Assembling beehives

on April 1, 2010

When we need advice on foraging mushrooms, harvesting oysters or gathering eggs, we turn to our favorite city chick–turned farmer, Tamar Haspel. Since Jan. 2009, Tamar has eaten one thing every day that she has foraged, farmed or fished. Here’s her post on building frames for beehives. To read more, go to

Assembly Required
by Tamar Haspel
Who’s your candidate for greatest American writer of all time? It’s a tough call, and I think there’s a case to be made for Herman Melville or Edith Wharton. Other people think there’s a case to be made for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck. Still others say Kerouac, but that’s bananas.

For my money it’s Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn is usually on the short list of candidates for the Great American Novel, but one of my all-time favorite Twain scenes comes from the also-ran, Tom Sawyer. It’s where Tom has to whitewash the fence.

He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.

Tom pretends that the task of whitewashing is so compelling, so absorbing, that he doesn’t even notice his friend Ben sauntering by, eating an apple and impersonating a steamboat. When Ben comes right up alongside Tom to get his attention, Tom manages to convince him that whitewashing a fence is the sine qua non of boyhood entertainment, and refuses to let Ben help. Only when Ben promises his apple as payment does Tom hand over the brush “with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart.”

By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with – and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar – but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I think Mark Twain is the greatest American writer because he wrote one scene that I think about every time I have a tedious, time-consuming job to do, but neither would it be accurate to say that it doesn’t factor in. In this case, the tedious, time-consuming job is beehive assembly.

Our beehives came this week, via UPS, in a shipment of five boxes that arrived over two days and weighed a total of 275 pounds. I knew the hives would come unassembled, and I knew assembling them would be a big job but, as I surveyed the huge piles of parts of frames, deeps, and supers, all gladness left me and a deep melancholy settled down upon my spirit.

Each hive consists of five boxes: three deeps and two supers. The deeps are the large boxes on the bottom, where most of the hive activity happens. The supers are shallower boxes that sit on top of the deeps, and the bees use them to store honey. Each box comes as four sides with dovetailed edges. For the parts to become a hive, the edges have to be glued, the boxes hammered together, and the joints nailed.

That’s the easy part. Between Kevin, me, and the nail gun, we assembled the boxes in about an hour. The hard part is the frames. A hive is like a file box, with frames hanging from the sides like file folders. Each frame has a sheet of foundation – a sort of starter honeycomb – inserted in it like a picture in a picture frame. Two of the deeps don’t get frames (they’re spares that make working the hives easier), but every other box has ten frames.

That’s 80 frames, total. Each frame has four sides, one sheet of foundation, one bar that holds the foundation to the top, and four pins that hold the foundation to the sides. That’s ten parts per frame, 800 parts in all.

To assemble a frame, you glue the sides to the top, and then glue the bottom to the sides. You nail the joints to make sure the thing doesn’t come apart from apian wear-and-tear. Then you work the foundation into the slot in the bottom, and attach it to the top by nailing a wooden bar over the bent wires that stick out of the foundation at right angles. Then you insert these diabolical little bobby-pin-like pins through holes in the sides of the frame and position them so that the foundation is in between the two prongs of the pin. So far, we’ve only assembled one It took us about ten minutes, but that included time to bemoan the fact that the puff of air from the nail gun blew a hole in the foundation – twice – as we were putting the last couple of nails in. I think we’ll get better at frame assembly, but it’s still going to be tedious, time-consuming job.

Luckily, the bees don’t come until the beginning of May, so we have time.

I’m thinking we could learn a thing or two from the wood-fired oven workshop we attended last fall. We showed up in a stranger’s backyard, hauled the stones, shoveled the sand, and worked the clay required to build the oven, and paid hard, cold cash for the privilege. It was straight out of Tom Sawyer, but I didn’t mind because we learned a lot about building a wood-fired oven (and because the stranger was Brewster potter Diane Heart, whose pottery we like and whose company we enjoy).

I’m figuring some of you out there are thinking about keeping bees yourselves, and it would be worth quite a bit to learn how to assemble a hive. Between now and the beginning of May, we’re happy to teach you – for a nominal fee, or even a dead rat on a string.

More next month—

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