Beekeeping with Twenty-Five Hives
Chapter Five 
Fix and Repair

When it comes to twenty-five hives, you’re going to have to deal with two things.  The first thing you’ll need is a place to organize your equipment, and your storage shed ought to be large enough to sort as well as store your burgeoning overflow of stuff.  With twenty-five hives, you’ll notice a growing and sizable pile of equipment, none of which easily breaks down for convenient storage.  If you are presently using your basement, garage or one of those portable storage buildings, plan on definitely needing more room.  You can never have enough room for beekeeping equipment.

The second thing you’ll need is a place to fix things.  Which also means you’re going to need a third place, a place to put the things that need fixing until you find the time to fix them.  Ideally, this third place is somewhere you can drop things off, a “dump” stack, so they are out of your way, additionally, it should be large enough for you to sort through this stack and pick out the neediest cases requiring repair.

In the ideal world (and I’m not there yet myself) I would envision a large storage building with an overhead door that allows you to drive a vehicle inside.  I envision lots of open space to store stacks of hive bodies and honey supers on pallets.  In addition, I like to have a “dump” stack, where I bring items that need sorting or cleaning before they go to their designated spot in the storage section, plus a pallet where I neatly stack all my “need some fixin’ up” items until I find that elusive time on rainy days to fix up those broken items.  Then off to one side I would have my enclosed workshop to saw and paint during the winter months.  Preferably this would be a modest section of this larger building that could be heated or air-conditioned.

To push this ideal fantasy further, it would be great to have yet another small section of this large building to be a smaller, bee-tight room, air-conditioned with sinks for washing, where I could extract honey.  It ought to be a two-part room where you can store loaded supers in a warm room to remove excess moisture from the honey.  And then (again in the ideal fantasy world) you would be able to bring your truck or trailer into the storage area, unload the supers, move them to the extracting room, extract, then move them to the storage area after the wet supers were cleaned up by the bees. 

And this storage area would also be big enough to store your buckets or drums of honey.  Then you could use the extracting room to bottle your honey.  It would all be done in one area.  And, if possible, the front corner of this building could be sectioned off to be a little store to market my honey, maybe even a nice customer relations office with a nice observation hive next to one of the windows.

I don’t ask for much, do I?

And maybe someday I’ll have enough land and money to build such a building.  Until then, I’ll just have to make do with what I have.  This is where a lot of beekeepers, both large and small, find themselves.  They find their storage and work spaces stretched, or combined, or even compromised with other demands.  My garage is my temporary storage and fix-it-up shop, a hive body factory and paint shop.  Unfortunately, it is not heated so my work in there is seasonal, but it also becomes the dumping station for things that need fixing and await a warm day.  There are months during the early spring and summer in which our vehicles must stay outside.  (Warning:  this will tend to test your spouse’s patience).

And as you increase the number of your hives to twenty-five and higher, you will always remind yourself how time is always in short supply.  But storage is a quick second on your list of shortages.  Finding a dedicated area to saw, set out pieces awaiting assembly, paint and dry is difficult.  And bee hives take a lot of room.

Further, if you tend to collect a host of odd-sized, orphaned, used equipment, as I have, or if you are trying to expand through acquiring used equipment from a retiring beekeeper, you will also find a lot of mouse-gnawed, moth-infested, dry-rotted items.  Some of these items will be home-made where someone tried to re-invent the wheel.  They’re okay, and they will work, the only problem is they don’t always fit the standard conventions of the Langstroth hive.  Which may mean you need to have home-made tops that fit these home-made hives.  You end up with some hives of different sizes, which is no big deal, but you still need somewhere to sort and repair the different sized items. 

Even as you have all Langstroth-sized items, you have brood-sized boxes, medium supers and shallow supers, plus comb supers, in addition to tops, bottoms, inner covers, queen excluders, and you will need enough space to set up different size-specific stacks.  There is nothing I find more annoying than to have to dig through a pile of supers to get to that bottom brood box that I need for the swarm I just caught.  I’ve also had problems with storage of empty supers, supers with plain foundation and supers with drawn comb.

I never seem to have enough room.

