace about one third of the brood frames per season to help offset the build-up of pathogens in drawn comb. The general advice is to “rotate these frames out” of the colony … meaning gradually move them to the outside of the broodnest and then remove them. Obviously you need to replace them and so need new frames every year. Alternatively you could change the frames en masse by doing a Bailey comb change or a shook swarm … again meaning you need more new frames every year. The National Bee Unit have published a document on Replacing Old Brood Comb (PDF). Remember that old, manky, black combs can be used in bait hives.

Scaling up and shelling out

If you only have one or two colonies it’s easy and inexpensive enough to assemble these frames as and when they’re needed. With significantly more colonies it makes sense to build them in winter ready for the season ahead. This is what I do. With the colony numbers I have, a few bait hives, some small scale queen rearing and nuc production I need 100-200 new frames a year.

Based on Thorne’s list prices, 10 DN5 frames and foundation will cost £28.80, 40% of which is the cost of the foundation 🙁  You can reduce these costs significantly by buying ‘second quality’ frames in bulk in the annual (or more frequent) sales. You can reduce the outlay even further by using foundationless frames and preparing your own starter strips (the ‘guides’ to help the bees build parallel comb). By my estimates, 100 second-quality DN5’s prepared with your own starter strips should cost abut 72p per frame. That’s more like it!

Dodgy foundation

Another reason to consider foundationless frames is potential problems with purchased foundation. There are reports of contaminants (specifically with stearin and palmitic acid) in some foundation that result in a very spotty brood pattern. These have primarily been in Belgium and the Netherlands. However, there’s an international trade in beeswax and you probably cannot be sure where the stuff you purchased originated. There’s an earlier thread on the BKF that also reports foundation problems in the UK.

I’ve always bought premium (though not organic) foundation from Thorne’sKBS or Maisemore’s and haven’t had any problems. Nevertheless, using foundationless frames means your drawn comb will be as contamination-free as the environment allows.

Freshly drawn comb

Freshly drawn comb …

Waxing lyrical

I’ve recently posted a description of how to make foundationless frames using bamboo BBQ skewers to provide lateral structural rigidity. The gaps between the skewers is ~11cm. This was an ideal opportunity to prepare my own starter strips as I wouldn’t need a huge vat of molten wax to make an aesthetically-pleasing full frame-length strip.

You can extract wax from cappings, from brace comb built by the bees and by recycling old frames (though you get less and less wax back as frames are used for repeated brood cycles). I use a homemade (i.e. bodged) steam wax extractor to do this. It’s a smelly and slightly sticky job that’s best done in the winter to avoid the attention of the bees (and neighbours). The wax needs to be filtered to remove the lumpy bits but certainly doesn’t need the preparation required to produce exhibition-quality candles. I’ve previously described how I process and clean recovered wax.

A simple Google search will uncover lots of videos and websites covering the production of starter strips from recovered wax. Many of these are aimed at the top bar hive community, but the process is essentially the same. I’m not going to provide a detailed account here (for reasons I’ll come to in a minute). The principle is straightforward … melt some wax in a container deep enough to make the length of starter strip you need, dip a wooden lath in several times, coating it liberally with melted wax, use a knife to separate the wax from the wooden strip … and repeat … and repeat … and repeat … ad infinitum.

Wax starter strips

Wax starter strips …

Don’t try this at home

What many of these sites don’t tell you is the following:

  • the wooden lath – a simple thin wooden strip of a suitable size onto which the wax is deposited – must be soaked in water before first dipping into the wax. It’s also helpful to dip it briefly in water between starter strips as well.
  • the wax must not be too hot. If it is, all you’ll do on the repeated dipping of the wooden lath is melt off the last layer of wax. I found that the wax needs to be at about 75°C.
  • it’s a pretty messy business. Cover everything with newspaper before you start. You generate a lot of wax scraps – from the edges of the wooden lath for example. These need to be fed back into your wax melter but a good proportion remains stuck to the knife and your fingers.
  • it’s beyond tedious. If you’re making significant numbers the repetition can get pretty boring. I made a hundred or so and was pleased to stop. Make sure you have a good radio programme to listen to …
  • the wax strips you make are quite brittle. The typical flexibility you get with sheets of foundation requires rolling the thin wax strips under pressure. Be warned, some of them may crack during subsequent handling.

Frankly, I’m not convinced it was worth doing and it’s unlikely I’ll be doing it again. I’m much more likely to trade in pre-cleaned blocks of wax for premium quality unwired thin foundation which can easily be cut into starter strips. You have been warned.

