What should you do when something comes between you and your honey bees? Perhaps something like a walker or wheelchair? Well, if you are creative and innovative, you might discover the perfect solution — one that works for you and pleases your bees.
Master beekeeper Naomi Price of Prineville, Oregon did exactly that. Living with paraplegia, Naomi knew she wanted a hive that would meet the needs of her bees as well as a few of her own. Simply put, she wanted the freedom to tend her bees without assistance from others. “Accessibility is all about attitude,” she said.
Starting with a vision
Armed with spunky determination, Naomi set out to make her beekeeping dream a reality. Having spent years performing accessibility site surveys for various entities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Oregon Structural Specialty Code, she was the perfect person for the job. She understood that small things make a big difference. “Just as a 3/8-inch space can be empowering to a honey bee, a ¼-inch space can be equally empowering to me,” she explained.
To start, Naomi put aside the codes and regulations and began to investigate the honey bees’ housing requirements. She studied foraging, brood rearing, food storage, communication, ventilation, winter clustering, pests, and even her local weather patterns. After that, she looked at the history of hive design, taking careful note of what worked and what didn’t. Finally, she factored in her own beekeeping experience, including the special features she needed for successful and enjoyable beekeeping.
Finding a builder
Richard Nichols, a Prineville resident, built the prototype long hives. A skilled woodworker with a passion for beekeeping, Richard was able to incorporate Naomi’s vision within the practical limitations of building with wood. The finished product exceeded all expectations and many of the original hives are still in use.
The first rendition of her hive design — christened the Valhalla — was a variation on the Langstroth long hive made popular by Georges de Layens in his book, Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives. Basically, a long hive is a horizontal hive that uses standard Langstroth frames. Instead of using supers that stack on top of the brood box, the bee colony expands horizontally, much like the bees in a top-bar hive.
But the similarity stopped there because Naomi needed to incorporate special features which would allow for the ease of access she needed. She wanted a system that didn’t require extra tools and equipment, and one that would be winter-ready without lifting, carting, and storing hive components.
Many design considerations were incorporated into the prototype hives, including the following:
Frames. The Valhalla hive uses 24 deep Langstroth frames. Naomi selected the number of frames based on the nectar flow near her central Oregon home and the colony’s winter clustering needs. Some of the frames provide space for honey storage that would normally go in a super.
By using Langstroth frames, Naomi could easily exchange equipment between her long hives and Langstroth hives. In addition, four-sided frames can be rested on the ground or other hard surface without damaging combs, a feature missing in top-bar hives. But most importantly, a standard nucleus colony can be inserted directly into a Valhalla hive — another feature that was impossible with most top-bar systems.
Canvas Frame Cover. A heavy canvas cloth placed directly on the top bars keeps the bees from building burr comb above the frames. When Naomi is working the bees, the canvas can be gently folded back from one side or the other, keeping the rest of the bees calm and in the dark. The workers propolize the cloth, thereby adding an antibacterial barrier just above the brood nest.
Hive Box. Having a low profile, the long hive is stable in the face of wind and predators such as raccoons, so it doesn’t require the inconvenience of a tie-down. And since there are no supers to lift, hive inspections are a snap.
Hinged Roof. The roof is hinged on the front side so the beekeeper can easily work the bees from the back. A side latch holds the roof open, even in moderate wind. In the open position, the lid protects the brood nest from both sun and wind.
Slatted Rack. A built-in slatted rack extends the entire length of the hive, offering foragers a place to cluster when summer temperatures rise. Below the slatted rack are two side-by-side pull-out inspection drawers that can be used for varroa counts and debris collection.
Entrance. A single bee entrance is in the lower right corner of the hive. It measure 3/8-inches high by 3-inches long and has a sliding door to adjust the size of the opening or close it completely. The small size and adjustable nature means it can double as a mouse guard during those times when rodents are likely to enter.
The entrance has no landing board. Naomi notes that, without a landing area, honey bees experience fewer run-ins with nest mates and fewer intruders. In addition, the entrance is easier to defend since there is no convenient staging area for evil-doers. “I have observed the returning foragers fly into their hive with amazing accuracy,” she says.
