No Lifting!

Something Old Is New In America

By: Brian Drebber

Slovenian or AZ hives have been around as long as the more common Langstroth hive design and others, but in America they are just gaining a foothold among a growing group devoted to their use. Why?

At the top of a long list of advantages is no lifting.  Once the “bee cabinet” is put in place, the heaviest thing a beekeeper has to handle is a frame of honey – about 7-8 pounds. If that idea appeals to you, then maybe you should consider a life changing beekeeping experience.

As a beginning beekeeper in 2010, the excitement and fascination of my new found hobby masked the realization that there was a lot of sweaty work involved. Dressed in my “moon suit” I happily endured the hot and heavy labor, assuming that it was the price of admission to the coolest thing I had experienced in the second half of my life at least, until …

At the 2013 Fall meeting and holiday dinner of the Cherokee County (Georgia) bee club, I was asked to help carry in something from the parking lot. Approaching the pickup truck, my little eye spied an unfamiliar looking box – which at first glance resembled a beehive but unlike one I had ever seen.

It took about four seconds to realize that I was looking at my future – as a beekeeper.

Sliding the frames out horizontally from the back sure seemed easier. Being able to remove brood frames without disturbing the honey chamber above made perfect sense. Opening the back door, then seeing, hearing, and smelling the bees at work without their being able to get at me had tremendous appeal – and the list goes on.

Simply put, an AZ hive resembles the cabinets in your kitchen. Imagine those cabinets protruding through the outside wall – where the bees come and go while you’re indoors. Open the cabinet door and there are screened windows with your bees happily busy on the other side. Blow gently on them through the screen and they move aside revealing the comb that can be illuminated with a small flashlight to see if it is drawn or capped. It’s easy to tell how many frames of bees are present and where in the hive they are located – without suiting up or lighting a smoker.

If a closer look is desired, put on a veil and puff a little smoke through the screen and remove the window covering the chamber you wish to inspect. The frames can be easily removed from the brood chamber(s) without disturbing the workers in the honey ‘super’ at all. Likewise, honey frames can be removed individually and replaced with empty ones as desired – independent of those below.

The frames, hollowed out and resting on metal rods, remain loose – even after months without being disturbed. The small points of contact don’t interest the bees enough to glue them in place. The small contact point where the frames meet the sheet metal spacers that hold them vertically also stay remarkably free of propolis.

The hollowed out bottom also gives the bees a place to ‘duck’ and not get rolled as you slide the frame out for a peek. A folding floor stand provides a place to rest as many as 10 frames while you clean or perform whatever maintenance is needed. The frames are reversible top-to-bottom and completely interchangeable from one chamber to the next because they are all the same size.

Much as Reverend Langstroth and Anton Žnideršič  (whose initials AZ give the hive its name) diverged in their designs a century ago, so too did we at Drebbieville Hives decide to make some changes in our version of this concept. Bringing the frame dimensions in line with Langstroth deeps allowed the use of foundation commonly available here and extractors designed to handle those frames. The larger Slovenian frames don’t fit in any but the largest radial extractors – a fact discovered when trying to buy a used one.

We constructed a building specifically for the purpose of housing our hives but simpler shelters are applicable as well. An existing garden shed, or those available from home improvement stores can be altered for the purpose. Remove a window in your garage and place them – it’s been done. Even something as crude as a sheet of roofing tin weighted down with bricks will suffice temporarily but the bee cabinets are much more functional if properly housed.

They can also be built into a trailer, truck or container and easily transported. Instead of a forklift, straps, and pallets – just close the entrances, open the vent flaps in the rear doors and drive away. Again… no lifting.

If a bee house is to be constructed, one key element is a large overhang above the hives. A Google search for “Slovenian AZ beekeeping” will bring up many images – including ours. This overhang serves not only to shelter them but performs a useful function related to helping the bees “dry” the honey. Users of AZ hives in such a bee house can expect up to 2% less moisture in their honey. The gracefully curved roof lines common in Slovenia are to help prevent swallows from building their nests underneath.

The Beekeepers of Gilmer County Georgia operate a public apiary in which both Langstroth and our American AZ hives are placed side-by-side. Honey extracted from the Lang boxes tested at 17.4 % moisture. Compare that to 15.4% from the AZ hives. Both were processed at the same time, effectively eliminating any other variables that may be implied.

Again, why?

It seems the warm air rising in front of the hives encounters the overhang and is ‘kicked out’ meeting cooler air falling further out from the building. What begins is a circular airflow on even the calmest days – instantly evacuating the hot moist air being forced out of the hives by bees curing their honey. It allows them to finish it with much less effort. The already stable temperature conditions are enhanced by this “attic fan” effect and the results are dramatic.

Even without the benefit of this explanation, we noticed from the very first extraction at our bee house that the honey was noticeably thicker. We now heat our extractor as a regular part of the honey processing – not to make it easier but to make it possible for the honey to sling out!

So . . . no lifting, working indoors, less invasive inspection, and thicker honey all come to mind among the many advantages to this system of beekeeping that has been around for a more than a century. It may be some time before it is infused into our bee culture, but there are some of us who have already embraced it with no looking back.