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Keeping bees in a barn: a lofty idea

When first year beekeeper Carol Lew was considering where to put her hives, a local expert suggested she put them in her barn loft. The reason? Bears. Carol lives in Massachusetts on the edge of a large state forest where bears can be a beekeeper’s nightmare.

At first she was hesitant, but after studying photos of European bee houses, she thought it just might work. She explains, “Last winter I did a lot of research on line, but I didn’t find many people who had done something like this. But I did see examples of hives in buildings in Europe, and I know that bees choose to live inside the walls of houses and barns, so I took a chance.”

A bucket, pulley, and ladder

Carol says she climbs up to the loft on a ladder, and she created a bucket-and-pulley system to carry things up and down. “It needs improvement,” she says of her system. “Bee stuff is heavy, and I really need a better pulley.” The best part, though, is the convenience. “I love that my equipment and supplies are all right there near the bees.”

So far, through her first spring and summer, the system has been a success. Still, she has yet to go through a winter, so she is looking for any advice that other beekeepers might offer. “Maybe others will share experiences that will help me avoid mistakes,” she says.

Hives on casters

In what I think was a brilliant move, Carol had her hive stands mounted on casters. When she needs to move her hives, she just rolls them around.

During the spring and summer, she kept the hives close to a large window that faces southwest. In the top of the large window, Carol mounted a storm door turned sideways. Below the horizontal door she installed two windows that swing open to the sides. When the windows are closed, the bees come and go through the space beneath.

In the fall, she found that the sun hit the hives earlier if she angled them as shown below. “The angle also helps to keep the wind from hitting the hives too; we live on top of a mountain and there’s lots of wind.”

About those barn swallows

No system is without a few problems. In this case, Carol found it necessary to cover the window opening with chicken wire to keep out the swallows. “My barn is a favorite place for barn swallows,” she said. “Last year we had fifteen active nests in the lower level and loft, and I’m pretty sure swallows eat bees. This year, we had only five nests because of my efforts, but a few extra smart swallows figured out how to get in.”

Dealing with rain

Carol explains that she put a sheet of vinyl flooring on the floor in front of the window because she is worried about rain coming through the window and rotting the barn. She says the rain wasn’t a problem in spring and summer, but that may have been due to a dry year. Although it is not shown in the photos, she has since installed a large piece of plexiglass on the right side of the window (as you face it) to help reduce the amount of wind and moisture coming into the barn.

Advice is welcome

If you have any comments or suggestions for Carol, please let us know. She is eagerly seeking any advice as she goes into her first winter as a lofty beekeeper.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

carol-lew-barn
In spring and summer the hives are pushed close to the window. The chicken wire keeps out most of the barn swallows. © Carol Lew.
carol-lew-barn-2
In fall, the hives get better sun exposure when they are kept at an angle. The bees come and go just as before. © Carol Lew.
carol-lew-fall_winter setup
A view from inside the loft. Note the casters on the hive stands. © Carol Lew.
carol-lew-bucket, pulley and ladder
The bucket and pulley system above the ladder. © Carol Lew.
carol-lew-supplies
She keeps supplies close at hand, right near the hives. You can barely make out some images painted on the back of the hives, which help Carol know which is which. She was inspired by old European bee hive images she found on line. © Carol Lew.

Editors Note: I just have to mention that Carol is an artist who specializes in old world style animal portraits. I checked out her website and just about split with laughter when I saw her painting entitled, “Cat with a Pearl Earring.” It is so good. If you’re a fan of Vermeer, or even if you’re not, be sure to take a look.

Comments

Craig
Reply

Carol probably already knows this but if you look at the roof peak you’ll see a beam sticking out. This would have originally been used to raise and lower hay to and from the loft via a pulley.

If the beam isn’t rotted, it could easily be used to raise whole hives into that loft. The beam is usually part of the main beam that runs down the center of the roof, so it’s very good at distributing the weight to the walls and on to the ground. And adding a metal support diagonally from that beam to the wall below will let it handle even greater loads. I’ve seen people use them to lift engines out of cars.

