Disability and Beekeeping
by Sue Norris As we age, unless we are incredibly fortunate, we usually start to suffer from degenerative problems such as arthritis, general atrophy (shrinking) of muscles, balance disturbances, and other disorders of the aging process.
For some, this is when they think they will have to give up beekeeping because it has become too arduous for them, and they can no longer manage the hives.
While we may not think of beekeeping as a strenuous activity, it does require a certain degree of fitness and mobility. The amount of lifting, turning, and bending may seem small, but it can seem overwhelming if you have mobility, dexterity, or balance problems.
But do you have to give it all up? The answer for many is an emphatic NO. It may require some changes in practice and perhaps scaling back the size of your bee yard, but it is possible to continue as a “beek.”
Perhaps try a different hive model that may work better for you. Most people are familiar with the Langstroth hive, but its components can be cumbersome with specific disabilities. Other hive designs may answer some physical challenges.
The top bar hive (tbh) is one such hive and is very popular with disabled beekeepers. While you can buy kits, the hive is relatively easy to build from plans available online, and you can make yours longer or shorter depending on your needs.
The second hive is called the AZ hive or leaf hive. Initially built in Slovenia, these unique hives require no lifting out of frames but rather a sliding out of the frames from the hive. This means minimal lifting for the beekeeper and better protection for the bees. They can be situated conveniently for the beekeeper to avoid straining or walking.
See a Slovenian bee house tour in Vermont here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntsLmbLhJZk
If you are adamant that Langstroths are the hive for you, perhaps consider modifying your existing set-up. Ditch the “stacking” system and invest in long Langstroth boxes.
The beekeepers profiled below have been ingenious in using keeper-friendly hives.
Laurie Schifflett lives in Winchester, Virginia, and her challenges include epilepsy, asthma, and arthritis. Her arthritis and chipped bones cause endurance, balance, mobility, and lifting problems.
She has a nephew, Will, who lifts heavy boxes or supers, and they generally tend hives together as a safety measure. They tend 15 hives between them: a mix of top bar, long Langstroths, and regular Langstroths.
Occasionally unsteady on her feet, Laurie takes the time to ensure an obstacle-free work, level for walking, because “when the bees get feisty, you need a clear path.”
She also has a few chairs dotted around the area to sit and rest whenever needed. She says the bees are happier when you don’t rush things, and a chair encourages her to sit and take a minute or two.
Her hives are at a convenient height, and she says there is no reason why you cannot modify hive height to accommodate folks using wheelchairs. She has found that she prefers top bar hives because of their simplicity. “You have a hive, bars, and bees — good to go.”
Her goal for next year? A cathedral hive!
Richard Gustaffson lives in Sweden, about 270 miles southwest of Stockholm. He has over 35 hive bodies and 19 working hives at the moment. He currently works with the Nordic black bee and Buckfast bees.
When he was younger, he suffered a severe crush injury to his spine. Since that time, he has had numbness in certain areas, a limp, and constant pain. Because of these injuries, he has limited workability, and lifting is a problem. Walking can be difficult due to limited endurance.
He kept bees long before his accident but has slowly transitioned over from Langstroths to mostly top bar hives for their ease of care and use. He does not have to lift or stack so much weight using top bar hives, and he builds them to the height that avoids bending or stooping. He has modified his hives to make them larger and more user-friendly. Many sit upon long “tables” securely anchored to the bedrock for stability. This prevents the hives from being upended by a bear or cattle grazing nearby. He does have a few Langstroths but does not use them as a stacking system, simply long-bodied hives.
The table allows support and space to work, is the perfect working height, and makes extra space to place tools or other paraphernalia. He even made modifications to help the bees get through the winter easier.
Veterans who may have suffered traumatic brain injuries or physical and emotional injuries can turn to groups such as Hives for Heroes for guidance and help in setting up as a beekeeper. Many returning veterans have found great rewards in this program.
If you are determined to keep your bees, modifications can help you continue your passion.
Perhaps you can find a younger person to mentor and get them to help you with some of the heavier parts of the work; your local 4-H may be a great way to pass along knowledge, make new friends, and get some help.
Don’t be discouraged by infirmity. Check around, look at other hives and find one that can work for you. Becoming differently-abled does not mean you have to give up your bees.
Special thanks to Laurie and Richard for their input; this would not have been possible without them.
© Sue Norris, December 2021