The Sun Hive: experimental Natural Beekeeping

Sun Hive landing board

Sun Hives are a hive design coming out of Germany and now gathering interest in Britain. They’re part of the world-wide movement towards ‘apicentric’ beekeeping – beekeeping that prioritizes honeybees firstly as pollinators, with honey production being a secondary goal.

The Sun Hive is modeled in part on the traditional European skep hive, and is aimed at creating a hive that maximises colony health. The main thing I love about this hive and the enthusiasm surrounding it is not the hive itself, but the philosophy behind it, that of apicentric beekeeping.

Sun Hive in the Natural Beekeeping Trust classroom

Sun Hive 1

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Revealing the Sun Hive

In brief, the Sun Hive has an upside down skep hive at its base with curving frames in the top section and no frames in the bottom section. The hive is placed well above ground level (optimal for bees – they never choose to create a hive on the ground).

Like a Warré hive, the Sun Hive allows the queen bee to roam freely through the entire hive and lay eggs where she wishes to, which in turn allows the colony to manage the location and progression of their brood nest, which is great for colony health.

The top curved frames of the Sun Hive provide the ability to (in theory) remove each frame, with the free-form comb beneath coming out as well as it is (again, in theory) attached to the frame directly above.

The Sun Hive can also have a super attached to it on a honeyflow (not sure about that, as I assume that means a queen excluder would be used to prevent brood comb being created in said super, which goes against the idea of allowing the queen to roam the hive, but anyway).

As I said, it’s not the design of this hive that particularly gets me going (though it is very beautiful), but the philosophy behind it… putting bees first before honey yields.

Also, this sort of experimenting is important. We cannot keep relying on the industrial style of beekeeping that is currently the norm. Well managed Warré Beehives are one branch of natural beekeeping, and this hive is another.

What we need, right now, is lots of apicentric beekeepers refining, experimenting and progressing resilient beekeeping techniques. Backed up by good information on bee behavior, not just whacky ideas.

Would this hive style work in Australia? I am not sure, but I suspect it might not be ideal for most parts of Australia. And that is ok. Each continent has vastly different conditions – nectarys, climate and other variations that necessitate adaptation for hive design for effective natural beekeeping.

A hive design developed on the other side of the world, no matter how groovy, is not necessarily going to result in a happy and healthy honeybee colony over this side of the world. There’s seasonal differences, the way honeyflows work is different, humidity, etc.

But Natural Beekeeping, in all its global variations, is at the heart of future honeybee health. The Sun Hive is definitely part of that matrix and is causing many in Europe to rethink hive design to ensure colony resilience.

Sun Hive resources:

>> More posts about Natural Beekeeping at Milkwood.net

We run Natural Beekeeping courses with Tim Malfroy in Sydney and at Milkwood Farm (and soon, further afield!) which teach responsible, ethical, chemical free Warré Beekeeping for the backyard or small-scale beekeeper. No, it’s not just about the shape of the box and the frames within. It’s an entire, apicentric approach. And it’s awesome.Sun Hive landing board

42 Comments

  1. Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink | Reply

    Sounds absolutely wonderful! I’ve tasted the difference in fresh honey from a wild hive, as well as enjoyed local honey from keepers in our area. This method looks like it could parallel the closest with the wild hives. To have opportunity for enjoying that intense flavor would be like living in Heaven! Thanks for sharing!

    • Posted September 13, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Permalink | Reply

      How does wild honey taste different from non-wild honey? Do they bees visit different plants?

      • Jim
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:29 am | Permalink

        remember one thing your perception is your reality. LOL

      • Posted September 16, 2014 at 5:12 am | Permalink

        Yes, they visit vastly different plants. Domestic bees are often shipped all across the country in order to pollinate one specific crop such as almonds, apples and limes just to name a few. Local wild bees would pollinate some of the commercial plants but not in the percentages that commercial growers need. Wild bees are locally adapted to plants that flower in the area that they cover as territory and live more from the local wildflowers than commercial vegetable and fruit crops, though, as stated before, they do end up pollinating/ collecting nectar there as well.

    • Litigious S
      Posted September 15, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

      The only thing that affects the taste of honey is the source for the nectar. The most common type of honey is called clover honey, because the primary source of nectar for most honeybees are clover flowers; of course, no homey is 100 percent derived from clover. Local flora affects the taste of honey, which is why honey from beehives near orchards are labeled based on the type of orchard, such as Apple blossom or Orange blossom honey, yet even when near an orchard, the honey is still significantly clover based.

  2. Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink | Reply

    <3 !!!