Cooling starter strips

Cooling starter strips …

Fixing wax starter strips in place

Whether you make your own or slice and dice a few sheets of embossed foundation you still need to fix these starter strips into the frame top bar. I’ve previously used standard gimp pins, holding the strip of foundation down with the wedge nailed back in position. However, experience shows that these long strips often flex and fall out over time if not quickly used by the bees. This is most obvious in bait hives where – if not occupied by a swarm – you’ll often find the foundation strip has worked loose and is now hanging down.

Homemade starter strips may be too brittle to nail in place and are likely to be thinner than embossed foundation strips, so fit less well anyway. Instead, the easiest way to fix any of these wax strips is to place them into the slot in the frame and ‘paint’ a little molten wax down either side of them. This makes a secure joint with the wood.

Wax starter strips ...

Wax starter strips …

Lots of lolly

Tongue depressor strips

Tongue depressor strips

Of course, it’s widely reported that bees don’t need a wax starter strip at all and/or that bees can engineer a much more secure connection between wax and the top bar. So, why bother doing this bit for them? Michael Bush has some excellent information on foundationless frames and is a strong supporter of an unwaxed bevelled top bar or a simple wood strip. The former is more than I could be bothered to produce, but a simple wooden strip is straightforward. Michael Bush suggests that the starter strip needs to protrude about a ¼ of an inch. Tongue depressors (don’t ask) are ideal for this and you can buy them in bulk from eBay if needed. I used a pair of tinsnips to cut them to length and fixed them in place with a few dabs of woodworking adhesive.

Wooden starter strips

Wooden starter strips …

Due to the ‘vertical’ bamboo skewers in these frames this is more fiddly than simply fixing a strip of foundation in place. However, if they are as robust as I expect, this is a job that will only need doing once. After use, if the comb is manky and black, it should be a simple matter to melt it out in the steam extractor and reuse the frames.

Experimental evidence

One of the pleasures of off-season dabbling is that you can invest a little time in planning for the year ahead and trying a range of new things to see what works best.

I’m already convinced of the benefits of foundationless frames. For reasons explained previously I’ve prepared some foundationless frames with vertical bamboo skewers this year, rather than horizontally ‘wired’ monofilament. As explained here, I’ve also prepared frames with different types of starter strips.

All of this takes extra work. However, I can justify it in terms of further money-saving, better performance or simply because of the rewarding feeling you get doing something yourself (in order of increasing importance to me).

Nevertheless, if I’m doing extra work, I want to gain the maximum benefit from the time invested. For example, I want to know which type of starter strip works best for me and my bees. I’ve therefore prepared a dozen mixed starter strip frames. One third bare wood, one third wax-coated wood and one third wax starter strips. During the season I’ll pop a few of these into expanding colonies and see which they prefer.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Bevelled … at a cost

Bevelled top bar

Bevelled top bar

Michael Bush likes simple bevelled top bars. Foundationless frames with a bevelled (‘V’-shaped) top bar are sold by Thorne’s. These have no additional monofilament, wire or bamboo supports. I’m not sure how long these have been available and haven’t heard any reports of beekeepers using them. They’re not inexpensive … £19.44 flat or £34 assembled for 10. Newly drawn, unsupported brood comb, particularly when it’s not fully attached to the side bars, is both a thing of beauty and rather delicate. Particularly on a hot day. These frames would certainly need careful handling. I’d be concerned that these might appeal to a relatively recent beekeeper who is attracted by the thought of a top bar hive. An experienced beekeeper would appreciate the fragility of unsupported new comb (and would likely make their own frames anyway). In contrast, a beginner might find themselves with a bootfull of irritated bees.


 But also see the recent comments from Calum on the prices of ready made frames … something around €1 if bought in sufficient numbers.

 Thin, unwired, premium-quality foundation from Thorne’s is just over £8 for 10 sheets at the time of writing. That’s enough for about 100 frames using a ~20mm starter strip.

 

 

Bamboo

I have been using increasing numbers of foundationless frames for the last couple of years. Rather than using a full sheet of embossed, wired foundation I let the bees draw the comb they need. I simply provide them with a frame containing some built-in support to provide lateral stability, together with a small strip (~1cm) of foundation to give them a clue where to start. They work very well. The newly drawn comb is beautiful and the bees draw drone and worker cells as needed. It can also save quite a bit of money.

Mono, wire … wood?

Harvesting brood

Harvesting brood

It is possible to use foundationless frames without any additional comb support. However, before it’s completely drawn and securely attached to the side bars it can be a little delicate. I therefore always provide some cross-bracing that can be incorporated into the newly drawn comb to give lateral support.

