Guide to bee hive types

Guide to bee hive types

Quick overview about the most common hive types

bee hive

A bee hive

Are you a new beekeeper and looking into hive types before your purchase?

Are you an experienced beekeeper and need some refreshment?

Welcome!

First of all, do bees need a standardized hive?

Colonies of bees are a highly complex organized creature. This living being can perfectly take care of itself through the public spirit of the colony. It’s a super-organism!

Therefore, it is very surprising that it cannot build its own solid physical shell to protect itself from the elements. The bee colony needs a cave. At least the naturally living swarms of the Western honey bee, Apis Mellifera and the Eastern honey bee, Apis cerana. In a way, they are “cave breeders”.

If you now look at the caves populated by bees, you quickly notice that none of them is exactly like the other. Also the exposure of the caves can take different forms: Vertical, horizontal or diagonal. It’s the same on the inside. Also on the inside the caves differ from each other. In most cases, the surfaces facing inwards are irregularly polygonal. The building material consists of what the bees find.

Bees don’t need a standard hive

Therefore, bees don’t need a standard! At least with regard to type, form and material. As a result, also hive types can be very different from each other.
And otherwise the cave-breeding honeybee species would probably not have survived evolution. Precisely because there are no standardized caves in nature.

5000 years ago, Egyptians kept bees in so-called bee walls. Those were stacked tubes of Nile mud.
Later, people kept bees in hollow trees, log hives (Klotzbeute) and baskets woven from straw or willow rods1.

Today there are hundreds of different hive types, systems and variations worldwide2. Most of them respond to the following logic: “comfortable for the beekeeper, convenient for the bees”.

We humans create order and standards for ourselves, because they help US. We create hive types for our convenience. The bees adapt more or less well to them.

What you should consider

We introduce you some of the most common hive types. However, before the purchase, we recommend you to always consult an experienced beekeeper of your area. Ideally, a beekeeper who is committed to the well-being of the bees.

In addition, you should take into account the bee breed and the climate of your region.
Also, please consider which of the following paths you will take: Will you become a backyard beekeeper with one or two hives? Or will you and your family live off the money you make with the honey or other bee products?
In any case, always put the well-being of the bees in the foreground!

The ultimate goal of sustainable beekeeping is to live in harmony with bees. Humans should create an environment that supports the activities of the colony rather than exploiting them.

Bees4life promotes ‘natural beekeeping’. We like the idea of being rather ‘bee-carers’ than ‘bee-keepers’.
Still, it has to be practical. The type of hive you choose doesn’t make you to a better or worse bee-carer.

Therefore, we want you to point out two general guidelines before you decide on a specific hive type:

Two general guidelines before you purchase a hive

NUMBER ONE: You practice beekeeping for honey production. In this case you should be able to take out the honey combs without destroying the whole hive.

NUMBER TWO: You practice beekeeping for the bee’s sake or for pollination reasons or as backyard beekeeper. In this case you still have to be able to observe the condition of the bees. Make sure that you can check where the queen is located and see if the colony is doing well.

 

In the following, we present the most common of all bee hive types: the Langstroth hive

Langstroth hive

Langstroth hive

Langstroth hives are the most common hives for commercial purposes. In fact, chances are very high that you have already seen them around, even if you are a newcomer.

The inventor, Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth patented his design in the early 1852. Today it has become the standard style hive worldwide. Very similar type of hives are Dandant or Zander hives.

These hives are made of rectangular, vertically stacked wooden boxes. These boxes contain frames in which the bees build their combs. Inside the boxes, frames hang parallelly to each other. New boxes can be added to the top of the hive. These are called supers and come in various depths – deep, medium and shallow.

Ten or eight frames hold the beeswax honeycomb formed by the bees. In fact, there exist the two models made of either ten or eight frames.

In the following, we speak about the Ten Frame hive, while the Eight Frame hive has the same characteristics, just being smaller and thus, weighing less.

