An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
Some prefer to purchase their woodware ready to assemble while others make it from scratch. In selecting timber, I prefer old pine with plenty of resin in it—although it’s a little heavier, it lasts longer in the field. Most of the sawmills send this type of tree for firewood as the band-saw blades they use these days snap when they get clogged with resin. Luckily, a few beekeepers in our district have mills that cut timber using old technology: round saw blades.
If you are a hobbyist and have only a few hives, it’s best to purchase all your gear ready to assemble. If, however, you are contemplating becoming a commercial beekeeper one day, acquiring woodworking skills and setting up a workshop is a necessity.
To make beekeeping woodware you need a good saw bench (or if you have the space, a rip and a draw saw, and perhaps a router and a buzzer). It’s quite expensive if you purchase everything brand new but if you are not in a hurry, there’s plenty of second- hand equipment around. Just get someone experienced to check the saw to make sure it cuts true.
Viewed in a strictly commercial light, it’s cheaper in the long run to purchase all your new gear as replacements are tax deductible. However, if you are starting at the bottom with very little capital, making your own gear initially and then replacing it with commercially produced product when it needs replacing is the best way to go. This approach can save you a lot of money. I got 12–15 years of use out of boxes made from pallet timber. If you are not confident with saws, look up “mastering a table saw” on the Internet—there are also DVDs available to teach you.
Safety is paramount when working with saws, as the blade can’t tell the difference between a piece of wood and a finger. You will need earmuffs, safety glasses, a heavy apron, push sticks, a good steel ruler, clamps and plenty of space around the saws. There are many different types of saw blade on the market; each does a separate job. I use ripping blades and finishing blades that have more teeth to give a cleaner finish. Always work to the side of the blade, as sticks left on the top of the bench can catch the blade and suddenly flick back at high speed. Hence the apron: apart from protecting your clothing, it saves having a sore stomach for a few days if a piece of wood flicks back and hits you at high speed. Push sticks are a must. The only time I don’t use them is when I am continuously feeding timber into the saw, using the next piece in as a push stick.
Here are a few of my rules when working a saw bench.
Rule 1: Never force timber through a saw. It should be a smooth easy operation at its own pace. As the blade gets duller, it will cut more slowly. I sometimes only get a few continuous days out of a blade before it needs sharpening again. It also depends on the timber and the cleanliness of the saw blade. You may need to clean the resin off the side of the blade using kerosene. A good tip is to polish all the surfaces of the saw bench with beeswax to reduce friction.
Rule 2: Don’t work on a saw when you are tired. You have to concentrate all the time. I found out the hard way that seven hours of continuous work is my limit. I cut my thumb as I was moving my hand across the saw blade to turn the machine off at the end of the day. After working all day, I couldn’t believe I had done it. One momentary lapse and it took months before I had full use of my hand again, even using a plastic pipe over the thumb as a protector.
Rule 3: Always use the guards. Some of the cutting will require you to remove the guard from over the blade; however, there are devices you can make and clamp to the bench to enhance your safety. Look up some woodworking books to get ideas.
Rule 4: Don’t use the fence as a width guide as small pieces of timber can kick up as they leave the blade while still against the fence. Clamp a small piece of wood to the fence so that the cutting piece is free of the fence once it has passed the blade.
Rule 5: Continually check your measurements. Repeated operations can cause the clamps to move a smidgen each time they are banged, which will put out your measurements over time. If you use a template to set the cut, only use this one to recheck the measurements. I ended up with 1000 top bars whose side bar cut became over-length because I didn’t check the measurements regularly. It didn’t matter when I used an extractor that the frames dropped into, but they stuck going into the extractor when I upgraded to a horizontal radial “push through” model.
Once you have the machinery to make them, split boards are one of the most versatile pieces of equipment I use in my beekeeping. They are basically a crown board, made from four pieces of timber deep enough to give a bee space on one side and deeper on the other, as this forms a base and gives rigidity to the board. The bee space side also has an entrance at one end. I use a hardboard centre. With these there’s no need to carry around additional bases and roofs when making splits. I have a split board under the roof on each hive.
I started off using sacks or a bit of carpet under the roof as hive mats. My bees at that time were a great deal more defensive than today, and ripping up the sealed mat caused an instant defensive reaction. I then used regular crown boards but ventilation became an issue: something to do with our wet, windy climate and hives placed close to or in bush areas. I found by spring I had wet, mouldy outside frames and the frame lugs would rot in a few years. I needed more top ventilation than a matchstick in each corner.
It took a couple of winters to work out the amount of top ventilation required to prevent moisture build-up using a split board. The entrance needs to be big enough to allow a regular change of air but small enough to stop the bees consuming extra stores in order to maintain a tight cluster when faced with too great an airflow. I settled on a 25 mm x 7 mm entrance/ ventilation hole. However, the crown boards weren’t durable when I cut the entrance in one side. They soon broke under normal working conditions so I started making them from rough sawn timber. (I changed the inside measurements so they fit flush with a super.)
