Sunday, October 04, 2009

Top Bar Hives Reduce Stress on Bees

New Kind of Beehive Makes for ‘Happy Bees’
By Abigail Curtis, Bangor Daily News, 10/3/2009

TENANTS HARBOR, Maine — When Jan Wirth gets close to the rectangular wooden beehive at Old Woods Farm, the lazy, muted buzzing from the tens of thousands of honeybees inside makes her smile.

“There’s a nice hum,” she said earlier this week. “When they’re happy, the hum is different than when they’re angry.”

And happy bees are exactly what Wirth wants as permanent residents of Old Woods Farm, the conservation neighborhood she’s developing close to the Tenants Harbor village center on a parcel of land that boasts old apple trees, low bush blueberries, meadow grasses, sunflowers and red clover.

Wirth is pretty sure that happy bees also will be healthy bees, and so she has installed a new shape of beehive that was built and is being monitored by a new breed of beekeeper — Christy Hemenway of Bath…

Hemenway is alarmed by many aspects of conventional beekeeping, including the fact that beekeepers give bees a mass-produced wax foundation that ostensibly helps them get started in their box-shaped hives.

“It’s one size fits all,” she said of the foundation. “But it doesn’t really fit any bee — at least, not well.”

That is one stress on honeybees, she stressed. Another is the fact that commercial beekeepers may feed the bees on a sugar water mixture after harvesting the honey.

“It reminds me of a feedlot,” Wirth said. “Then we wonder why the colony’s collapsing.”

Another stressor is the prevalence of chemicals and pesticides in modern agriculture.

“A combination of things that lethal and that interconnected — that sort of thing is not sustainable. It eventually will take something apart,” Hemenway said. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to lose your bees.”

A new way

The 49-year-old Hemenway didn’t always have a passion for bees. In 2006, she owned a small business called Gold Star Alpacas and helped a beekeeping friend shear his alpaca. In exchange, he gave her a jar of homemade honey, and Hemenway was stung with bee fever. She took a class in conventional beekeeping and wondered why her bees weren’t thriving.

“I asked in class: What did the bees do before we started giving them wax foundation?” she said. “No one could answer.”

Her curiosity led her to discover beekeepers who were practicing a different method, called top bar. This type of beekeeping doesn’t provide bees a foundation, and they make all their own wax. It’s meant to mimic what occurs in nature, while still allowing beekeepers a practical, safe way to gather honey and tend their swarms.

By August 2007, Hemenway had decided to start a company — Gold Star Honeybees, based in Bath — and had found a new path…

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