Even if you’re a complete newbie to beekeeping, it’s probably safe to say you know what a beehive is – at least in a general sense. What you might not realize, however, is that the term “beehive” only refers to man-made structures designed to house bees. The familiar oval-shaped “hive” you might be picturing is actually just called a nest.
So, given that we’re discussing the concepts and practices of beekeeping, we’ll only be covering beehives here. If you’re looking for information on bee nests, check out this great source.
Alright, let’s get to it.
A beehive is where your bees will live out their lives when they aren’t out foraging for nectar. It’s where they raise their young, store their food, and ultimately produce honey.
Beehives come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with designs dating back thousands of years. More recent designs, such as the flow hive, have popped up in recent years, with the intention of streamlining some of the processes involved in beekeeping. In this section, we’re going to be covering off the three most common types of beehives.
The Langstroth Hive
The Langstroth hive is by far the most common type of beehive used by beekeepers. The reason for its popularity is due in part to its modular design. Using individual boxes and other pieces of woodenware to form the hive, expansion becomes remarkably easy and the replacement of damaged parts is quick and painless.
More importantly, however, is its use of removable frames. Langstroth hives utilize 8 to 10 frames (per box) on which bees build out their comb. This makes managing your colony way more efficient, as each frame can be easily removed, transferred and replaced without damaging your beehive. Best of all, when it comes time to collect your honey, there’s no need to crush the comb. Simply remove the frames, place them in an honey extractor, and then throw them back into your beehive for further use.
Parts of a Langstroth Hive
A beehive stand is used to elevate your hive off the ground. This not only helps to improve circulation but prevents moisture from building up, which can lead to rot.
Beehive stands are traditionally made from a single wooden frame, with a slanted side referred to as a landing board. The landing board provides a surface for your bees to enter the hive.
More elaborate plastic or metal stands are also available, which tend to provide more distance between the ground and your beehive. Some even feature adjustable legs.
Honestly though, using a few bricks or cinder blocks should be good enough in most cases. As long as your hive isn’t directly on the ground, you’ll be okay.
This is the floor of the beehive. You’ll come across two types of bottom boards: solid and screened. Solid bottom boards tend to do a better job at keeping your bees sufficiently warm during winter. On the flip side, screened bottom board offer improved ventilation and make it easier for your bees to clear our mites.
We typically recommend using a screened bottom board, but you should take climate into consideration. If your winters are quite cold, opt for a solid board.
The hive body is the heart of the Langstroth hive. Depending on its size, you’ll use this box to serve as either a brood chamber or a place for your bees to store honey.
Quick Tip: All hive bodies are supers, but not all supers are hive bodies. Confused? You can blame the beekeeping community for that one. In short, the official name for this section of your hive is a “Super”. If it’s used for honey, we call it a “Honey Super”. However, to give them some distinction, we refer to any super that is used as a brood chamber as a “Hive Body”. Same thing, just serving different functions.
There are three standard hive body sizes to choose from: Deep, Medium, and Shallow.
Due to their size, deep hive bodies are typically only used for brood. This is where your queen will lay her eggs to allow your colony to grow.
Shallow bodies are only used for honey production (hence why they are referred to as honey supers.) These are about 2/3rds the size of a deep body, making them a lot easier to carry when full.
Medium hive bodies can serve as either a brood chamber or honey super. They’re large enough for your brood to expand in, but lightweight enough to not be overly cumbersome when full of honey. Depending on who you talk to, mediums will sometimes be used exclusively. This makes it easy to interchange your frames, as they’ll all be the same size.
Frames serve as an area for your bees to build their comb. They are typically made from wood and can be removed from the beehive for inspection or to extract honey. Each frame is placed roughly three-eighths of an inch apart to prevent your bees from gluing them together.
Plastic frames are also available, but are often looked down upon by veteran beekeepers. As they’re not considered natural, you might find your bees less eager to work with. On the other hand, they are much more durable and won’t rot. Decide for yourself what works best.
Like the hive body, frames come in deep, medium and shallow sizes. Each size fits their corresponding body.
Placed in the center of each frame is something called “foundation”. Made from either plastic or wax, foundation is used as a template for your bees to draw honeycomb. It’s imprinted with the familiar hexagonal shape to ensure the comb is made into uniform cells on each side. This is where your bees will raise their brood, keep food, and store their honey.
The queen excluder plays an important role in splitting your brood from your honey. Made from a perforated sheet of plastic, it’s placed between the upper food chamber and the honey super. The gaps in the plastic are just the right size to allow for drones to pass through, but restrict the queen from entering the honey super. This is key, as it will prevent the upper frames from being used to lay eggs, resulting in comb dedicated to honey!
This is where the real magic happens — at least for those keen on producing jars full of honey. Honey supers are identical in design to hive bodies, but serve a completely different purpose. Instead of housing brood, the frames within your honey super will be used solely for storing honey. This is achieved with the help of a queen excluder, which we’ll cover next.
Medium or shallow hive bodies are used in this case, as a deep body would be way too heavy once full of honey.
