Are you concerned about the decline of the bee? Do you worry what will happen if bees just suddenly cease to exist?
Bees are essential pollinators, and there’s a big argument to suggest that we’re in big trouble without them.
According to Greenpeace, bee numbers have been in decline since the late 1990s, when beekeepers around the world spotted a mysterious and somewhat abrupt disappearance of the bees from their hives.
While there’s no single cause that can be attributed with any absolute certainty for the unexplained decline, other than the proclivity of certain pesticides, one thing is for sure -
More of us need to become beekeepers to protect bee populations.
The Insider's Guide to Types of Beehives
Beekeeping (aka apiculture) is the care of colonies of honey bees, generally maintained in man-made hives. Some beekeepers keep bees to harvest their honey; others keep bees just to help support healthy populations.
A brief history of beekeeping
One of the earliest depictions of beekeeping can be found in Spanish Levantine rock-art from around 8,000 BC. The North Africans introduced beekeeping in pottery cases around 9,000 years ago, and there’s also evidence that the ancient Egyptians used domesticated beekeeping to harvest honey from roughly 4,500 years ago.
What were the first rudimentary beehives?
Pottery vessels were the first known man-made beehives. Smoke was used (as it is today) to placate the angry bees, and the “nectar of the gods” that was collected was stored in jars. Jars of honey were found at Tutankhamen’s shrine. However, the extraction of the honey often resulted in the destruction of the colony.
In the 18th century, beekeeping was adopted in Europe, along with the introduction of the removable-comb hive which allowed us to harvest honey without destroying the colony. So, beekeeping became as much about conservation, as it did about harvesting.
The Langstroth Hive
Initially developed by Rev. L. L. Langstroth in 1852, the Langstroth beehive is probably the most commonly seen - vertically stacked boxes (or “supers”) with removable frames. The modern Langstroth hive looks decidedly different to the one designed by the great reverend, but the principle is pretty much the same.
Langstroth’s central revelation regards what is known as “beespace”. He observed that whenever bees were restricted to an area of less than 9mm, they were unable to build comb. So, effectively, the frame modules are removable because the bees are unable to “cement” the frame in place.
The Langstroth hive is expandable and often made of pine, which needs to be treated to resist rotting. It comprises of three sections - the lower section, the boxes, and the upper section.
The lower section
The hive sits on a base-board (often just a standard wooden palette) that creates a gap underneath the body-proper of the beehive so that the bees can enter and leave. Some bottom boards are screened to prevent mite infestation.
Boxes or “supers”
This is where we get the party started. Brood, propolis, pollen, honey and the bees themselves all co-habit in perfect harmony inside one or more boxes.
Beekeepers can add more boxes as time progresses to encourage the growth of the colony. Langstroth boxes usually come in a standard length and width, but they vary in their depth. A deep box is generally around 25.5cm in depth, while a medium box is 17cm, and a shallow box is 15cm.
Where there are two boxes placed on top of each other, the lower box is used for bees to raise new brood, and usually consists of a deep or medium box.
The frames that slide into the box can get very heavy - so, for non-commercial beekeeping, it’s most common to use a shallow box for honey collection, and a deep or medium box for the brood.
10-frame boxes are typical for commercial apiculture, while 8-frames are generally used by the hobbyist / non-commercial keeper.
The top of the hive consists of an internal cover which protects the colony from the elements, and a top cover that completes the overall structure. The inner cover sometimes contains a gap for the bees to use as an upper entrance.
The frame is an oblong wooden construction that usually contains a foundation mesh, covered with a wax coating - this is where the bees create the honey. Some beekeepers prefer to use a foundationless frame.
Advantages of the Langstroth Hive
Langstroth hives are considered to encourage a good potential honey yield. The colony is not harmed during the honey harvest, and they can last for years if the wood is weather-proofed.
Langstroth hives are expandable, by the addition of extra boxes. The Langstroth standard is used by manufacturers all around the world, meaning that a beehive can be built from components from different manufacturers because the sizes are compatible.
The Langstroth size-standard means that economy of scale has reduced the price of Langstroth hives. They are also one of the most familiar hive-types, common amongst beekeeping club members, providing a universal language for sharing information and opinions.
Disadvantages of the Langstroth Hive
The boxes can be cumbersome, especially the 10-frame type. Moving a box is a delicate operation, so it’s important to consider the manageability of the weight of the super.
The brood box is usually placed at the bottom of the box stack. This can make inspection difficult because there is a lot of lifting to do.
Some consider the Langstroth hive the ugly sister of the hive world. Obviously, this is entirely subjective, but might be a consideration if you are thinking about taking up the hobby.
The Langstroth hive is, by some, considered to be a little invasive - the removal of the top lid of the hive can stress the bees, and when it comes to stacking the boxes, it can be difficult to avoid crushing bees that might be in the way. All very stressful for the bees!
The Top-Bar Hive
The Top-Bar Hive (TBH) is considered by some to be the more natural method of beekeeping. The hive consists of a single, long box, containing bars as opposed to frames; the bees create combs which hang from the bars. The body of the hive is typically rectangular and twice as wide as the Langstroth. Top-Bar beekeeping interferes little with the colony.
Top-Bar hives are formatted horizontally and rely on the natural formation of combs, rather than the use of foundations as with Langstroth hives. The combs of a TBH are irregular in shape and hang downwards from the single bar.
The advantages of the top-bar hive
There’s very little heavy lifting with TBHs, and so can be a favorable method for those who are likely to struggle with Langstroth supers. The hive can be placed at a good height for the keeper - many come with adjustable legs.