  3. Posted March 5, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Those hives are pieces of art in themselves. I wonder if it would work for native Aussie bees?

  4. Posted March 5, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

    cool

  5. Flavian
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This bodel is quite good for the bees, but there are a few problems with it. First, you try to impose them the distance betweenn combs and the orientation. This is not really natural. The japanese version of Warre hive does not do that: http://warre.biobees.com/japan.htm

    Second, you have not thought about replacing old combs. When you collect honey you have to destroy an entire comb, with brood and eggs. If you separate the top part from the bottom part you remain with old combs in the bottom part all the time.

    Third, you have not taken into account expansion of volume. In winter, the bees occupy less volume. In spring they start expanding, and best way to expand is vertical. You could help them do this by adding a hive-body box underneath, as warre explains.

    Best option in my opinion is round warre hives without frames. Something like this but without top-bars, so the bees can build comb as they see fitt: http://warre.biobees.com/round_and_polygonal.htm

    • Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yep I also see comb renewal as a bit of a prob in this design. To meet regulations in many countries (Australia included) you need to have some removable frames for inspection… hence the frames, which therefore impose the distance between the combs… as I said, it’s an experimental design, and probably wouldn’t work well where we are, but interesting all the same :)

  6. Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

    As wonderful and special and divine as honey is, bees are more important than any honey that they might make above their own needs. I love the concept of bee-first hive ideas and I love the rustic and simple beauty of these hives.

  7. Suzanne
    Posted March 8, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I love your idea and by the way your website which I look forward to exploring. Just a caution about conceptualising better beekeeping as one that prioritises pollination over honey production. Commercial ‘exploitative’ beekeeping does just that. Commercial beekeepers engage in beekeeping for the profits from
    Pollination. They receive large fees from orchard owners etc. Most honey sold on shelves is simply a waste product of such activity (full of the pesticide residual from the main activity of pollination).
    I know this is the opposite of what you do but thinking of bees as primarily pollinators and secondarily honey makers is conceptually incorrect. For bees, their primary activity is to make honey in order to survive. Pollination is the benefit nature receives from their foraging for ingredients for honey making (and obviously the bees benefit from the proliferation of plants the following season). The best honey I have ever tasted is from bees that have been kept and managed for honey production and allowed to forage as wild bees and pollinate etc, but are given abundant access to natural food sources so that they produce an excess of honey which can then be shared with the beekeeper. This does not make for a monetarily wealthy beekeeper but it makes for the best honey and as close to wild as one can get without the downside of damaging and disturbing wild colonies.

    • Posted March 8, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yep its very tricky isnt it – what we’re aiming for is beekeeping that maximises bee health while still providing benefits to humans. I suppose cause natural beekeeping is synonymous with permanent hive siting (ie as opposed to migratory beekeeping, as necessitated by the commercial pollination contract scene) I neglected to emphasise that it’s ‘beekeeping in place’ which replicates wild hives more closely – thanks su -

  8. Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I think sustainability bee colony can achieve its minimum interference and maximum colony established conditions for natural development. This includes adequate and clean pasture for bees.
    Last year, which was very dry – with virtually no rain all summer, my hives open them only twice: once for the extraction of honey, and a second time to review available food before winter.
    I was amazed by the amount of honey you got!
    Minimum interference and maximum yield.
    This hive is an interesting concept, but I do not know what would be suitable for the climatic conditions in Bulgaria.
    Bees as a species have an interesting relation to the collection and accumulation of food and see nothing wrong with using these respects, and to benefit from it, taking excess honey for the hive.
    If approached carefully and with understanding of bee colony, there can be problems for bees.

  9. Stewart Gould
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    There are some incredible misconceptions voiced here. These hives would have been fine in the days before varroa andf all the other pests, predators and diseases took hold, but not now. It is incredibly difficult to inspect the brood area for diseases in thesun hive or skep and not doing so means that your bees could eaily be spreading these problems to adjacent beekeepers hives and so on ad infinitum. Be responsible bveekeepers. The framed system of keeping bees was introduced because these systems do not work comprehensively. By using thenm, you are simply turning back the hands of time. Keeping bees in skeps and these hives is illegal in the USA. Ask yourselves why? Leave alone beekeeping is not an opption and extremely inconsiderate to both bees and other beekeepers.

