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Plastic beehives have been used in Europe for at least 30 years, where they have proved both durable and effective, so much so that today in Denmark virtually 99% of all new hives sold are made of plastic, either expanded polystyrene or polyurethane. The position is similar in many other Northern European countries, particularly Germany where one of the largest equipment suppliers no longer even lists wooden hives in their catalogue. The Finnish designer of our hives who runs approximately 3,000 colonies claims he does not even know any beekeepers in Finland still using wooden hives. In total there are over half a million plastic hives in use in Europe today, which is testament to their effectiveness and durability. The plastic hives we sell are made from food grade, high density expanded polystyrene. Although this is chemically identical to the polystyrene foam used in packaging, it has a much harder surface and is substantially stronger. High density expanded polystyrene is an ideal material for the construction of beehives. If you are considering buying a polystyrene hive always ensure it is high density. There are a few on the market in the UK which are made from low density polystyrene. If in doubt, ask the supplier to stand or sit on the hive - we would have no hesitation doing that to any of our hives.
WHY IS EXPANDED POLYSTYRENE SO GOOD FOR BEEHIVES?
The use of wood for hives in the UK is so well established it is sometimes hard to get a balanced view on polystyrene hives. Time and again we hear from customers who consult the elders of their beekeeping association only to be warned off these type of hives. This contrasts with the position in many other European countries where beginners will be strongly steered away from wooden hives!
Polystyrene hives work on two levels. The first is price - our hives are normally about half the price of a standard hive in imported Western Red Cedar and about a third the price of a hive like the WBC. Price is not everything of course and hives from plywood are very competitive but plywood is heavy and above all, like conventional wooden hives it does not provide the insulation value of polystyrene. This is where polystyrene hives really score because the majority of nectar gathered by the bees during the season is not stored for the winter but is consumed by the bees to keep the brood chamber warm. In a wooden hive the queen will also rarely lay in the outer frames as they are either too cold or too warm. There is nothing natural about keeping bees in a thin walled wooden box. A hollow tree is fine for bees as the large thermal mass cushions the brood nest from the rapid temperature changes which bees in a conventional wooden hive experience. This is why many European beekeepers have switched away from wood - they simply found their bees did better in thick walled polystyrene hives.
In winter the insulation value of our hives needs hardly to be stated. Following the harsh winter of 2009/2010 we have heard of many more beekeepers who use wooden hives trying all sorts of solutions to give their hives more insulation. Such methods work but there is nothing to compare with a hive which is highly insulated from the outset by design.
In the Finnish countryside where our hives were designed and proven, winter temperatures down to -35oC are not unknown with hives sometimes spending several months under snow. The bees survive these conditions well in polystyrene hives because the high level of insulation ensures their consumption of stores is very low. This is not to say these hives are only suitable for extremes of temperature. Polystyrene hives not only keep the bees warm but above all they keep them dry and it is often said, it is not the cold which kills bees but the damp.
Slowly the reputation of polystyrene hives in the UK is changing and Modern Beekeeping is now established as the most pro-active supplier of high density polystyrene hives in the UK. We are very confident our new hive in BS National size will open up polystyrene hives to a much wider audience. The Langstroth hives we have sold up until now have proven very popular and to date we have not had a single customer who has said anything other than words to the effect of "I will never go back to wood". Once you have tried a polystyrene hive we are confident you will come to the same view.
EXPANDED POLYSTYRENE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
A document on expanded polystyrene (EPS) and the environment can be found here. This covers the manufacture of the material and how it can be re-cycled. A short leaflet on the sustainability credentials of EPS can be found here. This document is focussed primarily on the construction industry but the principles it covers hold for our hives.
ASSEMBLING THE HIVE
The hard plastic edges will normally come fitted but if they are supplied loose they can be slid into position (but see the Painting Tip below for the timing of this). The four parts of the full depth and shallow supers are easily assembled. This is best done on a smooth, flat surface. Carpet is ideal as it will reduce the risk of damage if you drop one of the components. Select two ends (with the hard plastic edges) and two longer sides and ensure the words "Bee Box" all face the same way. Push the ends one at a time into a long side, ensuring the tenons slide evenly into the mortises. If you make a mistake and need to remove an end, stand on the long side and pull the end piece while gently rocking it from side to side.
Adhesive is not required but waterproof PVA can be used if a stronger joint is desired. The glue should be applied to the tenons only.
After two ends have been fitted to a long side check everything is facing the right way and then with the long side flat on the floor and the ends sticking upwards push the second long side downwards. No great force is required. If you find you need to exert excessive force check you are assembling the items correctly.