The simplistic design is appealing - there is far less danger of damaging the bees in the way that the Langstroth box can do when joining the hive back together. It takes fewer materials to build and is much easier to construct than a Langstroth.
The design encourages a more natural approach to beekeeping, by allowing the bees to create their own comb.
You’re only ever lifting one bar at a time which is less invasive for the bees.
The TBH is quite inexpensive to set up and can be built by anyone with a little know-how. They can be constructed from scrap wood
The disadvantages of the top-bar hive
The designs are not standardized, as in the Langstroth hive - the dimension of each hive could be different. You can shop around for Langstroth parts - the TBH is more bespoke, and there is no dimensional standard.
If the top-bar hive is too small, the bees will struggle to produce honey. You should consider a 1m long hive to be the minimum if you’re hoping to harvest honey. Wide and shallow is better than narrow and deep - the bees make combs according to the depth of the hive - longer combs are less stable.
The single bar holding the comb is much lighter than the weight of the entire Langstroth super, but the comb is more delicate as it’s only supported along the single bar.
It’s easy for a novice beekeeper to damage the comb when extracting the honey - there’s not really a good way of reattaching broken combs. The top-bar comb requires the beekeeper to develop high levels of skill in handling very early on, which puts some people off from pursuing the TBH.
TBHs tend to produce less honey than the Langstroth, but you can harvest the beeswax, which can be processed or sold. Clean beeswax, free of chemicals, can be sold for a higher price than honey.
The Warré Hive (pro. War-ray)
The Warré hive was developed by Abbé Émile Warré (that’s lots of accents!) towards the end of the 19th century, as a response to the decline in French beekeeping of the era. He experimented with a wide range of designs and eventually decided upon the design that we commonly know as the Warré Hive.
Warré called his invention “The People’s Hive” as his aim was to design a hive that was simple, economical to build and take care of, natural and bee-friendly. Warré hives are considered to be easy to construct with easily-accessed materials, and designed to require less maintenance.
Warre hives are frameless - the bees use top-bars to create their own comb. They are an excellent choice for anyone wishing to keep bees naturally, without using harsh chemicals or medications.
The construction of the Warré hive
The Warré hive is built from tiers of identically-sized boxes, stacked on top of each other.
The roof is a ventilated “loft” space, built into a gable. This sits on top of a box containing a quilt, often made with wood shavings, straw, and sawdust, insulating and protecting the hives below.
The hive body-boxes are generally 300x300x210mm, with protruding handles for easy lifting. Each box holds typically 8 top-bars. These boxes are much lighter than the Langstroth super.
Honey is harvested from the Warré hive by draining the combs.
The advantages of the Warré hive
The inexpensive design and build of the Warré hive are one of its main benefits. The 30cm length of the top-bar used in a Warré hive is similar to the “natural” tree hive so provides a more natural habitat for the colony.
The quilt box underneath the gable roof absorbs moisture away from the hive, preventing wet, frozen bees during winter, and hive mould in the summer.
You can expect as much honey from a Warré hive as a Langstroth.
The bees are encouraged to build combs downwards, which is how they produce them in the wild.
The disadvantages of the Warré hive
The Warré hive is a little more complicated to build than the more straightforward TBH. And when adding new boxes, they are placed at the bottom of the hive, which can require some considerable lifting power.
The comb is more fragile than the comb developed in the foundation frame. Like the TBH, combs can be easily damaged. This can slow down honey production.
The Warré hive can be more laborious to “split” than the Langstroth and is more difficult to treat against mites.
The Warré box is heavier than the individual bars of the Top-Bar Hive.
Beekeeping is big business. In North America, there around 125,000 beekeepers, although the majority of these are hobbyists with less than 25 hives each. A commercial beekeeper is considered to have 300 or more hives.
Many commercial beekeepers in the US migrate their colonies to provide pollination to farmers, which in turn, provides a rich source of nectar and nutrition for the bees.
Large-scale honey-making uses similar methods as small-scale beekeeping, just on a larger scale. Extraction from the comb often requires a large centrifugal spinner, and various industrial-scale machines to extract the honey from the wax.
How is technology influencing beekeeping?
The fundamental processes behind beekeeping have changed little over the last one-hundred years, but technology has more recently developed methods of beekeeping that have more significant benefit to the colony.
Smart hives are a recent innovation, weighing and monitoring hive weight and brood nest temperature, measuring humidity and even acoustically scanning the hive for signs of problems.
The infra-red technology uses heat detection cameras to monitor the internal temperature of the hive, helping to ascertain the health of the hive.
The Flow Hive
The “Flow Hive” has made harvesting honey much less intrusive for the bees and less strenuous for the beekeepers, requiring no smoke to extract the honey.
The bees create their honey in foundation cells are usual. To extract the honey, you turn a switch, and the walls of the cells move, creating a channel for the honey contained within to drip down to the bottom, through a tap, and into a jar.
This method prevents damage to the bees.
There are three main types of beehive that are in widespread usage - the Langstroth, the Top-Bar, and the Warré, although technology is making way for new methods that work in greater harmony with the bees, such as the Flow Hive.
The general aim of the beekeeper should be to protect the colony while extracting the honey in such as a way as to protect the bees. Each beehive type has their pros and cons - if you are hoping to explore the more natural method of beekeeping, then the Top-Bar or the Warré hives could be your choice.
If, however, you are aiming for the most abundant possible yield, the Langstroth hive might be your choice - but bear in mind that the frames and the supers are heavy - a full, medium depth 8-frame box can weigh up to 31kg!