Log Hives with Matt Somerville

I’ve always loved log hives, loved the notion of them, the look of them, the creation of them. But it was into the second day of our log hive workshop with Matt Somerville that I really “got it.”

Class participant Jenne Johnson said to Matt, “So, if I have, say, ten acres of land, how many of these hives would I need to properly pollinate it?”

Matt replied, “Put up as many as you like and let the bees decide.”

“Let the bees decide…”

Once upon a time, in the pastures of Battle Ground, Washington, there gathered a group of bee friends to make a wondrous palace for bees…

I smacked both hands to my head to keep my brains from flying out all over the place. Had those four words ever before been uttered on the North American continent? Not often, I thought…

“Let the bees decide…” Here in the States, we’ve never let the bees decide. Anything. Honeybees came here in boxes since the 16th Century, and have been kept in boxes ever since, except for those lucky enough to swarm off to the freedom of forest and hollow.

Like ivy and sparrows and cattle and comfrey—and we humans from far shores, too—bees naturalized into the welcoming arms of the American Frontier, a place big enough for everyone. Until lately. Especially for our bugs and birds, civilization building in the Americas has not been kind. All of our avian and insect friends find fewer and fewer nesting sites available. And food sources are becoming scarce and less nutritious.

 

So the bee friends sent forth to England to request the help of Matt, the Log Whisperer…

Hobby beekeepers are told to make sure their bees don’t swarm and bother neighbors by setting up colonies in eves and siding—because where else can bees go these days?

Amidst all these challenges, however, we have been hearing a whisper from all over the bee world, a small but insistent voice that speaks to many of us saying, “Why not offer homes for wild bees? Not to capture them, but to restore them safely to nature?”

Our bee charity, Preservation Beekeeping Council (PBC), noticed the rekindling of the ancient Zeidler movement—tree beekeeping—in Europe, and our club member Barry Malmanger designed a let-alone hive we could hang in trees that would mimic the size and insulation of a log hive. Such a box is not so much a hive, as unmanaged safe habitat for bees, something much needed by bees these days. We’ve been hanging them on private and public lands, and have nearly a dozen of them up now.

Lo, Matt heard our plea and came to town on the back of the Great Bird across the oceans. “I must have tea at three,” he informed us. “We will make it so!” we shouted!

We call this our Beehaven Box, but we still wanted to learn log hive making from the experts, so we contacted Matt Somerville, famed log hive crafter from Devon.

Since the Learning From the Bees conference that we attended in Holland last year, reaching out across the big pond doesn’t seem as intimidating. Matt had the time, we had the desire, and suddenly, our man from Devon was here with us in Washington State, USA, working with Joseph Freeman and Barry to put together the parts and processes required to safely hollow out a 30-inch long log section for bees.

In preparation for Matt’s arrival, Joseph and Barry began making sturdy “trestles” to hold the logs near hip-height for working them. We purchased heavy ratchet straps to hold the logs in place. Club Member Angel Hayes, a metal worker, created several long-handled gouges to peel off the interior of the log after the initial cuts have been made with a long-bladed chain saw.

Long before we students even showed up, Matt, Joseph, and Barry had been assembling tools, the trestles, and a small stack of appropriate logs. Two full day’s work were required to get the workshop all set up to go. Quickly, we all realized we’d have been utterly lost in the process without Matt’s guidance and instructions.

It is a joy to see an artist deep in the midst of his/her medium, and Matt astonished us with his easy command of the tools, and the logs. He told us casually that he could “knock out about three log hives in a day,” and our jaws collectively dropped.

 

 

The Master at his medium. “Hold the tool steady. It likes to jump around.”

January in the Pacific Northwest is not a kind time of year, and the weekend we gathered to make the hives was cold, foggy, and typical. We all wore many layers, most of which we removed as the work got going. Matt and Joseph demonstrated the initial chain-saw work to take out the centers of the logs.

If you have never worked a chain-saw in your life, do not attempt this potential deadly aspect of making the hive by yourself. Find someone who knows their way around one of these machines, and pay them if you need to. You can’t seriously hurt yourself with the rest of the processes of Log-Hive-Construction-ala Matt, but the chain saw aspect is not to be undertaken lightly.