Viewing Window. The hive is equipped with a Plexiglas viewing window with a hinged shutter that allows a quick peek into the brood chamber without opening the lid.
Inspections are easy
Inspections are for more efficient when you don’t have to remove supers before getting to the brood box. In addition, inspections in the Valhalla are far less upsetting to the colony. Naomi says, “With no boxes to move, fewer bees are injured, which means the bees are less defensive.”
By folding back only part of the canvas cloth at a time, the bees are disturbed even less. Naomi notes that by leaving the canvas in contact with the frames most of the time, you can eliminate the need for a smoker — an important consideration when your movements and ability to handle multiple pieces of equipment are already constrained.
In cooler temperatures, the cloth also keeps the colony warmer during inspections by preventing rapid heat loss. And in the fall, the cover keeps robbers at bay while the lid is open.
The side-by-side pull-out boards make it easy to check for mites and other debris, and since one board is beneath the brood and one beneath the honey, you can get a clear picture of what is going on in different parts of the hive.
The Valhalla evolves
As word of the Valhalla spread, interest soared. Many beekeepers wanted a Valhalla hive — not just those with a disability, but folks who didn’t want to lift heavy boxes or reach high overhead, as well as those who envisioned a better life for their bees. Before long, Richard Nichols had over 30 hives throughout central Oregon with more orders on the way.
But life happens and Richard didn’t want to go into production, so Naomi and her husband, Larry, decided they needed to find an alternative builder. Plus, after a few years working with the Valhalla, Naomi was ready to tweak the design.
Ultimately they turned to Vivien and Bruce Hight of The Right Hand LLP in Redmond, Oregon to incorporate the changes and ramp up production. Bruce, known as “The Beekeeper’s Carpenter,” is a woodworking craftsman and Vivien is responsible for the business end of their enterprise. When I toured their workshop, Bruce was experimenting with alternative roof designs and Vivien was learning about shipping practices, packaging, bookkeeping, web management, and beekeeping. Truly, they were as busy as the bees themselves.
Next, the Valkyrie
Vivien named the new hive “Valkyrie” after figures in Norse legend. She explained, “In the glorious halls of Valhalla, slain Norse warriors were transported by the Valkyries to enjoy the thrill of never-ending battle. While Odin ever-awaited new arrivals, it was the Valkyries who remained vigilant and watchful, presiding over Earth’s battlefields to choose who would be taken aloft.” In other words, “The Valkyrie long hive sprung from a faithful constant (the Valhalla) to embrace the evolving knowledge of bee biology.” So, now you know.
The current Valkyrie incorporates a long list of improvements and several options.
A roof of many colors
The roof was changed to a gabled design, providing space for insulating materials to be placed above the colony. The roof is covered in a lightweight, powder-coated aluminum sheet that is available in six standard colors or can be special-ordered in a rainbow of other shades. For convenience, beekeepers can use dry-erase markers to write inspection notes directly on the lid, which can be easily wiped clean.
The standard hinges are durable and long-lasting steel, strong enough to withstand wind gusts while the hive is open. Opening the lid on a Valkyrie with the current hinges requires a force of approximately twelve pounds.
Interior frame rest
The inside of the gabled lid contains a frame rest. For easy inspection, you can pull out the first frame and place it in the frame rest, then continue your inspection by sliding each frame into the empty space. The frame rest area can also be used to hold hive tools and the canvas inspection cloth that comes with each hive.
A shed roof was added over the bee entrance to keep rain from sheeting down on the bees and to provide them with a small amount of shade.
Like the Valhalla, the Valkyrie holds 24 standard Langstroth deep frames, and a built-in slatted rack with improved spacing on the ends. The varroa drawers and the two screens above them are now reversible, so you don’t have to remember which one goes where. The screens are kept in place with an automatic locking mechanism, and the drawers are made of white PVC.
A feeder can be placed inside the hive by removing a few of the frames, so Boardman-style and hive-top feeders are not necessary. Because internal feeders are less likely to draw robbing bees and marauding wasps, fall inspections are easier for both bees and humans.