For the supports I’ve previously been using monofilament fishing line with a breaking strain of 30-50lb threaded through three pairs of holes drilled through the side bars. Although monofilament is inexpensive and easy to obtain, it’s a bit awkward and slow to ‘wire’ the frames and it doesn’t resist the heat of the steam wax extractor. Bees can also sometime nibble through the 30lb stuff whereas the 50lb – although thick enough to withstand the bee nibbling – is less easy to work with. Furthermore, for my day job we regularly harvest 2-3″ square sections of larvae- or pupae-containing brood comb (see the image above). We do this with a sharp serrated knife. This often severs the monofilament and can leave the frame poorly supported. For these reasons I wanted to prepare foundationless frames with more robust supports for the season(s) ahead.

One option would be to use stainless steel wire. This would certainly be heat resistant. It’s widely available and relatively inexpensive. However, to get sufficient tension it might necessitate fixing eyelets to the side bars to stop the wire cutting into them. Whilst I was considering this there was a post on the SBAi forum suggesting the use of bamboo BBQ skewers. This may well have been suggested elsewhere – there are few original ideas in beekeeping – but it was a new idea to me.

Skewered

BBQ skewers are available from an eBay in just about any length and amount you could want. One thousand 25cm skewers (the size needed for a standard National brood frame) cost less than a tenner delivered. You can buy 50 or 100 at a time to see if this method works for you (at a higher price per skewer, inevitably).

Predrilled top bars

Predrilled top bars

When preparing the frames I remove the ‘wedge’ and drill two equally-spaced holes through the middle of the top bar. Use a drill bit thinner than the bamboo skewer; I used one of 2.5mm. Assemble the entire frame including both bottom bars. If you’ve not experienced the epiphany of using a nail gun before I recommend borrowing one and discovering how easy it makes putting frames together. Put a small dab of woodworking adhesive (on the inside with regard to the frame) in each of the two holes in the top bar, slip the pointed end of the skewer through the gap in the bottom bars and push it firmly into the glued hole.

Straight and square

If there’s any curve to the bamboo skewer make sure its along the plane of the frame, not bowing out to one side or the other, by rotating the skewer in the hole. Or use a different skewer … they cost less than a penny each. Make sure the skewers are approximately square to the top bar and add another dab of glue either side of where they protrudes through the bottom bars.

Allow the glue to set and then cut off the unwanted pieces of bamboo. I used a Stanley knife for the top bar to get it nice and flush (so I could easily scrape it with a frame tool) and a pair of side cutting pliers for the bottom of the frame.

BBQ skewers

BBQ skewers …

The resulting frame is then ready for the foundation. I’ll cover this in a separate post as I’ve been making my own starter strips.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames


As an aside, the frame in the photograph titled ‘Harvesting brood’ is foundationless. It’s a perfect example of why lateral support is required to make these frames robust enough to handle easily. The bees have drawn the frame out completely but have only secured it to the side bars in a few spots. The comb isn’t attached to the bottom bars at all.

 A quick interwebs search turned up a post by Matt Davey on Beesource that lead me to his brief description of using bamboo skewers for foundationless frames. In addition, Kitta – the original poster on the SBAi forum – also kindly directed me to the Heretics Guide to Beekeeping, which is also worth a look. As I said before, if something is a good idea in beekeeping (or a bad idea), someone will have had it before 😉

 

Entrances and exits

Over the course of the first full season using the bee shed the access to the hives – for the bees, not the beekeeper – has been simplified and improved. The current versions appear to work well and provide the necessary security and ease of use – for the beekeeper, not the bees  😉

General principles

The bee shed houses nucs and full colonies. The space available allows a maximum of two nucs and four full colonies arranged down one side of the shed. There’s additional space for 3-4 more nucs on the opposite side of the shed that is not currently used. In retrospect I should have purchased a shed twice as long (24′ not 12′) for flexibility, storage and to have more space to work in.

Sometimes the full colonies need to be replaced by nucs so the entrances have to be compatible. In all cases the bees access the colony, or leave the shed depending upon the direction they’re travelling, from an unmodified hive through a hole in the wall. Therefore there needs to be a bee-tight interface between the wall of the shed and the front of the hive (or nuc). Without this there’s a chance the shed will fill with disorientated bees.

What I’ve learned this season is that compatibility and flexibility are at least as important as security. It’s possible to build reasonably effective and secure interfaces without having everything tightly interlocking, screwed down or immovable. A combination of the weight of the hive, coupled with careful inspections, are sufficient to keep the colony in place.

