Exploring Innovation in Beekeeping – The Cathedral Hive
ABC Bees has always believed that one of the advantages of hobby beekeeping is the freedom to trial new and innovative beekeeping tools and techniques on a small scale. Lessons from taking a different approach can be shared among other beekeepers, building a bank of community knowledge that can contribute towards a more collaborative and resilient world of beekeeping.
Last summer we heard from one of our former Level 1 Beekeeping students who was testing out a new hive design from Corwin Bell of Colorado’s BackYardHive.com, the Cathedral Hive. Kathy Courtney kindly shared her experience with us on her first summer with this pioneering hive.
The Cathedral Hive follows the same principles as the top-bar hive; the hive body mimics a fallen over log with frames lining up horizontally along the box. Unlike the top-bar hive, which uses a single horizontal bar resting on the hive body (the top bar), the Cathedral Hive takes the design a step further by raising the roof of the hive body, creating a hexagonal cross-section, which mimics the comb structure. The bees attach comb to the bars, extending the comb downward, matching the shape of the hive body.
I think it helps when you know nothing, you have no preconceived ideas or expectations. That is how I entered into this bee guardianship adventure.
After taking the [ABC Bees Level 1] course I felt empowered to try backyard bee keeping, but what hive to choose?
I have had back problems in years past, and am very careful not to hurt it again. I do not want to be a commercial bee keeper with lots of honey to harvest, so a top bar hive made the most sense.
The cathedral hive is very new and I thought it would be a great learning experience for myself, plus it looked super funky and made sense to me after looking at the website, www.catherdralhive.com.
Corwin Bell, who developed the hive, was also looking for feedback, and I am always happy to help.
The hive comes with a clear false back which acts as a viewing window. Kathy also built a window into the side of the hive to observe the bees without disturbing the colony. She also added a ‘living roof’ in the form of a removable planter to the top of the hive. This approach kept the hive cooler in hot summer weather and a drainage hose ensured that the hive stayed dry.
Moving the bees from the nuc to the hive proved to be uneventful, but it was super helpful staying [after the ABC nuc pickup] for the workshop and having the hands-on experience that Eliese demonstrated that morning so I could just do it again at home.
I poured sugar water into ziploc bags with some small holes and placed them on tin plates just inside the entrance of the hive. We were in a dearth at that time - hot, dry and few flowers blooming so I had to refill the bags daily for 3 weeks. I started with the false back in about 1/2 way and after 4 days moved it to the back of the hive, as per Corwin’s suggestion. It was not long and the bees had filled frames with wax and pollen.
Every 10 ish days we would open the hive and use the tool to separate the bars. The tricky part was putting the bar back and pushing the bars back together so the bees could go back to using the 4 holes in the bars as their highway. The first few times checking the hive were not too bad, but once there were a lot of bees it proved tricky and I was glad to have my son’s help to herd those bees back in. We tried all sorts of ways and found that the long grass proved to be the best, but patience is a virtue for this part. We tried not to squish anyone, but did lose a few.
I picked up the bees at the end of May and they had built out the hive - 23 frames with wax and honey - by mid-August. As it was my first year with bees, I have nothing to compare to, but this was impressive to me. I was able to get 4 frames of honey to eat in August and left the box full (approximately 175lbs) of honey for winter.
In August, I was showing my brother-in-law the hive and when he took out a bar with new wax and honey on it, he tipped it at an angle, and the comb came dropping off into the grass. We picked up 85% of it and put it in a bucket and brought it home. Eating fresh honey and chewing on the wax was a day we will never forget.
As with most hive designs, there benefits and drawbacks that can affect both you and your bees. Kathy came up with her list of pros and cons for the Cathedral hive based on her experience.
- Easy on my back (top bars require less lifting).
- Hexagonal frames and comb are beautiful, pieces of art!
- Fun experience to share with everyone. Lots of people came to see the bees; I had family, friends, neighbors, kids with autism… even people who were terrified, could experience them through the viewing windows
- It was fun to build with my husband. It was a testament to why we are still married after 31 years - we are better together. Our son also helped and was very keen to learn about the bees.
- Colony thrived and bees seemed happy.
- Could email Corwin with questions and he would respond.
- More expensive than a regular hive.
- Few people have them so there is limited experience if you need help.
- Honey must be extracted manually, using crush and strain.
- Moving the hive in the fall was difficult because it was heavy.
We have our fingers crossed for an easy winter for Kathy’s bees. If you have your own story of hive innovation we’d love to hear from you and see your photos!