Inside: Beauty and practicality define Slovenian-style A-Z hives and bee houses
Table of contents
A Slovenian-style apiary is a magical place where art, nature, beekeeping, and practicality coalesce into a pollinator haven. Overlooking Mount St. Helens in sleepy Onalaska, Washington, artist and entrepreneur Kay Crawford and her husband, Robbie, created an idyllic kingdom. Here, honey bees and dozens of native species commingle among acres of flowers and enjoy a reprieve from pesticides and other perils of civilization. For us humans, it provides a covert shrine of tranquility enhanced by the hypnotic hum of bees.
In addition to the Slovenian hives, Kay has added top bar hives and a specially-designed fully screened “gabeebo.” Inside, visitors can experience an up-close but undisturbed view of honey bees doing their thing. Under wide blue skies and the snowy tufts of the mountain, viewers can sip their iced tea and watch nature at its finest.
Central to the Slovenian concept of bee-centric beekeeping is the A-Ž hive, an invention that makes beekeeping a more pleasant, less traumatic experience for both the bees and the keepers. Although the Slovenian beekeeping landscape remains dominated by these traditional hives, they are less common elsewhere. But seeing the hives in action could easily change your mind.
The Slovenian A-Ž hive
A Slovenian industrialist with a passion for beekeeping designed the A-Ž hive. While skep hives were still popular in many parts of Europe, Anton Žnideršič (1874-1947) had seen the modern, newly developed Langstroth hives and admired their practicality. However, like many locals, he mourned the loss of the traditional bee house, a trademark of Slovenian rural culture.
Using his innate ingenuity, Žnideršič united features of both the Langstroth and the traditional bee house into another option for beekeepers. His first design followed the introduction of the Langstroth by just ten years. And in Slovenia, the A-Ž hive became an instant hit.
The A-Ž hive incorporates moveable frames, stacked boxes, and wired foundation, all things Žnideršič thought were worthy improvements to traditional hives. But he set out to correct what he perceived as shortcomings in the Langstroth, including the necessity of heaving heavy boxes. He also wanted to reduce propolis buildup on the frames, which often made moving frames unnecessarily difficult.
The Slovenian bee house
The bee house is the centerpiece of a Slovenian apiary, so a true A-Ž hive is never freestanding. All the individual hives fit permanently into the bee house, side-by-side, and are tended from inside the structure. The beekeeper accesses the hives from openings in the back of each bee box, never from the top.
This unique configuration means the beekeeper need not lift supers or brood boxes. Inspecting, treating, and harvesting can be done by sliding the frames horizontally in and out of the boxes, like taking a book from a shelf. Since each hive sits near the next, the beekeeper needs only to walk the length of the bee house to work many hives. The system is unparalleled in efficiency.
The original A-Ž hives had one brood box and one honey super. But as large colony sizes became popular, beekeepers began adding a second honey super to the stack, an alteration that soon became commonplace. In most American versions, the boxes and frames are all one size regardless of their purpose.
Bee houses on wheels
Originally, all bee houses were stationary structures and many remain so. But today, A-Ž hives are often built into a rolling bee house, such as a truck, van, or bus that can be driven to new locations as crops go in and out of bloom. A rolling bee house eliminates the need for pallets, tie-downs, forklifts, and heavy lifting. The beekeeper merely locks up the bees in the evening, attaches his tow bar, and drives away the next morning.
Since the beekeeper tends his colonies within the structure, both the keeper and the bees are protected from rain, snow, wind, and extreme temperatures. If the interior is well-designed, even the need for a bee suit is minimal. Any bees that wander out of the hive fly out of the building through an open window toward the sunlight and re-enter the hive from the front.
Other bee house advantages
Maintaining a compact set of A-Ž hives is easier than maintaining an equal number of freestanding hives. For example, only one side of each hive needs to be painted because the other five sides are protected by the bee house. And because the bee house protects the hives from the elements, damage from rain, freezing temperatures, wind, sun exposure, insects, and birds is minimal.
Bee houses also discourage bear rampages because bears cannot topple the hives to break them apart. Although bears can still inflict damage, a bear is less likely to trash everything as it would in a standard apiary. Smaller mammals, such as skunks, raccoons, and opossums, also have trouble accessing the elevated, smooth-faced bank of hives.
Inside the bee house, the side-by-side colonies share heat in the winter. Outside, the closely stacked hives can be intimidating. The sheer number of bees attending the hive fronts can be off-putting to intruders of any sort, from insects to mammals.
Because the beekeeper tends the hives from the back in a relatively dark space, the disturbance to the colony is minimal. Unlike cracking open a hive from the top and admitting a cascade of sunlight, opening the back in a quiet, shaded space is less intrusive. The bees go about their business without the violation and fear of a suddenly missing roof.
