Log Hive Making with Matt Somerville
A few weeks ago, I made an early start on a dry and cloudy Friday for Waltham Place near Maidenhead. I was fortunate to get a place on Matt Somerville’s one day log hive course. Matt had been unable to offer any courses for over a year due to COVID-19. Waltham Place is a biodynamic farm and education centre, providing an excellent environment for wildlife and many pollinators.
Six logs on wooden stands awaited for us when we arrived. We were warmly welcomed by Matt Somerville and Niki from Waltham Place. There was a lot to achieve in one day, so Matt wasted no time in giving the safety briefing and introducing the day's programme. He explained how to cut a square cavity into the centre of a tree log and then demonstrated how to use a chainsaw safely on my log. A series of horizontal cuts were made from each side after carefully marking out a cutting pattern on each end. Once cutting was completed, the core wood was easily removed helped along by a few knocks with a sledge hammer.
Matt marking cut lines on front with straight edge.
With front marked, same grid drawn on rear.
A selection of very sharp gouges were available, used to enlarge the cavity to a round internal shape. Matt demonstrated how to pivot one’s body back and forth to guide the tool, rather than pushing forwards only. This would conserve energy and reduce fatigue. We soon warmed up and got into a steady gouging rhythm for the next few hours.
Gouge, strapped log with half the cavity completed.
Participants hard at work.
During breaks I had the opportunity to chat to the other participants, some had brought a helper and they were soon progressing faster than the rest of us. Once a quarter of the log was gouged to the appropriate shape, the log was turned and re-strapped.
We stopped for delicious cake and refreshments and then continued until lunch. Eros and Chris had already completed their log by then, ahead of us all. Over a lunch of organic breads and soup, I got to know the group better. Most were from the local area, not all beekeepers, but all interested in pollinators and improving the environment. One log was to be a Christmas present for a family member, another to be placed in a wildflower meadow.
Log with bee colony strapped to tree.
After lunch Niki and Matt took us on a walking tour around some of the estate. Two Golden Hives made by Matt, were flying strongly. We were shown a free living colony in an ancient oak tree about 5 meters high, nesting in a hollow underneath a split in a large side branch. The colony has lived here for many years. Various log hives had been placed high in mature trees around Waltham.
Near the manor house, Matt showed us the first log hive he sited there 5 years ago. It has been continuously occupied. Whilst Matt was talking about this log, a European Hornet hovered near the lower log entrance, the bees continued flying, bringing in pollen and resources, they were unconcerned by the visitor.
Matt with his first log hive showing legs and straw hackle.
The afternoon continued with completion of the cavity, then moving on to routing out the rebate for the base board to fit snuggly. One had the option of cutting up to 3 entrances with an arbour and drill, I chose to make 2 rather than 3, as I believe fewer entrance holes better preserve the nest climate and heat. We rounded the edges of the entrance holes and Matt told us that bees do not like sharp edges. We also cut away a few cm of bark around the entrances, which would make them more recognisable to scout bees in spring looking for a new nest to swarm into. Two wooden buttons hold the base plate in place. We roughened the inside of the log cavity, which had been left fairly smooth by the gouging, with an electric grinder tool. Bees propolise open wooden fibres, thus our cavity would be promoting this natural behaviour, not seen much in conventional box hives, where the insides are very smooth. Propolis and the nest humidity keep the cavity free of bacteria and fungi, so we would be giving a swarm the best start in a species appropriate housing.
Outlining the shape of the base plate prior to routing for a snug fit.
Matt shared his knowledge on making the log more appealing to a swarm, advised us to fasten some old brood comb to the inner side of the lid with wooden pegs and to rub propolis and beeswax near the entrance holes. He explained that siting the log facing South-East is beneficial, as it would receive sunshine even in winter, warming the entrance and aiding bees to fly in colder weather. Logs can be hoisted into trees or attached to 6 foot chestnut legs. Bees prefer to be off the ground as this reduces pathogenic ground organisms in their nest. The top of the log should have a waterproof cover applied as well as further insulation. Matt makes straw hackles, which hold off the rain and provide some shade in summer.
Completed log hive ( inverted showing base with plate and wooden buttons, lid next to log )
I first met Matt 5 years ago at a Natural Beekeeping Conference at Westfield Farm near Bristol. He has evolved his log hive beekeeping since then and erected over 400 logs throughout the UK. I am inspired by him to make more logs, shall experiment with a smaller cavity than the standard 40 litres and a much thicker roof plate and floor, trying to mimic the conditions in a natural tree cavity. There the wood acts as a heat and moisture reservoir, keeping the humidity and temperature fairly constant, allowing the bees to undertake many natural behaviours, as they are not wasting energy and resources on heating, as seen in wooden box hives. I was able to purchase a gouge from Matt and listened to his advice on the aftercare. Coppiced chestnut legs shall be purchased from him in the near future and I plan to make a hackle this winter.
This was a very well thought out one-day course in an ideal setting. For anyone interested in a more apicentric bee housing, this is very close to the natural cavity in a tree. The best and most rewarding factor was taking a completed log home. I can unreservedly recommend this course to anyone wanting to make their own log hive.