Or you could do the same thing like that beekeeper from Iowa.  He had a very small storage shed.  After the honey harvest, he would set up a pallet in his yard with a bottom board.  He would then stack the honey supers and extra hive bodies on top of the bottom board.  Some hive bodies had frames and some were empty.  When the stack reached six feet, he would then top off this small stack with an outer cover.  If someone were passing by, the arrangement looked like a regular bee hive!  He would make sure and protect it from mice, but to the untrained eye, it was an outdoor warehouse as he stored his extra equipment outside.  For the most part, it was protected from the weather like a normal bee hive.  And since they were level and neat, it didn’t create an eye-sore for the neighbors.

Though I have an assortment of home-made, off-spec, odd-sized equipment, it has been my experience, that it is better to stick with Langstroth conventions, or if you want to make all your own equipment a certain size (and I have no problem with this idea) that you stick with a master plan of consistent dimensions.  I’ve tried other designs, and as long as everything was consistent and interchangeable, I had no problem.  But the only way things really work is when everything is interchangeable.

In my years of beekeeping I have made eight-frame equipment, twelve-frame equipment, only to go back to the standardized, conventional ten-frame Langstroth hive.  But if you’re going to try something different, then by all means keep all the same measurements for all your equipment so all of your equipment is interchangeable.  It doesn’t pay to have eight-frame tops when you’re trying to cover a twelve-frame hive.  Or if you go out to a bee yard and you discover you brought those twelve-frame supers and all the hives in the yard are ten-frames.  And when it comes to storing all this odd-sized equipment, you’ll find yourself in more need or more room.

But back to my ideas on fixing and repair.  In the course of my operation, I have a shed where I have a spare corner for my “to be fixed pile.”  These are the old outer covers where the wood is rotting beneath the tin cover, the old bottom boards I’m converting to screen bottom boards, the old brood boxes that are rotting on the bottom that need to be cut down to a medium size super, and an assortment of boxes that need repainting. 

Fortunately, my storage shed is large enough to accommodate all of my equipment, plus those things I normally keep in storage in the course of the year.  I usually do not have enough time during the honey season to work on this equipment so it tends to pile up until I have a rainy day or until I get all the honey harvested.  Then I sort through the pile and take home certain items to fix and repair.  In order to make my time more efficient, I’ll take home all the brood boxes that need to be cut down.  In another trip, I’ll take all the supers that need to be painted or the frames that need new foundation.  Efficiency is the name of the game as you expand your numbers.  These items come home to the garage.

I like to have a pile to fix on rainy days or nights, or when I can carve a few spare minutes from my busy schedule.  You’d be surprised how spending just thirty minutes at night right after dinner or just before everyone else in the house wakes up in the morning will make a huge difference when you do this for four or five days.   When it comes to repair, make every spare moment count.  Even if you just spend fifteen minutes wiring three frames, every little bit of action adds up.

Don’t waste valuable daylight that is better spent in the bee yard.  I sometimes bring home things to fix and they end up in a pile in my garage.  There are times I think I’m going to have time, but something else pops up and I have to deal with it.  Then I have to try and work around the mess to get other things done.  That’s when the cars have to be parked outside and my wife begins to wonder if this hobby of mine hasn’t gone too far.

One of my disadvantages is that my storage shed is an open-front cattle feeding shed.  It is on my “home” bee yard about two miles from my actual residence.  It has no electricity or running water, unless you count the creek behind the shed.  While it has plenty of room, I am handicapped to work only in the daylight.

My garage, on the other hand, has the handicap of also housing two automobiles as well as all my wood-working equipment.  During certain times of the year when I’m building and repairing, our two cars have to sit outside.  This tests my wife’s patience, as I said earlier.

One of my other beekeeping buddies has a simple tin shed, about twelve feet by eight feet.  He bought and erected this tin shed next to his garage to dedicate it for bee equipment only (which then also keeps his garage from getting cluttered).   It houses all his extra bee equipment plus his “fix-it” pile.  His needs are fewer, so on a nice sunny afternoon, he brings out his table saw from the garage, plugs in a long extension cord, and does all his repair and maintenance on a couple of saw horses in the driveway.