In an ideal world …

Clearers on ...

Clearers on …

… the simplest way to provide access would be to push the face of the hive flush against the shed wall through which a hole had been cut at the right height from the ground. This would work perfectly, be bee tight, not require any hive modifications and be fully interchangeable. However, as the season progresses supers are added and these would also have to be placed flush with the shed wall. The first problem is that, without serious modification, the shed windows get in the way (see the image on the right). They almost always have an inner sill of some sort. The second problem is that having the hive tight against the wall reduces the space for frame or hive tool manipulation and makes returning supers more difficult. Finally, pushing the brood box and supers flush against the wall would prevent the use of a hive roof.

Of course, since the colonies are in a shed the roof is not required for weatherproofing … but it’s essential to provide a safe place to stand the smoker as it cools down. All other surfaces are wood or Correx and I don’t want to burn the shed down.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

The required interchangeability with nucleus colonies raises two additional issues. Firstly the poly nucs I use (Everynucs) have an integral 2cm ‘landing board’ in front of the cavernous entrance slot. Pushing them ‘flush’ to the shed wall leaves a big gap. Secondly, the height of this entrance slot is not identical to the hive floors I use. I could build alternative floors or buy other nucs, but instead came up with a solution that saved me doing either (and since I have more invested in nuc boxes than the shed itself this made economic sense as well) and solved the problems with hive manipulations and adding supers.

A pragmatic solution …

Ducting ...

Ducting …

… required that the hives were separated from the shed wall by a short tunnel built from some spare rigid extractor fan ducting. In the original design this was carefully shaped to fit neatly into the entrance slot of the hive, with the remaining front of the hive blanked off and blocked with an equally carefully shaped piece of Correx. This worked well … until the hive needed to be moved, or was inadvertently nudged during hive inspections. A partial solution was to screw the hive floor to the stand with L-shaped brackets. Although this prevented the accidental movement it made deliberate hive exchanges a right pain.

Ducting ...

Ducting …

It turns out that a far simpler solution is to have a simple flush-fitting piece of ducting (angled slightly upwards to prevent water ingress). One end is wedged into the hole in the shed wall, the other is butted up against the face of the hive. The remainder of the hive entrance slot is blocked with a standard entrance reducer screwed in place to the hive floor (not shown fixed in the picture on the right). This works a treat. The hive is heavy enough to not shift about unless deliberately moved. If I need to move it I can just pick it up as I would any other hive (i.e. carefully and with a lot of wincing).

The nucleus solution

Foam entrance block ...

Foam entrance block …

Because of the landing board these are actually easy to push flush to the shed wall, which still leaves just about enough space for frame manipulation and getting the roof on and off. I originally discussed using a small block of foam with a small arch cut into it to allow the bees access to the wider world. It turned out that the bees quickly chewed through some of the original foam blocks I used and, if the block was too small, they were difficult to reposition when moving the nuc boxes.

Correx and foam block

Correx and foam block …

I’ve recently started using an improved entrance consisting of a denser piece of foam strapped to a suitably sized Correx offcut (see picture right). The simple gaffer tape ‘handles’ allow this to be pinned to the hive body for security and make it easy to relocate when moving the nucs. I’ve stopped strapping the nucs to the shed wall to prevent them moving … there’s no need if you’re careful when inspecting them. I do usually have a strap holding the lid on. Largely because if I don’t it’s something else to locate when I want to move the box.

Pinned back ears ...

Pinned back ears …

If I need to replace a full hive with a nuc I can simply remove the ducting and push the nuc flush with the shed wall. Finally, the two dedicated nuc entrances in the shed wall can be blanked off using a piece of Correx placed into a sort of ‘holder’ on the inner wall. This turns out to be unnecessary and I’ve barely used it. If I need to block the shed entrance I simply stuff it with foam. Unsubtle, but highly effective.

Landing and drifting

On the outside of the shed are a series of simple Correx landing boards in different colours to help the bees locate their own colonies. I’ve no evidence that this either reduces the level of drifting between colonies or increases the ease with which heavily-laden foragers return with pollen and nectar.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

However, even if the bees don’t find them useful, I like them.

Even kewler floors

So-called kewl floors have underfloor entrances that are pretty-much rodent proof (so you don’t need mouseguards in winter) and are easy to seal when needed for transporting hives or administering vaporised oxalic acid. They are very easy and inexpensive to build. The last batch I built were all fitted with a Correx landing board that protruded a centimetre or so. It turned out that the ‘design’ (a rather grand word for the bodged solution I came up with at the time) was not ideal so I’m gradually replacing them with a modified version that corrects the worst of the faults of the original.