Kay and Robbie fully enclosed and insulated their bee house, then installed half-inch PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) flexible tubing through the front wall for bee access. Kay explained that, due to their small size, the tubes have prevented mice, yellowjackets, and robbing honey bees from entering the hives. The small openings will also deter Washington’s “murder hornets,” should they become a problem. To keep the tubes clear in winter, Kay reams them with a small bottle brush attached to a metal rod. As temperatures drop in late fall, she stops some of the tubes with half-inch corks.
Anything possible, nothing stuck together
Each of the features within an A-Ž hive makes beekeeping from the back of the hive a viable alternative to the Langstroth. I sometimes hear beekeepers complain about all the “fiddly little parts” of an A-Ž hive, but each piece has a specific function. Taken together, they allow the beekeeper freedom from lifting, carrying, prying, and working in direct sun.
The frames in an A-Ž hive are rectangular with no “ears” for hanging. Instead, the frames slide in and out of the bee boxes guided by metal spacers at the front and back of each box. The weight of the frames rests on parallel metal rods that run the width of each box.
The cut and construction of the frames allow them to work seamlessly with the metal spacers and support rods. Both the top and bottom bars of each frame have a channel running along the length. Viewed from either end, the channel is U-shaped, meaning only narrow ridges of wood rest on the metal rods. The sidebars are cut to match the top and bottom channels, allowing the U-shaped channel to run the entire length of each frame.
Minimum propolis buildup
Since the area where the frame ridges meet the metal support rods is quite small, propolis accumulation is minimal. And since the frames lack ears and are optimally spaced, propolis does not glue the frames to the box or to each other. With only minor amounts of bee glue, the beekeeper doesn’t have to crack the frames apart with a hive tool and brute force. They release with just a small tug.
The frames, which are all the same size, can be wired for wax foundation just as in a Langstroth. Because they are larger than standard deeps, the frames require an extra piece of foundation to fully cover the space. But many of the more recent designs are sized to match a Langstroth deep. This convenient modification also allows the use of a standard extractor.
All types of equipment can be made to work inside an A-Ž hive. Additions such as queen excluders, feeders, mite treatments, and observation windows can be added according to beekeeper preference. Special frames can be built for the mite treatment of your choice. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Special beekeeping tools
Although A-Ž beekeeping requires few tools other than a hive tool and perhaps a smoker, a few specialty items make the job easier. In his book on Slovenian beekeeping, Janko Božič recommends a comb stand to hold frames during inspections or harvesting.1 Specially designed for frames without ears, the frames rest on three points between comb guides.
A hive table is a platform that can be attached to the back of the hive during inspections. Any bees that fall from a frame land on the table and stroll back into the hive.
In addition, the hive cleaner is something we all could use. It is a narrow piece of metal attached at a ninety-degree angle to a long handle. It allows the beekeeper to scrape debris, errant pollen balls, and dead bees from the bottom board.
Stunning, colorful artwork is the hallmark of traditional Slovenian hives. The bright colors and bold designs serve not only to adorn the building but to provide navigational cues to the residents. Because the colonies live close to each other, recognizable patterns help the bees navigate to the proper address.
According to Vida Koželj at the Museum of Slovenian Folk Art, eighteenth-century itinerant artists created some of the first painted panels.2,3 They were often young men who traveled the countryside, offering their services in return for a bed and a meal. Each wooden panel could depict a single scene or it might connect with adjacent panels to form a mural.
Since many of the rural denizens could not read or write, the painted boards told visual stories. The art often depicted tales from the bible, rural life, animal husbandry, domestic chores, family strife, hunting, cartoon characters, or cultural traditions.
One panel at the museum portrays a disabled man walking with a sturdy cane. In his bent posture, the man collides with a bee colony hanging from a tree. The combs cascade to the ground, enveloping the man in angry bees and causing him to lose his cane. In the third scene, the man struggles to flee as the bees attack. In the fourth scene, the man, having absorbed a large dose of venom, is upright and running normally, cured by accidental apitherapy.
Endless variations are possible
I was impressed by Kay and Robbie’s apiary. Their bee house built into the side of a barn and adjacent to their honey house is a clean, efficient, well-planned operation. When Kay opened the hives from the back, I could see the bees through the removable screen doors, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. Outside, bees bustled into a vista of bee-friendly plantings in the lovingly tended Bee Inspired Garden.4
Like most beekeepers, Kay has a list of things she might have done differently. But each A-Ž apiary is as different as the beekeepers who manage them, and that is part of the fun. To me, Kay’s apiary seemed just about perfect.
Notes and References
- Božič, J. 2017. A-Ž Beekeeping with the Slovenian Hive. 2017. Kranj, Slovenia. Published by Založba Mija.
- Pier, M. 2018. Painted Beehives: A Slovenian Tradition that Tells of Cultural Landscape. https://www.peopleareculture.com/painted-beehives/ Accessed June 27, 2022.
- The Museum of Slovenian Folk Art resides in Smarje Sap, a town in central Slovenia.
- See Kay’s Bee Inspired Garden at www.BeeInspiredGarden.com.
Honey Bee Suite