More specifically, the hive is made of three parts:

    • Bottom board, with the entrance for the bees
    • Boxes with frames for brood and honey. The lowest box is for the eggs and the boxes above are for the honey.
    • Inner cover and top cap for weather protection.

Pros:

  • Easy to inspect the hive and check about the well-being of the hive.
  • You can remove the combs to extract the honey. As it is standardized honey can be extracted from the combs using a centrifugal extractor.
  • Extracted combs can be put back into the hive for bees to refill with honey.
  • Easy to access the hive for varroa treatments.
  • Transporting the hive is relatively easy.
  • Hives and parts are available at all beekeeping supply stores.
  • Most beekeeping courses and other resources teach using management techniques for this hive type.

Cons:

  • Access only by taking the roof off.
  • Wiring and waxing frames with foundation is time-consuming.
  • The queen can only move inside the bottom box.
  • Full boxes are heavy to lift or move.

Langstroth was also the first person to mention the “bee space”. It is a specific space that defines a distance from 5 to 9 mm between frames and other parts of the hive. Given this space, bees stop gluing together the space nor fill it with joining comb (propolis). Read more about the bee space here.

Top Bar hive

Top bar hive. Photo: Flickr

There is a second hive type which is quite famous. It is called Kenyan Top Bar Hive or Horizontal hive.

The hive looks like a half hexagonal trough, of about 1.2 metres long and about 50 centimeters wide.
The sides taper down to form the hexagonal shape. Top bars are the loosely laid strips at the top. From there the bees pull out their honeycombs downward. People can freely lift, move and remove the honeycombs with the upper beams. There is a worldwide trend towards top bar hives, especially in people’s backyards of industrialised countries.

Pros:

  • Construction plans are available on the internet.
  • Honey harvest from the outer bars, away from the brood nest.
  • Bees build natural comb.
  • The queen has access to all areas of the hive.
  • Comb is crushed, no extracting tools are necessary.
  • Wax can be sold, traded or made into products.
  • Possibility to build the hive at waist height, eliminating the need to bend.
  • A lid covers the bars – stops rain, and shades out the sun.
  • Well suited for the elderly or people with disabilities, no heavy lifting needed.

Cons:

  • Whenever you harvest honey, bees are supposed to rebuild their homes from scratch.
  • Top Bars are not very common hives. It’s hard to find mentors that can help you work through hive-specific issues. If you’re a beginner, that can be a problem.
  • You can’t add a box to this hive like you can with Langstroth. You have to inspect and harvest more frequently.
  • Time consuming harvest. You can only harvest comb by comb, not an entire box.

Only suitable for backyard beekeepers with a few hives. Newcomers need an experienced mentor and the ambition to invest more time into their hobby.

Warré hive

A Warré hive. Photo: Bay Branch Farm

Originally, the inventor Abbé Émile Warré, a French monk, had the intention to create a hive that would resemble as closely as possible to a natural environment.

The difference to the Langstroth hive is that a beekeeper adds new boxes to the bottom of the hive, rather than to the top.

In this way, bees build from the top down as they do in nature. A beautiful idea.

Yet, the traditional Warré hive has no frames or foundation, therefore inspection is not easy. Actually, Warré hives don’t foresee inspection at all. In Warré’s opinion, bees should not be disturbed in their activity.

However, without being able to remove the frames, beekeepers cannot assess hive activity, spot parasites and check the presence of the queen. Those are vital tasks to monitor the health status of the colony3.

Only suitable for backyard beekeepers with a few hives. Newcomers need an experienced mentor and the ambition to invest more time into their hobby.

Golden Hive or One-Room Hive (Einraumbeute)

About 30 years ago, Thomas Radetzki designed the so-called Golden Hive. It is a hive for biodynamic beekeepers in temperate climates.

It is a one-room hive with deep, large frames that can accommodate brood, pollen and honey on the one comb.

