To Bee, With Top Bar Hives

Fred Brandell starts with what looks like a big metal stein, except it has a little chimney on top and a squeezebox stuck on the side.

He pops it open, stuffs in a wad of burlap, and lights it. Gray curls rise. He pops it shut and pumps the bellows.

“I always like to have a little smoke going,” said Brandell, as he prepared to work on one of his beehives. The puffs around the hive disrupt the insects’ signaling and deter stinging defensives.

It’s a controlled burn for Brandell, a firefighter who lives in Arlington, Va., and has been keeping bees for the past five years. A battalion chief with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, Brandell says he does it for neither money nor honey.

It’s a hobby, prompted by an observation, and it has grown from a single hive to a network of 13. He has three in his own yard, placing the others with people in the area who seek a bee boost to garden pollination or simply find bees fascinating.

“When I was a kid, you used to walk around in the backyards and see bees all the time,” said Brandell, who grew up in McLean, Va. “As I’ve gone through my life I’ve seen less and less bees. It always kind of bothered me. I started doing the beehive thing.” He’s not alone, even within his own fire department, where he notes that several colleagues also keep bees.

Bee Boom?

Growing interest in beekeeping is apparent to Richard Fell, an emeritus professor of apiculture at Virginia Tech. In the New River Valley around the university, for example, aspiring apiculturists have been filling the local beekeeping association’s spring introductory course, which accommodates 50 students.

Nevertheless, he said that even with more beekeepers and annual replacement of lost colonies, “we can’t seem to get those numbers built back up to the levels we had 30 years ago.”

Managed colonies around the state total about 40,000 now, about half the number of the 1980s, said Fell, adding that annual loses amount to about 30 percent of colonies, and reached about 45 percent this past year.

“We still have a lot of concern about colony decline,” Fell said. Honey production, he said, has been sporadic this year, good in some areas and very poor in others, at least through the spring flows.

Varroa mites, a bee parasite, carry a high profile in the blame line-up. But combinations of factors, such as cold weather, poor honey production, disease in the hive, can tip the scale and kill the colony.

“We’re not seeing big bee-kills from pesticide applications,” he said, but parts per billion of the chemicals can be found in hive materials. “We don’t know if there is any chronic impact over long periods of time. There are questions like that that we don’t have answers for.”

Eyes On The Hive

With me in tow on a July day, Brandell walks over to one of his “top bar” hives that he has placed at a friend’s house. He assembled his first hive from a kit and built the rest himself.

The hive is a wooden hull, covered with a hinged lid of white plastic and elevated on a pair of crossed lengths of wood. The hull holds a tightly packed row of beams, with each of the narrow bars suspending a two-sided wedge of comb.

It’s an alternative to the more familiar configuration of stacked boxes of the moveable frames invented by 19th Century beekeeper Lorenzo Langstroth. Brandell said the Langstroth hive better accommodates honey production, with the bees storing honey in frames of comb that can be shuffled, and removed and spun for harvesting.

Honey not being his purpose, Brandell says the top bar system means easier hive access, less disturbance for the bees and no need for him to don a protective veil.

He starts sorting through the hive, using a flat metal tool to loosen the top bars and examine the combs. The bees thrum with gorgeous activity.


Fred Brandell of Arlington, Va., works on one of the 13 beehives he maintains as a hobby. Brandell, a Fairfax County firefighter, took up beekeeping after noticing how bee populations had dwindled since his days growing up in the area. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

“Until you get into it, you never know what they’ve been doing,” Brandell said. He pulls up a dense, weighty comb endowed with a swath of brood, larval bees capped in hexagonal cells. It looks like mini bubble wrap dusted with powdered chocolate. These bees have been, proverbially, busy.

Parts of the comb ooze honey. Some chunks break off. Brandell runs a finger through a golden slick that dripped on the hive tool. He tastes it. I try a finger full too. The consistency is thin and the flavor rich, delicate and deliciously sweet – and it’s bee food.

