Assembly required

Who’s your candidate for greatest American writer of all time? It’s a tough call, and I think there’s a case to be made for Herman Melville or Edith Wharton. Other people think there’s a case to be made for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck. Still others say Kerouac, but that’s bananas.

For my money it’s Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn is usually on the short list of candidates for the Great American Novel, but one of my all-time favorite Twain scenes comes from the also-ran, Tom Sawyer. It’s where Tom has to whitewash the fence.

He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.

Tom first tries to talk Jim into helping him, but Miss Polly intervenes and puts the kibosh on that effort. Next, he checks his pockets to see what he could use to bribe one of his friends to do some of the work. He comes up with “bits of toys, marbles, and trash,” and abandons that strategy. But then, “At this dark and hopeless moment an inspiration burst upon him! Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.”

Tom pretends that the task of whitewashing is so compelling, so absorbing, that he doesn’t even notice his friend Ben sauntering by, eating an apple and impersonating a steamboat. When Ben comes right up alongside Tom to get his attention, Tom manages to convince him that whitewashing a fence is the sine qua non of boyhood entertainment, and refuses to let Ben help. Only when Ben promises his apple as payment does Tom hand over the brush “with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart.”

By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with – and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar – but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I think Mark Twain is the greatest American writer because he wrote one scene that I think about every time I have a tedious, time-consuming job to do, but neither would it be accurate to say that it doesn’t factor in.

In this case, the tedious, time-consuming job is beehive assembly.

Our beehives came this week, via UPS, in a shipment of five boxes that arrived over two days and weighed a total of 275 pounds. I knew the hives would come unassembled, and I knew assembling them would be a big job but, as I surveyed the huge piles of parts of frames, deeps, and supers, all gladness left me and a deep melancholy settled down upon my spirit.

Each hive consists of five boxes: three deeps and two supers. The deeps are the large boxes on the bottom, where most of the hive activity happens. The supers are shallower boxes that sit on top of the deeps, and the bees use them to store honey. Each box comes as four sides with dovetailed edges. For the parts to become a hive, the edges have to be glued, the boxes hammered together, and the joints nailed.

That’s the easy part. Between Kevin, me, and the nail gun, we assembled the boxes in about an hour. The hard part is the frames.

A hive is like a file box, with frames hanging from the sides like file folders. Each frame has a sheet of foundation – a sort of starter honeycomb – inserted in it like a picture in a picture frame. Two of the deeps don’t get frames (they’re spares that make working the hives easier), but every other box has ten frames.

That’s 80 frames, total. Each frame has four sides, one sheet of foundation, one bar that holds the foundation to the top, and four pins that hold the foundation to the sides. That’s ten parts per frame, 800 parts in all.

To assemble a frame, you glue the sides to the top, and then glue the bottom to the sides. You nail the joints to make sure the thing doesn’t come apart from apian wear-and-tear. Then you work the foundation into the slot in the bottom, and attach it to the top by nailing a wooden bar over the bent wires that stick out of the foundation at right angles. Then you insert these diabolical little bobby-pin-like pins through holes in the sides of the frame and position them so that the foundation is in between the two prongs of the pin.

So far, we’ve only assembled one It took us about ten minutes, but that included time to bemoan the fact that the puff of air from the nail gun blew a hole in the foundation – twice – as we were putting the last couple of nails in. I think we’ll get better at frame assembly, but it’s still going to be tedious, time-consuming job.

Luckily, the bees don’t come until the beginning of May, so we have time.

I’m thinking we could learn a thing or two from the wood-fired oven workshop we attended last fall. We showed up in a stranger’s backyard, hauled the stones, shoveled the sand, and worked the clay required to build the oven, and paid hard, cold cash for the privilege.. It was straight out of Tom Sawyer, but I didn’t mind because we learned a lot about building a wood-fired oven (and because the stranger was Brewster potter Diane Heart, whose pottery we like and whose company we enjoy).

I’m figuring some of you out there are thinking about keeping bees yourselves, and it would be worth quite a bit to learn how to assemble a hive. Between now and the beginning of May, we’re happy to teach you – for a nominal fee, or even a dead rat on a string.

