Das Bienenhaus (The Bee House) at the Swiss Historical Village– Part I

In Switzerland and other German-speaking Alpine regions, bees were traditionally kept in large, purpose-built sheds. Since the 1970s, their popularity has declined as they were overtaken by Langstroth and other cheaper beehive configurations. I’ve been interested in this type of beehive because they are aesthetically pleasing and may provide better winter survival as the colonies share warmth. Unfortunately, they are almost nonexistent in the US but have remained popular in some parts of the Alps and eastern countries (according to Wikipedia, they persisted in East Germany when the west was adopting Langstroth hives after the 1970s). I was only able to find one company that produces them in the US. And then at a meeting of the Dane County Beekeepers’ Association, someone mentioned to me that the Swiss Historical Village of New Glarus had a Bienenhaus (or “bee house”) on site, only a half hour west of the institute. I immediately contacted them and the helpful staff arranged for me to come see the structure in person. Today I’ll present pictures and a description of their Bienenhaus and tomorrow I’ll share pictures of designs and technical information about these structures from the archives of the historical village. Thank you to Ann Marie Ott and the other friendly folks at the historical village for allowing me to share this information here on the blog. If you’re in southern Wisconsin October 8th, check out their harvest festival, where they’ll have tours and people on hand recreating traditional skills.

The Exterior

Exterior of the Swiss Historical Village Bienenhaus.

This Bienenhaus was built new in 1994, when the family of Gottfried Barth donated his beekeeping equipment to the historical village. Barth was a local farmer and cheesemaker who ordered the Bienenekasten (“bee boxes”) from a Swiss beekeeping catalog and had them shipped to Monticello, Wisconsin, where he built his first bee house in 1924.

Landing boards, up and down.

The structure measures about 20 × 15 ft in size with the southern wall devoted to colorful beehive entrances. The roof has a large overhang to prevent rain from dripping down on the colonies. Each entrance has a landing board that hinges down during the flying season and then up to block the wind in the winter. The hinge design leaves a gap between the hive entrance and the flipped-up board so that bees can still take elimination flights during the winter (that’s beekeeper speak for the bees flying out to relieve themselves on warm winter days, leaving tiny yellow drops all over the snow). The entrances are painted different colors to help the bees identify their hives: imagine you’re a worker bee in one of the 36 colonies contained in this bee house, as you fly back from foraging, you have to find your entrance, navigating among thousands of other bees seeking their own homes, all using their uncanny sense of direction and landing board color to find their way.

The Interior

Detail of the stacked cabinets.
The cabinets against the front wall.

On the inside, the Bienenhaus has space for working the colonies, which are all stacked against one wall. The hives are built into cabinets, each holding four colonies. In this house, cabinets are stacked three high and three wide for a total of 36 individual hives.  The front of the cabinets are snugged up to the entrance wall. In Switzerland, these houses are often placed on stone foundations but the structure itself could be lifted moved with the cabinets removed.

Each cabinet consists of a few parts. The door is the access point for the beekeeper and sits on hinges with a little latch. The door has a screened hole to help ventilate the hive. Once the door is opened, a screen separates the bees from the door. A beekeeper can look in on the bees just by opening the door and observing the hive through the screen. Beyond the screen, the bees live on combs built on wood-rimmed frames. These particular cabinets kept the frames the “warm way” meaning parallel to the entrance (this effectively baffles incoming cold air), while many other types of bee cabinets store the frames perpendicular to the front in the “cold way” (cold air can flow from the entrance straight down the gaps between frames.

The frames have protruding lugs on their top bar, which sit on strips installed on the walls of each cabinet (as shown in the above pictures). This colony is set up with deep frames on the bottom and medium frames on top. Typically a colony keeps its brood in the lower, deep frames and honey stores in the medium, upper frames, but documents at the museum suggested that Barth extracted honey from the deep frames instead.

The historical village has a variety of beekeeping equipment, including a tangential extractor with mesh boxes to hold the frames while strong centrifugal force pulls the honey out of the comb.

If you’re in southwest Wisconsin, swing by the Swiss Historical Village and see the bee house along with many other buildings, including a printing house, forge, cabin, and museum devoted to Swiss immigration to this village. If you’re of age, you might also swing by the well-known New Glarus brewery, situated on the edge of the valley.

4 thoughts on “Das Bienenhaus (The Bee House) at the Swiss Historical Village– Part I

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