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The Hive

The hive provides the space in which a colony of bees live. In nature this would be a hole in a tree or any cavity where the bees are able to have a single entrance that they can easily defend. A lot of research has been done to determine the nature of the cavity that a colony will look for when trying to find a new home. Although the size of the cavity chosen varies, usually between 40 and 80 litres, some much smaller and others much larger have been found.

The history of the hive

Before the 18th century, beekeepers used hollowed out logs, skeps (tea-cosy shaped hives made from straw) or clay pots to house colonies of bees. These designs were fine for the bees to develop a nest but when the beekeeper wanted to remove honey the whole structure of honeycomb built by the bees had to be destroyed and often resulted in the colony being killed.

Hive

During the 18th and 19th centuries much research was carried out on the design of beehives that enabled honey bees to be kept in specially constructed boxes in such a way that the internal workings could be observed and the bees could be inspected without the need to kill them. A crucial finding was the discovery that in a honey bee colony the bees would leave corridors between parts of the nest to allow them to visit all parts of the hive.

In 1851 an American preacher called Lorenzo Langstroth patented a hive design that comprised a rectangular box with wooden frames inside that allowed the bees to build honeycomb on the frames and also ensured that the bees would not build honeycomb that connected the frames. This meant that the frames could be removed without the honeycomb being destroyed and then returned to use. This patented design, known as the Langstroth hive, still exists and is the most common hive design across the world. Since then many other hive designs have been developed to further improve on the basics of the Langstroth hive and, throughout Europe there are many different designs in use today.

From the beekeeper's point of view the hive design is considered to be of great importance and beekeepers may argue for hours over the pros and cons of a particular design. However, the honey bee has simple needs and will happily establish a colony in any of these designs so long as:

  • The internal volume is large enough

  • The entrance is small and can be defended easily

  • There are no other access points other than the entrance

  • It is weatherproof providing some protection from the cold and damp.

When you are starting out as a beekeeper and acquiring your first hive, ensure that the needs of your bees will be satisfied, listen to the discussions of fellow beekeepers and then make up your own mind.

Key components of the hive

The majority of hives are designed in a similar way and comprise the following components:

Hive components

Stand

The stand is under the hive and holds it off the ground. The stand must be strong and well built. It can consist of just two building blocks, two timber beams or a purpose built framework. It is very important that the stand supports the rest of the hive so that it is level. A hive that is fully laden with bees and honey can weigh up to 100kg so it is important that the hive stand is placed on hard ground that will not subside. This can be achieved by placing a concrete paving slab under the hive stand to distribute the weight.

Floor

The floor is the base of the hive. In the past this was a solid wooden base with wooden bars on three sides leaving one side to act as an entrance to the hive. There are many designs available and most now contain a wire or plastic mesh underneath that ensures debris drops out of the hive but is fine enough to prevent bees passing through. This mesh also allows Varroa mites (predatory mites that can devastate honey bee colonies) to fall out of the hive when they fall off a bee.

Most floors provide a small entrance to the hive for the bees to leave and return. The entrance can be as small as 6mm deep and 70mm wide but most designs allow the entrance to be widened during the summer months when there is a higher rate of activity in the hive. Small entrances are good as they help the bees defend the nest from attack from other bees, wasps and other creatures such as mice.

It is very important that the hive has adequate ventilation because, while the bees keep the colony warm and when they process nectar into honey, water vapour is generated which can cause condensation and the build up of mould in the hive. The open mesh floors provide sufficient ventilation without the need for a large entrance.

Brood chamber

This is the heart of the colony and is the area where the queen lives and new brood develops. Most beekeepers place a 'queen excluder' above the brood chamber. This is a device that prevents the queen (and drones) from passing through into other parts of the hive and raising brood there. The brood chamber is the most important part of the hive as this is where the colony raises new bees and where foraging bees bring nectar and pollen back to feed larvae and for storage.

Queen excluder

This is a flat sheet, either made from plastic, zinc or framed and made of steel. It has holes in it that allow workers to pass through but prevent the queen gaining access to other parts of the hive. The objective is to keep the queen in the brood chamber and encourage the workers to store surplus honey on the other side of the queen excluder. In this way the honey crop removed by the beekeeper remains clean and free from debris, such as pupal cases left over from breeding new bees. The best design is made of rigid steel rods mounted on a wooden frame.

Supers

Supers are boxes that tend to be less deep than the brood chamber and correspondingly hold smaller frames. They are smaller because the bees fill them with honey and, when full, they can be extremely heavy. A National super will hold up to 15kg of honey whereas a National brood box would hold up to 25kg of honey and is difficult to lift. Supers need to be removed when the colony is being inspected and if they are very heavy can be dangerous to lift and may cause back (and other) problems for the beekeeper.