Fleet Beekeepers' have given us a very useful tip which they have found saves time when painting the hive. The trick is to assemble one long side and two shot sides together first but leave off the hard plastic edges. Paint the three sections on the outside and the fourth section on its own. When the paint is dry after the second coat slide the plastic edges into place and glue on the fourth side. The method avoids the need to mask the edges or clean the paint off afterwards. This saves time and makes a very neat job.
PAINTING THE HIVE
Before being taken into use it is essential the hive components are painted. This prevents the growth of algae on the outside of the hive, deterioration by UV and in the case of the feeder is required for sealing and ease of cleaning. We recommend the floor and roof are fully painted on all surfaces but the brood chamber and supers need only be painted on the outside. Ideally two coats of paint should be applied, though one will suffice. The feeder requires additional painting on the inside, where the syrup sits. At least 3 coats are required otherwise the syrup will soak into the feeder and mould etc., will continue to grow even after you have washed it out. The interior "walk-way" the bees climb up through does not need painting but the surface the bees walk down to reach the syrup benefits from a light roughening with fine sandpaper to help the bees grip. If you have strong fingers the hard plastic edges can be slid off prior to painting for a neater finish. Water based exterior smooth masonry paint is recommend for all surfaces other than the inside of the feeder. This is quick drying and easily applied with a 4" wide fleece roller and a ½" brush for the fiddly bits. We have found Dulux Weathershield Smooth Masonry paint is an excellent choice. This paint contains an acrylic resin and gives excellent coverage and wear characteristics. Woodland Pearl No 1 in the Tailor Made range of this paint is an excellent matt green that suits the hives well. We used to recommend Cuprinol Garden Shades but it is not very hard wearing and we feel the extra durability and better coverage of the Dulux paint is worth the extra cost. One litre will be sufficient for two hives with supers although you will find you probably have to buy 2.5 litres. There is a school of thought that supports painting the hive components different colours so the bees can recognize their own hive better, but unless you have a large number of hives in the apiary this would not be economic. For the interior of the feeder we recommend four coats of interior gloss white paint. Roughen the surface down which the bees climb to reach the syrup with fine sanding paper after the last coat. Alternatively, apply an extra coat to this surface only and sprinkle dry sand on it. You do not need to paint the interior surface the bees ascend - it would be pretty hard to reach in any case.
You can spray the hives but unless you have a very powerful spray gun you will probably need to add a great deal of thinners and several coats will be required. The masonry paints can only be applied with industrial grade airless spray guns. Domestic airless guns are unsuitable as the paint is too thick.
USING THE STRAP
You can just put a stone or brick on the roof but it will damage the paint and a strap is neater. The strap can also be used to pick up the hive - but only when it is empty. Do not use it when it is full of bees! When full the hive should only be picked up from the bottom. Start by threading the end through the buckle, then loop the strap around the hive. Note the end of the strap with the buckle comes under the floor so the buckle is pointing upwards To pull the strap tight press down on the strap where it goes over the edge of the roof and pull the free end tight. It is not necessary to use a lot of force. Loop the end and tuck it behind the strap.
INTRODUCING BEES TO THE 4004 MEDIUM BODIED HIVE AND SUBSEQUENT MANAGEMENT
By far the simplest way to introduce bees to a medium bodied hive is through a shook swarm. This can be carried out between late March and until about the end of June and is our recommended method at this time of year when transferring an established colony. Feed the bees with 1:1 sugar syrup afterwards. The colony will grow strongly and will usually out-strip a colony that has not been shook swarmed, especially if the operation is carried out early in the year.
Alternatively, if you already have Langstroth hives (wooden or poly) then simply remove any supers to another hive if possible and put two medium bodies onto the hive filled with frames and foundation topped off with the new polystyrene roof. If there were supers on the original hive and no other hive to move them to replace them above a queen excluder between the medium bodies and the roof. Once the bees have drawn out the foundation in the medium bodies the queen should start laying in the medium bodies. Insert a queen excluder above the old hive body and under the new medium bodies and once the brood in the old hive has emerged transfer the new medium bodies with queen and new brood to the polystyrene floor.
If you are starting from scratch the bees may come on Langstroth full depth or National frames in a nucleus. A nucleus is not really strong enough for a shook swarm so carry out the procedure as described in the Full Depth section above if the National frames need converting and then proceed as follows.
Half fill the lowest medium depth hive body with frames of foundation and then do the same to the next level. Push the frames to the same side, leaving a 5 frame gap down the opposite side. This is the gap into which the full depth frames, or converted National frames are gently lowered. Add the roof (and ideally our full width rapid feeder) and leave the bees to get used to their new home. There will be a large gap under the full depth frames but this does not matter.
