Studies in PermApiculture: First Perone Hive

I founded North Coast Apiaries in 2016 with a small grant from the Oregon Institute for Creative Research to look into the viability of the Perone hive in the coastal climate of northern California.  Our first hive was built over the winter of 2016 and spring of 2017 and installed on Nye Ranch in Fort Bragg, California

A swarm was captured on June 15th, 2017 and placed in the hive the following day.  That swarm nestled into its new home and eventually absconded on the week of Thanksgiving of the same year.  With only six months in the hive, the colony produced five rungs of comb, the largest of which were almost two feet in length.  What follows is a critical introspective on this process followed with a developmental plan for the future.

Building the hive

The preliminary difficulty we faced was translating non-US measurements into dimensional lumber.  When Oscar Perone writes that he is using a piece of lumber that is one inch by four inches, is this true to measurements?  In the US it is not, a nominal 1 x 4 is in actuality ¾ x 1 ½.  After struggling over conversions, we decided to build it to spec with our dimensional lumber which meant that our hive had ¾ inch walls instead of one full inch. 

For wood we chose kiln-dried poplar at the recommendation of a local lumber distributor in Fort Bragg.  In retrospect, this was a poor choice.  We have since learned that poplar is a poor outdoor wood option, and while it is beautiful and easy to work with it does not withstand heavy, wet environments well.  The Mendocino coast is nothing if not consistently windy and wet, and this resulted in warping and cupping of the hive.  The main comb grid was constructed of fir as it came in actual 1 x 1 strips usually used for stairs and had no issues.

Other than the roof, actual construction of the hive was not difficult.  We were able to cut the wood in a day and glue and nail the hive form with relative ease.  It took a day for the wood glue to dry and the hive was easy to stack when completed.  The roof took much longer to design and prepare as we opted to use an angled roof rather than a gabled design.  The corrugated metal was recycled and sealed with waterproof material between the metal and the wood.

We painted the outside with non-toxic milk paint and to secure the hive and keep it elevated off the ground we used two old railroad ties and some cinder blocks.  While not ideal aesthetically, they served their purpose well enough over the months.  All told, the hive looked gorgeous once finished and even better sitting comfortably on the idyllic Nye Ranch farm.

Assessing Problems

I made semi-regular visits to the hive and there wasn't much to report until late August when the some initial issues began to develop into full-blown problems.  The bullet points that follow are my personal report taken on the August 22nd. 

- Hive is in bad physical condition:

o   Poplar wood is warping/cupping, exposing the interior of the hive.

o   Outside of the hive is littered with defecation.

o   Lower landing pad to the hive is moldy.

o   Roof is trapping water, causing wood expansion.

o   Multiple gaps have formed between the wood, big enough for bees to enter and exit.  These have not been sealed with propolis and don’t look defended.

- Bees appear to have Deformed Wing Virus, are expelling pupa, drones, and so forth from the hive.

- Wasps are gathered at base of hive to eat dead and dying bees.

- Inside of the supers are moldy and damp.

- Did not notice any Varroa mites.

- All in all, hive is compromised and will need to be repaired/replaced.

There was much cause for concern and the issues identified here needed to be addressed immediately.  The bees were still collecting ample forage and it is likely that this abundant and high-quality food supply allowed them to survive in such destitute conditions.  The integrity of the hive was completely jeopardized by the warping wood, exposing the delicate interior "bee space" to cold, moisture, and particulates.  What was most interesting how much information I was able to gather without entering the hive.  Careful inspection of the exterior and the area beneath the entrance told me almost everything I needed to know: without immediate intervention, this colony was doomed.

The situation left us with only a couple solutions: attempt to strap the hive and through pressure close the gaps; affix a new exterior to the old in order to seal the hive; seal the gaps with something or tape over them.  The first two were not truly feasible.  We opted to seal the gaps and after much discussion settled on gluing them closed with a hot glue gun.  Fortunately this worked very well and after a couple hours the glue had formed a complete seal on the gaps, thereby returning the interior of the hive to a somewhat stable climate.  Some white duct tape added additional wind protection.

I removed the top two supers, leaving the last as it contained the upper entrance to the hive, in order to decrease empty space within the cavity and subsequent area for stagnant cold air.  This greatly reduced drafts and excess area that the bees were unable to keep warm.  These solutions remedied the main items at hand but my concern was how much energy the colony had to expend on maintain consistent brood temperature during this period.  The defecation on the outside of the hive was likely a sign of dysentery and general illness, again resulting from the comb and interior being continually exposed to wind and moisture.  I did not notice any Varroa mites and am left to conclude that Deformed Wing Virus may have resulted from these poor living conditions.

Moving Forward

My last visit to the hive was over the Thanksgiving weekend and I discovered no activity.  I opened the hive and there was not a single bee in the entire space, including on the floor of the hive where I half-expected to find a pile of dead bees.  After having repaired the structure as best we could in August, I was convinced that the colony would fail to overwinter and that we would have a dead colony on our hands at some point in the colder months.  I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when the colony knew what was coming and decided to find a new home.  This was ultimately a pleasant turn of events and one that brought me some joy given how the difficulties seemed to be mounting.  

We removed the empty hive from the farm and deconstructed it, noting much of what had previously been known: there was mold and mildew inside the hive.  The colony had constructed about six combs on one side of the hive, oddly the westward side that was closest to the ocean wind.  These combs were largely empty and dry, except for some cells that had visible sings of chalk brood.  There were some honey cells fully capped and we were able to salvage some of this honey.

I have compiled a short list of takeaways/changes to make for the next hive:

- Use western red cedar or redwood instead of kiln-dried poplar for hive body.

- Simpler roof, gabled would work or pre-fabricated fiberglass.

- Remove landing pads entirely.

- Consider some sort of additional insulation/wind-break for westward facing corner of hive.

- Begin with only one super to reduce initial volume/cold, add remaining supers as needed.

- Include hive monitoring tray and upper ceiling vent hole in new model.

- Develop more secure hive stand and add second coat of paint.