Next comes the inner cover. This is simply a plank of wood that is placed in-between the outer cover and the top super. A hole is typically cut in the middle to allow bees to reach a feeder when one is used. Some inner covers will also include a notch in the frame to provide your bees with another point of entrance. If your inner cover has this notch, make sure to position it at the front of your hive.
The outer cover of a Langstroth hive is what keeps your bees safe from the elements. Typically referred to as a “telescoping cover”, it features a lip that extends partway down the sides of your hive. This lip tends to extend a few inches past the hive to allow for ventilation, helping to minimize condensation in the winter. Too much condensation could potentially cause water to drip down onto your bees, freezing them to death.
For additional weather protection, we recommend using an outer cover with a galvanized metal top.
Quick Tip: To prevent your outer cover from being blown off, place a heavy object on-top of it, such as a brick or a rock.
Feeders are used to provide your bees with enough food to survive when nectar flow is low. They’re typically filled with sugar syrup and installed once in early spring and another once again leading up to the winter months.
The two most common types of feeders are an entrance feeder, which is placed on the bottom board, and a hive-top feeder, which is placed between the inner and outer cover of your beehive.
Exactly as its name suggests, an entrance reducer is used to limit the number of bees that can enter and exit the hive at once. They are placed between the bottom board and the first hive body.
Entrance reducers are typically only used for brand new beehives that have yet to be fully established. They make it easier for your bees to defend the hive from intruders while the colony is still relatively small.
The Top Bar Hive
The top bar hive takes the prize for being the oldest style of beehive still in use today. There’s evidence of beekeepers working with similar designs as far back as the 17th century! The fact they’ve been favored for so long is a testament to their simple design and ease-of-use.
The first thing you’ll notice about the top bar hive is that it doesn’t contain any frames or foundation. Instead, bees hang their comb on removable horizontal bars placed on-top of the hive (hence the name). A cover is then placed over the bars to provide additional protection from the elements.
Further adding to its simplicity is the fact that it only requires a single box. This makes the hive a lot lighter and easier to move. Bees will raise their brood, store food, and produce honey all within the same area. As they tend to conduct these activities on separate combs, there’s rarely the need for a queen excluder. The brood nest is usually far enough from the rest of the comb to prevent cross-over.
Quick Tip: If you’re building your own top bar beehive, make sure to keep the chamber portion under 12” tall. Any deeper and your bees may construct too large of a comb, causing it to break off under its own weight.
To guide bees into establishing their comb in the proper spot, some beekeepers will cut a V-shape in the bottom of each bar. This provides a pre-established area for bees to hold onto while they form their comb.
Overall, it’s this basic design that has driven beekeepers to use the top bar hive over the centuries. Pretty much anyone can build one if they have the right tools and materials. This makes them particularly suitable for impoverished areas that require a simple form of beekeeping. All you really need to ensure is that the bars are wide enough for both comb and bees to fit side-by-side—everything else is fair game.
Tanzanian vs. Kenyan
There are two types of top bar hives, differing slightly in appearance: Tanzanian and Kenyan. Whereas a Tanzanian top bar hive is a simple rectangular box, the Tanzanian design features slanted side walls, giving it more of a trapezoid appearance.
You’ll find that the Kenyan design is much more popular, primarily because the slanted sides prevent comb from being attached to the interior walls.
The trend towards more natural forms of beekeeping has brought about a resurgence in the use of top bar hives.
One of the biggest selling points for proponents of natural beekeeping is the fact that there’s no need for foundation. While natural wax foundation is readily available for Langstroth hives, some worry that the plastic alternatives have a negative effect on their bees. In nature, bees manage just fine without foundation of any sort.
Top bar hives are also far less invasive. When inspecting your beehive, you only need to expose one or two combs at a time, while the rest remain under the protection of the remaining bars. Less disturbance during inspection leads to calmer and presumably happier bees.
While producing honey is a part of any bee colony’s routine, top bar beehives don’t usually provide the means to harvest it in large amounts.
Even more problematic is the way honey is harvested. When it comes time to harvest your honey, the comb must be crushed and strained. The Langstroth hive avoids this by utilizing frames that fit into a honey extractor.
A queen excluder is a simple device that keeps your queen from laying eggs in comb meant for honey storage. They’re mostly used with Langstroth hives to separate the brood box from the honey super. While top bar hives can accommodate a queen excluder, most of the time one is not required. The brood is typically a few bars away from where the honey is stored, providing enough distance to avoid cross-over.
The Warrè Hive
One of the first things to think about when you want to start keeping bees is where you are going to house them. This means you should find a hive that works well for you and for your bees. The shape and types of hives have changed over the years, with the most well know change established by the popular Langstroth hive. Very popular among commercial beekeepers, a Langstroth hive uses removable frames set in a box (super) making the bees and their honeycomb very easy to access and inspect. But is it the right hive for you?
