SA invention propels beekeeping into the 21st century

  • Because much of the distracting work of maintaining the hive has been removed from the bees, the colony can concentrate their efforts on producing honey and raising their brood.
  • Greg Aberdeen (left) and Mark Collins set up one of their Mk V hives at the Intaka Island wetland and bird sanctuary.
  • Whisper Boat Building Academy’s Thuto Molefe prepares a BeePak hive composite mould.
  • Whisper Boat Building Academy’s project manager Mike Harvey (left) listens to Greg Aberdeen as he explains a new design tweak.
  • African honey bees have a fierce reputation among beekeepers, but colonies housed in BeePak hives have proven to be surprisingly calm.
  • Inspecting the beehive
  • BeePak design
Date:23 July 2014 Author: Sean Woods Tags:, , , , , , ,

New home for the honey: meet BeePak, a locally developed composite beehive with the potential to propel beekeeping into the 21st century.

When Massachusetts cleric Lorenzo Langstroth patented his wooden beehive back in 1852, he changed beekeeping forever. Technology has moved on since then, but interestingly, not on the beekeeping front. Even today, Langstroth hives are still manufactured using the same materials and basic design developed 162 years ago.

Happily, this looks set to change. Enter the BeePak, a locally developed composite beehive with the potential to take the apiculture world by storm. Chances are it didn’t cross your mind last time you spread some delicious honey over your morning toast, but bees are very big business – their pollination activity is responsible for up to one in every three mouthfuls of food we eat.

Achim Steiner, executive director for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), puts it more succinctly: “The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.” Simply put: eliminate bees from the equation and you’re left with an extremely boring diet.

Why raise this scary spectre? Because Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a phenomenon in which bee colonies abruptly vanish, abandoning the larvae and honey in their hives – has become a disturbing global trend. Diminishing pollinator-friendly habitats, pesticides, air pollution and globalisation (where international trade facilitates the movement of virulent fungal pathogens) are just a few of the bee stressors identified. So far, no one has come up with a workable solution for the problem, and the experts appear baffled.

Fortunately for us, the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) is made of sturdier stock than its European, North American and Asian cousins. As a result, CCD isn’t an issue here in South Africa. Against that, the harsh reality is that this country simply doesn’t have enough commercial beekeepers: we’re a net importer of honey, and our farmers are in desperate need of more pollinators for their crops.

The beginnings of BeePak
When Greg Aberdeen, a composite technician specialising in the aerospace and race yacht-building industries, first became aware of CCD in 2011, he knew nothing about bees. He wanted to show a client an image of Nomex, a honeycomb-structured material used to strengthen composite racing yacht hulls. But, because CCD is such a big issue, Nomex had been relegated to page 5 of his Internet search; everything above that was dedicated to bees.

Aberdeen elaborates: “I was intrigued by what I’d just stumbled across, and once my client had left, I went back to my search results and began reading. In no time, I became hooked on the entire topic.”

Soon afterwards, he was tracked down by Mike Collins, who’d been looking for someone to fi x his kayak after trashing it in a tree while tackling the Caledon River in flood. The two men hit it off immediately. Says Collins: “Having just sold my previous business, I was looking for a new project and really liked what Greg was doing.” Their collaboration led to the birth of BeePak, with Aberdeen taking care of all technical aspects and Collins concentrating on the business end.

Making plans
Realising there was no way they could solve the CCD conundrum, they focused their efforts on improving the Langstroth design. They reasoned that if they could utilise composite materials to improve the living conditions inside a hive, bee colonies would have a better chance of survival.

For the next 18 months, they immersed themselves in beekeeping lore, joining global apiculture blogs, posing questions to experts – and getting stung a lot. It turned out there had been a number of attempts over the years to produce composite hives, but all had failed. Why? Collins thinks he has the answer: “Beekeepers are farmers, not composite engineers.”

The downside of wood
The problem with wooden hives is that, well, they’re made of wood. Left outside in the elements, they last for no longer than about 4 years. An accumulation of water vapour – generated when the bees fan their wings to reduce the honey’s moisture content – causes internal humidity levels to rocket, causing the wood to rot. This, in turn, attracts various fungi and parasites, neither of which is good news for the hive’s occupants.