Crown board

The crown board is a framed sheet of plywood or similar material that goes over the top of the colony. It defines the limit of the colony. There are many designs of crown board: some have holes in the top to aid ventilation while others are modified to serve other purposes, such as acting as dividers when the beekeeper is controlling the process of swarming.

Roof

The roof fits over the crown board and provides weather protection to the hive. It is quite heavy and ideally built with deep sides so that it is unlikely to be blown off. The top is usually made of a metal sheet that stops water penetrating. There can be insulation inside the roof to reduce heat loss; this is particularly helpful in the winter when heat retention is important.

Frames

The design of modern hives relies on bees making the wax comb on frames that can be removed without killing the bees or damaging the frame. The most common hives use a frame with a top bar, two side bars and a bottom bar that provide a convenient rectangular area for the bees to produce comb. However, some types of hive, such as the Top Bar hive and the Warre hive provide only a top bar from which the bees will hang the wax comb. In all cases the spacing between the frames is designed to encourage the bees to make a single sheet of comb on each frame and, hopefully, not to join adjacent sheets. It is a good idea to purchase the wooden frames from specialist beekeeping suppliers, as the dimensions need to be accurate and the shape of some of the pieces is complex. The frames are sup-type needs to be treated with a wax wash or covered in sugar syrup to encourage the bees to accept the foundation and build wax comb on the frame.

Frame with foundation

Foundation

The foundation consists of a thin sheet of beeswax that is embossed with hexagons on both sides to provide the bees with a substrate on which to build wax comb. The foundation is fixed into the frames and when placed in the hive encourages the bees to build comb on the frames rather than in other places. Using this method results in a series of wooden frames that can easily be removed to inspect the colony and then replaced in their original positions. Wax foundation is made from beeswax reclaimed by beekeepers and supplied to companies that clean and purify it before forming it into foundation. It can be supplied 'unwired' or 'wired'. Because wax foundation is thin and not very strong it may sag in the frame; thin wire is embedded into the foundation to provide extra strength. Once the bees have drawn out the foundation and created hexagonal cells on each side the sheet becomes far more rigid and is able to maintain its shape.

Wired foundation can also be useful in the frames that are used to collect honey. The most common way to remove honey from the wax comb is to place it in an extractor (a device that spins the frame in a similar way to a spin dryer); the force exerted on the wax in an extractor can be such that without the wire the wax comb may break and detach from the frame.

It is not always necessary to use foundation as a substrate for the bees to make wax comb. Some beekeepers will allow the bees to make their own substrate by providing a bead of wax along the underside of the top bar. The bees will use this bead as an anchor and draw wax comb down along this line.

This method is popular with beekeepers that use top bar hives and also beekeepers that make honey crops from oilseed rape. This kind of honey crystallises quickly in the comb and can be difficult to remove. Once crystallised the honey is removed with the wax and then separated at a later stage.

Hive materials

Most beehives are made of wood, primarily because it is easily machined to the dimensions required, and provides protection from the environment. As a natural material, wood is quite acceptable to colonies and when cedar is used, the material is naturally rot-proof and will last for many years. Beehives can be painted but only on the outside; the inside is better coated with propolis and wax by the bees. If microporous paint is used, the paint will remain on the hive without bubbling and can be refreshed quite simply following a quick clean. The application of insecticides to the hive to protect the wood from boring insects (woodworm) should be done with caution, as many wood preservatives are toxic to bees. Before using any preservative you should always ensure that it is not harmful to bees.

Besides wood, beehives can be made of many other materials as long as they are weatherproof and not harmful to the bees. Plastic and expanded polystyrene hives are available and these have the added advantages that they are light and provide better insulation from cold weather. There are some drawbacks in that they can be more difficult to sterilise if there is an outbreak of disease in the hive while the light construction can mean that the material may be damaged when disassembling the hive as bees often stick components of the hive together.

When purchasing hives, a beekeeper must weigh up the pros and cons for his or her particular situation. Cedar wood components are expensive but will last for many years whereas expanded polystyrene hives are less expensive but may not last as long. When starting beekeeping it is always best to join a local group and ask for local advice. Generally it is better to use hives of the same design as your colleagues so that you have their expertise to draw on in the event of a problem.

Excerpt from the book: The bbka guide to beekeeping

Bee equipment - beekeeping - JaHan Ltd.. All for European beekeepers.