When it comes to harvesting honey for people to eat, Sue Hubbell, the Missouri honey producer and author of “A Book of Bees” in 1988, noted that the process must be balanced with leaving enough behind for the bees if they are to be sustained through the winter.

Two young children from the house next door show up to watch Brandell work. They want to see the queen.

“We’re looking for her,” Brandell says. “If I find her, I’ll show her to you.” Brandell examined a few more combs, lucklessly looking for her majesty, whose presence he presumes because of the brood that signifies recent egg-laying.

The bee buzz volume kicks up a bit. The front of the hive, where guard bees stand post, poses the most danger for getting stung. “If you stay there long enough, they’ll get suspicious and do something about it,” Brandell said. He gives the smoker bellows a squeeze.

Learning The ABCs

For Fell, the interest he sees in beekeeping is promising, even with the learning curve neophytes face, especially in the first year. Many start with a mail order for a 3-pound package of bees, a screen box bearing 11,000 to 12,000 bees and a queen.

“Well, we’re seeing a lot of poor quality queens. It’s very difficult for a new beekeeper to see, ‘I’ve got a problem with my queen,’ ” he said. “It takes a while to gain experience.”

That apparently goes for both beekeepers and bees.

“You’re taking a bunch of bees. You’re dumping them into a hive. OK. [They’ve] got to draw comb, build up a population and store 50 pounds of honey if [they’re] going to have any chance of making it through the winter,” Fell said. “That’s a lot for a group of bees to do.”

Even when strong colonies split and swarms fly, failure rates for the breakaway republics run high, according to Fell, who has been running Tech’s bee program for nearly 37 years and oversees 60 to 80 colonies.

Brandell said he spent about three years with his interest on idle while he waited for a beekeeping class to open up that would accommodate his schedule. “I just finally went on the Internet and said, ‘Hey, I’m sure I can figure this out.’ ”

Brandell says he’s getting stung less and takes it as a sign that he’s getting better at the task. Still, he said it was just this past year when he felt the most bee stings at one time. He was trying to capture a swarm that had gathered on a tree limb close to the ground. The bees resisted the lure of lemon grass extract and Brandell decided to knock them into the collection box. He was stung three times.

He racked up another as I observed him finishing up his work at the hive, taking a sting on his calf.

“It’s not my favorite thing,” he says. He says he tolerates the stings well but carries Benadryl and an EpiPen just in case of a bad reaction.

Being Fruitful

Sue Howell, a veteran of 40 years as a university hospital nurse and nursing services director, accepted a Brandell hive about three years ago to aid her intensive vegetable gardening.

Actually, the Howell house hive wound up in the yard of her neighbor, who is not a vegetable gardener. A spot in the adjoining yard with a little tree shade was judged more suitable and fit the flow between the two.

“She takes care of my dog,” Howell said. “I mow her lawn. The gate stays open. She loves bees.”

The garden-bee chemistry seems off to her this season in her yard. “By now we’d have little cucumbers,” she said. “But they’re not showing up yet, and I’m thinking that might be because the hive is not as active.” She said many factors could be involved, aside from the bees stirring of pollen from anther to stigma to activate fertilization. However, she said the Brandell hive at her sister’s house is more active and the cucumbers are doing a little better there, even though the soil isn’t as good.

Brandell said his wife’s garden has appeared more fruitful under the influence of the beehives in their yard and Fell said he keeps a half-dozen colonies in his own backyard to pollinate his fruit trees and garden.

Brandell said he is always learning something new about beekeeping, and trying to solve its riddles keeps him engaged.

“The challenge is getting them all the way through the season and especially the hardship of having them survive through the winter,” he said. He’s lost colonies and had some that have surprisingly survived, like the one that made it even after a strong winter wind toppled the hive.

“It takes a lot of time and there are a lot of frustrations,” he said, recommending that anyone contemplating beekeeping first try shadowing a practitioner and only move forward if “they’re really into it.”

© 2016 John A. Bray