Bees are also extremely particular about their environment, which they control by plugging air gaps in their hives with propolis, collective fanning (to cool things down) and eating honey (to raise body temperatures).

Wooden hives tend to leak air like sieves, so a significant portion of a colony has to spend time on maintenance duties instead of doing what they’re supposed to – pollinating plants and collecting nectar.

In summer, when the wooden hive’s insulation is inadequate, large numbers of bees have to divert their energies into cooling the interior with vigorous fanning. And in winter, the same poor insulation obliges them to consume their honey reserves too quickly, causing large numbers of bees to die before spring arrives. This lowers the next season’s productivity levels even further.

Honey badgers – ratels, as they’re known here – create real problems for beekeepers. That’s because wooden hives located near the ground don’t stand a chance against them. As a consequence, protecting hives from these tenacious and intelligent creatures is an ongoing headache.

Wooden hives are also heavy, weighing in at around 50 kg apiece, making them a pain to lug around. And because they are available only as fully constructed units, their bulk makes them inconvenient and costly to transport.

Show me the honey
Understanding what they were up against, Aberdeen and Collins set about designing the ideal composite hive. By all accounts, they got it right.

Says Aberdeen: “I soon realised that understanding how to control the relative humidity levels inside the hive was the answer, so that’s what I concentrated on.” His solution was to include a number of small vents in the hive’s top box. That way, the bees could easily regulate the hive’s humidity by blocking or opening up the holes as required (bees like to be kept busy).

Next, he designed the entrance to optimise the airflow entering the hive. He then focused on getting the thermal insulation right to help the bees maintain their hive’s ideal internal temperature (that is, 34 degrees) with minimal effort, and regardless of the weather conditions.

For Aberdeen, producing the actual hive components was easy, as was building a virtually indestructible, completely sealed, weatherproof box (along with a stainless steel outer interlocking frame, fastened together by screws). The complete BeePak hive (including frames) weighs a mere 17 kg. Projected lifespan: a formidable 50 years.

The hive also comes in convenient flat pack form, ready for shipment. Because no wood is used in its construction, pests such as woodworm, wood lice and termites are not an issue. It can’t rot, either, and its smooth interior provides a sterile environment for the bees. According to its creators, a determined honey badger could probably roll a BeePak hive around all day without doing much damage.

To ensure that the hives can handle a variety of climatic conditions, and that bees were happy to occupy them, Aberdeen and Collins arranged for 20 BeePaks to be extensively tested in various locations around the Western Cape, including Citrusdal (frost), Grabouw (high rainfall), Greyton (snow) and Intaka Island (sun and wind).

The results were little short of amazing. Says an elated Aberdeen: “We’re still trying to come to terms with the honey yields we’re extracting… what we’re getting is unheard of. Every hive we tested has yielded between 60 and 80 kg of honey, while 22 conventional wooden hives just 2 km away from one of our hives produced only 50 kg in total. We’ve obviously removed the limitations of wooden hives and freed up the bees to forage; that’s the only way I can explain it.”

Gearing up for business
Right from the start, the plan was to take BeePak into production. Says Aberdeen: “We don’t see ourselves as beekeepers; we’re more on the tech side of things.” Realising they needed production staff trained in composite manufacturing, they quickly settled on the Whisper Boat Building academy – an NGO originally set up for deaf students in 2005 with the intention of providing workers for the local boat industry, but now open to people with all manner of disabilities.

The Academy’s repertoire has evolved somewhat over the years. Aside from building boats, it happily takes on whatever special projects come its way. Says Collins: “Deciding to work with these guys was a great decision. They’re building our hives to boat-spec quality… in fact, they are way over spec. These guys know what they’re doing.”

Aberdeen and Collins are adamant that they won’t ever consider mechanisation, preferring to keep the production process as hands-on as possible. Aberdeen is distinctly upbeat on their prospects for the future: “If we achieve just a 2 per cent market share, we’d be producing 1 650 bee hives every week for the next 10 years – that’s how large the global market is. More importantly, it would also mean full-time employment for about 1 000 people.”

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