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Putting The Bees In The Hive

2011 July 28
by Aurora

Last week we finally got two more hives of honeybees at the farm. This was the culmination of a lot of planning and work. We got our first hive back in May, after I had completed construction of a top-bar hive based on some plans I liked online. The style I chose to use is Kenyan, which has sides which slant inwards toward the base of the hive. (Tanzanian top-bars are rectangular with straight sides.)

first hive under apple tree

Putting the bees in the hive, the first time

Back in May, I placed our first beehive under an old apple tree (the tree is probably about 100 years old) near the front of the property, in a little orchard. This was great while the trees were blossoming, and the bees were digging it and pollinating the heck out of it. Now that there are little tiny apples on the trees I had a brainflash and envisioned little tiny apples falling from the trees and hitting the hives and the bees getting not so happy, so we moved the hive.

It’s best to move hives when all the bees are inside for the night (so you leave as few as possible behind), after or at dusk, when the bees are not very active. Our hive is still not very strong, population-wise, so (Farmer) John and I just threw a sheet over it the evening before getting our new hives, tucked the edges in to hamper exit by the bees, and moved it to the new apiary location.

new apiary hives and stand

The new apiary, prior to moving the old hive in

I decided to change not only the location but the situation of the bees. In the new apiary our hives would be raised up about 1.5 feet on stands that I had built, sawhorse-style (the first had been on 4×4 cedar skids, but was getting some bugs). For the two newer hives the stands would be part of the hive, screwed on, but the older hive merely sat on top of a stand.

When I picked up the two new nucleus hives (nucs) from our bee guy in Portland, I swapped frames around as best I could to end up with the most natural-comb frames as possible. Some of the frames had a stamped wax base made of plastic, which was really hard to cut through (to shape to the new hive). Having learned this with the first hive, I successfully ended up with only 4 out of 10 frames being plastic, and the rest natural wax comb.

harvested frames

Pile of cut frames

While swapping the frames around to then transport the nuc boxes in my truck to the farm, about an hour drive away, I got stung three times: first, in the forehead at the hairline; second, in the finger; third, in the butt. Thanks, bees. Thanks for the reminder that stronger hives really do protect themselves better and I can get stung. I shook the dead bee out of my pants leg, put my boots on, and donned the veil-shirt that had been offered me. No more stings after that. Yes, I had been working without protection, because I am so used to our bees at the farm not giving me grief. Lessons learned and all that.

The bees and I made it to the farm without mishap, although the fact that my tailgate was refusing to come down made it really really fun to get the bees out over the reclined front passenger seat of the truck. Nucs weigh maybe about 25 lbs each. All’s well that ends well, and we are the proud caretakers of a total of three hives now. Time will tell how the new hives do.

two hives from side

In the new apiary: new hive on left, old hive on right

How to transfer panels from a Langstroth-style nucleus to a Kenyan top-bar hive


serrated knife

hive tool

string, in 1-foot lengths, double the number of top bars you have


a Phillips head screwdriver

needle-nosed pliers

top bars, one per panel in the nuc should be at hand (the rest in the hive)


hive transfer materials

Materials used for hive transfer

  1. Make yourself a guide out of cardboard in the shape of the panel you want to cut. This is generally accomplished by eyeballing and then checking against the actual hive body for size. Leave little tabs at the sides of the top, so when you place the guide in the hive as if it were a panel, it will hang there like the top bars do, and you can use it to close of the unused portion of your hive for now.
  2. Have a hard flat surface to work on (I used an old piece of plywood that was lying around).
  3. Place the nuc nearby, and work near the hive you will be putting the panels into.
  4. Suit up in your protective equipment (unless you want to get stung), and wear clothing you don’t mind getting really really dirty. I also suggest pulling/pinning hair back and wearing a bandana under the veil. You don’t want to be wiping hair out of your face all the time, and you will be sweating. A lot.
  5. Each panel you pull out of the nuc should be carefully examined (you want to know if you’ve got the queen) and then shaken over the new hive, getting as many bees as possible inside the hive. When all panels are transferred, the same should be done of the nuc body and lid, so as many bees as possible from the nuc end up inside your new hive. The bees will probably be acting a bit weird and swarmy, covering the wood of the outside of your hive, maybe. Feel free to scoop those up too and put as many as possible in the hive. They will settle down once they’ve established that their queen and the brood is in there, and that they have food.
  6. Lie the first panel down on the flat surface. Line up the guide with the top of the panel and draw a line down the sides with the knife, then move the guide to the side somewhere at hand. This will give you the outline of the panel you will be cutting out (basically rhomboid, as is the cross-section of the hive). Determine by poking if the panel is natural wax through and through or if the base is plastic. (If it is plastic, curse and prepare yourself for a lot of frustrating hacking.)
  7. When the new panel is cut out, set the disemboweled nuc frame aside to process later and punch a hole at the top of the panel on each side, about an inch down and in from the sides. This will give you the two holes by which you will attach this panel to the top bars. If the panel is all natural wax you have to be extra careful, as if the panel is also full of honey it will want to pull out of the hole under its own weight.
  8. Using a combination of the screwdriver and needle-nosed pliers (which can be replaced by a big blunt needle if you have one but I never seem to), thread the string through the holes in the panel. The panel should remain lying down at all times. The most important thing to remember about handling top-bar hive panels is that the panels cannot support their own weight if rotated and elevated horizontally. They will break. Tie the top bar to the panel with the string, nicely centered. Use a knot that will not pull out under the weight of the wax and bee-ness, such as a square knot. I found that I can’t tie this knot with my gloves on, as the string is unavoidably covered in honey and difficult to manipulate with the inevitably too-large glove fingers. Don’t worry, people; hand stings aren’t that bad, and you probably won’t get any at this point.
  9. Place the panel in the new hive! As much as possible, maintain the order of the panels from nuc to top-bar hive. Also, generously support each panel from underneath while transporting them, especially the natural comb panels. They’ll be fine once you set them in the hive.

So, this is totally a low level of technology way to do this, and may be more trouble than it is worth. You have to wait a week or so for the bees to build new wax to join the bars with the panels you have tied to them (yes, they will do this!) and in the meantime they are just hanging there looking kinda lame. I have seen videos of beekeepers breaking the wooden frame of the nuc panel so that the side and bottom wooden pieces are gone, then trimming the wax to match the shape of the desired panel, then setting the new panel in the hive. In this case the top bar of the frame becomes the top bar used in the hive. This works, but is very difficult to do on your own (I work solo these days).

My method also works, and I actually learned it as a technique for wild hive capture, not that there are many of those left in this country. If you came across a wild honeybee hive and wanted to put it in a hive of your own, you could use my technique to tie the panels to bars, etc.

When all is said and done from above process, and it has been repeated as many times as you have panels to cut and move, you are left with some extra wax in the unused part of the nuc frames, which will have pollen, nectar, honey, and brood in it, and probably quite a few dead bees (stickified to death); you will be covered in honey and nectar and general gooiness; and you will have a little new hive. Harvest all that wax and pollen and honey! Yum and yum.

Do your best to not open the hive up again for a week. Yes, a week. It’s hard. But this will give the little ladies their time to feel comfortable, for the queen to start laying again, for them to build the wax to connect the new panels to the top bars, and for them to establish where the pollen, nectar, and water sources are in the new apiary. Happy beekeeping!

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