Pros:

  • 30 years of experience with this type of hive.
  • The queen can move freely throughout the hive.
  • A wax cloth covers the top of the frames. People can roll it to the side to only expose one frame at a time. Fewer bees are disturbed this way.
  • No heavy boxes to lift as frames are harvested one at a time.
  • Easily transportable.
  • The hive doesn’t use any wire or foundation. Thin timber skewers built into the frames hold the comb stable when extracting.
  • Easy frame inspection.
  • Bees are free to build cell sizes as they require.
  • Brood comb is constantly culled.

Cons:

  • Equipment is necessary unless the beekeeper cuts and crushes the comb.
  • The oblong shape can create cold spots in winter.
  • Parts need to be precisely measured and cut to stop bees from filling gaps with either wax or propolis.
  • Pests have lots of places to hide due to the frames.

Only suitable for backyard beekeepers with a few hives. Newcomers need an experienced mentor and the ambition to invest more time into their hobby.

Flow hive

Flow Hive

In February 2015, Cedar Anderson and his father Stuart Anderson from Australia started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. The plan? Raising $70,000 for a custom injection mold for the world’s first Flow Hive system. Instead, they probably raised over $12 million and received nearly 25,000 orders from over 130 countries.
The Flow Hive design presents the advantage that beekeepers can extract honey by simply turning a lever. It means that people can harvest honey without opening the hive4!

The frames contain a preformed plastic honeycomb grid with vertical gaps. The bees fill these gaps with beeswax and the cells with honey. When the mechanism of the frames is activated, the vertical gaps are displaced by one half of the cells, breaking the wax seal and allowing honey to flow through the cells into a channel at the bottom of each frame and from there into a collection container. The system is then reset and the bees remove the cap and refill the cells, thereby restarting the process. This rather new hive system is not entirely uncontroversial. Many experienced beekeepers are critical towards the Flow Hive.

Pros:

  • Honey extraction by turning a tap.
  • The queen is free to wander around the hive.
  • Transportation of the hive should be fairly simple.
  • No harvesting equipment is necessary.

Cons:

  • Honeycombs are made of plastic.
  • Lots of fidgety parts and bits to deal with pests have lots of places to hide.
  • The oblong shape causes cold spots to develop over the colder months
  • Access only by taking the roof off.
  • The honey box is heavy to lift to inspect the brood.
  • Wax will not be available for sale.
  • Possibility and risk that honey cells may not all be ripe for harvesting; honey may ferment once harvested.
  • Honey may crystalise in the plastic combs, and be difficult to extract.
  • Separation between the keeper and the bees.

Conclusion

As we mentioned at the beginning, it is crucial to consider your personal situation and the situation in your country.

It’s important to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How many hives to you want to keep?
  2. How much time to you want to invest into beekeeping?
  3. Do you want to make a living off beekeeping?
  4. Is the varroa mite present in your country? The only place where it is NOT found yet is Australia. This means, anywhere else in the world you have to consider regular treatments of your hives.
  5. Do you live in a region where you have cold winters and you have to feed the bees to help them to survive?

Bees4life considered different resources such as

  • Traditional beekeeping sources and interviews with beekeepers who have more than 30 years of experience with Langstroth hives
  • Permaculture sources 5 and
  • natural beekeeping sources

to list information and pros and cons about the different hives.

In short:

We came to the conclusion that there are different type of hives that you can choose from when you want to keep just a few hives in your backyard.

Yet, some of them are far less common. Therefore, it might be difficult to find experienced mentors or courses in your area. Also, most beekeeper’s clubs work with the Langstroth / Dadant / Zander hives.

We would like to encourage you to to experiment with different hive types. Still, please don’t do that without a serious commitment and without substantial knowledge about what you do with these living creatures.

And one more thing: There is this trend in some countries… People who have no idea about beekeeping buy a hive in the internet. Then they put the hive in their backyards and feel like they have done something good for the environment and the bees. NOT AT ALL!

In most cases, those colonies die already within the first year or even spread diseases to other hives.

We all want to help stopping the extinction of bees. Thank you for considering it. You should know by now that putting a hive into your backyard without any knowledge and without taking care of it is contra-productive.

Be(e) curious but mindful and enjoy caring for these beautiful creatures!