Sunday, 22 January 2017

Sir Christopher Wren's beehive

Sir Christopher Wren was a remarkable man.  Today he is best remembered as England's greatest architect but he didn't turn his hand to architecture until around the age of 30.  Prior to that he was a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford, Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London, and Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.  His research interests encompassed mathematics, optics, astronomy, physiology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, cosmology, medicine and meteorology.  He was later a founder member and president of the Royal Society.  His friend and fellow scientist Robert Hooke said of him "Since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man so great perfection, such a mechanical hand, and so philosophical a mind."

Christopher Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford in 1650 and became a close associate of the Warden, John Wilkins.  (Wilkins drew together a group of young scientists which also included Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis and Robert Hooke, and was to become a forerunner of the Royal Society.)  One of Wren's lesser known exploits at Wadham College was designing a wooden box beehive.  In those days bees were kept in skeps and harvesting the honey usually meant destroying the colony.  Samuel Hartlib's publication in 1655, The Reformed Commonwealth of Bees, included an illustration by Christopher Wren of his three storey hive.

The hive consisted of three identical octagonal boxes with a closable connecting hole between them.  The bees were able to move between the boxes and glass panels were set into the sides to allow observers to see inside. The key down the left hand side of the illustration includes "hhh, the Dores, every one to be opened or shut by little slides; the lower dores are open, the others are shut."  Each box was lined with a rush mat but there were no frames.

Christopher Wren wrote to Samuel Hartlib about the hive.

Honored Sir.
You have by severall handes intimated your Desires to mee of having a particular Description of our Three-storied Beehive. I confesse I was not overforward to execute this Command of yours; and my Reason was because, the Devise not fully answering our own Expectation, I thought it would be much more unsatisfactory to you: but since you please to persist in your desires (as Mr Rawlinson told me the other day) I can be noe longer shamelesse to persist in my incivility, especially prompted by mine own Ambition, to find any way to shew my selfe a Servant to a Person soe eminent amongst the Ingeniosi as your selfe.
   The Description I thinke is evident enough in the paper; I shall only tell you what effects wee find. Last May (as I remember) wee put in two swarmes together, leaving the places to goe in, open only on the lowermost, but all the passage holes open from Box to Box: In the midlemost they first began their Combes then in the lowermost before they had filled the middlemost, & soe continued till they had filled both, which before they had quite finished, they began to make 2 litle Combes in the upper Box (all this while deserted) & continued besides, a part of a Combe of the middle story, an inch or 2 up into the upper box, filling all allmost the passage hole quite up, leaving themselves only a litle hole as big as 2 fingers might goe in, for their passage up & down: I am not very certain wheither this was not done at first when they wrought in the middle Box, & wheither this was not the reason why they wrought soe little in the upper box, because they stopped themselves up from and easy passage to it: The Combes in the lower storeys were well replenished with Hony & suddainly, but these litle Combes in the upper they quite desert, contrary to our Expectation, which was that they would have wrought most in the upper story & the middlemost, in which when they had wrought enough for their owne spending that then wee might take away the uppermost from them, & soe have continued still: but if we find another yeare, that they fill not again the uppermost; 'twill be all one still to take away the lowermost from them; but if that be soe then 2 hives will be sufficient. Wee must rather Desire of you farther light on this businesse, which I presume you can afford us from other mens observations that have tried the like experiment; for as yet ours is imperfect, & we know not what to make of it.  Sir. I am
Your most obedient humble servant          
Chr: Wren.                    
All Soules Coll:
Feb: 26.

Christopher Wren was a scientist rather than a beekeeper and was puzzled (or disappointed) that the bees didn't fill the top box with honey so he could remove it.  Judging by the dimensions on the illustration of his hive above, each box was about 12" deep and more than 18" across, so larger than a modified National hive brood box.  It may be that the bees had enough room in the lower two boxes and didn't feel the need to extend in the the top box.

In 1654 the noted diarist John Evelyn visited John Wilkins and was shown round the garden.

Evelyn wrote "We all din'd at that most obliging and universally Curious Dr Wilkins's at Waddum, who was the first who showed me the Transparent Apiaries, which he had built like Castles and Palaces and so ordered them upon another, as to take Hony without destroying the Bees; These were adorn'd with a variety of Dials, little Statues, Vanes, etc: and he was so abundantly civill, as finding me pleased with them, to present me with one of these Hives, which he had empty, and which I afterwards had in my Garden at Says-Court, many Yeares after; and which his Majestie came on purpose to see and contemplate with much satisfaction."

Christopher Wren was then 22 years old and was given sole credit by Wilkins for designing the transparent beehives.   John Wilkins wrote to John Evelyn in 1656.

Honored Sir.
Yo r letter sent to Oxforde was returned back and found me here at London, Whither I was by some occasions necessitated to come much sooner than I expected. I have here in readines for you, one part of the Bee-hive you desire, according to the same modell I have in Oxford. If you would like to have two other like parts made to this, (Which I would advise) they may be done here in London by the same man who made this. I have taken order that it be left at Mr Beadley according to the direction of yor letter, where yor servant may call for it. I hope to waite upon you before my going out of towne. And shall always be
Most ready to serve you
J Wilkins
April. 2. 1656

Below is John Evelyn's sketch of his hive in his Elysium Britannicum, which is in the British Library, showing all the adornments he described.

The bees didn't always read the instructions, for Wilkins wrote to Evelyn on 16th August 1656, "For that unusual way of the combs in the hive, it may sometimes so happen, and hath done so with me, though according to the usual course they are built edgewise from the place of their entrance.  A window in the side hath this inconvenience in it, that in hot weather when the bees are apt to be busy and angry, a man cannot safely make use of it."  

