Type of Hive
So you’ve decided that beekeeping is for you and you have made the decision that you want to get some bees. Where does one go after that? The first thing to do is decide on is what type of hive you are going to use. Here again, the range of options is wide, and you will need to expand your knowledge again.
You have two main priorities to consider here. What hive will be most comfortable for the bees and what hive will be most practical for you to work with. We have already seen that the very first farmed bees lived in hives made from clay. We all also probably recognize those old fashioned hives that were woven out of basket material and which often decorate honey pots still today.
They were called skeps, and when the beekeeper wanted the honey at the end of summer, he just chased away the bees using smoke. After the honey was removed, the skeps were simply burned. These bee houses might not be in use much today, but it does serve to demonstrate that bees are fairly flexible in where they will take up residence. Most beekeepers will be able to regale yours with stories about being called out to remove hives built up chimneys, inside hollow walls, or in cracks in trees.
While the bees may be fairly undiscerning, you need a hive that gives you easy access and the bees the ability to expand and make plenty of honey. The more comfortable the hive, the more likely the bees are to remain and to flourish.
You are about to see that there is a wide variety of beehives, and therefore, not all of the components listed below are relevant to the entire hive. The terminology is fairly standard, and so it will probably be helpful if you understand it now as it will have an overall pertinence.
The hive stand is at the very bottom. It keeps the hive off the ground and often incorporates a landing board from which the bees can take off and alight. Not everyone bothers with this stand as its primary role is to keep the hive clear of the ground, and a couple of cement blocks will do the job just as efficiently.
The bottom board is a flat wooden board or a wooden frame screen. These days the screen base is becoming more widely used as it allows ventilation but particularly because it lets pests such as verroa mite fall through rather than remain within the confines of the cage.
The deep hive box – This is the bottom box in which the breeding takes place and where food is stored. To make life more confusing, a variety of terms are used for this compartment. You will hear it called the deep, the brood box, or simply the box. This is the most important part of the hive.
It is where the breeding takes place and where the queen lives. In some areas, the second deep is added on top of the first one. The bottom one plays its normal role, and the higher one becomes more of a larder area and is particularly useful in areas that experience long hard winters where extra reserves are important.
The queen excluder – This is an essential part of the hive. Because you don’t want the bee to enter the main honey area and laying eggs in cells where your honey comes from, she needs to be kept down in the brood box.
The simple solution is to place a grill between the two through which the workers can pass to perform their duties but through which the larger queen does not fit. This may seem a fairly rudimentary solution, but it was the discovery of what size grill was appropriate that enabled the advances in modern beekeeping that we currently see.
The super – This looks a lot like the deep box but is considerably shallower. It is filled with frames for the honey to be drawn out in and sits right on top of the queen excluder.
As it begins to get filled with honey, another super can simply be placed on top to expand the bee’s storage space. The honey in the supers is what you can harvest.
What there is in the deep is the bees supply, and it must be left for them. Supers come in two sizes; shallow and medium. The only difference technically is that one can hold more honey than the other. The choice you will need to consider is the weight you want to be handling. A shallow weighs about forty pounds when full of honey, while a medium can weigh up to sixty pounds.
There is another option here. You can use mediums throughout the hive and just double them up to form the deep or brood chamber. The bees will not mind, and it means that you only need one size of the frame right through your hive. This can be handy in terms of mass production if you are making your own frames.
Frames: These hang in the hive, and it is on these that the bees suspend their comb, produce brood and store honey. When fitting them, you can pre-fit them with manmade wax foundation strips.
These look very much like sheets of pasta, and the reason you would fit them is it saves the bees from having to make wax for the comb. Instead, they just draw out the foundation strip and use that, thus saving them energy and allowing them to focus on honey production.
They are not critical, and in some of the hives, we will be looking at frames that are replaced by a simple wooden hanging bar from which the bees suspend their own comb. Frames are set exactly six millimeters apart, and this allows the bees just enough room to perform their chores but not enough to get too cold.