Second Window. Although one window is included as standard equipment, a second window — also with a closable shutter — can be installed to reveal the honey-storage area.
Triple-Layer Blankets. A triple-layered pad made from alpaca wool can be placed above the canvas cloth for year-round insulation and humidity regulation.
Insulated Hive Stand: The custom-made hive stand is designed to keep the top of the hive body (not including the gabled roof) 30 inches from ground level. This works well for most wheelchairs and most adults. However, the stand can be custom-ordered four inches higher, if needed. The stand includes a sheet of rigid insulation that protects the colony from icy-cold or super-hot ground temperatures year round.
Blocker Board: A blocker board (or follower board) is a management tool that allows you to limit the size of the brood nest until each successive frame is full. Once the frames are full, you can move the board over and add another frame, keeping the brood nest compact.
The Valkyrie in practice
Many standard beekeeping practices can be tweaked to suit the Valkyrie hive. Naomi studied ideas used in Langstroths, top-bar hives, standard long hives, and even Warré hives to see what would work with her own vision of beekeeping. She has a few favorites that are worth considering.
Installation of bees
As I mentioned earlier, a stand nucleus hive can be installed directly into the Valkyrie. However, when installing a package, Naomi recommends the “walk in” installation.
For a walk-in, place a ramp from the ground up to the hive entrance. Over the ramp, drape a large sheet, such that it extends to the ground on both sides of the ramp. Attach the queen cage inside the hive, then dump the bees on the sheet. The bees will walk up the sheet into the hive.
The advantage of this method is that ill or diseased bees often walk off to die rather than joining the march, an “altruistic” separation that helps keep the colony healthy. In addition, any free-roaming parasites such as hive beetles are left on the sheet. A quick dusting of powdered sugar may leave behind a few varroa mites as well.
A convenient sugar feeder
Many types of internal feeder can be used in the Valkyrie, but when winter feeding is necessary, Naomi’s favorite is the SockerMat. Swedish for “sugar food,” the SockerMat is simply a mixture of sugar and water kneaded into a dough and pressed into a deep Langstroth frame.
The frame can be constructed with 1/8-inch hardware cloth (Naomi’s favorite) or with plastic foundation. For the wire version, cut the wire so it extends to the outside perimeter of a standard deep frame. Next, lay the wire on a flat surface and cut two passageways, one in the upper left and one in the upper right corners. These openings or “hiking trails” should be cut so that once the wire is attached to the frame, the open space is about 3/4-inch on each side. Once cut, attach the wire to the frame with staples or thumb tacks.
If you are using plastic foundation, do the same thing. Some plastic foundation comes with removable tabs that can simply be punched out. Be sure to reinsert the plastic so the passageways are in the upper corners.
For the sugar mixture, you can use regular granulated sugar, superfine sugar (baker’s sugar), or a combination of the two. Place the sugar in a bowl and add a small amount of water, just enough to dampen the sugar and make it stick together — not too wet! A handful pressed into a snowball should hold its shape.
In order to fill a frame, cut a thin piece of wood to fit inside the frame. Place this under the wire or plastic as a support while you press the sugar into the frame, using your hands or a rolling pin. Once full, allow the sugar to harden. The wire frame can hold about six pounds of sugar, while the plastic foundation will hold about half that amount. Alternatively, you can purchase a SockerMat frame fully assembled.
Naomi likes to place a frame of sugar outside the bee’s honey supply, so they eat the honey first and have sugar as a backup. But as most beekeepers know, the bees often disregard this advice and eat the sugar first. In any case, it’s reassuring to know they have a backup supply.
A dream come true
The Valkyrie long hive is currently being used across the country from Washington east to Montana, Minnesota, Maine, and New York. They’ve also been shipped south to Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, and Georgia. A private school in San Francisco chose the Valkyrie for its rooftop apiary, and another was shipped to Michigan for handicapped veterans. And at Oregon State University, Dr. Ramesh Sagili purchased a Valkyrie for the campus apiary.
One woman’s vision of what beekeeping could be is enriching the lives of bees and beekeepers in every corner of the continent. Congratulations to Naomi and all those who helped her think outside the Langstroth box.
Honey Bee Suite
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