I have been part of the Solar Bee Project at Berwick since its launch back in 2019, and although one of its aims, namely to introduce a focus for biodiversity and increase public engagement with solar farms, the Thermosolar Hive and Varroa control part of the project has been a little more of a struggle.
As with any hive system, they have their methodologies and I had found it difficult to establish the processes and principles as the bee colony and the hive become one unit, and although I have a certain understanding of the former, the latter was proving a bit of an unknown quantity. The manual we have is very comprehensive, but as with many things, comprehensive instructions don’t always make for clear understanding, especially when there is the highly variable aspect of a natural organism at the centre, and I felt I needed a steer on what was essential, and what was desirable, or just preferable.
Nick, of Naturesave Insurance, kindly arranged a Zoom meeting with Jan Rája in the Czech Republic who is one of the inventors of the Thermosolar hive, and another beekeeper in the Solar Bee Project (from Plymouth here in the UK) so that we could discuss some of the mechanics of the hive and the thermotherapy treatment. Below are a few clarifications:
- I need to put spacers on the front insulating panel so that the warmth can circulate; it should not be flush against the metal plate (which is the ambient heating window)
- Thermotherapy treatment needs to occur in the mornings (ideally starting at about 8am) as the sun is rising, in order to catch the rays on both the front window and the top Thermotherapy panel so as to take the shortest possible time to reach the maximum heat for mite treatment
- Thermotherapy penetrates approximately 40cm down in to the brood nest, so the majority of the brood needs to fall within this area in order to be treated. Any bees wanting to vacate can do so – the queen and the nurse bees move towards the cooler part of the hive during the time the hive is being treated
- Frames need horizontal wiring (or, in my case, kebab sticks) to provide structural integrity while the heat treatment is occurring
- Fresh white comb is not robust enough so the colony needs to have matured, with firmer wax before treatment can be carried out
- Many beekeepers find that the Thermotherapy is not required as the ambient heating is sufficient to disrupt the reproductive functionality of the Varroa
To me, the ambient heating is really interesting. We all know that standard National hives are thin-walled and give the bees a LOT of work to do simply to maintain their core temperature, and this borderline-cool also favours the mites. Well-insulated hives cannot take advantage of solar heating as of course the sun hitting the side of a thick-walled hive will not penetrate, so the window in the front of the hive allows for the sun to warm the bees, without then losing the heat.
On to another difficulty: propolis, and the result – condensation. The roof of the Thermosolar hive has a mesh with a ventilated material in the casing which allows the moisture created by the respiring bees to be expelled. The bees, however, see this mesh as a problem and consequently coat it with propolis, their go-to solution for anything rough or out of the ordinary in their hive, thus drastically reducing the efficacy of the ventilating properties, and causing condensation. It also means it is very difficult to get the roof off as the frames are stuck to the underside of the roof.
The solution is to put a cover across the top of the frames during the spring, summer, and particularly autumn when the bees winterise their home, so that the bees don’t feel the need to propolise, and they can also ventilate their hive at the entrances using the usual method of fanning to create a current. In winter, when the bees are tucked up and not carrying out home improvements, the cover can be removed, and there is a functioning roof to wick away the inevitable moisture. The best cover is a sheet of thin, firm plastic – similar to those used on poly nucs. There is not space to put a crownboard so it needs to sit directly on top of the frames. I am hoping this will also prevent the frames coming up when I take the roof off. (Thanks to Lee Lewis for asking about the cover in the comments.)
It was brilliant to talk in real time and hear both Jan’s instructions and philosophy, and it went a long way to helping me feel more ‘bonded’ with the hives. I will see how the colonies are once the weather improves, as I am conscious that they have had to cope in a suboptimal hive arrangement: sorry bees!! Jan is posting us some spacers for the front frame so that will be a start. We will also get the new instruction manual, and hopefully access to a couple of books that are in the process of being translated from Czech to English.
Thanks again to Nick and Jan.