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Plain Talk Beekeeping

Fiddle Bump Beekeeping

- January 1, 2024 - James E. Tew - (excerpt)

hive tool

Staying busy during the cold months of the year

Some Plain Talk about beekeeping during cold seasons

ABJ readers, here’s some Plain Talk Beekeeping for you — January is a slow month for actively managing bees. Except for those who are in warmer parts of this country, January is a cold, blustery month with few bee yard tasks to be done. But these cold months represent a significant part of our year. What can we do to make these months more apiculturally entertaining while we await the arrival of warmer times?

Many of us fiddle bump with our bees during these months. I admit that I had problems finding a suitable definition for that slang term, so maybe the word tinker or fiddle might fit better.

Beekeepers have been fiddling with their bees as long as humans have interacted with bees. While tinkering with bees could actually be done at any time, the cold months are a good time to develop these unexplored interests. We simply have no meaningful beehive management tasks to accomplish during cold months, but we should not waste this down time that comes every year.

Our beekeeping history is replete with tinkerers

I spent most of my career in academic beekeeping. Through the years, elegant and significant apicultural advances have been made that are based on factual, reproducible information. I respect good science, but with absolutely no offense intended, I write here that it was not always that way.

Our early bee pioneers were not classically trained scientists. L.L. Langstroth was a minister. C.C. Miller trained as a physician. Honey extractors were not designed by scientists. It was not classically trained scientists who cut the hollow trunk of a tree that contained a bee nest so it could be moved nearer to the ground and closer to home. People like these nameless tinkerers were the ones who designed English-style skeps. Clever people were the first to build simple box hives to augment the shortage of tree gums. These people liked to tinker with bees. They were bee fiddle bumps.

Any person can be a bee fiddler

Individuals endowed with the ability to sew probably designed our early protective clothing. They may or may not have had a personal interest in actually managing beehives. Have a look at antique smokers. People with the ability to metal-work tinkered with metal canisters for holding a smoldering fire that would generate smoke. Probably, modifying the idea of a bellows for fire maintenance in a blacksmith shop, a clever person added a small bellows to the canister to keep the smoldering fire alit.

Readers, there is no obvious end to this evolutionary list. The development of standardized hive equipment, the development of extractors, devising comb uncappers, adapting prybars to serve as hive tools, and the development of beeswax foundation are all examples of advances made to beekeeping by tinkering specialists.

I wonder …

I wonder if we tinker with our bees because we actually spend so little time actually in bees’ nests. In previous articles, I have written that true beekeeping is mostly not actually being in a colony. Rather, we spend most of our time preparing to be in the bees.

Plus — and importantly — beekeeping concepts are pliable. Bees are adaptable and do not demand a complicated abode. They can tolerate much of our esoteric experimentation. For instance, essentially, anyone with a simple table saw can build a functional beehive. In most instances, the bees will thrive in a beekeeper-built box.

I also wonder …

When I stand before a group conversing about bees, I see the audience as a collage of beekeepers. Yet, within that group, each beekeeper has unique skill sets that are not related to beekeeping at all. But that does not mean that those people ignore the “aha” moment when they visualize a use for their talents within beekeeping.

Welders, internet technology specialists, electricians, carpenters, chefs, accountants, artists — essentially anyone can use their skills and training to advance beekeeping concepts. I wonder if many of the citizen science advances made in beekeeping were made by individuals who brought unique abilities to an otherwise simple technology.

It can be just for fun

Many years ago, and during the winter months, I assigned myself the seemingly useless project of building six wooden hive tools from a piece of figured maple. I used multiple tools in my wood shop to build these mock hive-manipulation devices. Requiring nearly two days to build and to apply a protective finish, I gave five away as gifts. The one pictured below is the only one I now have.

The donated wooden hive tools were to be used on contrasting wood plaques as awards for some long-forgotten club event. While I don’t know what happened to them and I have no plans to ever do this again, at the time, I became very familiar with an old eight-inch hive tool as I made wooden copies made of curly maple. Though it was just for off-season fun, it was indirectly related to beekeeping.

Laser-engraving bee motifs

Some time ago, I visited a Maker’s Faire. Surrounded by all those tools and electronic devices, I needed a project. Being a bee person, of course, I wanted to do something involving bees, but surprise, surprise, there was nothing there concerning my beloved bees.

After exploring the web on their computer, looking for honey bee graphics, and then waiting in line for my turn at the laser engraver, I came up with the pictured laser-burning project. It only took a few minutes to complete. I liked the project, but I have honestly not been able to find a demanding use for it. It was just for offseason fun, but it was indirectly related to beekeeping.

Stained-glass bee motifs

One of my brothers makes stained-glass works. He offered to do some glasswork for me, so naturally, I felt that I had to come up with something related to beekeeping. It took him several months, but the photo that I have included below shows the 20×22” piece of artwork he did for me. I have it hanging in my shop window where I work and write. I have enjoyed its viewing pleasure for many decades. It was just for fun, but it is indirectly related to beekeeping.

Reproducing antique hive designs

During January one year, I spent a lot of time reproducing an American Bee-Hive designed by H.A. King, an Ohio beekeeper. I have a copy of his book, and the carcass of one of his hives is in the Ohio State Bee Equipment Museum. I used that as a pattern and got the remainder of the dimensions from Mr. King’s published works.

In this article, I am unprepared to delve into apicultural history, but for many years there was argument and debate about the design of the “best” hive. During those decades, the American Bee-Hive was somewhat of a finalist in hive design in this challenge, but we all know what design ultimately won the debate — the Langstroth Hive.

From the photo, you can tell that the hive could be worked from the side as well as from the top. It had an adjustable entrance for robbing control and the bottom board was slanted. Mr. King felt that the slanted bottom board would “…allow fallen wax moth larvae to roll from the hive, and drop to the ground, where the chickens would eat them.”

One interesting challenge was that I had to find 7/8” thick poplar lumber for construction wood. Mr. King used full-width boards, but I could not find such wide building material so I had to plane to the desired thickness and then glue the boards to accumulate the needed building material. The construction of these three antiquated hives kept me beekeepingly busy for two cold months. One has been lost, but two still exist.

Conceptualizing Garden Hives

A few years after building Mr. King’s hives, I spent the winter season trying to envision a hive design that I called a “Garden Hive.” During my career, I presented numerous talks at gardening clubs. When talking to people who only wanted bees because they wanted a full-featured garden, some would whine at the plain, boxy design of a standard beehive.

Having somewhat of a concept of the stylish design of earlier antique hives, I tried to put some practical …