Yes, I am well aware that the tech usually discussed in these digital pages is the electronic type. I want to take a broader look at technology in general though. If we widen our scope for communications technology in general we will see a point in which people used something other than electronic devices to transmit data or information. Think of telegraphs or even sending flashing light signals from mirrors or lamps. Those exist as part of communications technology even though they are not electronic technology.

Beekeeping has been practiced by humans for somewhere around 6,000 years. Dating back as early as the ancient Egyptians hauling honey bee hives on barges up and down the Nile river to pollinate crops. They used clay pots for beehives back then.  So begins bee hive technology.

old hive tech; egyptian-hives

This is a modern version of the original clay hives that ancient Egyptians used.

After clay pots, hive tech took a big stride forward and were made as straw baskets with sticks laid across the tops to turning the straw baskets upside down with the sticks placed in the bottom (now the top) of the basket and the big open end closed up with only a small hole left for the bees to get in and out. Those were called “skeps” and they dominate a large part of beekeeping history.

Old hive tecch; skep-hive

This is a classic “skep” hive used throughout most of olde Europe.

Later on, beekeepers who had some woodworking or carpentry skills (or had friends with said skills) began to craft ornate and complex boxes to put the bees in. Enter the modern era of hive hive tech.  About 150 years ago, a man named Lorenzo Langstroth designed the bee hive system still used by that vast majority of beekeepers around the world today. It’s solid, established technology. It has tuned and refined about as much as it can be and still be that same hive system.

greek-basket-hive

It is mobile and easily transported for remote crop pollination purposes.  It works well as a standard for training and trade. It is easily mass produced. It is relatively inexpensive to make or purchase.  What more could we reasonably ask for in such technology? It gets very heavy and has been the reason for many a honey producing beekeeper to retire with damage and pain to their back.

So, what is the beekeeper who already has a bad back or finds themselves with a bad back in the process to do if they want to keep being a beekeeper? They aren’t able to lift boxes off of a stack that can reach 10 feet high with each box weighing in the neighborhood of 90 pounds each.

Now it’s time to re-visit and maybe re-invent some of that prior hive tech. In fact, let’s go all the way back to those straw baskets with sticks laid over the top openings that the ancient Greeks used to keep their bees in. Just as a side note, those same Greeks also notably used those straw hives as ammunition to hurl fully inhabited bee hives into enemy lines via a catapult or some other such weapon. To learn more about the history of bee hives, you can visit a very good Wikipedia article on the topic.

Sometime in the mid to late 1970’s a design for a bee hive that could be made inexpensively from lumber or even fallen or discarded wood found in so called “3rd world” countries. It was loosely based on those early basket hives with sticks over the tops but made of wood and in the shape of a long trough. This was the beginning of what we now call a horizontal hive and what was named the “Kenyan Top Bar Hive” as it was designed to be used in Kenya to help locals become more self sufficient by producing honey to use and sell.

Modern hive tech; the ktbh

The basic horizontal top bar hive.

Fast forward to now. The horizontal hive, specifically the Kenyan Top Bar Hive”, or KTBH” as it is often referred to as now, has seen a resurgence in popularity in America and other “first world” countries for a variety of reasons. The two most common reasons being that is is viewed by many as a more conservationally friendly type of hive and that it is a back friendly type of hive. For more details on top bar beekeeping, you can check out this article at my education site, “Big Bear’s Conservation and Homestead Beekeeping“.

Unlike the conventional Langstroth hive in which boxes are stacked vertically, high and heavy, the horizontal hive stays on one level and the beekeeper instead works with frames of bees or top bars with comb suspended from them, one at a time, from one end of the hive to the other. Working with vertical stacking box hives, a whole box of frames or combs must be carried at a time. A top bar or frame in a horizontal hive only weighs, on average, about 5 to 9 pounds each. SO much easier to handle than a box at a time.

Modern hive tech; tbh-comb

One comb on a top bar. So easy to lift.

If you have a bad back and are a beekeeper or want to continue to be a beekeeper, this hive can seem like a new revolution in easy beekeeping for you. However, it is all honey and and cream using this hive, it does have certain drawbacks depending on your beekeeping purpose.

If you just want to have a hive to pollinate your backyard garden and get some small amount of honey for your pantry, this could very well be the hive for you. It’s easy to use and can be built so that it stands on an easy to reach waist level. No bending or lifting heavy boxes, just one or two pieces that are light enough for even children to safely carry.

If you want to produce enough honey to sell many pounds and jars of it at the local farmers market and stock your pantry and give to friends and neighbors, this might not be what you want after all.  Horizontal hives, especially top bar hives, are not known for producing large amounts of honey per hive. Where a banner year in a vertical box hive might net you 300 pounds of honey per hive, a banner year in a horizontal hive might net you 100 pounds of honey.

Also, a horizontal hive isn’t exactly known as a mobile pollinator’s hive. They are pretty much stuck in one place for the most part. There are some who have made theirs in a way to be transported but they are far and few and it requires lots of work and lifting to do. These are not beekeepers worried about their bad backs that are using horizontal hives in this way.

People are using materials besides wood to build them as well. Some are using “re-purposed” or recycled materials like plastic barrels or totes. Old metal drums and even pieces of vinyl siding have been used as well.

I saw a YouTube video not too long ago where someone with access to a rather large 3D printer was making their hives out of a plastic material. Another interview in a beekeeping magazine showed a Iraq veteran built a version of a horizontal hive that accommodated the height of his wheelchair and would swivel so that he could inspect it easily. As technology in construction and building materials improves, the ability to use it for beekeeping purposes advances as well.

The point is, hive tech is making it easier to be a beekeeper. Modern materials combined with basic beekeeping concepts can come together to make something new out of something old. That is a good thing when you consider how many people who are becoming beekeepers now who are starting off with physical challenges such as bad backs. I talk more about the importance of beekeeping technology in an earlier article here at TechDissected.

Website: Omaha Bee Club Hive

About the author

Tony Sandoval

Beekeepers in the 21st century use technology in ways most people never think of. I will take you into sunlit valleys where you can see the sunshine through a browser, inspect hives with portable devices and harvest products of the hive using all manner of technological devices you might have not thought of before.

I am a Master Beekeeper and President of the Omaha Bee Club, I am a published author in Bee Culture magazine (a nationally published beekeeping magazine), and a Linux junkie who plays with servers and wireless networking for scientific experimentation in bee science projects.

Let's take a look at tech through the eyes of a scientific apiculturist, shall we?