When the time comes for the first inspection gently lift off the roof and place it inverted by the side of the hive. Onto the roof place the 2 additional empty medium bodies which came with the hive (this is why we supply 4 bodies for this hive - the two extra are required for the first inspections). Start the inspection by lifting the outermost full depth frame which after checking should be lowered into the 2 empty medium bodies on the roof. Continue until all the full depth frames are in the spare hive bodies on the roof then continue the inspection of the medium depth frames in the upper of the two hive bodies on the floor. It is helpful to avoid chilling the brood if the 5 full depth frames are covered by a cloth or spare roof whilst the medium frames are being inspected. When the upper brood body has been inspected pick it up and place it on the two bodies with the full depth frames and complete the inspection of the lowest tier of the hive. To reassemble the hive reverse the procedure, replace the second tier hive body and then replace the full depth frames one at a time. At all times ensure the frames stay in the same order.
After a few weeks the bees should have drawn out much of the foundation in the medium frames, especially if they have been fed as we strongly recommend. During this period if the queen is found on a medium frame with brood stop inspecting and prepare to rearrange the hive for the final step before the full depth frames are removed. Place the two lower hive bodies to one side, either on a spare roof or a sheet. It does not matter if their order is reversed, i,e. put the top one down first and then put the lowest one on top of it. It is essential while doing this to ensure the queen remains on her frame in one of these hive bodies.
Onto the floor, which now has no hive bodies on it place the two spare hive bodies containing the full depth frames and then add the queen excluder. Then replace the two medium bodies with the queen, filling the gaps left by the full depth frames with new medium frames with foundation. As a variation, especially if the queen has only just started to lay in the medium frames, the frames from both bodies can be combined into one hive body and either the roof replaced directly, giving a three tier hive, or the fourth hive body is filled with frames of foundation and placed on top. The aim is to have the full depth frames on their own in two otherwise empty hive bodies below the queen excluder. Above the queen excluder is the queen in either one or two medium hive bodies with drawn foundation and brood.
Whichever method is used, after about 3 weeks the brood on the full depth frames will have emerged and the frames can be disposed of and the hive returned to 2 medium bodies. Before this happens you can bruise any sealed honey cappings on the full depth frames and the bees should take it up into the hive. You will not need full depth frames again. As the colony expands, add the second brood chamber if not already in place. Later, add the queen excluder and the first super and watch the bees bring in your first honey crop!
Running the colony on two medium bodies gives you the opportunity to try reversing them as a swarm prevention measure. In about April or early May as the weather warms and the OSR comes into flower, swap the two lower hive bodies around making sure if there is an arch of honey, particularly on the upper body the cappings are bruised with the hive tool to encourage the bees to remove it and create more laying space for the queen. Avoid having a large arch of honey between the two brood chambers.
There is nothing to stop you adding more medium bodies below the queen excluder or even dispensing with the queen excluder altogether and simply letting the queen lay up as many hive bodies as she requires. This is a Danish beekeeping trick.
Apart from less lifting the big advantage of having the same size frames in all hive bodies is you should always, after your first honey crop, have a supply of drawn comb suitable for making increase, relieving congestion in the brood chamber or simply to replace older comb to reduce the risk of disease.
USING YOUR POLYSTYRENE HIVE
In use, leave out the varroa tray all year round, except for short periods of monitoring mite levels. This recommendation has been proven in Scotland where several hundred polystyrene hives suffered negligible winter losses following this regime. Bees are not killed by cold (they will cluster to keep warm) but confined, damp conditions are ideal breeding grounds for disease. In summer leaving out the tray allows improved ventilation to the hive which should reduce swarming induced by over-heating. If housing a swam replace the varroa tray for the first few days to ensure the hive is as dark as possible to help the bees settle down. Then remove it to aid ventilation. In cold areas the varroa tray can also be replaced in the early spring to aid build-up.
Always use "J" type hive tool for lifting the frames, particularly the first one. This tool presses down on another frame in order to lift out a frame, thus avoiding any danger of damaging the hive.
The plastic queen excluders are best reversed after each inspection i.e. turned upside down. This will prevent them developing a set due to the warmth of the hive softening the plastic.
The bees will tend to stick down the roof with propolis. To avoid this, although this is not essential, put a sheet of plastic under the roof - this will make the roof much easier to remove. More or less any sort of plastic will work: for example builders' merchants can supply a flexible sheet used as a waterproof membrane under concrete. We also sell a purpose made inner cover which fits under the roof which double as a glass quilt - allowing the bees to be observed without disturbing them too much.
CLEANING AND STERILISATION
The hives are best cleaned with a solution of washing soda, made up as directed on the packet. This will dissolve propolis and clean off any dirt etc. Be careful trying to remove propolis and wax with the hive tool. We recommend purchasing one of the large plastic double handled buckets obtainable from Builders' Merchants and some DIY stores as domestic sinks are too small for the hive components. This will also allow you to do the cleaning outside. A Plasterer's Bucket is even better as it is much larger but these take up more storage space and are more expensive.
