Introduction: Make a Bee Vacuum That Really Sucks
When I tell people I'm working on designing a bee vacuum the response typically varies from blank stares to shock. Everyone wants to know what the heck a bee vac is, and why would I want to suck those cute fuzzy stinging beasts into a shop vac in the first place.
As a beekeeper, I am occasionally hired to extract hives from places where they aren't wanted. The goal is to get as many bees out of the walls without causing great harm to myself, passersby, or the bees so that I can then relocate the bees and their comb to a Langstroth hive box where they can be managed for better health and honey production.
This next set of Instructions will follow me as I go through the steps of designing and building a Bee Vacuum that Really Sucks (in a good way).
Step 1: The Basics of a Bee Vac
There are many different types of designs you could find if you were to conduct a websearch for bee vac. The basic components are a shop vac, hose attachment, and a place to put the bees where they cannot escape without permission. Key features are an ability to easily get the bees into a desired hive after the procedure and to ensure their health and safety while the process is underway. For this I decided to make a vacuum that uses a standard Langstroth hive super (see illustration) to be the container for the vacuum, so that the bees are sucked directly into it. This way after the procedure is finished the vac doesn't need to be opened right away, but the bees can stay there for a few days until they are no longer furious at being sucked up in a vacuum. You'll understand this better as you read the rest.
After building and testing my first bee vac, I discovered that another crucial element is the dB level on the shop vac. If the vac motor is too loud it interferes with communication to other people and doesn't allow you to hear the tone of bees buzzing, in important factor in judging how likely you are to receive severe stings through your protective gear.
My vacuum has four basic components:
Low dB shop vac, (in this case I used the Fein Turbo I shop vac without attachments)
Langstroth hive medium super with undrawn plastic foundation frames
Second Langstroth medium super without frames
Vacuum base where hose is attached
Vacuum top where motor is attached
cinch strap to hold it all together
I used the following tools and consumables to build the top and base:
1/2 inch thick plywood and 1/8 inch thick plexiglas to fit
Sawzall, Japanese dovetail hand saw
box cutter or rotary cutter, cutting mat
Table saw and Drill press
battery hand drill with drill bits and driver bits
Clamps of various sizes but limited to only 1 letter in the alphabet
Latex gloves and masking tape
Epilog laser cutter
1/2 inch screws, lots of 'em
nuts and bolts for wheels times 16 each
Step 2: Modify the Empty Langstroth Medium Super
First, use a table saw to cut your empty medium super to make the top and bottom of your bee vac. Measure the hose connector and the tallest internal part on the shop vac to determine the depths of these two pieces. Make sure to cut the super so that the joints are cleanly divided between boxes, and be careful to note where any nails or other fasteners can be found, since hitting those it bad news for you and the table saw.
Note: In the photos I have different colors for these two pieces, but that's only because I cut down two different mediums to make two complete sets of parts. I had a friend who runs a cabinet shop do this for me with all my deep supers a long time ago when I switched from deep boxes to mediums to save my back from the heavy lifting. I traded him the work for a big jar of fresh honey.
Step 3: Modify the Shop Vac
Next let's get the shop vac to sit on top of a hive with no gaps for maximum suckage.
The Fein is a beautifully engineered tool. I chose it because it has low dB level of 66. This model lacks the hepa filter, all accessories except the hose, and has a small 'bucket' where sucked up debris and solids are housed, all of which are not needed on a bee vac.
Now to modify.
I first opened the vac and discarded the 'bucket', being sure to save the attachment point where the hose clicks into the bucket. Then I removed the air filter and discarded that too. Open the motor by unscrewing all the fasteners (save for later) to disconnect the water level sensors and remove the two towers where the sensors are suspended in the bucket. Then I pulled off the buckles that clamp to top motor to the bucket. I was careful to make note of what fasteners went where and not to miss any, and this made it easy to reassemble.
Step 4: No Turning Back, Fun With the Swazall
Now for the crazy part. You're going to cut off all the support material on the underside of the vac so you can get enough flat surface to make a good connection with your wooden vacuum top.
This beautiful shop vac has many support ribs that we don't need, and they will keep the 'vacuum' from happening if there are any air gaps between them and the rest of your assembly.