You don’t need anything fancy or elaborate.  What you need is space and time.  You’ll need space to store the extra equipment and seasonal items, and have sufficient space to stack up a “fix-it” pile, plus a place to actually do the fixing.  Or you could simply fix it on the spot.  I like to “triage” my equipment into 1) those items that I can continue to use even though they need paint/repair, 2) those items that need simple repair, and 3) those items that need major construction skills and replacement parts.  But I always have to wrestle with the competition between taking the time to fix something against the money it takes to buy it new.

Recently, as highlighted in one of the national bee magazines, there is a trend to move away from repairing old equipment to buying new.  It is thought that your time is more valuable than the cost of new equipment.  Some authors speculate that you’ll waste more time fixing an old rotten brood box than if you simply filled out a check and sent off for a new brood box.  It is the belief that time is money, and even if you were only paid minimum wage, the paid work you’d have to give up fixing the item is worth more than the cost of that same new equipment.

Economists call this opportunity costs.  It is the theory that suggests life is a trade-off of working for money and buying something new, or spending that same time repairing something, which means not working and not getting paid but you don’t have to spend the money.

Look at it this way:  I can work for $8 an hour.  A brood box costs $10 to buy new.  The two hours of time I spend fixing an old brood box costs me $16 of lost wages.  Or I could work those same two hours, gain $16 in wages and spend $10 on the new brood box.  In this case, it is cheaper to work and buy new, then to not work and lose $16 of wages and spend that same time repairing the old brood box to save $10. 

The opportunity cost of working and gaining $16 cash is greater rather than saving the $10 by fixing and repairing that same brood box in those two hours.  Then you also have the length that these old, used items will remain is service, which logically, is shorter than the reasonable service of a new item.  The newly purchased brood box has a longer life than the repaired brood box.  And this idea also has to balance how long it takes to fix things.

As another example, suppose I could fix four brood boxes in an hour, as opposed to throwing them away and buying four new brood boxes.  If I were to take an hour of my day and fix four brood boxes, it would be like saving $40, and if I worked my conventional job at $8 an hour, I only have $8 to show for it.  I would have to work five hours at my regular job in order to afford the money to buy those four brood boxes.  Though the national trend seems to favor buying new rather than fixing the old, it is my preference to fix the old.  It’s cheaper, and my time is not always “on the clock” at $8 per hour.  I can easily trade those hours I waste watching television for the time I need to spend in the garage fixing old equipment.  And if I can shoe-horn in fifteen minutes each morning for two weeks, I gain a lot of time I normally do not have.

Fixing and repairing has been my mentality as I’ve acquired a lot of used bee equipment, some of which was simply given to me, some of which was in pretty sad shape.  We seem to live in a “disposable society” in which it is better to buy new than fix what’s broken.  We seem to have more money to buy new than time to fix what’s old. 

If this is the way you feel, then go ahead and spend the money and buy new.  My theory is this:  I have times in which I’m not paid to be working.  I have times in which I’m not working.  So I can watch television and fill my brain with junk or I can fix up a brood box.  For me, to fix the brood box and saving the $10 that it would take to buy a new one is like having someone paying me $10 to fix it.  In the end, my time doesn’t really cost me anything, whereas buying a new brood box is money right out of my checking account.

Further, spending a rainy afternoon in the garage fixing up old bee equipment is very relaxing.  It is my therapy.  It reduces my stress levels.  And thankfully, I have the skills and the tools to fix, build and repair my own equipment.  This whole chapter becomes moot if you have no place to work, no tools (even those you could borrow), and no wood-working skills.  Then repairing is somewhat out of the question.

Interestingly, most of my beekeeping acquaintances are also good carpenters and wood workers, at least good enough to build a square box and adjust the depth of the blade on a table saw.  But this was not always so with me.

My advice to beginning beekeepers is to start out and buy new equipment.  Buy a couple of extra boxes, then copy the measurements.  As you work with your purchased equipment, you’ll be able to use these items as a pattern.  Read the old beekeeping books.  A lot of them will  have sections on the right dimensions for the ten-frame, Langstroth conventional hive.  And, if for some reason you want to design your own hive and make your own equipment, you’ll have the freedom to keep everything interchangeable.  There are some things that already work, and they’ve worked for hundreds of years.  But do not be afraid to experiment as you gain experience.