New Correx landing board ...

New Correx landing board …

The problem

  1. The protruding landing board inevitably got a bit bashed about when transporting colonies
  2. The gap underneath the landing board disorientated bees who climbed up the hive stand or otherwise undershot. This was particularly noticeable when reversing colonies during vertical splits. I’d previously fitted a plastic ‘skirt’ to some hives to fix this (see pic below).
  3. The ‘edge’ of the Correx provided a narrow and slippery target for heavily-laded foragers returning to the colony. Many lost their grip and fell off into the grass before having a second or third attempt at entering the hive.

The solution

An L-shaped piece of Correx (of course), though this time not protruding, with a rough textured integral ‘skirt’ to block the gap below the hive entrance works well. To make an acute bend in Correx you need to make two parallel cuts through one skin and remove the intervening ‘rib’. This takes longer to write than to do. After stapling the Correx in place I spray paint it and sprinkle sand onto the wet paint. You can use different colours to help orientate bees and minimise drifting. Alternatively, use multi-coloured ‘repurposed’ estate agent signs and a clear spray varnish of some type.

Other improvements?

The final change I’d intended to make to these floors was to add a second entrance on the opposing side. Some hive manipulations involve turning the colony 180° on the stand – these include vertical splits and using a Cloake board for queen rearing. Rather than manhandling the entire colony it would be much easier to seal off the front of the hive and open a hinged entrance at the rear (much like opening and closing the gates on a Snelgrove board). Unfortunately, this batch of floors were over-engineered, with the upper upper rim glued and screwed in place, so this modification will have to be introduced when (or if) I next build floors.

New landing board in action …


The original landing board was held in place with gimp pins. Inevitably these had rusted which made removing them a bit of a pain. When replacing them I used stainless steel staples (like these from Arrow) with the hope that this will make future removal of the landing board easier.

 

Dr. Bodgit goes beekeeping

Two frame nucs

Two frame nucs …

Dr. Bodgit is the name my wife gives my alter ego … the bloke who spends the first few days each week nursing the cuts and gouges in his hands from a weekend spent butchering pieces of wood for beekeeping purposes. In a past life I was asked to talk about ‘DIY for beekeepers’ for the Warwick and Leamington BKA … something relatively lightweight to follow their AGM. As any BKA member knows, these are usually very tense events, with huge competition to get onto the executive committee … or not. That talk lead to an irregular Dr. Bodgit column in the otherwise excellent WLBK Bee Talk newsletter which in turn prompted me to start this website … if you go back to some of the early posts they were often about DIY for beekeepers. Now, a few years later, I’m dusting off the same talk for the Fife BKA at their 2016 AGM (10/3/16), updated to include a further 5 years of tips and tricks and a large amount of additional scar tissue.

Paynes poly nuc ...

Paynes poly nuc …

In the spectrum of beekeeping DIY – ranging from badly carving up a block of polystyrene for hive insulation to crafting beautiful cedar broods and supers from wood I’ve felled, matured, dried, cut and planed – I’m firmly positioned at the (rank) amateur end. Nevertheless I reckon there are a large number of items that can be easily, relatively inexpensively and usefully built – these both potentially improve your beekeeping (enjoyment at least) and give you something to do in the long, cold, dark winters.

Tools of the trade

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

Over the years I’ve developed some fairly basic boundaries to the types of DIY I attempt. I’m restricted on time, space and very restricted on ability. Furthermore, since I don’t really trust myself with power tools I don’t own too many (though see below). Therefore the vast majority of the things I attempt can be constructed – a rather grand word meaning ‘bodged together’, hence Dr. Bodgit – using the sorts of tools most people already have available:

  • cutting tools – a good tenon saw, a Stanley knife and a breadknife
  • measuring tools – tape measure and set square
  • joining tools – hand drill, screwdriver and small hammer

The breadknife is really for working with polystyrene – either carving insulation or butchering Paynes poly nucs to improve them. To these tools I’d add a list of ‘consumables’ that will need regular replacement:

  • pencil for marking stuff – you will inevitably lose it … it’s behind you ear 😉
  • screws – buy them in bulk from Screwfix in a couple of convenient sizes
  • nails – almost exclusively the gimp pins for frame construction
  • sticky stuff – Evostick wood glue, Gorilla glue and Unibond Power tape (for Correx)
  • Elastoplast (though Unibond Power tape and tissues work well) and antiseptic cream
  • tea – critical to keep hydrated properly … you might also need fruit cake
Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

The ‘joining tools’ is where I have gradually made concessions on power tools. A reasonable quality rechargeable electric drill/screwdriver is a huge timesaver and a nail/staple gun makes assembling everything from brood boxes to frames extremely easy (you’ll need to add nails/staples to the consumables list above). However, these power tools are a luxury and not a necessity. I’m also having to consider a table saw as I now no longer have an excellent local timber merchant (or anything but the big chain, big price, rubbish) who stocks a wide variety of ‘bee space friendly’ planed softwood. It’s only the affection I have for my fingers that’s stopping me …

Don’t do this at home

Don't do this at home ...