Inner cover: This has the appearance of a flat tray with a hole in it. The hole allows ventilation, and some people are now switching to inner grills rather than sold covers. This will obviously improve ventilation but will make it harder to keep the hive warm. That is a decision you should make based on local weather conditions, but again, this is something where local beekeeping knowledge could come in handy.
Outer cover: the outer cover or lid is what keeps the hive watertight, and it just sits on top of the hive with an overlapping lip all round. It will obviously need to be waterproof, so it should be covered in roofing aluminum or some other waterproof material.
They can blow off in extreme weather, so weight them down if you expect to experience heavy wind.
There are one or two other bits and pieces that will make your life easier. Over winter, it is handy to have a sliding cover so that you can reduce the size of the entrance to a minimum to help retain heat.
Mouse guards are also fitted over the winter months as the hive is both warm and full of food that could tempt rodents to move in. In the summer months, when the bees are active and have guards stationed, this does not become an issue.
Patented in 1852 and first produced in 1920, the Langstroth looks a little like a narrow set of drawers. Its inventor was the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, and today it, or derivatives of it, is the most commonly used hive and the one most of us are probably most familiar with.
The clergy has a long history of beekeeping and was instrumental in many of its formative advances. Langstroth was no exception, and his hive certainly has withstood the test of time.
The hive itself is divided into compartments, which gives it its draw like appearance. The bottom and largest section contain the nursery section, while the higher compartment contains the honeycomb and the honey. As the comb in the higher sections is filled, then more compartments can be added.
The hive can be opened, and the honey removed without causing any undue stress to the lower nursery.
There is normally a flat roof, which consists of an inner roof for insulation and an outer roof for weatherproofing.
The Low or Horizontal Hive
In principle, this hive is very similar to the Langstroth but in a horizontal format. The bees will naturally station the brood section nearest the entrance and then start their honeycomb operations after that. In some ways, it is easier to use, especially for the disabled or for children. It normally comes with a small window like viewing ports to enable checking of the hive over winter without opening the hive.
These hives are a variation of the Langstroth, and as such many of the Langstroth fittings such as frames can be used. The reason that they don’t seem to have become as popular as their vertical ancestors are that they are more expensive to make and don’t transport as easily.
The Warré Hive
Named after its inventor Abbé Warre was another clerical beekeeper, this time-based in France in the early 20th century. Langstroth used some of the Abbe’s ideas to develop his hives. Abbé wanted to build a hive that was cheap, easy to use, and which worked with the bee’s natural instincts rather than against them.
The hive consists of a series of boxes, but this time the brood box is at the top, and the honey is made below that, which is a more natural approach for the bees. Instead of frames, the boxes contain bars on which the bees suspend the comb much as they would in the wild.
The roof is sloped to shed water and contains a space known as a quilting box in which insulation such as straw can be placed to keep the hive warm in winter. The straw and roof design combine to allow movement of air in the hive.
The advantage of this system is that the hive needs only to be checked about twice a year, so disturbance is kept to a minimum. When the honey is harvested, it is taken from the bottom, so not disrupting the nursery. Windows are often added to the boxes to make checking easier.
This system is often preferred by people who want their bees to lead the most natural life possible. The queen is not excluded from the honey boxes, and the harvested comb will have contained brood. The queen goes onto a new comb to lay the next eggs. This means that all eggs are laid into a fresh and disease-free comb.
The disadvantage is that the bees will stick the boxes together firmly, and some careful lifting will need to take place to separate them. Fortunately, component parts are cheap, so if the damage is done, it is not too expensive to replace the damaged pieces.
Sometimes referred to as the Kenyan or Tanzanian hive, these are really simple hives that have drawn inspiration from both the Warré and the long hives. Like the long hive, the bees are housed in a horizontal box. The first noticeable difference is that it is trapezoid in shape rather than rectangular.
Like the Warré, there are no frames, and the bees simply suspend the comb from bars at the hung across the top of the box. When the beekeeper wishes to harvest the honey, he simply opens the hive, removes the bars individually, and cuts off the comb.