It is such a pity that none of these hives survives but is it interesting to see how (later Sir) Christopher Wren, one of the greatest scientific minds of the age, was considering improvements to beehive design.

Sunday, 15 January 2017


I had a lot of practice catching swarms last summer.  As you can see below the problem is that my bees don't seem to realise that they are supposed to hang in a neat cluster from a branch, waiting for me to drop them into a box.

I don't know if you have come across JPthebeeman on YouTube but he's well worth looking out for.  He makes videos about catching swarms, often in very difficult places, and extracting established colonies from places they shouldn't be.  He's great fun to watch and obviously knows a lot about bees.  He is Jeff Armstrong from Metairie, Louisiana so his bees and his season are very different from ours.  He does use a smoker but seldom wears a veil or bee jacket and hardly ever seems to get stung.  Amazing.

One thing I have learnt from watching him is always to have a queen clip immediately at hand, ready to catch the queen if she is seen.

You can watch this recent upload to YouTube about catching a swarm or this one about removing a colony from the wall of a house and you'll get a taste of what he gets up to.  There are lots more videos as well.

As JP would say, "Y'all have a good day, 'coz I sure am".

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The slatted rack

Here's piece of kit I made for the first time last spring.  It is a slatted rack and acts as a spacer below the brood box and above the floor.  I first read about slatted racks on Rusty Burlew's blog on Honey Bee Suite (  Slatted racks are in common use in the United States and are commercially available for 8, 9, and 10 frame Langstroth hives (which have top bee space).

The modified British National Hive is built with bottom bee space but there is a lot of extra space (usually around 30mm) below the brood frames above the floor.  Some bees build comb on the bottom of the brood frames, often filling it with drone brood or using it to hide queen cells.  

The advantages of a slatted rack are:
  1. It stops the bees building comb on the bottom of the brood frames as it restores bee space below the frames.  This is especially useful for colonies on double brood as it makes it easy to swap frames around with scraping the extra comb off the bottom of the frames.
  2. It is said to keep the hive cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
  3. It reduces draughts, especially around the bottoms of the brood frames.
  4. It provides more room for the bees to hang out, reducing congestion in a large colony and perhaps reducing the tendency to swarm.
  5. It moves the brood nest a bit farther from the entrance and encourages the queen to lay right to the bottom of the frame.
I couldn't find any plans for a slatted rack to fit a National hive so I adapted those I found for the Langstroth.  In essence it is an eke 50mm deep which carries 11 slats which are spaced to be below each brood frame.  So the outside dimension is 460 x 460mm.  The slats are 18mm wide and are spaced every 36mm to match the Hoffman frames above, so the spaces are 18mm as well.  Easy.  It is important that the slats line up with the frames above so the varroa mites that fall will pass through to the mesh floor below.  As a National brood box will take 11 frames plus a dummy board the slats are spaced from one side and are therefore asymmetrical.  (I keep my dummy boards on the south side of my hives - the hives face east - so the slats are spaced that way.)

At the front of the slatted rack there is a shelf about 100mm wide which is said to reduce draughts through the entrance, although I don't know if it makes much difference if there is a mesh floor.  I made the front, back and sides of the rack from western red cedar (some of it recycled from a restoration of the greenhouse) and the shelf and slats from pine.

This is the underside.  I don't think the depth of the slats is critical but mine are 44mm, so slightly less than the 50mm of the frame.

Because the National hive has bottom bee space, one very important modification I made was to put the slats and shelf flush with the top of the rack (in the Langstroth version they are recessed to provide the bee space).

You can find instructions for making a Langstroth slatted rack here, all dimensions in old-fashioned inches.

The rack stays in position all year round.  Here is my first one, nearly a year later.

I have now made three more and will fit them to my other three hives at the first inspection this spring.

You can watch a YouTube video of bees on the underside of a slatted rack here.

Sunday, 1 January 2017


Welcome to my new blog.  I have started it so I can write and post occasionally about beekeeping, and share my photos.  My first and main blog, TrogTrogBlog (, is mainly for wildlife photography.  It does include posts about bees - mainly bumblebees and solitary bees - but very few of the readers are beekeepers.  I also post about aspects of honey bees and their behaviour which are of general interest.  I joined Facebook to keep in touch with my local beekeeping association in Hexham but some aspects of Facebook posts are very limiting.  One can't, for instance, post a photo

then some more text, then another photo

then another photo, and so on.

It is also not possible (as far as I can work out) to prepare, save and schedule posts in the way I can with my blogs.

I have been keeping bees since 2012 so I am still fairly new to the game but I enjoy watching and photographing bees (and beekeepers).  I also enjoy being involved with teaching about bees and beekeeping at the Hexham Beekeepers Association apiary and in local schools.

I have four hives in my garden at the end of a difficult season in 2016.  The spring was very cold up here in the North East of England and meant I couldn't open the hives for an early inspection.  As soon as there were a few warm days I had swarms all over the place - I have very understanding neighbours - and spent the rest of the year sorting things out.  I started the year with three hives, peaked at ten(!) and now have four, three in double brood boxes and one in a single.  I took no honey and instead fed the bees gallons of sugar syrup to get them into shape.

I was surprised to see bees out foraging yesterday - the last day of the year.  It was mild (10℃), sunny and breezy and there was a lot of coming and going at the hive entrances.

But some bees were also foraging on nearby mahonia

and a few were bringing in pollen, presumably from the mahonia.

Several were just basking in the winter sunshine.

I expect posts on this blog will be sporadic, reflecting the nature of beekeeping, and will include lots of photos (my bees are quite used to the cameras).  To start us off here are a few more.

If you want to see previous posts relating to honey bees on my main blog TrogTrogBlog click here.