I measured an inch in from the edges of the vac, paying close attention to the black gasket that runs along the edge and using that as a basic guide, since this is where the seal will be made. I marked all the supports that were within that 1 inch margin from the edge.
I taped the intake for the motor to keep out any chips. Then I clamped the motor securely to my work bench using the help of my hive section and took a sawzall to it. What crazy fun that was! I'd had an illusion up to this point that I'd someday use this $300+ vac for its intended purpose, but this quashed all that for me. A swazall is a seriously destructive tool, so make sure you before you turn that thing on to use the proper safety goggles and safe workshop practices here. I made the rough cuts with the sawzall and then followed up with finer close cuts with a japanese hand saw.
Step 5: Cheap Fun With Expensive Technology
I'm about to reveal the truth about my access to a workshop and cool tools and generous budget. I have a residency at Autodesk. It was simple to apply, and all I had to do in the interview was to prove to Vanessa and Noah that I'm good at making things, show a portfolio to back it up, and exhibit minimal social skills buffeted by extra enthusiasm. Oops, did I say that out loud? There I go again.
For this next step I used the super-cool, better-grab-an-ebook-on -my-iPad, boredom-inducing, stand-over-watching tool, the Epilog laser cutter.
I practiced many times on the laser cutter before I was able to create a file for the top of the vac, and I recommend you do the same. Cutting paper is quicker and wastes less, and running the programs with the laser off will show you how long it takes and where the paths run before you commit to ruining your plywood.
What I cut was a 1/2" plywood plate where the vac sits on top. I measured in from the edge of the vac to make an opening in the top where the vac sits. I added cool features to the plate such as a Plexiglas window so I could see into the vac. It needs a baffle to adjust the suck power so it grabs the bees without pulverizing them. I used Illustrator to make the files, and they act kinda like print files. If you're using a fein vac then you can just use my PDF files I've linked on this page.
Note: If you use my files then be sure to repeat the raster etch on the plywood several times to make your grooves deep enough to make the baffle slider work. The files are near perfect in execution, but run a sample with paper first just be sure of your machine's settings.
Running the epilog is worse than watching paint dry because its noisy. You must stay witin a foot of the machine to make sure there are no fires. I highly recommend listing to the audiobook I did, China Mielville's The City & the City
or reading the ebook by David Gissen called Subnature: Architecture's Other Environments.
Step 6: Plate Assembly With Baffle
Once my plate was cut and ready to go, I returned to the workshop to glue, assemble and seal my top plate.
First step is to put a little handle on the baffle slider so it's ready to be placed in the slider and window assembly while you're gluing it all together. If you forget to put the baffle in when you glue it all together, you'll have to repeat step 5, no fun!
Then its time to glue the Plexiglas window into the top plate. I used blue masking tape to shield the Plexigas to keep the glue off my window. To glue in the window I used an epoxy glue of which I did not record in my notebook. But when I googled it I learned that I should have given the Plexiglas a little tooth by rouging it up with sandpaper. Next time!
The important part here is to make sure your Plexiglas fits so that you can mount this entire plate onto your box later, so make sure its oriented so that it matches the jpg diagram I've created. Be sure not to get glue anywhere near your slider track and baffle.
Let this sit until the epoxy has set.
Step 7: Design and Cut the Screen Plate for the Top
You'll need a screen between your vacuum and the hive box so you don't suck the bees up inside the motor. While your epoxy is setting on the window you can concentrate on designing and cutting the next plate for this assembly.
I've included the PDF file here for a cheat, and since this plate will fit all 10 frame Langstroth hives, it will be useful no matter which shop vacuum you decide to use.
Of note is that if this file is cut and etched all as one, it will take FOREVER! To get around this, I recommend that when sending this file to the Epilog you first hide the raster files that are on the vertical plane opposite one another. In my file I've named these V right and V left, and you'll find them in the Raster layer of the file. Otherwise the Epilog will send the laser head so that it goes, "Zip, t r a v e l, zip, t r a v e l, zip, t r a v e l, zip. Etching one vertical section at a time will reduce the amount of travel for the laser head and thus reduce the time spent standing next to the machine by 75%.