The whole of the bow lid is hinged so that it can be opened easily, and there is space beneath the lid to allow for insulation.
The bees enter the hive at the bottom of one of the face panels, and a very simple plank can be suspended in the hive to reduce or expand the interior size according to the size of the colony. This means that reducing the interior space over winter is easy, and the bees are kept warm and comfortable.
Because of the shape of the hive, the suspended comb comes out in an almost triangular shape, which means it is less heavy and less likely to snap off when being lifted from the hive for harvesting honey. This suspended comb system is very much in keeping with how the bee would make comb in the wild.
The Flow Hive
Beekeepers are always looking for systems and procedures that will make their lives easier. This is particularly true for professional beekeepers that must manage hundreds and sometimes thousands of hives.
The flow hive is one of the most recent innovations in the beekeeping world and is highly controversial. People either love it or hate it, and there seems to be no middle ground.
The flow hive works in conjunction with the Langstroth hive. The bees use the same brood box, but on top of that is placed the new system, which essentially consists of a series of plastic honeycombs.
The idea is that the bees will make the honey in these combs that you the beekeeper have provided in the normal way. When they are full, the beekeeper inserts a long key, which, when turned, crushes the individual cells causing the honey to start to run out.
It falls into a trough and then runs out through a tube. The beekeeper then simply needs to place his jars beneath it and catch the flow of honey.
There are advantages and disadvantages to any new system. In this case, it is a new and technical system that has been introduced to a very old and traditional one. Some of the advantages are that it is not necessary to open the hive as often, and therefore there are fewer disturbances to the bees. It is far more convenient and less physically demanding for the beekeeper.
The downsides are that the bees are making their honey in plastic instead of their natural wax cells. The hives are far more technical than any of the more traditional ones and are therefore not cheap. If you are harvesting thick honey, which we will deal with at a later stage, the honey will not flow.
If not all of the cells have been capped, there will be a number of bees still working on them, and they are likely to be crushed. The only way to assess what percentage of the cells has been capped is to open the hive, and that removes one of the advantages we have mentioned.
These hives have been heavily promoted among people that had never kept bees before, and one of the conclusions these people reached was that they could get into beekeeping without very much of the effort.
A simple twist of a key once in a while would be all that was required to have great home produced honey made right on your doorstep. That is not the case, and proper bee husbandry is still required. The flow system brings with it some advantages, but don’t be fooled into thinking that you can ever avoid the important issue of caring for your bees.
If you are going to profit from their labor by stealing their honey, the very least that is required of you is that you should care for them in the best possible manner.
We have now had a look at the main types of hive. There are plenty of others out there, but when you understand these, you will pretty much know how most of the other options work.
Other than the flow hive, there have been years and years of work done with these hives, and whichever route you choose to go down is going to have been well tried and tested.
It now remains for you to decide where you are going to acquire your first hive. There are many companies that specialize in nothing other than beekeeping equipment, and a visit to one of their stores is an education in itself.
They will be able to guide you further, and you will be able to see firsthand how the hives work and the quality of the build.
Like anything else in the world that you choose to buy, the internet now provides you with an easy buying option. Sometimes these hives come with an element of self-assembly involved, so look out for that possibility.
Always check the comments left by previous buyers, and if there are none or very few, then you might want to look around a little more. Internet suppliers are often cheaper even with the shipping involved, but unlike purchasing a book or a mass-produced product, you have no way of feeling the quality before you become the new owner.
I know that I have promoted the local beekeeping club quite heavily, but that is because I really believe that the fee knowledge to be gathered at these little groups is simply invaluable.
Almost all of them have some sort of arrangement whereby you can purchase equipment, including hives, at a slightly reduced price. There are also so often people in these clubs who have extra bits and pieces that you may well get a second-hand hive for nothing or next to nothing.
The final option is to build your own hive. For anyone with slightly more than basic carpentry skills and a good set of tools, building a beehive is not a big deal. One of my friends is now a professional beekeeper with well over two hundred hives, all of which, he built himself using old pallet wood.