Don’t do this at home …

There are a number of things I think that are simply not worth attempting … these are items that are either already inexpensive, that are difficult to make without a lot of investment in tools or where it is difficult to make them at a quality good enough to justify the effort. In my view brood boxes and supers tick all three of these ‘exclusion’ rules … the cedar seconds are pretty inexpensive and readily available, they’re well made and go together easily and they should last pretty-much forever. I’ve made plywood boxes previously and wouldn’t do it again … too heavy and nothing like as long-lasting.

I don’t attempt any metalwork – other than the base of my steam wax extractor – but have heard of people making queen excluders, smokers and building their own honey extractors … again, hugely rewarding I’m sure, but needs too much time, tools and expertise than I have.

The art of the possible

I think the best things to build are those that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • items that cannot be purchased at all (there are lots of these)
  • items that can be purchased but that are poorly designed and/or built (few of these)
  • items that can be purchased but only for silly money (lots of these)

For me, considering hive components, it turns out that it’s the parts that are essentially horizontal in the hive that seem to most often meet these criteria. These include:

  • Kewl floors – these are floors with a so-called ‘Dartington-type’ underfloor entrance. I think they offer advantages for the bees in terms of reduced robbing and wasp problems, and for the beekeeper by obviating the need for mouseguards and making transporting hives and vaporising oxalic acid easier. You can buy these from one supplier but the price is ridiculous and the design is sub-optimal in my opinion (so I’m not including a link).
  • a variety of split or division boards – these include conventional single entrance split boards, multi-entrance Snelgrove boards, slightly more complicated Horsley boards and clearer boards. I’d also include Cloake boards for queen rearing in this category. In all cases, these meet one or more of the qualifying criteria – some cannot be bought, those that can are not ideal and the prices are always simply daft. Thorne’s Snelgrove boards are about £35 each and can probably be made (better) for about a fiver … that’s one of my jobs for this winter. Their Cloake board is the same price. It does come with a queen excluder (but you’ve got lots of those already) but the shallow eke and Correx removable slide can be built from scavenged materials for almost nothing. There’s a very recent thread on the SBAi about building so-called ‘flight boards‘ from thick Correx for ~£2.70 each – these are dual entrance, dual-use, split boards which can be used as crownboards or used to divide strong colonies for swarm control or making increase.
  • perspex, insulated crownboards – unavailable to my knowledge (all of those for sale are uninsulated), very useful and relatively easy and inexpensive to build.
  • inexpensive, totally weatherproof, lightweight roofs – these can be built from Correx for well under £2, less than 25% of the price of the metalwork alone from Beehive bits or about 10% of the price of the – disappointingly poor quality – Thorne’s sale quality cedar roofs.

I only list Thorne’s above for convenience – their offerings are usually no worse or better (or differently priced) than any of the major beekeeping equipment suppliers. The second quality cedar broods and supers they sell at BeeTradex and the big annual shows are – with a little picking and choosing to avoid the terminally-warped (note that you’re well-advised to take care avoiding the terminally-warped at any of the annual beekeeping jamborees) – perfectly usable. Their first quality cedar broods, of which I have a few, are lovely (and so they should be at £42).

If you move away from hive components there are lots of additional opportunities for exploiting a little DIY skill and/or experiencing a little blood loss:

  • my honey warming cabinet was first described on this site over two years ago and is consistently the most searched-for (and possibly even read) page. With a little careful planning you can build one that’s far better insulated than commercially available, with better thermostatic control and heat circulation, that will also treble up (is there such a term?) as a super-heater to aid extraction and as a queen cell incubator. If you source the individual components carefully you can build one for 25-33% of the prices listed by big T or Maisemore’s.
  • honey bucket tippers are now available commercially – they can look beautiful but are eyewateringly expensive – but are a doddle to build for the price of a few scrap pieces of wood and two hinges.
  • my hivebarrow has more than paid for itself in saving hours of backbreaking work … one of the most useful things I’ve built and, as I get more decrepit, getting more useful by the year.