Step 8: Assemble Your Screen in the Top
Next step is to assemble the screen plate and attach it to the box section you cut in step 2 . Once again, this is to put a screen between the bees and the vacuum motor. It's important to get a good seal between the screen plate and the screen and the box you attach them to, so I use first tacky glue then once set I go in with expanding Gorilla glue.
First use your screen plate to pilot the holes you drill in the box. Later you will use those holes to screw the assembled screen plate and screen to your box. You should be wearing your safety glasses for this.
Next, cut your screen to fit the etched section on the screen plate. I did this using a cutting mat and a roller cutter, but you can use cardboard and a box cutter for this step. I've given you lots of wiggle room to glue the screen to the plate, so it should be close but don't spend too much time on this step. The expanding gorilla glue will solve all sloppiness with a thick layer of its own goo to make a good seal.
Next you will get the screen to stay in place on the screen plate with tacky glue. Its a good idea to use latex gloves for this step, and have a box of them handy so you can peel off any that have glue on them and pop on a new set.
I dab a few drops of tacky here and there and hold the screen in place with clamps until the glue is set.
Once the tacky glue holds fast you will glue the screen and plate to the box section cut in step 2 with your expanding Gorilla glue. I did this section by section, and you want to take your time with this part. The better the gluing the more airtight the seal will be between the plates, so make sure to get an even coat of gorilla glue, adding clamps to hold the screen plate to the box section as you work your way around the plate.
While still clamped, I used screws to fasten the plate to the box using the pilot holes cut by the laser cutter and the pilot holes I drilled earlier.
Now put this all aside and take a break. Overnight is best if you have the patience.
Step 9: Final Assemble and Seal on Your Vacuum Top
You've let the glue dry overnight. Now its time to put all these parts together.
Its easiest to tape the screen side with foam first. For this I used 3/4 inch wide door foam with an adhesive backing. This creates a seal that will keep a vacuum when you set this top on the medium super you'll use for the vacuum 'bucket'.
Your screen plate is glued to the bottom on the vacuum top, if that makes sense. On the other side you will attach your vacuum plate, which is the top of the vacuum top. This part is easy- just make sure to drill those pilot holes in the box, gorilla glue and clamp, and set aside until its dry
Once set, its time to make a seal between the vacuum motor and that vacuum plate. I did this by setting the vac on the plate and tracing the edges. Then I simply filled the edges with the foam tape. There is no need to permanently attach the vacuum motor, since the vacuum will stick it all together, and there is definitely a reason not to glue it on, and I'll explain that later.
Step 10: Now for the Base of the Hive Vacuum, Starting With the Hose Port
In this step you'll make another modification to the Fein vac, this time cutting the hose port where the hose clicks into the vacuum assembly. Cut away the scoop, and remove all tabs so it can slide easily into a round hole you cut in your box section from step 2. You want to make this port as low in profile as you can without destroying it, so use the Japanese hand saw and clamp that in place tight so it doesn't slip.
Then you'll make a round hole in your box section that fits this port. I used the drill press and a forstner bit that fit the port closely but not too tight that it doesn't fit the hole. My box section had a handle cutout, therefore I didn't center the hole, but this does not effect the vacuum at all whether the hose is in the center or not.
Then push the hose port into the box section and see how snuggly it fits. You want this seal to be airtight, so use the expanding gorilla glue to glue it in. For this project I did not use gorilla glue, since I want to make several vacuum assemblies. I built two at a time with the idea that I can switch out and do more than one hive in a day or back to back. You simply pull the hose and vacuum motor off the first vacuum assembly and put them on the next. I used a putty to make a seal until I can 3D cad a new hose port and print it on a 3D printer. More to come!
Step 11: Cut and Attach the Bottom Panel
As with the top of the vac, you'll want to laser cut the bottom plate for the vacuum. This is quick and easy, and you can even copy this file onto another and have the laser cutter do more than one plate together. If you'd prefer, you can always cut this section with a table saw, but I wanted to also cut pilot holes for the screws so did it with the laser cutter.
I've attached the PDF cutting file for you to use, and it will work regardless of whether you used a Fein shop vac or some other model.
Use this base plate to pilot the holes in your box section.
Next I put wheels on the base. You can do this either before or after the bottom plate had been attached to the bottom box section. For this I purchased two locking wheels and two without locks. This is an optional step that is more for laughs than it is necessary. Later when you put the assembly in the field to relocate the bees, you may wish you hadn't put wheels on it, since they will want to roll away.