Barry Yhard
Reply

What a great website and I love the barn loft idea.

Jon Sumpter
Reply

Wall opening in loft has more to do with what kind of winter you have. You might consider window shutter type solid doors with a single 1″ dia. hole in one door with a short overhanging over the hole.

Mass. has lousy winters most times and your loft temperature should be cold enough to keep your bees in clusters in their hives. Keeping the hives in the dark also makes them cluster.

A pulley with ball bearings will make life easier too.

Good Luck.
Jon S

Carol
Reply

Thanks, Craig. I vaguely wondered what I would do if I ever had to remove a hive full of bees.

Craig
Reply

I’d suggest checking at your local farmer’s co-op or a store called “Tractor Supply” if they have those in your area, for options about pulleys. They’ll have larger selection then Home Depot and places like that. They probably will also have things like a block and tackle and various types of winches. A block and tackle is a series of pulleys used to multiply force, so you can lift 100 lbs or 200 lbs, with 50 lbs of force, depending on the number of pulleys you use. You could use that either from the beam outside or with your current rig that goes through the floor.

The great thing about your barn set up is that you have options out the wazoo.

Rich
Reply

“Still, she yet to go through a winter,…” You have a word missing, such as “has.”

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Rich. Fixed it.

Rich
Reply

Related to Craig’s comment, Carol should verify that her setup is safe. If a pulley comes lose or a rope breaks or she loses her grip, will she be hurt by the falling object? Has she eliminated fall risks with strong railings? Is there any chance of falling through the screened opening?

An awning might be just the thing to prevent rain from getting in, but that might interfere with using the main beam for hoisting. Choices, choices!

The barn is beautiful. This use of the loft is great.

patsquared2
Reply

If Carol is looking for a better system, she might want to check with local farmers. When we were kids, our hay barn had an incredible old pulley system in one of the main support beams, supposedly used for raising and stacking hay and straw. Of course, the five of us found that it worked much better for launching ourselves out into the air and dropping into the loose straw we piled on the barn floor.

Jerry Holman
Reply

What a great idea. I have thought about putting one nuc in the garage with a pvc pipe going out the wall. I wonder if that would work in Ohio where the winter can be cold.

Rusty
Reply

Jerry,

You should try it.

Carol
Reply

Great ideas and thoughts. A friend mentioned block and tackle as an option. We do have a Tractor Supply store nearby. This will probably be a winter research project.

Carol
Reply

I see Jon mentioned the idea of a solid covering for the loft opening for the winter, with a small hole that the bees can use to come and go. I had been thinking that it was a good thing for the sun to hit the hives. If I cover the lower opening I would need to cover the upper windows as well so the bees only see light coming from the place they can fly out of. Does anyone else have thoughts on what is better for the bees? Jon is definitely right that closing it all up is better for the barn.

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

Hives that are kept in warehouses in the winter, especially in places like western Canada, exclude as much light as possible to limit bee activity. I know that yours are free to come and go, but the point is that light doesn’t seem to be necessary for winter survival. It’s dark in the hive anyway, and when they are clustered they don’t go out. But if you’re depending on sunlight for warmth, that might be different.

Merilyn
Reply

Over the last fortnight, I have found a dead bee in my lounge at 9.00 pm last night, a live bee on the inside of our kitchen insect screen door at 8.00pm at night, and a very active live bee buzzing around the outside fluorescent light at 9.00pm at night. I thought bees would be at home at night. It is summer in the dry tropics of north Queensland, Australia. We have a hive about 300 m away on the other side of the house.

Rusty
Reply

Merilyn,

The two you found inside probably came in during the day by accident and then couldn’t find their way back out, but they continued to try even after darkness fell. Most insects are attracted to lights at night, but honey bees are usually home by then. Still, if a bee is lost or is for some reason excluded from her hive, she will gravitate toward electric lights.

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