There are plenty of plans on the internet, so even if you can’t borrow one to copy, you can still create your own. One word of warning here, if you are going to make a hive, first ensure that any wood you use has not been treated with any sort of chemical. Treated wood is particularly bad for bees that live in constant proximity to it.
Where to Place your First Hive
You can make or buy the best hive in the world, if you don’t position it correctly, then the bees are either going to leave, or they are not going to thrive. Location is probably one of the things that you considered when buying your home. Well, the bee location is equally important.
In the northern hemisphere, it is preferable to have your hive face south. This will mean the rear of the hive is most likely to get hit by the worst of the cold winter winds. If the hive catches the early morning sun, the bees will warm up more quickly, and this will get them foraging earlier.
They can’t fly until they have warmed up. If the back of the hive is protected by a hedge or fence, that will make conditions in the hive warmer. The bees will be coming and going from the front of the hive, and so this flight path needs to be reasonably clear.
You don’t want the workers having to avoid obstacles or pedestrians as they approach or take off. If the hive is in at least partial shade, it will prevent the bees from overheating during hot summers. Bees cool the hives by placing workers in the entrance to flap their wings and move the air. If they don’t need to do this, then that energy can be better used elsewhere. Also, hot bees can become angry bees.
Bear in mind that though it will not be heavy when you place it, the hive is going to become considerably heavier as it fills with bees and honey. Make sure that it is staged on a level position that is not going to subside.
There is plenty of equipment that you could by when you first start keeping bees. I think that it is better to start with the basics and then expand from there than it is to buy everything people will try to sell you, only to find it is really not useful.
You will need a bee suit, to begin with. Many beekeepers stop using a suit as they become more confident, and you will probably have seen these people and marveled at the way in which they confidently move through clouds of bees without any protective gear.
Well, the truth of the matter is that bees have different moods, and even the hardiest keepers will probably have occasions when they decide it is wise to don a suit. For the newbie, the suit is really essential. You will be embarking on a sharp learning curve, and you don’t want that disrupted by having to deal with stings.
As you become more confident, you will very likely start working with just a veil, but there will still be times you need to turn back to the bee suit so you may as well save yourself the pain and purchase one straight away.
Veils: These are simply mosquito netting type material attached to some form of headdress. You can save money and make one yourself, or you can purchase one.
The main thing is that it prevents the bees from getting to your face. Make sure that when you are wearing it, the bees don’t like the veil and then drop down your shirt as this is extremely disconcerting. I tend to favor the pith helmet type as it keeps the veil clear of my face, and it can tuck it into the hat itself when I don’t need it.
The smoker: This is the metal coffee pot type affair that has a bellows attached. It is fed with a variety of different materials to create smoke, and different beekeepers tend to have their own ingredients for fuelling them.
These range from straw to old pieces of hessian sacking. I have even known keepers who use dried horse dung. The larger the fuel chamber, the better is the important thing when choosing a smoker.
You don’t want them going out as this causes all sorts of problems once you have the hive open. It is worth doing a few dummy runs and getting to grips with both your smoker and the fuel you will be using.
Gloves: To start with, these are indispensable, but they will also probably be the equipment you most quickly stop using. Gloves that are thick enough to prevent sting altogether make you lose dexterity, and working in a hive, especially one well sealed with propolis, can be quite fiddly.
Some people try to get the best of both worlds by wearing thinner gloves, but you need to accept that these are not entirely sting proof. Gloves need to be cleaned from time to time. Each sting leaves a little scent that is designed to guide other bees toward the target, so if they smell that, they will zone in on the gloves again and again.
Hive tools: These are pretty much vital. You will mainly use then for levering off top panels and loosening frames from the grip of the propolis coating that the bees will apply to them. Hive tools come in two sorts. The flat tool and the J shaped.
The J shaped is to use for levering up frames, but actually, they are both pretty similar when it comes down to practicality. One useful suggestion is to pain whichever one you opt for in bright reflective paint because they have a nasty habit of getting lost in the grass just when you need them.