My crown boards are now 33-mm wide and 23-mm thick. They are durable and easy to staple together. I have a groove 7 mm (the bee space) in from one edge in which to fit the hardboard. This groove is cut in one operation. I have a 10-inch blade and a smaller ripping blade with a wood spacer between the blades to give me my correct width. I found that the thicker 5-mm hardboard wouldn’t fit into a normal saw cut. Dado blades are now illegal, so to get a wider cut I used a tooth setting tool to make the small blade cut a 5-mm groove. (Two fine blades together will give the same effect.)
To accommodate two blades, you need to make a new throat plate. This can be made out of an old cutting board: something with a smooth surface that won’t chip. Cut this to shape and bevel the edges (I used a wood file) so that it fits flush into the throat. Clamp a piece of timber across the saw so that it covers the throat, turn on the saw and then gradually raise the blades slowly to the top of the adjustment. You now have a throat plate with two cuts in it.
Then it’s just a matter of setting up the guides, setting the width of the cut, adjusting the height of the smaller blade (7 mm) and pushing the timber through. The small blade(s) cuts the groove for the hardboard while the larger blade cuts the timber to size all in one operation. You get rigidity by cutting the hardboard so that it fits fully into the groove all the way around. Assemble and put a staple in each corner. Wax dip to preserve it, but be very careful as the hardboard contains oils and takes time to heat up. Add only five split boards to the dipper and wait a minute or so until the bubbling wax starts to wane, then add a few more and wait. If you add 10 or more at a time into the dipper, the wax suddenly bubbles up and all over the sides of the dipper. Once the timber has cooled you can add another staple to each corner. The hot wax sometimes loosens the existing staple’s hold—it depends upon the timber.
For those without access to a dipper, Metalex (Copper Napthanate: 1 to 5 of turps) works just fine and will not leave a residue in the wax if allowed to fully dry over the winter months. Fully submerging the wooden parts for a few hours (or until the tiny air bubbles stop) will give far better protection than just painting it on. Some of my supers have lasted 30 years. If you are concerned about the Metalex residue, paint the inside of the boards and supers as the Australians do. They also repair and repaint their supers every five years.
Top hive feeders are made the same way. Just make the overall cut a little wider, about 50–60 mm (depending upon how many cuts you can get out of the width of a piece of timber), and drill a 25-mm hole in the middle to allow bees to come up into it. I find these quite useful, apart from having a dispenser for raw sugar used for emergency feeding of strong hives. The bees will come up into the feeder when the supers below get overcrowded, which tells me the hive needs another super. The bees will also store honey in the feeder if I fail to put enough supers on the hives during the flow. Most beekeepers don’t bother with this type of feeder, preferring frame feeders that take sugar syrup. I hardly ever feed my hives sugar syrup.
We are now recycling brood frames through our hives every three to four years to keep the pathogens and residues down so that our bees are healthier. This also means that we have a larger number of frames to melt out. I used to have a melter copied from Tweeddale’s in Taihape, which consisted of two insulated 44-gallon drums welded together with a steel frame to slide supers in and out. From memory, Tweeddale’s have two very long stainless units (no insulation required) into which steam is fed, making the operation more viable. Mine used to hold three supers: each super had a queen excluder nailed to the bottom of the super to stop the old black cocoons from dropping through. It was set up on a slight angle, the opening covered with a sack, a steam hose put in and wax and water would run out into a bucket. However, we had to make room so that went to the dump and now I’m going to stack up a number of supers on top of each other and just keep poking steam in at the bottom. A hive lid and bits of foam plastic should be all that’s needed to keep the steam from escaping. (Another alternative is to leave the old dark brood frames out in the summer sun for an hour, which completely softens the wax, making it easy to push out).
I remove the frames from the supers after an hour, upend the supers to get rid of the residue and whack the side bars of the frames with a hive tool to test their structural integrity (for rot). This also removes most of the wax residue left on the bars. Frames that break are used as fire starters and the ones that pass are reused. The wax and residue are put in muslin bags and weighted down in a tank of hot water. The wax rises to the surface and is poured off into moulds while the residue is held in the bags, ready for composting. It makes excellent compost.
Beekeepers who regularly clean up their old brood frames in this way have noticed a drop in disease levels. Bees on new gear are happy bees and if they are continually building new wax, they tend not to swarm.
Of course there are other methods. One Australian beekeeper now places all his frames and old supers on the truck, takes them to the local dump and burns them all in one pile. He then purchases all new woodware and makes it up. This beekeeper can’t leave old frames around the honey house any more as hive beetle gets into it and totally slimes out the gear.
Biosecurity caution: If you visit or stay with Australian beekeepers in small hive beetle (SHB) areas, check that all your gear is free of them before you head for home. Use fly spray on your gear if you are not sure. SHB like to hide in dark places, in bags and shoes and we certainly don’t want them here in New Zealand.
Make up and prepare gear for replacement or hive increase. Check hives after storms. Those with hives in the ‘acute’ phase’ of varroa (the first three years) should check mite fall. If your bees have been robbing dying ferals, they could be starting to break down with PMS. Additional treatments may be required. Those with top bar hives should check that the cluster is against a frame of honey.
Editor’s note: this article was originally published in July 2010 with the title ‘Gearing up for spring’, and has been updated.]