Building a better beehive: Manzer brothers consider Digby factory and 50 jobs

Jonathan Riley, Digby Courier
Published on January 27, 2016

DIGBY – Owen and Brian Manzer figure they have built a better beehive.

And if everything goes as planned, the brothers are thinking about building a better beehive factory in the Digby industrial park and employing 50 people.

“We’re hoping to sell 100 this year and 2,500 next year,” said Brian. “After that, look out – this could be the next big thing for Digby.”

This all started years ago when Owen, a school janitor in Weymouth, wanted to enjoy a few fresh plums. He planted a small orchard in his yard in Ashmore and the trees grew well.

But no fruit.

So he built some beehives, but not the conventional box-shaped hives known as Langstroths. Owen built a longer horizontal hive known as a top-bar hive.

It has an insulated removable cover and slanting sidewalls, one of which holds a glass window for seeing what the bees are up to.

It also has a wooden floor that slides out to allow dirt and waste and pests to fall out through a screen.

Owen’s first bees worked hard all summer but then died over the winter.

During the winter bees eat honey stored up from the summer. When it’s cold they flex their wing muscles to produce heat and gather in a cluster inside the hive.

Owen tried again and again but every winter the bees died.

“Eight years I’ve been messing with this,” he said. “I lost some hives. I was ready to light the whole thing afire and get rid of it.”

He was seeing condensation on the glass window and figured the damp air was getting the bees wet and cold, and so he went to work figuring out how to add ventilation.

It turns out, if you set the bees up for success, they can run the ventilation system themselves.

“The bees control the whole thing,” says Brian. “Our hive isn’t about maximizing honey production, it’s about a sustainable healthy home for the bee to live in.”

Owen added holes near the top of the hive to allow air in.

But Owen also added sliding screen covers for both the top holes and entrance holes at the bottom of the hive.

If the bees are getting cold, they cover the screen with propolis or wax and when they want more air, they remove the wax.

The bees will also line up at the lower entrance and fan in more air with their wings.

Owen has 14 hives, last year he had nine and he hasn’t lost a hive over winter since he added the ventilation four years ago.

His brother-in-law Charles Andrews has another four hives in Port Maitland and reports the same success the last two years.

“Most beekeepers expect to lose 20 to 35 per cent of their hives over winter,” says Brian. “You’d think we’d have lost one hive. And, Owen doesn’t like me saying this, cause we don’t know why, but we don’t have any mites.”

Varroa mites are a pest that can weaken and kill honeybees – most beekeepers have to use a pesticide, often on strips inserted into the hive, to control the pest.

Owen hasn’t had to use any pesticides.

Owen got Brian involved for his carpentry skills, so he could make the design easier to mass produce.

And the brothers started working with Dan Harvey, business development consultant with the Municipality of the District of Digby, for advice on developing the business.

Their brother-in-law Andrews, a school teacher, has created a manual for raising bees in the new-fangled hive.

The Manzers have a provisional patent pending in Canada and the U.S. and while that was in the works, they were keeping things pretty quiet.

They did enter a provincial technology start up competition and won a second-place prize of $25,000 at the zone level on Jan. 21.

The Manzers are also eligible for $15,000 worth of in-kind support.

Brian says the brothers know their hive works – and they plan to start selling locally this year, mostly to the backyard gardener for about $650.

He placed his first hives for sale in a Yarmouth pet supply store this week.

“If we can sell 100 next year, that will put $60,000 in our bank account to make more the next year,” said Brian. “When we get a few out there, then we’ll see what happens.”

To get into the agricultural market, the Manzers need proof their hive works.

Dave Shutler, a biology professor at Acadia, is organizing field trails to compare the Manzer beehive to the conventional Langstroth hive and see if there is a measureable difference in winter survival. Those field trials will take place in the Annapolis Valley where mites and other pests and diseases are considered to be more prevalent. 

And remember this all started with Owen’s fruit trees? Well, he says his plum trees were so laden with fruit last year, he had to build supports to keep the branches from breaking.