21 people are having a conversation about “Assembly required

  1. Thanks for that brutal blow by blow. I think, after reading this, that I will start with one hive, and maybe make it a top bar hive (although I haven’t figured out how one excludes the queen in a top bar hive). And handy though I am, maybe buy it already assembled.

  2. When you saw all those parts needed assembly, did you instantly think ‘You know, I MUST get on and finish that blog post…’ I am a bit envious of Kevin’s nail gun though.

    I also like the idea of “apian wear & tear”. I picture tiny security deposits, and bees spackling up holes in the wall after wild parties.

  3. Yay! Things still to come this season for us. I love working with the wax, it just smells so good. We also wire the frames horizontally, rather than just set them between prongs, so that they don’t come apart from centrifugal force. Some of our frames are 8 yrs old, so it is working.
    One thing I didn’t understand was your use of empty deeps. Do you mean to set the frames in when you rob the bees? I always use two filled deeps, plus 2 to 5 honey supers every year.

  4. Paula — My understanding about top bar hives is that, if you put the entrance at one end of the hive, the queen naturally puts the brood near the entrance, and the frames at the far end will be used for honey. Our local beekeepers have made the case that a queen excluder isn’t necessary in an ordinary hive for the same reason — the queen will stay below-stairs of her own volition.

    Jen — Busted! Writing a post was a lot more appealing than assembling frames. As for nail guns, you must have one. We have several, ranging from the small finish gun to the huge framing gun, and they make many, many jobs go quicker.

    Beth — Yes, the empty deeps are to put the frames in as you work the hive, and also to stack on the hive when the feeding pail is on it, so everything is contained. Of course, we haven’t actually DONE any of this yet, so I can’t vouch for the convenience of a spare deep, but that’s what I’ve been told.

  5. Hey Tamar,
    I’ll give you two dead rats on a string if I can practice making frames with your “hive kit”! Ours have not landed on the doorstep yet???? Still waiting……….
    What color did you paint the hives?

  6. Linda — You’re on! We’ll be painting our hives (this weekend, if all goes as planned) whatever color is in the can of leftover paint that’s sitting out on the porch). Gray, I think it is.

  7. I see… You may end up needing the twenty extra deep frames for those two supers. One word of caution: if you put an empty super on an open hive (as in the case of bottle-feeding) your bees will fill it with burr comb, which is both a huge mess and a real waste of their time. I recommend in-frame feeders.

  8. Hi Tamar! Mallory here, from bee school. You and Kevin put me to shame – I have been staring at my supplies for weeks now and I’m still in the loss of gladness, melancholic spirit phase! Thanks for the inspiration to put hammer to hive (and frame) and happy assembly to you!

  9. Beth — Thanks for the warning on the burr comb. I’ll have to talk to our local bottle-feeders about how (or whether) they prevent that.

    Mallory from Bee School — Thanks for visiting! Nice to find you here, but I’m very sorry about your loss of gladness. Take a deep breath, get out your tools, and just get started. I can tell you that audio books are a big help!

  10. I feel your pain, after researching what I wanted to do however, I decided to go with all medium 8 frame boxes to keep everything uniform for me, and so I wouldn’t be lifting around a hundred pounds when I need to move a box (the 10 frame deeps can be that heavy) But I still ended up assembling around 50 or so medium frames (without the use of a nail gun, let me tell you those small finish nails are quite “fun” to get lined up and in straight) I pick up my bees the 20th of this month.

  11. Find some local beekeepers and get involved in a club. i am setting up my 3rd hive – waiting to make a split from last year’s. one hive died over the winter. through my club, i bought all my equipment used. sure it needed work, but it sure was a lot less expensive. i just couldn’t deal with assembling the frames. i made a video the other day while cleaning up, paiting, and preparing the old hive to a new hive. i also have a number of bee movies i made last year. i’m still a major novice.

  12. Rodney — Going with the medium boxes sounds like a good idea. Since there are two of us — me and my husband — I’m hoping we’ll have the muscle power to deal with the deeps. For your next hive, though, you should borrow our nail gun — it makes assembly a LOT easier. I’ll be thinking of you on the 20th! Keep me posted.