    • Posted March 15, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink | Reply

      Stewart, from my understanding of beekeeping history, frame beekeeping was introduced as much to increase honey yields as anything else, and not really with the bees health in mind…

      I would argue that ‘leave alone beekeeping’ of a type, when done properly, has its place (after all, the enormous feral (wild) bee population in Australia contributes to our general bee health enormously, and that’s completely ‘leave alone’ beekeeping), and that as much disease and ill-health of our bee population is brought on by many aspects of conventional beekeeping…

      • Posted September 13, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

        Whereas the feral bees in the UK are nearly zero from varroasis.

      • Alex Templeton
        Posted September 16, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        Actually, Langstroth had a eureka! about his hive because it allowed him to perform intensive, invasive hive management as he saw fit. He took singular pleasure in mucking about with frames. Go to google books for his first edition (mid-1850s) and you’ll discover the good Reverend was a bit of a control freak with Divine entitlement issue. Or read my book ;-) for a quick overview.
        //Alex Templeton, Beekeeping for Poets

    • momofthesouth
      Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Stewart, lots of things are illegal in the USA, doesn’t mean it is always correct or best for people or the environment or that people agree with it. Like Raw Milk for one! or Medicinal marijuana, or industrial hemp and so on.

    • Myrddwn
      Posted March 16, 2013 at 12:43 am | Permalink | Reply

      Stewart, the problems you mentioned(varoa, etc) came about because of the framed system and intensely industrial methods of keeping. Diseases and pests are much less likely to spread from single, leave alone colonies kept by hobbiests than they are from large scale, intre-state operations.
      Kirsten also brings up an excellent point, how do wild colonies figure into your view? Should we inspect all wild colonies? Are wild colonies inconsiderate to their neighbors? Wild and leave alone colonies are much more disease resistant, have better pest grooming behaviors, and are generally much healthier genetically than our inbred commercial hybrids, which have been selected for maximum honey production, not health or disease resistance. Wild and leave alones are a great genetic resource.
      I think this type of hive is beautiful, as is the approach. I keep a Warre and a KTBh, and if I had the room would love to add a Sun Hive

      • Deb
        Posted September 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Then why do we find mites, beetles and moths in most if not all wild hives?
        Rarely do I save a wild colony that is completely free of pests..

  10. Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Stewart Gould is correct. The hive is a harness for the energy of the bee colony. Effective hives (Langstroth), combined with knowledge and experience can help guild your bees towards a healthy and productive future.

    • Anthony
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:48 am | Permalink | Reply

      Excuse me, what? A “harness for the energy of the bee colony.” Not the most scientific statement of all time. Does this mean “Bees need a home or they’ll die?” Or is this some hint that bee colonies have a magical aura? I must be missing something, because “harness for the energy of a bee colony,” sounds like a freshman trying to write poetry, not a valid scientific concept.

      • Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        Anthony most people that take physics class learn about energy before they get to freshman year. The energy of the hive refers to the embodied energy that the hive represents and contains – in terms of bee effort, honey collected etc.

  11. K. A.
    Posted April 12, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink | Reply

    If you are truly putting the bees first, why is this hive in a patio or porch setting? The noise and jostling lifestyle of having humans so nearby is NOT their natural environment. It is for your viewing pleasure I think. To pat yourself on the back perhaps for having provided them a “better” home. I applaud your sentiment for making it bee-centric but really in placement of the hives so close to homes, you negate the sentiment.

    • Posted April 12, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink | Reply

      I believe these hives are in their own purpose built pergola at the bottom of the garden, away from the house?

  12. Posted April 12, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    Howdy, I am happy that you are using my website material (http://strathconabeekeepers.blogspot.ca/2012/07/the-sun-hive.html) and my box.com (https://www.box.com/s/ekldf26i8x1zm8clua2c) account but usually a reference is made to the origin of the material. I am not possessive of my internet productions but it is common courtesy to acknowledge the origin. Bruce.

    • Posted April 12, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Bruce, all the images have live click-throughs to where we sourced them from as attribution? I’ve updated the box.net link to attribute you more clearly…

  13. Jim
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This hive contains mostly non-movable, non-inspectable comb. As such, it is not api-centric at all, in that it allows diseases and pests to take over before the beekeeper can notice. The hive is also very small, and without expansion capability, does the bees a disservice. Overall, this hive is yet another misinformed attempt to create a “feral” simulation. Only 1/3 of feral colonies survive even their first winter for the same reasons: lack of disease and pest management, and limited size, with limited space to save stores with which to overwinter.

