Back Care & Bee Boxes

August 2010 is the 6th anniversary of an operation on my back.  At times I still have to tolerate a degree of pain and discomfort and that’s just from sitting in a car or at my desk. Working and handling bee boxes can be an occupational hazard.  Most beekeepers, when asked will admit to having a sore back at some stage of their time in keeping bees.  Some beekeepers like me continue to have persistent pain associated with their backs and resort to taking anti-inflammatory medication.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a half-day manual handling and back care training session.  It was very useful in re-touching on the basics.

Some statistics:

  • Back injuries are 28% of all work place injuries
  • One in three work place injuries are caused by manual handling
  • Recovery time (Work Cover NSW Statistical Bulletin)
  • - A few weeks (most people), probably muscular
  • - More than one month (one in three people)
  • - Permanent disability 10%

Your back is made up of 24 bones divided into the following groups: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and coccygeal. Other points of the basic anatomy of your back include: joints, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, inner vertebral discs and muscles.

Did you know that your lower spine carries 50% of your body weight?  Onset of back pain can be sudden, 44%, or slow, 56%.  Cumulative effects of bending, twisting and/ or excessive sitting will all contribute to cases of back pain.

So what basic things can you do to prevent back injury?

  1. It would appear that stretching is a universal method of preventing the accumulative effect of repetitious movement or holding one position for a length of time.  Most people at one time or another have gotten out of their car/truck after a lengthy journey and had a ‘big stretch’.  This should be standard practice for any repetitious activity, whether it is sitting in the shed wiring frames, sitting in the truck or in your office.  A stretch should be held for 15 seconds.
  2. If an object is heavy, large or an awkward shape, use a trolley to move it.  If this is not possible, then two people should be lifting the object, not one.  Unfortunately, we are nearly always in a hurry, and this is considered a waste of time by some, until an injury occurs.  It’s all very well to be wiser after the event.  Personally, I have a fold-up trolley in the office and a trolley at home.  Now if I can move the object by trolley, I will (this is called being wiser after the event).
  3. Pay particular attention to your posture when lifting.  There are plenty of brochures around with advice on how to lift.  Bend your knees, lift with your legs.  Rock object sideways as you lift.  Move in as close to the object to be lifted as possible.  Stand with your feet apart, and take a firm grip.
  4. One aspect of back care I have neglected and didn’t realise how important it was, is the need to stay hydrated.  Disc bulges are extremely common.  When these discs connect with nerves, this is when acute pain is experienced.  A disc is made up of 80% water.  If you don’t drink two litres of water per day, then your discs will not be in the best operational condition.  It’s relatively easy to think about a drink of water during hot weather but the rest of the time it takes some discipline.  Tea and coffee, I’m told, are NOT a substitute.
If you don’t drink two litres of water per day, then your discs will not be in the best operational condition. Tea and coffee, I’m told, are NOT a substitute.

Given the physical nature of beekeeping and the weight of a box of honey I was curious to ask the question. What is the maximum weight someone should lift?  

Of course this depends on a range of factors including how fit you are, if you have any heart problems, how big a person are you, etc. I’m told most people should be able to lift 20 kilograms. Perhaps this is why bags of cement at the local hardware store are 20 kilograms.  Possibly the building trade has considered back injury and weight as a major issue.

Standard bee-box design, with handhold. The handhold can cause problems with Carpel Tunnel Syndrome developing, and also can make lifting difficult, imposing strain on your back.

Standard bee-box design, with handhold. The handhold can cause problems with Carpel Tunnel Syndrome developing, and also can make lifting difficult, imposing strain on your back.

Let’s consider our beekeeping activities.  In Australia we have two hive sizes (width boxes) in general use.  They are 8 frame and 10 frame boxes.  Coupled with this we have a choice of box depths including full depth, WSP, ideal and half depth.  Elsewhere in the world the variation in hive design, i.e. box sizes and shapes, is even more extensive than this.  Occasionally I have had discussions with individual beekeepers on the reasons why they chose a particular-sized hive. This can become a bit of a debate in a group situation as to why 8 frame or 10 frame hives are superior. Even the discussion of whether plastic is better than wooden bee boxes can cause quite a deal of discussion.  I remind people who are just embarking on the hobby of beekeeping that honey bees will survive and do quite well in the neighbour’s chimney or in a hollow tree. 

The primary function of a bee box is to house the colony of bees.  Given the range of success stories with managing bees in various sized hives, one can only surmise that the choice of what sized hive to keep is more about beekeeper preference. Factors such as nutrition, age and genetics of the queen, and disease management are the overriding issues which determine the productivity of the colony, not the shape, size, material or colour of the box.

Mechanisation has become increasingly common in the Australian beekeeping industry.  The loading and unloading of bee hives is completed with bob cats or some other similar machine with 2, 4 or 6 hives placed on a pallet.  The supers of honey are removed from a hive and placed on a nearby pallet.  This pallet is then handled mechanically right up to the extracting process. 

There are still points in the process that require manual handling. Removing the honey box from the hive, perhaps twice, or even three times, once to under-super, then to place an escape board under the full box of honey, and finally to remove the box of honey.  During the extraction process the individual frames have to be manually loaded into the uncapper.

A beekeeper should be constantly thinking about their options in relation to mechanising any manual processes.  So, what if I don’t have the size of beekeeping operation that warrants any significant expenditure to achieve this outcome?  You still have a choice of what size bee hive to keep.  Eight-framed hives are slightly lighter than ten frame hives.  Shallow boxes (supers) will be lighter than a full-depth box.  There is a time and cost penalty in using smaller units.  On the other hand, when your bees are experiencing a very light nectar flow, one shallow super may be adequate and possibly even desirable to allow the bees to keep pests such as small hive beetles and wax moth in check.

Even simple adaptations such as hand cleats on the side of boxes could help prevent injury.

Even simple adaptations such as hand cleats on the side of boxes could help prevent injury.

You could debate one way or the other in relation to the size of boxes to keep your bees.  Your back should be a major consideration in the decision to keep one sized box over another.  An 8-frame full-depth super with empty combs on average weighs 10 kg, an 8 frame WSP super with combs weighs 8kg.  When full of honey the full depth super will weigh in excess of 30 kg.  I don’t have a table giving a comparative analysis of all the different sizes on the market and the weight when full of honey.  This is a project that should be considered as a high priority to provide future and even current beekeepers the information to consider the consequences of using one sized box compared to another.

It would appear that the industry has paid extremely little attention to manual handling issues on a formal basis.  This has been left up to individuals to develop mechanical devices to reduce manual handling.  It’s probably time we saw a detailed study on the injuries that beekeepers are suffering, the seriousness and frequency of these injuries.  An assessment of hive design could also be included.  Maybe even simple adaptations such as hand cleats on the side of boxes could help prevent injury. 

Remember, any fool can be wise in hindsight!!!

Author: Doug Somerville