While it’s been ridiculously cold here over the past couple weeks (-5 degrees Fahrenheit was the low a few nights ago), I’ve been keeping myself busy building my first beehive, below.

Tasha and I have been interested in bees and beekeeping since learning about the vital role bees play in our food system, and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has been decimating bee populations worldwide for the last decade or so. We saw a few interesting documentaries about the problem, but I found that Rowan Jacobsen’s “Fruitless Fall” really whet my interest in bees and beekeeping the most. The title, “Fruitless Fall” is an intentional invocation of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which effectively sounded the alarm about the damage DDT was doing to the ecosystem in the 1960s. Jacobsen contends that the current crisis involving the mysterious decline of the honeybee is no less dire or urgent. Since almost all fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains require pollination in order to become food, the role of pollinators like honeybees is crucial.

While we love our honey here (Tasha goes through prodigious amounts sweetening her tea), we recognize that the most important service the bees provide for us is to pollinate our vegetables and fruit trees. We’ve seen the difference having honeybees around makes to our food production, and along with bumble bees and mason bees, we want to encourage them as much as possible. While we may create the richest soil, get the moisture, pH, and mineral levels just right, and keep the pests away, without pollinators doing their work, our orchard and garden will not prosper. So, today I finished the first of three or four horizontal top bar hives that we’ll need by mid-March to accomodate the four packages of bees Tasha ordered.

What’s a top bar hive, and why would anyone want to build one, you ask? Well, according to P.J. Chandler, author of “The Barefoot Beekeeper,” top bar hives better match the natural conditions of a bee nest in the wild and allow for a less stressful environment for the bees in general, compared with conventional Langstroth hives, below,

where bees must build comb according to the rigid rectangular pattern provided by the frames. Top bar hives, in contrast, provide mulitple 1 1/2 inch wide wooden laths called top bars, on which bees will build comb as they do in the wild: in a heart shaped formation that hangs down into the hive below, suspended from a top bar. Chandler advocates for a more hands-off approach to beekeeping in general, and opposes the substitution of the natural rhythms of the bees with undue disruptions by the beekeeper, etc.

We’re now going into our third season of keeping bees, and we hope to have more success than in the previous two years. Our first bee colonies didn’t survive last year’s winter, and last spring we didn’t get new bees until several months too late for them to really thrive, due to freakish weather that delayed their delivery. So far this colony seems to be intact, but it’s hard to know at this point in the year.

Tasha has read the books, taken a course, and is the one who goes into the hives, but this year I’ve decided I want to be more involved with the bees and learn more about them myself. The bees she ordered are coming from Georgia in March, but we’re getting them through an apiary about half an hour away here in North Carolina. They breed a “North Carolina” bee, a Carneola, that does well in this climate and biome; unfortunately, they were sold out of these by the time we got our order in. The ones from Georgia are Italian bees, like those in our existing hive, and are very docile.

In an effort to make our new bees as comfortable as possible, we’re going to give top bar hives a try. We do have another Langstroth hive, and we may use it if I don’t get all the hives built in time. It’s taken me about a week of working here and there, with a couple full days of work this weekend, to build my first hive out of about $150 worth of materials.

Top bar hives, in addition to constituting a more natural environment for the bees, are also somewhat easier to build than Langstroth hives, which require complicated joinery and very precisely milled frames for comb. Pre-made bee hives, whether Langstroth or top bar, can be quite expensive. Our Langstroth hives were over $200 each, and a pre-built top bar we saw online goes for $350.

I don’t consider myself much of a carpenter, at least compared with my brothers, both of whom are very good at woodworking and carpentrty, but I am satisfied with the results from my first attempt. I made a few mistakes which I”ll avoid next time, but I actually really enjoyed building this hive. I used Chandler’s plan from a PDF that he published freely online. He has a cut list for materials and gives somewhat detailed instructions on how to construct the hive.

For most of the hive body, I used 1-inch thick Western Red Cedar, which weathers well. I was able to find this at the local Lowe’s, but not in the 12 and 15 inch panels I needed for the body, so I joined several together with glue and dowel pins. I’ll avoid the dowel pins next time, since the glue worked fine on its own, and the dowel pins just made it harder to keep the wood panels aligned along the same plane.

The only cruucal dimension to this hive is the top bars, which must be 1 1/2 inches wide. I ripped them on a table saw from a sheet of pine. I added comb guides to the center of each using 1/2 inch half-round.

I cut 25 of those, and attached follower boards to three. The follower boards are trapezoidal sheets of 7/8 inch plywood with a 22 millimeter hole in the bottom that are used to separate and divide colonies, or to enclose a single colony while it establishes itself. They hang from the top bars and fit snugly within the inside of the hive.

For the legs, I repurposed a few pressure treated 2x4s we had from other projects and attached them to the body of the hive with carriage bolts.

I then built a roof out of high-quality plywood that sits on top of the hive body and (hopefully) keeps out rain. A lot of the time I spent on this involved waiting for glued sections to dry or sanding down sloppy glue joints. Now that I’ve built one, I think I could easily build another few in a day or two. I have a decent workshop at my disposal, including a miter saw and a table saw, so this made things somewhat easier, than, say, planing the wood and cutting it by hand. Working with Red Cedar has been educational too. The wood has an intoxicating scent, and it is soft enough that it cuts and sands easily, but has a beautiful, deeply grained finish.

I’m definitely excited about getting more bees and seeing how they like their home. It will be interesting to compare colonies residing in the top bars versus the Langstroth hives over the next few years (assuming they survive). Top bar beekeeping is practiced by relatively few beekeepers and is a relatively recent phenomenon. But in light of the current crisis with regard to collapsing honeybee populations, any experimentation or innovation that leads to healthy, thriving colonies of bees has to be a good thing.