  14. Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:38 am | Permalink | Reply

    I think this hive design looks beautiful. My thoughts on the concept of putting bees first is that it really has little to do with hive design and everything to do with the kind of beekeeping practices you choose. If you look at wild bees they will build anywhere. In a barrel, hanging from a tree branch, under the eves of a house, inside a tree… I even know of a colony the set up shop inside a rat trap! Bees are very adaptable. The vessel they choose is not important. What is important is how they are treated and what methods their keeper chooses. Langstroth hives have many features that enable the beekeeper to perform beekeeping methods that do not put the bees first (feeding, queen excluders, frame foundation) BUT you can keep bees in Langstroth hives in a natural way that puts the bees first. I use Langstroth hives but I don’t use foundation, excluders or feeders. They build naturally within the frames and the queen is free to roam. It’s silly to say that one hive design is more natural than the other when the very act of keeping bees and harvesting honey from them is unnatural.

  15. Anthony
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:42 am | Permalink | Reply

    I think this hive style is just politically correct hype. It looks groovy. It looks vaguely like something from a previous culture. But I see no real advantages to hive health whatsoever compared to boxes and supers that were developed over the years.
    For example, the write-up says allowing the queen to roam freely promotes hive health. Really? Any proof of that or are we just talking “sure seems like that statement will fly.” Where’s the evidence? Or are we talking politically correct guesswork, like all the drones are “happier” because of some projection of expectations. These are bees, not people. They don’t love an gourd-shaped hive any more than a square box just because. Where’s the evidence in any of this?

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink | Reply

      There is plenty of scientific evidence that allowing the queen to roam the hive increases colony health… Go read a good book on bee biology maybe…

      • Posted September 13, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

        Any particular book kirsten? Winston’s Bee Biology maybe?

  16. Alex Templeton
    Posted June 10, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I must say that the pushback here from the beekeeping orthodoxy is alive and well, viz the gripes of “Jim” and “Anthony”.

    We of the “postmodern” school of beekeeping repudiate the very notion of “feral” as only reinforcing the fancies that a) honey bees are domesticated in the first place, that b) only intensive management, medication, and intervention by the beekeeper lead to colony health (as if this has been proven out in practice); and c) using non-Lang hives only leads to festering sources of disease and bad breeding.

    All these are rejected for very good reasons and are supported by the latest scientific evidence and field reports. The century and a half “Progressive” era of beekeeping is drawing to a close and naturally the zombies of Langstroth are gonna b!tch about it.

    Alex Templeton
    Author, _Beekeeping_for_Poets_

  17. Posted September 3, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Johnfsapp's Blog and commented:
    I’m holding onto this just for how fantastic it can …bee!

  18. Posted March 2, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Wow, that is super cool. Looking forward to reading more about it. I’ve never seen a such a hive.

  19. Posted September 15, 2014 at 2:16 am | Permalink | Reply

    I do want the bees to be free to make their own comb, but I also like to see each frame and the health of the colony in general. That’s why I go for the kenyan topbar. Also, I have afro-euro hybrids, so maybe that’s the issue, but I’ve observed that your statement about bees never wanting to live on the ground tp be very false. Many time’s, I’ve found wild colonies living under trees!

  20. Jim Rinker
    Posted September 15, 2014 at 3:04 am | Permalink | Reply

    To anyones knowledge, has the Sun Hive been tried in the country of Panama?

  21. Deb
    Posted September 15, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I too have seen many colonies living at ground level.. especially in old growth olive trees. I am a Rescue Beekeeper.. taking them out of nasty places, getting them healthy and back to work is a full time job here 8months a year.
    This is a very cool concept.. putting the bees first is my motto!
    Curious about the weight of this hive.. being held up by 4 thin wires.. looks precarious.

  22. Posted September 16, 2014 at 12:30 am | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on In Frog Pond Holler and commented:
    This is an awesome idea!

  23. Tom Kelly
    Posted September 16, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink | Reply

    I keep bees langstroth style, and produce an excellent honey harvest from 4 colonies. I have noticed mite damage on my hives only after taking the honey off (stress?). I live in Canada, close to Ottawa Ontario. Other than varroa mites, black bears are one of our biggest nuisances here. To have a hive like this hanging where a bear can’t get it, near our home where a bear is less likely to come close, is an intriguing idea. (like hanging food in trees on a canoe trip). If there were signs of mites (evident at the entrance by wingless bees), surely the hive can be opened at the top and treated. I think if this winter is as long as the last one I will spend the time to make one of these beautiful hives. Perhaps a kenya style one too. Who knows maybe in a bad bear year that will be the only hive still alive. Anyways they look so cool!

  24. Posted September 16, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Gypsy Sunshine Travels and commented:
    Bio-mimicry: learning from the designs of nature to help work cooperatively with mother earth and all her creatures.

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