There are many alternative hives available, but I was intrigued by a hive dubbed the “people’s hive” developed by the French abbot, Emile Warrè (pronounced war-ray), in the early 1900’s. Having explored over 300 different hive types available at the time, he created what he felt would be the easiest hive for the average person wanting to keep bees. His efforts were two-fold. First, he wanted something inexpensive to build and easy to manage with minimum care and intervention from the beekeeper. He didn’t want beekeeping to be so time-consuming and require so much effort that it felt like a chore. Secondly, he wanted the bees to have the most natural environment possible so they could develop much like their wild cousins. In many respects, Warrè’s hive resembled a vertical log hive, like a tree hive found in the wild – only much more accessible.
Design & Size
One of the unique features of this hive is that it has a vertical top-bar design. Warrè felt that would be the most natural and therefore the best design for happy bees. Most top-bar enthusiast would agree that natural comb building, rather than closed frame starting with a foundation, is better for your bees. It has been determined that bees make smaller comb cells when they build them naturally and some keepers feel the smaller, natural comb cells lead to less mite infestation.
The traditional Warrè hive box section (super) is roughly 12 x 12 x 8 inches. Of course, Warrè’s actual plan, as seen in his book, “Beekeeping For All,” was created using metric measurements, but the main consideration for measurement conversion is to keep the internal space as close to 300 x 300 x 210 mm (11.8 x 11.8 x 8.3 inches) as possible. Warrè felt that this was the most accurate dimension of the brood space in a natural hive. He also felt that this meant less stress in the winter, as the bees would be heating a smaller, more natural space. What makes building these boxes nice for the beekeeper is that there are no fancy joints required and the only tricky part is cutting the rebate where the top bars will fit in. They are also lighter to lift when full of honey!
Another interesting feature of this hive is that supers are added to the bottom, not the top. Warrè’s explorations found that the normal development of comb was a downward process. He surmised that once the brood box was nearing the bottom another box should be placed underneath; ‘nadired’ is the term you might see for this type of process. The concept also suggests that the brood box will naturally keep moving downward and the top boxes will fill with honey stores as winter draws near, eliminating the need for a queen excluder.
Insulation & Ventilation
So how do you top off this interesting hive? With a quilt, of course! For better ventilation and insulation, Warrè developed a top box with a breathable burlap or canvas bottom that is then filled with wood shavings or some other organic material that can absorb excess moisture. The quilt, as it is known, sits between your top super and a gabled roof with a ridge vent that slides down over the quilt. A cover cloth is placed on the top box to help prevent it being glued to the quilt. The bees use propolis to cover this top cloth, adding or subtracting what they need to make the ventilation appropriate for the hive.
Warrè also insisted on an adequate bottom board with landing space. He cleverly suggested making it slightly more narrow than the boxes to allow rainwater to drip off rather than seep into the bottom. He also gave very good instruction for creating base legs to keep the hive stable and off the ground. Full lift bars on the sides for easy handling of the boxes is also a key element of the design.
What’s Not to Love?
Lighter supers, fewer materials, mimicking natural hive design, potentially reducing disease and winter loss, seems perfect. Are there disadvantages to the Warrè hive? Well, as with most things in life, that depends on your perspective – but there are a few things to consider.
Is smaller better?
While the hive boxes are smaller and lighter, you need to remember this also means that your colony may be smaller too. A commercial Langstroth hive can often hold a colony of 80,000 bees during the summer honey flow. It is less likely that the smaller Warrè hive will support that size of a colony. Remember, bees are in the business of taking care of the colony—not making honey for humans—so they adjust the space they have or they find a new space. If there is no need to have 80,000 worker bees to get ready for winter then the brood will be smaller and the honey stores won’t be as large.
Honey vs comb
Consider that the Langstroth is fairly standard and most mechanical aides like extractors are built to those frame specifications. Also, once the honey is extracted from a Langstroth frame it can be placed back in the hive for the bees to use as a foundation, making honey production faster. A Warrè hive, with its top-bar design, produces some very good natural honey comb. The comb has to be crushed to extract the honey, but can be used for many bees wax products. With the Warrè hive, the bees won’t have that leftover foundation, so they must start from scratch every time. Some people feel this is tough on the bees and some people feel this is why there are fewer disease issues in a top-bar hive system.
Building your own
Because the Warrè hive is still considered unique, buying one can be expensive. Its non-standard size is frustrating for some beekeepers, especially if they already have a Langstroth. I know some people have converted their 8-super Langstroth hives into modified Warrè hives to try out the vertical top-bar concept and still retain the convenience of a standardized hive size. However, if you are handy at building things and have the proper scrap wood laying around, making this hive can be an inexpensive and fun project.
What’s your purpose?
If you are very invested in your bees and enjoy the time you spend checking in on them and feel properly rewarded with sweet honey in the fall, then you might like a more standardized hive. The Warrè is meant to be a less invasive hive, checking on the bees mostly just to determine when a new box should be placed on the bottom and checking on their healthy development. Some people consider this to be a really good pollinator hive, should that be your main purpose. But it can also be a good observation hive, using some modified designs (see Frèrès & Guillaume) that include a window on one side of each super. Originally designed to let you see when the comb is low enough that you should add a box without causing too much disturbance to the colony, it also makes for a great way to watch bees making natural honey comb.
If you are just starting out in beekeeping, think about why you want bees to help you choose your hive.