There have been many years in which I was making my own equipment out of scrap pallets I salvaged out of dumpsters.  Agricultural implement dealers always have piles of pallets and shipping crates sitting around.  I also haunt the alley of a restaurant supply house for the best lumber that is simply thrown away.  I used a regular circular saw until Santa Claus brought me a relatively cheap table saw from Lowes Home Improvement Center (cost around $125).  With this new Christmas gift, my results suddenly showed marked improvement (like straight edges and square corners), though I’m still a long way from perfect.  The good news is the bees don’t really care (better than a hollow tree!).  I am able to make simple cuts and rabbetted corners as opposed to the fancy “dove-tail” or “finger joints” on the commercial boxes.

While I spend a lot of time on developing and expanding my beekeeping enterprise, my time is more available than the cash it takes to buy the equipment.  I know those of you who are always pressed for time may find it easier to simply open a shipping box from the supply house and hammer the pieces together.  Each of our situations vary.

Along the lines of fixing and repairs come your choice of paint colors.  Nearly every convention says beehives MUST be white.

Not in my bee yard.

I travel down to Lowes, Sears, Wal-Mart, even the Salvation Army (which picks up donations of old paint from a local builder of motels and apartments).  All of these stores, and any store that mixes paint, has some of the mistinted paint returned.  I do not understand this mentality of taking back paint just because the customer didn’t like the color, but the stores take back these several cans every season.  Top-quality paint that offers a 25-year guarantee along with a $30 per gallon price tag will sell for $2 to $5 a gallon.

The only stipulation is you cannot be picky about the color.  So I protect my hives with some of the loveliest colors.  And the farmers who have my hives on their farms don’t seem to care either.  However, a lot of people will take issue and spend the extra money and buy white paint.  If you want, paint your hives any color you desire.  But I HIGHLY recommend you paint your hives.  As I run across old, weathered used equipment, the first thing I do is give them a coat of paint.  Old wood usually takes two coats, but in the long run, painting is the best choice to preserve your equipment. 

And further, if you find paint in the mistint bin, buy it.  These home improvement stores don’t always have it in stock, and because it is exterior paint, it tends to have a seasonal availability.  You only find it in the warmer months.

And again, you’re going to need a place to paint that is protected from the elements, warm and ventilated.

When it comes to frames, I’m at a loss.  If you buy used frames, or if one should break, I think your best bet is to toss it away and replace it with a new one.  Cut out the wax comb and melt it down, but for my money, fixing frames, especially if they have broken “ears” or those stubs on the ends, it takes more time to fix those, and they’ll always be weak on the other side.  I agonize over tossing used frames in my kindling box, but with the stress that most extractors exert on the frame, it is less frustrating to simply buy new frames rather than repair them.

If you have a wax foundation “blow out” in your extractor, go ahead and cut it all out and replace the foundation.  But if the wood frame is old or weakened from wax moths, then it might be best to pitch it and replace it with a new frame.

I’ve spoken in another section of “harvesting” old pallets from dumpsters and salvaging the wood to make your own hives.  Home improvement stores seem to have the biggest selection of old pallets, however, farm implement dealers seem to have the best grade of pine lumber (easiest to work with).  Also in my area are several manufacturers of pallets, and a couple of manufacturers that have to make their own custom-sized pallets.  They simply toss TONS of 2x4 stubs, 1x8 boards less than 24” long, and a host of other wood in the dumpster.  A lot of old boys like to salvage this wood for their wood-burning stoves.  It makes great kindling.  I like it as it makes the right wood (at the right price) for making my own bee equipment.

As you move upward, time and money will always be in competition.  Whether you choose to save money and fix up the old equipment or spend the money because you don’t have the time is a decision you’ll be making every day.  Fixing and repairing is also a function of a place to do it, but also dependent upon your skills and tools.  As we’ll take a look in the finance section, start-up costs for beekeeping are high.  It’s my preference to repair old rather than buy new.  It’s a decision you’ll have to contemplate as you expand.

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