Bee-Thinking owners Matt and Jill Reed began keeping bees after feeding honey to a honeybee one day in 2008. Today, the two craft top bar and Warre beehives for beekeepers all over the world. Read on for Matt’s reflections on the philosophy behind their craft, the benefits of keeping bees and why their hives will outlast the rest.
How did Bee-Thinking get its start? What led you to start constructing beehives?
It all started in 2008 when a honeybee landed in our kitchen on a chilly, gray day. I fed it some honey and took it outside, its energy was restored and it flew away. Later, my wife, Jill, was leaving for work and dozens of bees were flying into our screen door trying to get inside. Obviously that bee had communicated to the rest that there was a great food source inside! A month later we bought our first hive.
That year, I spent the entire winter building top bar hives and Warre hives for myself, blogging about the entire process. Soon I was getting inquiries from people all over the country, wondering how they could get one of my hives. Thus, Bee-Thinking was born.
What is the philosophy behind Bee-Thinking products?
From its inception, our goal at Bee-Thinking has been to use and promote natural beekeeping methods. By this we mean providing the bees with an ideal cavity in which to live, with minimal disturbance to the hive by the beekeeper. We do not promote the use of chemicals or medication of any sort, believing instead that healthy colonies come from good genetics, letting strong colonies thrive. We are open to all hive designs, knowing that there is a long tradition of creativity in hive sizes and shapes through the centuries and that bees in nature are highly adaptable and often pick surprising places to build their colonies. The point is that bees know better than we do what they need and how to thrive.
What makes your products unique? What are top bar hives and Warre hives? What are the advantages of each?
Our products are ideally suited for backyard and hobby beekeepers looking for hives that are functional and fun. Our hives are some of the only ones built in the United States from Western Red Cedar. Our hives will far outlast the pine hives which are commonly sold elsewhere. The biggest difference between our hives and the more predominant Langstroth hives is that in ours, the bees are allowed to build their own natural combs, without any frames or commercially pressed wax foundation. In our experience, bees prefer to build their own combs and they do so very quickly. Not only that, but the manufactured wax foundation used in most hives has been studied and proven to harbor numerous pesticides and insecticides, even while on the store shelf! Finally, honey-harvest is easier with our hives, as the beekeeper does not need an expensive extracting machine. Instead, the honeycombs can be cut into squares, or crushed and strained with regular household mason jars and cheesecloth.
Top bar hives and Warre hives are both technically top bar hives, as they use bare wooden bars laid across the hive cavity from which the bees draw their combs. The full name of our top bar hive is horizontal top bar hive, or Kenyan top bar hive. These are long hives featuring 28 top bars laid across the hive cavity from which the bees build their own combs. Each of our top bar hives has a viewing window through which the colony can be observed and monitored.
The Warre hive was invented by a French monk in the early 1900s. He called his hive “The People’s Hive,” as he thought it was ideally suited for most people for its simple management and construction. Like the horizontal top bar hive, the Warre hive uses top bars, but 8 bars in each of its stacked boxes. The bees start in the top box and continue building downward through the empty boxes below, much like bees do while living in trees or other natural cavities.
When I began my beekeeping adventure I had never built anything. Shortly after I began building hives, I took woodworking classes in Portland, Oregon. This training significantly improved my hives and efficiency in constructing them.
When did you begin keeping bees? How many hives do you have?
I began beekeeping in 2008. Today I have over 30 hives throughout Southeast Portland.
Have you seen an increase in home beekeeping over the past 5 years? If so, what do you attribute this to?
There has definitely been an increase over the past 5 years. Really since 2006, beekeeping has been on the rise throughout the world. This can be attributed partly to the huge losses of bees, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and the associated media attention honey bees received. Sometimes we jokingly say that backyard chickens are the gateway to backyard honeybees…but it’s true — a high percentage of our customers recently made the jump into chickens, and next add honeybees to their backyard homestead!
Increasingly, people seem to want to have more control over, and an active participation with, their food supply and a relationship with the earth. Our customers are bee enthusiasts concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder, backyard and urban gardeners, and people that want to provide pollination to their own gardens and the community at large.
What are the benefits of home beekeeping, as opposed to buying store-bought honey?
A significant amount of store-bought honey has been shown to have no beneficial properties due to pasteurization and a forced diet of sugar water given to the bees.
Honeybees are incredibly complex creatures — written about more than any other animal — and to have a colony in the backyard for you and your family to observe is a magical and educational experience. Honeybees are pollinators, and one colony will help pollinate millions of flowers within a few square miles of your backyard — a great benefit for the community. Wax, pollen, propolis, and honey are additional rewards that come with a honeybee colony. Honey from your own backyard is better than store-bought for a number of reasons. For one, you know where it came from and how the colony was treated. Additionally, consuming local honey and pollen have long been recommended as a support in treating seasonal allergies. Honey can also be used on burns, cuts, and scrapes as it is naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial.
Bees can be seen as a threat by some people, especially when they swarm. Can you explain what a swarm actually is?
A swarm is the means by which honeybees reproduce. 15-50% (3,000-30,000 bees) of the colony will issue from the hive with the old queen, leaving the hive with a new queen and the remaining bees. The swarm usually lands upon a tree branch nearby and waits while the eldest bees, known as the scouts, scour the area miles around to find the ideal cavity to move into. Once they find a good one, they go back to the hanging clump, dancing vigorously to communicate the distance and direction. More scouts will inspect the location, and once there is unanimous agreement, the swarm will take off and move into the new cavity.
Swarms are the time when honeybee colonies are the most docile. They have no babies/brood to protect, they are full of honey, and want nothing but to find a new home. Usually swarms can simply be dropped from the tree branch into a box with no trouble at all. This is our favorite way to populate our hives!
What the best thing about your job?
Helping beekeepers throughout the world do their part to benefit honeybees and beekeeping in general. When we’re not helping beekeepers, we spend the rest of our time working with honeybees and playing with our wonderful, rescued, Miniature Australian Shepherd dogs!
If you weren’t building beehives, what would you be doing?
I would likely be working in the technology field (the previous chapter of my life). I much prefer the honeybee field!