Building a beehive

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Honey bees build up their honeycomb inside a wooden hive that the beekeeper constructs.

Hive assembly is challenging. But at least there’s no risk of being stabbed by a miniature Victorian man.

Competent beekeepers are also competent carpenters. I’m telling you this because nobody told me, and I care about your goals. I figured bees do the carpentry, right? They build up the honeycomb. True enough, but the beekeeper has to build the hive boxes and frames that the bees build the honeycomb in. Beekeeping websites make this home construction look easy. It’s not. It’s home construction. Angles, levels, math, circular saws. Trouble is, as a hobby, backyard beekeeping is stuck in the early-1900s, back in the day when any fool could fix things around the house. If you had a hobby that in any way involved wood, you already had a home workshop.

Today many beekeepers still make their own hives. But more beekeepers buy hive kits, basically flat packs of unassembled pre-cut wood pieces. If you want to feel like a real pariah among beekeepers, you can buy a completely assembled hive. Don’t be surprised if other beekeepers look at your pockets when you confess you bought a pre-assembled hive. They are just waiting for you to pull out the $5 bills you burn for fun.

I’ve been cursed with enthusiasm for carpentry projects since I was 13, when Santa brought my little sister Lauren a Victorian dollhouse kit. It came in about 8,000 pieces, and I couldn’t wait to put it together and play with it. (I mean, supervise Lauren while she played with it.) I spread out all the pieces and started reading the directions. That’s the last thing I remember before I woke up, the tissue-thin paper directions plastered to my wet cheek, the rigid hand of a tiny dapper gentleman stabbing my earlobe. I abandoned the construction site because I hadn’t taken geometry yet, and blamed it all on my older sister Lisa. Because she had taken geometry.

As I matured, my carpentry skills evolved. By the time I turned 40, I was able to assemble a 5 piece Ikea side table with ease. The universal cartoon instructions indicated it would take 20 minutes to screw the legs into the tabletop, but I’m really meticulous, so it took me 6 hours. Armed with this success, I trolled the internet and started reading the abundant beekeeping sites that teach how to make hives. Pretty soon, I had googled my way into a website called the Shepherd School that teaches extreme survival skills, and has a direct link to join the NRA. I watched a video of a huge man assembling hive frames. His next video showed how to kill coyotes without wasting any shot. I stood there watching it, wondering, Who are these people? Where did the nice beekeepers go?

Eventually, I decided that I didn’t have the time to build my hives from scratch, so I decided to buy kits. My beekeeping club offers a Saturday workshop every spring to help novices assemble their kits, which I figured would fill in my few deficiencies. The beekeeper at the sign-in table glanced at my faux-croc envelope clutch and asked me if I needed help unloading tools from my car.  “Tools?” I asked him.

“For putting together your hive kit,” he said. “Did you bring your jig? nail gun? crown stapler? claw hammer?” I got that same panicky feeling I had in 5th grade when I forgot my Number 2 pencils on a standardized test day. I told him I’m really competent cutting things with my nail clippers, and even offered to demonstrate how I use the little file as a screw driver. He stared at me, wondering how I got this far in life. I could tell he wished I would go away before I became his problem. I spared us both and said, “Actually, I’m just here to observe.” I watched until my brain overflowed with routed grooves and metal rests. Then I left and exchanged my kits for fully assembled hives.

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2 Comments

  1. Great post Suzanne! I have two Langstroth hives that I purchased as kits and assembled. This year, I’m attempting to build a top bar hive and a swarm lure box.

    Having a little woodworking knowledge is definitely handy when it comes to beekeeping. It seems there is no shortage tweaks and small changes that beekeepers love to make to their hives to solve common problems or make life easier.

    • Cool – I look forward to reading about your top bar hives and swarm lure box. You’re totally right about all the tweaks. I’m ashamed to admit I bought my pre-assembled hives in cedar, so I wouldn’t have to deal with painting them; all they supposedly needed was a generous swipe of linseed oil. But I’ve realized after two winters they haven’t withstood the elements robustly, so I am treating them this spring with a new product called Eco Wood Treatment. It’s made in Salt Spring Island, B.C. http://www.ecowoodtreatment.com Canadians make the world a happier place!

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