Lastly, you want to glue again with gorilla glue and use screws to hold everything in place. Flip the box over and put a laer of foam in the edge of the box so there is an airtight seal between the base and the medium super.
Step 12: And Now for the Final Assembly...
Once you've glued screens and plates, attached plates and rolled out seams, its time to assemble the hole thing and see what it all looks like!
In this image I'm field testing the beast, so I have not painted it. Instead, I sealed the edges with a 10mil plastic tape. But you'll want to give everything a good coat of paint on the face and especially at the edges, since that will help seal the whole thing and make it super airtight. Maybe even do it before you put the foam seals on.
Plug in the hose, put the vac on top, and strap the whole thing down with a cinch strap. I found that while you may have the urge to loop the cinch strap through the vacuum motor, it isn't necessary, since the vacuum suction will hold that in place. An interesting feature to the Fein is that it has a flat top. I found I was using the flat Fein as a platform, like a pedestal for a table.
Step 13: Bees Are Cute, Fuzzy, Stinging Insects (the Disclaimer)
As should be obvious, sucking 20,000 to 50,000 bees in a vacuum is not a smart or safe thing to do, even with a bomber bee vac like the one I've designed here. You will get stung, and anyone in the area for the next couple of days has a risk of being stung. I have a rule of no more than 20 stings per day, and I try and stick with it. Know your limits, and always carry an Epinephren pen for every person in your team. Take precautions, wear a full suit and gloves to prevent as many stings as you can.
That being said, this bee vac has a few features I want to design into it that will minimize the sting factor.
The first one is that the bees are no longer sealed in once the hose has been pulled out. This makes it impossible to smoothly transition from one bee vac to another. The instant you pop that hose out, thousands of angry bees are at you trying to sting you to death, which is lots of no fun. My goal is to design a stopper, valve, gate, or whatever to close the minute the suction stops. That way bees can't get out and I can unplug my hose at will.
The whole idea behind a bee vac like this is that you can pull the vacuum motor off and set the entire assembly in the field and walk away without disturbing the bees any further. This being said, once you've sucked up all the bees, you're only halfway through the job. The next step is to cut the comb gently, piece by piece, from the walls and place that comb into frames in another Langtroth hive. This is crucial to the survival of the hive, since the bees need to be reunited with their larvae, eggs, pollen and honey stores. It's easy to get the comb in place in a new hive box, but then you must immediately reunite the bees. How to do it without opening the box?
I've determined the best way to do this is to make a screen that I can slide out from between the vac motor and the Langstroth hive box that is the vac bucket. Then the bees can move up from their empty comb to their own comb, where they can begin to clean house and get things all back together again.
So stay tuned as I document the 3D cad modelling of the hose port with flapper and the screen. Suggestions are welcome!
Step 14: Thanks and for More Information
Thank you for sticking through this long, tedious and boring set of Instructions!
Thanks to GIllian Bostock for taking three stings to produce lovely photos of the extraction procedure as I field tested my bee vac. Gillian is quite talented, and has also produced beautiful photgrams of wild comb from my previous extractions, so check out her website for more.
The hive extraction took place over two days, two hives, and many stings in a beautiful barn on Bloomfield Farms in Petaluma, CA. Thank you to Caley Morrison for his patience and trust through this process.
Thanks to Autodesk for my artist Residency. Stay tuned for more projects!
For the parts and pieces I used to assemble my Bee Vac (see links in text)
McMaster Carr (I won't tell you what we at Autodesk call it, not PG-rated. McMaster Carr to get lucky.)
Mann Lake : Free shipping Nation-wide on all orders over $100, full selection
Dadant: If they offered free shipping they'd be as good as Mann Lake, Nation-wide
Kelley Bees: fellow beekeeper Robert MacKimmie recommended them and their catalogue is enticing
Country Rubes: for hive beetle bottom board solutions and robbing screens
Beekind in Northern California: Expensive for most supplies, but they sell follower boards and robbing screens
Beekeepers who know more than me:
Oliver has published extensively on the hows and whys of beekeeping.
Beesource has excellent PDF's on how to build your own, a forum, and latest news.
My websites: www.jennifer-berrybees.com