Susan here! I’m so pleased to be offering this post for our readers. I love to share what other bee-tenders are doing, and welcome articles about your hives and bees. Andrew has humg his own SunHive, and will be coming out to the Northwest (from Kansas) to take my skep hive weaving class in February. I hope this post encourages you to think out of the box with your own colonies!
This spring, Matthew Burke, a sculpture professor at the University of Kansas, generously gifted me a completed Sun Hive. He and his students, over 20 of them, built the hive over several semesters as part of an eco-art studio course. Rolf and I installed it on five acres of land farmed using organic methods, just outside city limits, building a platform and rain shelter for it in the process…
The Sun Hive, or “Haengekorb” which means “hanging basket” in German, is a bee-centric hive designed by German sculptor Gunther Mancke. In this context, a bee-centric hive means a hive whose design elements are all oriented towards the health and full natural expression of the honeybee’s life cycle, with wild bees living in tree cavities, their original home, as a guide. The materials and form of this hive embody this orientation, resulting in a hive that is at once a beautiful sculptural gesture towards honeybee health and autonomy, and viable habitat. Though the Sun Hive does have curved top bars that are movable individually, similar to a top bar hive, it is intended to be less a hive for human manipulation of the comb or honey gathering, and more a hive left to the bees themselves to organize and inhabit closer to how they would in the wild.
Composed of two thickly woven grass baskets, an upper and a lower, with a wooden support board connecting them, the Sun Hive has a shape like an egg with the pointy end toward the Earth. The entrance is a circular one at the bottom, often with a woven landing pad that is also an entrance reducer. Bees build comb down from the top bars in deep catenary curves, responding to the Earth’s gravitational pull, like a hanging chain.
Because the basket’s shape directly mimics the catenary, governed by comb width and depth, the bees do not attach comb to the sides. A cloth can go over the top bars to prevent the attaching of comb to the top basket, which allows the opening of the hive from the top, as well as the bottom. The hive’s straw baskets, already more effective insulation than thin wood, are additionally covered in a layer of cow dung and earth. The Sun Hive’s volume, around 30 – 35 liters, is closer to the 25 – 45 liter nests Prof. Tom Seeley of Cornell University has shown bees choose in the wild, (one deep Langstroth box is about 40 liters, for comparison). Because this is a hive which celebrates the full life cycle of the honeybee, the yearly swarming of the colony is encouraged by the smaller size, rather than suppressed by enlarging the hive in the spring.
Woven from native Kansas grasses, our hive has a wooden stand that sets it about 4 feet off the ground. It’s possible to hang the hive even higher from the wooden connecting board, hence its name in German. The Sun Hive does need a rain shelter, so Rolf and I used reclaimed wood boards and other materials we had on hand to construct one. We dug a hole and poured a concrete footing to make it sturdy and keep the stand’s wooden legs away from the ground when it rains. Canvas around the top portion offers more protection during storms with strong wind. We chose a spot with shade from elm and mulberry trees, near the young fruit orchard, and plenty of clover. Scout bees checked out the Sun Hive in June, but the swarm chose to move into another hive we also had out, which had previously been inhabited by bees. After a few modifications, we expect more interest in the Sun Hive from swarming bees next spring, and hope to welcome another colony onto the land.
For more information on sun hives and bee-centric hives in general, one can visit the Natural Beekeeping Trust’s website www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org, as well as Michael Thiele’s videos and honeybee re-wilding work at www.apisarborea.com. Tom Seeley’s book on how swarms choose a new home, Honeybee Democracy, is a great read, and there is a copy at the Lawrence Public Library. If you are interested in building your own Sun Hive, there is a book detailing the process that can be ordered online from various sites, including Heirloomista.