When the initial interior of the logs had been knocked out with a mallet, we lined up in teams of two or three to begin working with the long-handled gauges to sheer off long strips of wood and increase the inner dimension of the log. Matt demonstrated peeling long, thin strips of the wood away with grace. We worked hard to become familiar with a very unfamiliar tool.

In minutes, all of us were pulling off layers of clothing despite the cold morning. Wrestling with the gauges warmed us all up fast! All of us struggled to find ways to hold the gauge and shoulder into it to strip the wood away. While Matt can move through this part of the process quickly—at least a whole lot more quickly than any of us—for most folks, this would not be a one-day process.

Making the round plug for the top and bottom, the Log Whisperer moves confidently…

We purchased a gauge and a trestle stand for our bee club, so that anyone who would like to make a log hive can borrow them. Hollowing a log over a period of days (or weeks), the task becomes less of a marathon, and the exercise will give you rock-hard arms and abs with repeated “reps” of the gauge on the wood. We imagine that a small group might work together to create one, and get it done with the benefit and joy of teamwork.

After many hours of work, we had a few of the logs hollowed to our liking. Matt showed us how to affix the long, thick limbs that would serve for the legs of the hive. While Matt was eager to teach us the process of raising the log hives into trees with climbing gear and ropes, we realized that none of us attending the workshop would ever be doing this: the hives would need to be on long legs.

“How do you make your hands work so skillfully,” Susan asks…

Each log is closed at each end with a ‘plate’ of wood secured with wooden latches so that the hive can be opened and cleaned when needed. And to be sure that no condensation would ever be falling on the bees in these hives, Matt showed us how to staple a tarp around the top of the hive, stuff the round tarp-tube with a thick bed of shavings, and secure the ends shut. Then, a bucket, a small trough, a straw hackle, or any other topping you could imagine and construct is set on top for a final bit of weatherproofing.

The team of us worked steadily for two full days and all of us were sore and creaking (except Matt) by the close of the second day. That was when we actually got to see the completion of all our hard work as Matt raised the first log up on its legs.

Making beauty for the bees.

Seeing one of these hives go up in front of your eyes is nothing like seeing photos of them. The hive is angled up to its standing posture, with all hands on deck to support the rising.

Then, suddenly, there it stands: solid, large, and almost imposing in its stature. Like a Sun Hive, the sheer artistry of the standing log makes a powerful statement all on its own. Crouching beneath the hive, my hands running along the smooth, peeled limbs of the legs, I felt humbled. All the hours, sweat, and blisters we had put into the creation of these beautiful bee homes were so very worth it.

A Bee-ing of Glory and Wonder!

I believe that alternative hives like Matt’s log hive, and also Sun Hives, are more than bee homes. They are truly large works of love, fusing bees with the profound healing power of art. In their form, size, and breathless beauty, such hives invite us to “see” bees in a way that is far removed from the white box sitting in the middle of a field.

The bees in the white box have been treated as slave laborers for too long. Bees who come to occupy these log hives will be living in a way that honors their being and their vast worth to the planet. “See them?” we say with these hives of log and straw. “See how wondrous the bees are in their complex lives and their unending generosity. Surely, they deserve a palace instead of a hovel.”

Things of great worth are traditionally treated with great care and lavish attention, from the smartly polished Rolls Royce parked in the heated garage, to the prize artworks hanging in museums, to the ceramic vase from our great-great-great grandmother. We honor things of worth by our treatment of them.

These hives of log and straw—especially when placed in public areas such as parks or forests—offer us yet another way to influence the way people see bees, and imagine them. Seeing bees fully encased in the love, art, and beauty of these hives invites the imagination to come out and play: who abides in such a fantastical, whimsical dwelling? Who are these bees, really?

Imagination. Beauty. Love. These are the virtues that can heal the planet. Our log hive adventure was saturated in these qualities, from the first buzz of the chain saw to the scent of fresh wood, to the sight of the completed, utterly awesome hive towering over us. What could be better for bees, or their tenders?

—Bee well, Susan Knilans

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