So, there you have it, you’ve now no need to attend the Fife Beekeepers AGM in early March … I’ll attribute the tiny audience for my talk to the fact you’ve all read about it in advance, rather than it being of no interest to anyone.

Of course, the three or four who do turn up are going to have trouble avoiding being voted onto the committee 😉

Finally, if you need any more convincing that beekeeping DIY makes sound financial sense, I present my final exhibit …

National hive dummy boards DIY

Dummy boards …

… these cost £6-7 from the beekeeping suppliers. No wonder they’re called dummy boards 😉

And don’t forget …

Measure twice, cut once, swear often

Everynuc 2 beespace

The Everynuc poly nuc sold by Thorne’s is a clever design. However, the British National version is a bit of a compromise where beespace is considered and, as purchased, may not accommodate national frames properly. It can be improved relatively easily but requires a small amount of woodworking, some Gorilla glue and the confidence to take a saw to your recent £47 acquisition.

The problem

Everynuc feeder

Everynuc feeder …

The Everynuc 2 accommodates national frames in what is a Langstroth-sized box by having an internal feeder at one end of the box. The frame rests on the upper edge of one side of the feeder and the opposite end of the box – presumably the entrance end of the nuc hive. An 8mm thick piece of stripwood on the lower edge of the feeder stops the frame sliding ‘back’ (because the box is much longer than the top bar of a national frame), potentially crushing bees and certainly destroying beespace. The box is supposed to be top beespace – it’s not really, particularly since the (Bayer manufactured!) plastic crownboard sags a bit. However, in those I currently own the feeder was too close to the crownboard, making it almost top beespace at one end of the frame and something much less at the feeder end (a more complete review and more photographs have been posted here previously). Furthermore, in the three boxes I painted this weekend the combination of incorrect top beespace and the thickness of the stripwood at the bottom of the feeder prevented the frame properly sitting on the frame rest at the opposite end of the box (see photo below right).

The solution

  1. The side supporting lugs for the feeder need to be reduced in depth by removing about 3mm from the bottom of them (the bit in contact with the sidewall of the nuc box). In the half-dozen boxes I’ve modified so far the lugs are all attached using glue and a nail gun. Belt and braces. In about half of them the nail hasn’t been driven in straight and the saw fouls it … simply remove the nail using strong pliers. Both sides need to be cut down by the same amount.
  2. Add a frame runner to the inside of the feeder. I’ve used plastic frame runners and stuck them in places using Gorilla glue. It needs to be just proud of the top of the wooden panel on the feeder (any higher and the bottom of the frame is raised above the wood spacer at the bottom of the feeder). Clamp the runner in place and then trim away any glue that’s oozed out once everything has set.
  3. Add a cross bar of 9mm stripwood to act as a framestop, preventing the frames shifting ‘back’ as described above. It’s easy to add syrup or fondant directly into the feeder, but the crossbar removes any chance of the frame moving.

These minor modification fix the top beespace problem and make the frames fit properly. The framestop makes transporting (e.g. by car or hivebarrow) these boxes much easier. The reduction in depth of the supporting lugs doesn’t alter the 1-2mm that the bottom of a frame overlaps the 8mm stripwood on the bottom of the feeder (see the top picture). However, with top beespace, any slight bump lifts the frame clear of this stripwood and it can then slide back, crushing bees between the sidebar of the frame and the feeder. The addition of a framestop across the top of the feeder fixes this defect.

Everynuc feeder

Everynuc feeder …

Note – this post was written originally in March 2015 about Everynucs purchased and delivered in late 2014. I have subsequently purchased and received a further 18 Everynucs (received April 2015) which appear to have a slightly shallower ‘lug’ on the feeder. Those I’ve tested don’t appear to show the problem illustrated above, with the frame not seated on the runner. I can’t make a side-by-side comparison as I’ve already modified all of the original Everynucs I received. However, they all still have the wrong beespace at the non-feeder end, the solution for which is described below.

You’ve not finished yet …

The beespace at the non-feeder end of the nuc box is still wrong. I overwintered a number of colonies in these nucs* and all had built brace comb between the frame end bars and the wall of the box, making frame removal messy and disruptive. The incorrect beespace is due to the long lugs on a National frame being used in a box where the frame rests are designed for the short lugs on a Langstroth frame. To overcome this simply glue a piece of 8-9mm ply onto the end wall of the nuc. A piece of ply 20.4 x 20.5 cm (w x h) restores beespace. I’ve used Gorilla glue to hold it in place in the half-dozen modified recently. Since Gorilla glue doesn’t seem to form an irreversible joint with dense polystyrene I reckon I can take these apart if they are unsuitable (famous last words … and don’t trust me on this, test it yourself first).