Sterilisation of the hive can be carried out with a solution of household bleach, again made up as directed on the bottle. However, the best sterilisation treatment is Virkon S, obtainable from farm suppliers and some vets. Wear suitable protective equipment, including eye protection. You can obtain elbow length rubber gloves from Farm Suppliers which are an excellent way of protecting your arms. We advise against using a brush due to the danger of flicking the bleach towards your face. A disposable washing up cloth is best. Thoroughly wash the hive after cleaning or sterilisation with cold water and preferably with a hose fitted with a spray or sprinkler - not a jet. Do not use a power washer as it will damage the surface of the plastic, although a power washer can be used to clean the plastic queen excluder.
Virkon S will not kill AFB spores but a strong solution of bleach will. However, AFB is thankfully extremely rare so for general cleaning we recommend Virkon S over bleach as it is easier and safer to use.
The UK Government Fera organisation has produced a helpful leaflet on sterilising hives which can be accessed here.
THE POLY HIVE YEAR
Polystyrene hives keep the bees warm and dry during the winter so expect your bees to come out of this period in a healthy state, providing they went into winter with a low varroa level and were fed early enough the previous year to allow them to raise plenty of over wintering bees. The end of August is not too early to start your winter feed. We advise against relying just on the ivy. Let the bees use the ivy pollen for additional brood rearing but ivy nectar is renowned for setting solid very quickly in the comb. The bees can then only use these stores if they can fly out and gather water - which in the depths of winter may be difficult for them. If this happens the bees can starve to death even though they are close to an ample food source. A bit like Robert Scott's doomed party in Antarctica in 1912.
The other main cause of winter losses are varroa. Resistance to the synthetic pyrethroids is now very widespread in England and well into Scotland. We recommend a late summer treatment with Apiguard followed by a dribble of Oxalic Acid in late December. Other treatments such as formic acid can also be effective but their use carries other dangers and so we cannot formally recommend them.
We strongly advise that you leave the varroa tray out throughout the winter. Left in it will simply become a breeding ground for wax moths. Left out the bees will get plenty of ventilation and this helps to keep the humidity levels down. Bees are not killed by the cold but damp is certainly an enemy.
In colder countries such as Finland it is recommended to replace the varroa tray in early spring and leave it until the weather warms up. We have not done this here in Devon for the last 5 years and have not noticed any problems. We have also spoken with bee farmers in Scotland who leave the trays out all year round which leads us to advise that wherever you live in the UK leave out the tray except for short periods of monitoring for varroa and when carrying out varroa treatments that require the hive to be closed up. However, if you do decide to replace the tray in Spring check it weekly and remove any debris, otherwise the wax moths will take up residence and they can chew into the plastic, especially when they decide to pupate.
Our preferred spring management regime includes an early shook swarm. This both knocks down the varroa levels and gives the bees an opportunity to recover from any other diseases. There is detailed advice in our FAQs page on the website on how to carry out a shook swarm, but essentially the technique is to shake all the bees onto a new floor and brood chamber which is filled with 10 new frames with foundation. The bees are fed and within a few weeks the colony will be rapidly growing. We have had a colony given a shook swarm in late March which was on two brood boxes and had 15 frames of brood by mid May - some 7 or 8 weeks later.
As the colony expands always ensure the queen has somewhere to lay. If a shook swarm is not carried out check for combs which are clogged with ivy honey or pollen and replace them with foundation. You can expect the queen to lay up all 10 frames in the brood chamber as unlike thin-walled wooden hives a poly hive is warm throughout the brood chamber and brood will often be found on the outer faces of the end combs. Remember this when removing these frames as the queen may be on the first frame!
Prolific bees may need a second brood chamber. Even with two full size brood chambers the queen may lay in the first super if a queen excluder is not used, especially during the sort of rapid colony expansion typically found when the bees are working OSR.
We have conducted a few experiments with bees in colonies without queen excluders. Early results are promising but the main lesson learned so far is the colony must be on the same sized frame throughout. Commercial bee farmers will often use full sized frames but these require a larger and more expensive extractor and of course the boxes are very heavy. For the amateur beekeeper the answer is to use 3/4 or Medium Langstroth frames throughout the hive, as offered by our 4004 model.
These frames are not as small as might be envisaged being roughly the same area as a BS National full depth frame and in the case of our plastic frames they are actually about 10% larger than a BS National. We have spoken with a beekeeper in Sweden who has 400 colonies on Medium frames so the method works and the advantages which stem from having the same sized frames far outweigh any perceived extra work which may stem from having more frames to inspect.