Wall Beekeeping: An Ancient Craft (who knew??)–Susan’s Bees

Once again, I find myself gloriously behind the times. In this particular case a few thousand years behind the times: I built and maintain a wall beehive—a colony housed in the wall of my bedroom.

I have been calling it my Observation Hive because it has a plexiglas cover on the inside wall, but my ancient ancestors have been keeping such hives—called walled hives—for millennia. I know this now because of a fascinating Bee World article from 1998 by Eva Crane that details wall hives and wall hive beekeeping in some twenty warm-temperate Old World countries, a practice that dates back to at least AD 60.

Bee friend Jenne Johnson is great at finding and sharing such wonderful bee morsels as she wanders along the good bee road, and she managed to find this historical reference to my very new activity.

For the past few years, I have dreamed of living with bees closer than my bee yard. I imagined and tried out a few ghastly attempts at indoor colonies with bees who were failing, and continued to fail when I brought them indoors. I call this my “bee hospice phase.”

Then I got the notion to simply put them in my walls, an idea probably sparked my by obsession with bee friend Jacqueline’s wall hive, that has been living in the brick walls of her hallway for more years than she remembers. Her hive has no inside access or view port, but you can hear the bees humming through the wood paneling.

So last winter, I had two young carpenters cut out the sheetrock and the insulation between two framing studs in my bedroom wall, by the window. They added an inch-wide hole for a three-inch length of bamboo on the outside of the wall which the bees could use for an outside entry/exit.

Todd and Randy take hammers and saws to my wall…

Inside, the fellows cleaned the cavity down to its original 1930s wood and shingling. We added a piece of plexiglas with a small door at the bottom where I can feed the bees if needed. Over the plexiglas, I placed a light-proof, thick quilting so the bees can work in darkness and privacy.

All cut out, with a few old combs I rubber-banded to an old Lang frame, just to give Valentine bees something to call “home.” Basically, they ignored it, and started building in the right bottom corner.

Unbeknownst to me, I was following a tradition in place through all antiquity. Bees were regularly placed in house and barn walls throughout the ages, in abodes usually made of stone. Soft stone was carved out to make a hollow, which was often covered with a sheet of wood that would serve as a door to the hive. These doors were set either on the outside, or inside wall of the house. It was noted in old writings that bees fared especially well in wall hives, probably owing to the better warmth in winter and probable cool in summer of old stone, brick, or adobe-cobb homes.

These wall hives were, on average, around 12-inches wide, 17-inches tall, and around 9-inches deep (the average wall thickness of dwellings in those times). Honey and wax for family use could be easily cut by opening the access door.

Valentine begins building her “body.” This is about the three-week mark in her “birth.”

My Valentine hive (I name all my hives) is 11-inches wide, 54-inches tall, and 3.75-inches deep for a total volume of 36.5-liters. This size is one entomologist and professor Tom Seeley recommends.  His research has has proven that small hives survive better on average than large ones.

Like my unknown ancestors, I populated Valentine with a small cast swarm in spring 2018. I had captured an original swarm in a pillow case and was hoping to “pour” the bees out through a small cut at the corner bottom of the pillow case. Don’t try this. Ever. Bees do not like to be shaken off of fabric. They stick to it and won’t move for hours. Ask me how I know this. No, actually, don’t ask. The memory is too embarrassing.

I ended up housing that particular swarm in a large skep by slicing open the pillow case and allowing the bees to spread out and march into the skep, which they did once they were exposed to the light of day.

The morning after installing Valentine, she did this. All the bees came out, hung out, then happily reentered the hive. Valentine also did this for the remainder of the summer on hot days.

Clearly, I would have to invent another way to invite bees into the wall. So, I took a small, slippery plastic bin, affixed to one end a plastic funnel with a bendable nozzle that happened to fit perfectly into the bamboo tube entrance, and waited for another swarm.

It worked like a charm, with bees marching into the hive two-by-two for the next four hours. Unfortunately, I was so mesmerized by the outside activity of the marching bees (whom I watched through a screen cut into the plastic bin) that I forgot all about what was going on inside.

Inside. Where I had forgotten to shut the bottom port of the hive. Inside, where about two thousand bees were floating around my room. They began congregating on my bedroom windows, which finally got my attention. I bolted into the house, opened my room door, and was greeted by thousands of curious and confused bees. Without thinking, my body took over: I shut the port and immediately hung small blankets over the upper windows. I opened the lower panes and pushed out the screens, turned off the room lights and ran back outside again to check on the bees still in entering mode.

Queen Valentine gets busy on the fresh comb. I was able to watch her often, learning in the process that queens do NOT have an attending court. As a queen moves slowly across the comb searching for cells to lay in, every bee she passes turns to face her, so it looks like there is always a small huddle of ladies in waiting who follow her. Valentine is still laying like crazy, even as winter approaches.

I’d secured the bin by ropes so that I didn’t have to hold it in the air for hours. I was really not needed out there, and I certainly was not needed inside, so I sat down on my patio and held my head in my hands. After giving myself a painful mental lashing for the depths of my stupidity, I walked slowly back to the house, running over in my mind possible ways to escort thousands of bees from my room.

But, bless them, they’d done it all for me. When I slipped back into the room, nary a bee remained. They had no interest in my room, and had quickly departed. They reassembled on the outside wall, near the hive entrance, waiting their turn to enter.

I’ve since learned that in some countries, people actually have open hives hanging in corners of their rooms, with small curtains the only barrier between the family and the bee family.

For the rest of the summer, I have had my windows opened and unscreened, and the Valentine bees—whose outside entrance/exit tube is only inches from the window, have flown in and out. One day, soon after they began constructing comb, I watched a host of bees fly slowly into my bedroom window to orient themselves at the inside wall of the hive. Then, they departed and quietly as they had come.

I watched this little pupa develop in a vertical comb affixed to the side of the plexiglass. if I turned on a flashlight to see her more closely, she turned her body away from the light.

As autumn unfolds, Valentine is my busiest colony. She has built out the entire hive body with combs that reach the full length of the enclosure, to a depth of three combs. I have many tales of what Valentine has taught me these few brief months, but I’ll save those for another time.

Full, busy, and bringing in lots of ivy nectar as Queen Valentine births all the winter bees.

For now, it feels good to know that behind me stand centuries of bee lovers who have had the joy of listening to the hymns of bees far into the night, and smelled the intoxicating aroma of honey and propolis waft out across the room before the dawn light begins.