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Assembly, Care and Use of Polystyrene Hives
Please also see the videos showing hive assembly in the video section of this website.
Polystyrene 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 polystyrene, 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 polystyrene 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 USA 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 USA 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 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 up to half the price of a standard hive in Western Red Cedar. 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 harsh winters in some areas 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 -31oF 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. 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 medium 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' in the UK 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 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, as shown in picture number 1. Then loop the strap around the hive as shown in picture 2. 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, as shown by the arrow in picture 3. It is not necessary to use a lot of force. Loop the end as shown in 4 and tuck it behind the strap as shown in 5.
CLEANING AND STERILIZATION
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.
Sterilization of the hive can be carried out with a solution of household bleach, again made up as directed on the bottle. However, the best sterilization 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 sterilization 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 stong 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 POLYHIVE 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. 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. 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.
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.
The standard nuc kit consists of:
Two long body sides
Two short body sides
Two frame runners
Packet of stainless steel screws for fixing the varroa mesh
Two entrance reducers
The internal divider board is an optional extra.
Putting the Nuc together
The hive body is easy to assemble. The tenons on the long sides fit into the corresponding mortise holes in the short sides. There are 4 tenons on the Jumbo nuc body and 3 on the standard. The spacing of these joints ensures they will only together one way.
We strongly recommend you make a trial assembly of the body to ensure you have all the right parts and to become familiar with how it goes together.
The joints can be quite stiff and a mallet and block of smooth wood may come in handy to ensure the parts are driven fully together. You can also simply use you weight and sit on the joints – but take care not to over-balance!
It is not essential to glue the joints but it does make for a stronger body. Use water-proof PVA adhesive and apply it to the tenons only – not the mortise holes as this can cause a hydraulic lock.
Always work on a soft surface such as a carpet to protect the individual components. Cover the carpet with newspaper or a plastic sheet if adhesive is being used.
The nuc should be painted before being used. We recommend acrylic masonry paint and a suitable paint is available from our website.
The roof and floor should be given two coats on all sides – top and bottom.
The hive body only needs painting on the outside edge. Do not paint the top and bottom edges otherwise they will tend to stick to the floor or roof.
If you prefer to fully paint the nucleus body apply a petroleum jelly to the contacting surfaces to stop them sticking together.
Washing soda is a good general cleaner. Virkon “S” available from farm suppliers is also a very good disinfectant and is ideal for use at the end of the season if the nucs are not being over-wintered. Always gently remove as much wax and propolis with the hive tool before attempting to clean the nuc.