The Curious Beekeeper

A Slovenian-style Apiary Overlooking a Mountain Top

- September 1, 2022 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

Slovenian-style apiary

A Slovenian-style apiary is a magical place where art, nature, beekeeping, and practicality coalesce into a pollinator haven. Overlooking Mount St. Helens in sleepy Onalaska, Washington, artist and entrepreneur Kay Crawford and her husband, Robbie, created an idyllic kingdom. Here, honey bees and dozens of native species commingle among acres of flowers and enjoy a reprieve from pesticides and other perils of civilization. For us humans, it’s a covert shrine of tranquility enhanced by the hypnotic hum of bees.

In addition to the Slovenian hives, Kay has added top bar hives and a specially-designed fully screened ”Gabeebo.” Inside, visitors can experience an up-close but undisturbed view of honey bees doing their thing. Under wide blue skies and the snowy tufts of the mountain, viewers can sip their iced tea and watch nature at its finest.

Central to the Slovenian concept of bee-centric beekeeping is the A-Ž hive, an invention that makes beekeeping a more pleasant, less traumatic experience for both the bees and the keepers. Although the Slovenian beekeeping landscape is still dominated by these traditional hives, they are less common elsewhere. But seeing the hives in action could easily change your mind.

 

The Slovenian A-Ž hive

A Slovenian industrialist with a passion for beekeeping designed the A-Ž hive. While skep hives were still popular in many parts of Europe, Anton Žnideršič (1874-1947) had seen the modern, newly developed Langstroth hives and admired their practicality. However, like many locals, he mourned the loss of the traditional bee house, a trademark of Slovenian rural culture.

Using his innate ingenuity, Žnideršič united features of both the Langstroth and the traditional bee house into another option for beekeepers. His first design followed the introduction of the Langstroth by just ten years. And in Slovenia, the A-Ž hive became an instant hit.

The A-Ž hive incorporates moveable frames, stacked boxes, and wired foundation, all things Žnideršič thought were worthy improvements to traditional hives. But he set out to correct what he perceived as shortcomings in the Langstroth, including the necessity of heaving heavy boxes. He also wanted to reduce propolis buildup on the frames, which often made moving frames unnecessarily difficult.

 

The Slovenian bee house

The bee house is the centerpiece of a Slovenian apiary, so a true A-Ž hive is never freestanding. All the individual hives fit permanently into the bee house, side-by-side, and are tended from inside the structure. The beekeeper accesses the hives from openings in the back of each bee box, never from the top.

This unique configuration means the beekeeper need not lift supers or brood boxes. Inspecting, treating, and harvesting can be done by sliding the frames horizontally in and out of the boxes, like taking a book from a shelf. Since each hive sits near the next, the beekeeper needs only walk the length of the bee house to work many hives. The system is unparalleled in efficiency.

The original A-Ž hives had one brood box and one honey super. But as large colony sizes became popular, beekeepers began adding a second honey super to the stack, an alteration that soon became commonplace. In most American versions, the boxes and frames are all one size regardless of their purpose.

 

 

Bee houses on wheels

Originally, all bee houses were stationary structures and many remain so. But today, A-Ž hives are often built into a rolling bee house, such as a truck, van, or bus that can be driven to new locations as crops go in and out of bloom. A rolling bee house eliminates the need for pallets, tie-downs, forklifts, and heavy lifting. The beekeeper merely locks up the bees in the evening, attaches his tow bar, and drives away the next morning.

Since the beekeeper tends his colonies within the structure, both the keeper and the bees are protected from rain, snow, wind, and extreme temperatures. If the interior is well-designed, even the need for a bee suit is minimal. Any bees that wander out of the hive fly out of the building through an open window toward the sunlight and re-enter the hive from the front.

 

Other bee house advantages

Maintaining a compact set of A-Ž hives is easier than maintaining an equal number of freestanding hives. For example, only one side of each hive needs to be painted because the other five sides are protected by the bee house. And because the bee house protects the hives from the elements, damage from rain, freezing temperatures, wind, sun exposure, insects, and birds is minimal.

Bee houses also discourage bear rampages because bears cannot topple the hives to break them apart. Although bears can still inflict damage, a bear is less likely to trash every-
thing as it would in a standard apiary. Smaller mammals, such as skunks, raccoons, and opossums, also have trouble accessing the elevated, smooth-faced bank of hives.

Inside the bee house, the side-by-side colonies share heat in the winter. Outside, the closely stacked hives can be intimidating. The sheer number of bees attending the hive fronts can be off-putting to intruders of any sort, from insects to mammals.

Because the beekeeper tends the hives from the back in a relatively dark space, the disturbance to the colony is minimal. Unlike cracking open a hive from the top and admitting a cascade of sunlight, opening the back in a quiet, shaded space is less intrusive. The bees go about their business without the violation and fear of a suddenly missing roof.

Kay and Robbie fully enclosed and insulated their bee house, then installed half-inch PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) flexible tubing through the front wall for bee access. Kay explained that, due to their small size, the tubes have prevented mice, yellow jackets, and robbing honey bees from entering the hives. The small openings will also deter Washington’s “murder hornets,” should they become a problem. To keep the tubes clear in winter, Kay reams them with a small bottle brush attached to a metal rod. As temperatures drop in late fall, she stops some of the tubes with half-inch corks.

 

Anything possible, nothing stuck together

Each of the features within an A-Ž hive makes beekeeping from the back of the hive a viable alternative to the Langstroth. I sometimes hear beekeepers complain about all the “fiddly little parts” of an A-Ž hive, but each piece has a specific function. Taken together, they allow the beekeeper freedom from lifting, carrying, prying, and working in direct sun.

The frames in an A-Ž hive are rectangular with no “ears” for hanging. Instead, the frames slide in and out of the bee boxes guided by metal spacers at the front and back of each box. The weight of the frames rests on parallel metal rods that run the width of each box.

The cut and construction of the frames allow them to work seamlessly with the metal spacers and support rods. Both the top and bottom bars of each frame have a ….