    Maria — That’s just what we did. We live on Cape Cod, and there’s a very active local beekeeping club. They warned us that we could have problems with used equipment, given that some of the organisms that cause disease can live on in hives for a long time, so we went with new. But it’s so expensive! I hope you do well with your refurbished hive.

  13. I’m pondering investing in a compressor within in the next month. And assuming I get into this hobby like I do all my others, I’ll be building my own boxes by next year. I will for sure keep you posted, I even plan on doing some videos of my hive set up and Installs.

  14. Well done. I read all the posts and comments. I cannot tell you how familiar it was and how many great memories it brought back. I am hoping to close the season this year with about 50 hives. I use the double deep set up (Yes, they do weigh about 100 pounds, but 40 to 50 kg sounds lighter.) and use division board feeders (When I feed. No point in letting the girls get lazy! Besides, honey is made from flower nectar, not feeder syrup.), so I guess I'm cheap. One thing I would pass on to you is to be certain to leave your bees enough flower nectar honey this fall to meet their nutritional needs during winter. If you take it all and try to make it up with syrup (Sucrose in water, HFCS, whatever), you will not have bees as healthy or as strong as they could have been. I don't use HFCS at all after seeing what it did to combs and noticing bees not doing so well, but that could just be my experience. I know other apiarists who swear by it as a blessing from Providence. To each their own.

  15. Greg — Thanks for passing on the fruits of your experience. The more experienced beekeepers I hear from, the better my chances of success, I think. Not that you all agree or anything — as you point out. But at least I know what the choices are. I've been told that it's important to leave honey, but additional feeding is often required when it's cold because the bees won't break cluster to get the honey on the sides of the hive. Fondant right over the cluster can make the difference. But I'll be starting to make my own mistakes in about two weeks, when the bees arrive.

  16. I pick up my Bee Nuc's on Tuesday. I plan on getting some Video of the Install, in addition to other gardening projects this summer.

  17. Yesterday was bee pickup day. I got off work and headed home, there was an e-mail from the seller waiting for me in my inbox. Basically it said that since we were expecting rainy cold weather for the remainder of the week that they were going to allow the bees out into the field all day, and it would be better if I came in the evening to pick them up to allow for the foragers to return home before capping the Nuc hives. This was fine with me, I wanted to wait for my son to get out of school to accompany me, and I still had to finish preparing the bees home and habitat. We headed out about 4:30, the location of the farm was about an hour from my house. I was picking up 2 five frame Nuc’s. The Nuc’s were basically card board boxes that were waxed to protect from weather for the Month or so the bees inhabit it. Anyway my two nucs were capped and I was assured the boxes were well sealed. Well even waxed cardboard warps and bends a little in the elements after a month so on the hour drive home (In my Nissan Pathfinder) We had about 20 or so bees wiggle out from under the bowed weathered lids. Well this didn’t present any problems we just had a little company on the drive, most found a window and flew out to visit the countryside. Made it home and installed the frames in their new Homes. I did the first one and let my son do the second one, glad he’s interested in this hobby too. (Of course he kept muttering something about when can he bring the bread out and make himself a Honey and Peanut Butter Sandwhich) I didn’t wear a bee suit this worked out fine for me, I was good with just the Veil to begin with, but quickly decided to go with the gloves. All in all I only recieved to notable stings one on a finger and one on the wrist (all pre gloves). I’ll post some video later this week. When my finals and school is over for the summer.

  18. Rodney — Congratulations! Sounds like you took all the little hiccups in stride and had a successful installation. Our bees aren’t due until May 8, but I think I’ll have a chance to practice with other people’s bees that arrive Saturday. I hope to come through it wiser and unstung.

  19. Just wondering if you have picked up your Bees yet, or have an update for us. I’ve blogged about a few of my garden/Bee adventures so far.

  20. Rodney — Our bees arrive Saturday! I checked out your bee posts — things seem to be going well for you. I hope we’ll be able to say the same.

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