It seems a shame to have to modify what is probably one of the most expensive poly-nucs on the market. However, I remain reasonably certain that this is the best currently available. These boxes should last 20+ years if properly maintained and so justify a small amount of effort at the beginning to improve them.

Fixed

Fixed …

The final task is to design a suitable entrance reducer to prevent robbing by wasps late in the season, to stop mice getting in during the winter and that allows my recently acquired Sublimox oxalic acid vaporiser to be used when required. Since wasps, mice and OA treatment are ages away I’ll leave this exercise for another day …


* I should add in closing that colonies overwintered extremely well in these nucs. Some were stronger coming out of the winter than full colonies that had gone in strong in September. I only fed with fondant, gently dropping slices into the feeder through the autumn.

 

Spray painting poly nucs

It’s recommended that poly nucs are painted before use as polystyrene degrades in sunlight. I’ve always used the cheapest masonry paint I can find – being water-based there’s no danger of damaging the polystyrene, it goes on reasonably well and is pretty hard wearing. The range of colours – in the inexpensive ranges at least – is a bit limited … white, a variety of cream or ivory shades, brick red or black. I’ve always used the brick red (though the bees would see this as black of course) from Wilkinsons, but would really prefer a leaf or dark green colour to help make the hives unobtrusive.

Black & Decker HVLP200

Black & Decker HVLP200

The paint tends to a be a bit thick out of the pot, so I usually water it down by about 25% and apply a couple of coats. The Thorne’s Everynucs or Paynes boxes are easy to paint with a brush as all the surfaces are flat. The Modern Beekeeping poly Langstroth nucs are a different matter altogether – the ‘branding’ and handles moulded into every face make painting them a real pain.

First coat done

First coat done …

However, painting a large number of any of these boxes quickly becomes a tedious task. With 18 new Everynucs to paint I bought a Black and Decker HVLP (high volume low pressure) spray gun in the sales. These come with a small funnel-like contraption to measure the viscosity of the paint. Out of the tin the masonry paint I’ve got was far too thick and gloopy, but with enough water and lots of stirring I readily achieved the right consistency. After that the painting was a doddle. In two hours – as two one hour stints – I painted a dozen Everynucs with two coats. A few areas were a bit patchy as I got the hang of the paint gun. These paint guns are essentially strong hairdryers so there are few moving parts – the nozzles and paint reservoir are easily rinsed out and cleaning probably took no more than 10 minutes.

I usually paint my cedar hives with Ronseal Fence Life in a ‘forest green’ colour – this is much thinner paint and will probably be usable without dilution. It’s not as hard wearing as the masonry paint and requires re-painting every few years. This spray gun will make this a trivial task and it should be possible to stack them head-high and paint all four sides very quickly. All of this painting needs to be done outdoors on a calm day as there’s quite a bit of overspray from this type of paint gun … there speaks the voice of experience 😉

D'oh ...

D’oh …

 

Repairing poly hives

Well healed nucs

Well healed nucs

A stack of recently painted poly nucs got blown over in high winds during the winter. Inevitably, when they land on the edges of the boxes, the thinner bits break away. These are easy to fix … Gorilla glue is your friend. A smear across one face of the break and a bit of water spread across the other, coupled with some clamps or string to hold everything mated together properly, will form a really strong bond. The glue expands to fill the spaces, oozing out of the joint. Pare back the dried glue 24 hours later and everything will be fine.

Super damage

Super damage

Gorilla glue and a little additional ingenuity can also successfully fix boxes that are more dramatically damaged. I dropped a full poly super from shoulder height when harvesting OSR honey in 2014. The result was not pretty, though I did manage to recover most of the frames for extraction. Two of the corners of the poly super (Swienty) were badly broken, with the interlocking lugs snapped off cleanly. A combination of Gorilla glue, dowels and sash clamps fixed it for use during the main flow later in the season.

More major repairs ...

More major repairs …

More extensive gaps such as woodpecker damage can be fixed using exterior wood filler. Fortunately, I’ve not yet had to do this. However, while butchering Paynes 6 frame poly nucs to create 8 frame boxes I filled very large gaps with a combination of Screwfix MegaGrip glue and offcuts of polystyrene. These appear to have lasted well. The glue seemed to take a very long time to set, but it’s rock solid and can be sanded back flush to provide a smooth and easily cleaned face to the repair.

Oops ...

Oops …