Sun Hives & The Conservation of the Honey Bee

Maddy Harland
Thursday, 8th May 2014

If we want to help honey bees survive and thrive we have to start conserving colonies, not just harvesting honey. The Natural Beekeeping Trust has been testing out more natural designs for hives and have found that bees prefer living in the round.

Imagine your ancestors feeding upon foraged and home-grown foods and living life ‘in the round’, in traditional houses. Now you are consigned to a high rise flat in the middle of a place where seasonal, local, organic food is unheard of. Processed sugar and chemically altered plants are all that is available to you. It’s a sorry tale of overcrowding and poor diet, leading to a loss in vigour, congenital defects and early mortality.

You could easily think I am describing an urban dystopia but actually I refer to modern beekeeping with its highrise supers, and sugar fed bees who have to contend with varroa and crops sprayed with neonicotinoids as forage and a world full of radiation from mobile phone masts and other hi-tech gadgets. No wonder bee populations are plumetting all over the world, so much so there is now an industry on fruit farms in California and orchards in the UK, to import hives to ensure pollination. There are no longer enough wild and cultivated bees to do the job.

Hope via biomimicry

But there is hope. The Natural Beeping Trust has observed that hives such as the Warré, Golden Hive and Sun Hive all promote colony health whilst allowing beekeepers reasonable access. Furthermore, they have found that colonies living in the round ‘exude a rare sense of vitality and well-being’, as Heidi Herrmann puts it. The old round skep design is therefore preferable to bees but the combs within were fixed and so the hive was difficult to inspect, which is sometimes necessary.

A German natural beekeeper and sculptor called Günther Mancke invented the Sun Hive which incorporates the round design of the traditional skep but is accessible and is ‘apicentric’.

In the wild, bees build nests high above the ground in the air and light, unlike our conventional hives that are usually located close to the ground. Mancke’s Sun Hive is designed to be suspended 2.5m (8ft) above the ground under a shelter to protect it from the weather. The lower part of the hive is constructed to mimic the natural shape of a wild colony’s comb, where the bees communicate, store nectar and pollen, and brood their young. The shape allows the bees to design their own brood nests in a way that is akin to wild bees, rather than dictated by the man-made designs of conventional hives.

The hive itself is made from wood, rye-straw and cow dung. It reminds me of a natural build and it is reputably warm, an important aspect of bee survival in changing climates. The Natural Beekeeping Trust have been testing the Sun Hive design and find swarming bees, given a choice of accommodation, prefer it.

The sunhive is a conservation hive, so it isn't design to produce honey, but most of the Natural Beekeeping Trust's have little super boxes on top in which the bees store the surplus honey if they're lucky.

Here is a visual guide on how to make one: 

Making the frames

Gathering dried rye straw

Plating the straw to start the skep

Starting the skep

Attaching to the skep

The upper section

If you want to know more about the exact dimensions and fabrication of this beautiful structure you will need to read Sun Hive published by the Natural Beekeeping Trust.They also run two-day courses on the subject at Tablehurst Farm in Sussex. If you want a sunhive, you will need to make one!

A class learning skip making outside

I am indebted to Heidi Herrmann, a trustee at the Natural Beekeeping Trust, for her advice whilst writing this article.

Further resources

Beekeeping Simple and Natural

How to Build a Top Bar Hive

Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities

Apiculture and Permaculture: Keeping Bees

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Lina Cuartas |
Mon, 12/05/2014 - 04:33
i want to learn to make beehives and house bees, any american resources or networks you can reccomend? i love your newsletter, your articles and the inspiration you continue to provide... Congratulations!