Gum Hives

Apr 20, 2019

The so called ‘gums’ have been used until the 50’s in the South of the USA.

John brought two logs of Sweetgum (Liquidanbar styuraciflua) in June 2017. Sweet gums are common in regrowth areas and unmanaged prairies. As they age they turn hollow. These two logs were over 6 feet long with a 2 feet diameter, way over the size I carve log hives in and way too bulky in any case to be moved up in a tree. As I did not know what to do with them, they remained on the side of the barn, enduring the elements.

1- Jenny fits well in the logs.

2- The logs languish along the barn.

The World History of beekeeping and honey hunting by Eva Crane  reports on pages 305 to 307 the early records of traditional beekeeping in the USA and in Canada and refers to ‘Gum’ hives as traditional hives. In particular  a picture showing upright log hives of black gums (Nyssa sylvatica) in North-Carolina in 1958 pointed at a potential solution for these two logs. Photo by W.A. Stephen.

A picture by W.W Turnbull shows Joe Murray, pioneer trapper and fur farmer with one of his ‘Gums’ of cottonwood (Populus) north Central BC, Canada. The idea came that I could limit the volume of the chamber by fitting a ceiling and a floor and fill the rest with some insulation. The overall structure would weigh a lot (it turned out to be about 500 pounds) but I would be able to set it up at the top of the hill with the tractor.

Finally, an article on Tree Beekeeping by Jonathan Powell further convinced me that setting hives in structures as big as a living tree was possible. It actually had been done for a thousand years so I was not exactly breaking through. The beekeeper was accessing the combs by a door cut on the side of the tree while the bees had one or two entrances on the east-south/east. This door was hidden by a a bunch of twigs and foliage held together by a rope running around pegs set all along. I went on to combine the old vertical gums with the concept of the tree hive.

1- The first idea of the gum hive in my note book. The volume of the chamber is about 100 liters.

2- The first step was to create the door so I can set ceiling and floor.

3- Fitting the door, it is cut in two pieces at 1/3 from the bottom to make it easier to open with a small axe. The pegs are visible, the cut of the door in two pieces is also visible.

The build ended up to be fairly simple. The most delicate part was to cut the ceiling to fit closely to the inner shape of the logs. I finally ended up building it like a wooden floor with planks of rough cedar adjusted by trial and error and set onto internal beams with wooden pegs. The insulation in contact with the ceiling and the roof  is made of red cedar shaving 15 inches thick and topped with house insulation to save a bit on the weight. The insulation is held together by a mesh at the bottom and the hive is set on bricks so air can circulate underneath- so no moisture accumulates. The top insulation is contained by an inner roof topped with a weather proof telescopic roof. The walls of the log are more or less  7 inches thick and the top and bottom insulation are about 22 inches deep. Two 1 inch holes at 1/3 of the top and 1/3 to the bottom of the chamber were drilled. In retrospect, I find it more efficient to drill the bottom hole closer to the floor so that the bees can drag debris and other foreign material easily out, they prefer to use the top hole when foraging. I keep both holes open in winter and the bees do not propolize them- even partially. I read that two holes allow an optimal air flow in winter, but I never have corroborated it.


1- The hives are finished and moved out the workshop

2- The hives are set in place. The access door of the nearby Gum is hidden with a bunch of branches.

I captured two swarms early May 2018, one of them I followed in an epic chase with the car till it landed across the pond. I did not want to take the chance of having swarms move spontaneously. After all the holes were only 35 and 42 inches above ground and I was concerned the scouts would not find them. This was a bit irrational, scouts have found once a tiny crack close to the ground in an old hive I had in the barn, doors closed…. I think I just wanted the hives to be inhabited the first season as I was very curious to see how the bees would fare in such structures. They moved in on the white sheet.

1 to 4 – The bees are moving in.


The hives are now a reference point for the animals wandering in the vicinity.

I opened the hives in September 2018 by curiosity, again.  Both were pretty much built in already, the walls were evenly propolized. I took a clip in each of the hives. It is important to note that the first hive swarmed end of July or beginning or August. The swarm was small and the remaining colony kept on functioning and is very strong this year. However in September 2018, it was rather small. The swarm did not make it even though I hived it right away in a Warre hive and fed it with honey comb. This was the first time I encountered such a phenomenon. It is however described in ‘The biology of the bees’ by Mark L. Winston on page 182: “Up to 40 % of the swarms which successfully establish new nests will swarm again, causing the secondary peak in swarming at the end of the summer.  This is a curious behavior, since it is highly unlikely that such swarms and the new colonies they issue from will survive the winter.” well, this particular one survived the winter and thrives this year.

How the bees behave in one of the gum hives end of March 2019.