Keeping honeybees is an ancient tradition dating back seven thousand years. Honeybees have been domestically housed in clay pots, mud covered grass baskets, hollow logs and skeps woven with straw. As the science of beekeeping and honey production has developed, so have the housing options for beekeepers and their honeybees.
When you are starting out, one of the most important choices is the type of beehive you'll use. There are several types in use today and any one you choose will involve an investment of money as well as an investment in learning the techniques for that particular method of beekeeping.
Most beginning beekeepers will opt between a Langstroth-style hive and a top-bar hive, but an increasingly popular form is the Warré hive, a modified, vertical version of the top-bar design. Whatever style you choose to begin your hobby, it's a good idea to start small, so that if you decide to shift methods, you won't have wasted too much money or effort.
Here are four common types of beehives to choose from as you begin beekeeping.
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Ten-Frame Langstroth Hive
The stacked white boxes that most people envision when they think of beekeeping are called Langstroth hives, a style developed by the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth (1810 to 1895), a native of Philadelphia, in 1851. This design consists of square boxes stacked atop one another and topped by a protective, vented roof. Honeybees tend to move up as the hive expands, so two 9-19/32" boxes, often called "deeps" are stacked on top of each other to accomodate the bees, comb, brood and food. During the nectar flow, shorter boxes, called "honey supers may be added on top which is where the bees store extra honey. This is the honey the beekeeper will harvest. This style is called "ten-frame" because the interior of each box contains ten frames that each hold a sheet of stamped beeswax foundation on which the bees draw out the honeycomb. Langstroth developed his method after studying "bee space.." Honeybees are extremely efficient and Langstroth found that the bees function best with 3/8" of space between the frames to construct comb in a uniform manner.Pros
The drawn out comb can be reused following honey extraction which means the bees do not have to devote energy and resources rebuilding the comb.
Supplies and informational support are easy to find.
This is an excellent system where maximum honey-production is desired.
This is the most common system and considered the universal beekeeping standard.
Most "old-school" beekeepers and commercial beekeepers in the U.S. use this style, and the techniques have been perfected over many years.
Working causes more disruption to the hive.
Deep frames are heavy, each weighing upwards of 60 pounds.
The system is bulky, requiring additional equipment like bottom boards, inner covers and entrance reducers. Beekeepers need space for storing extra parts.
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Eight-Frame Langstroth Hive
Eight-frame hives work just like the ten-frame Langstroth hives in terms of structure, but each box is slightly smaller, holding only eight frames instead of ten. What does this mean? When you lift a medium super full of honey, it will weigh only about 15 pounds, instead of 20-30 pounds for a ten-frame medium super.Pros
Smaller hives are lighter and easier to work with.
Same benefits as a ten-frame Langstroth hive, familiar setup as far as boxes and frames.
Parts are not interchangeable with ten-frame equipment.
The system is still relatively uncommon, and supplies may be more difficult to find.
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The top-bar hive is becoming more popular with backyard enthusiasts and sustainable farmers. It is the most commonly used style in the world. In this design, a set of horizontal bars is set across a trough-shaped hive protected by a hinged or removable cover, and bees build their comb downward from these bars, a natural activity. There are no frames used, just simple wooden wedges or strips that slide into slots to ensure they hang straight. A top-bar hive is fairly easy to build yourself, although commercial top-bar hives are available.
In more elaborate versions of this style, the brooding area for the bees is established by a divider board that confines the first 8 to 10 bars adjacent to the opening of the hive, where the bees enter and exit. As the colony grows, and comb and honey fill the bars, the divider board is moved laterally and more bars are added. Harvesting is a matter of simply lifting out the bars once they are covered with honey-filled comb.Pros
This is a relatively inexpensive form of beekeeping.
This design is suitable for people with disabilities or mobility issues.
The hive is light and easy to work with. The bars are light and are designed to be removed for inspection and harvesting.
Removing frames for Inspection is problematic when bees attach comb to the insides of the hive.
Combs can break off or form improperly.
The comb will likely be destroyed when honey is extracted. This means the bees must use more resources to rebuild comb which can reduce honey production.
Ventilation can be poor if the hive is not built properly.
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A Warré hive is sometimes described as a top-bar hive that is set up in vertically. This style, developed in France by Emile Warré (1867 to 1951), uses a stack of small, square hive boxes that have top bars rather than frames to hold the comb. There is usually no foundation with this style of hive. It also uses a unique style of hive cover: a quilt filled with sawdust or wood shaving, and a vented, angled roof. This is supposed to provide superior moisture management, as the sawdust-filled quilt absorbs moisture that can then escape via the roof.
In this design, the bees build comb from the top bars downward into each box. As more space is needed, additional boxes can be added to the bottom of the hive. Thus, the upper boxes are the first to fill with honey.
Warré hives are designed for minimal inspections by the beekeeper. You cannot remove bars for inspection in a traditional Warré hive because as the bees build comb, they attach it to the inside of the hive walls. The cavity size is meant to allow the bees to consume their winter stores more efficiently and the overall design is meant to keep the bees warmer in cold climates.
Harvesting is a matter of removing upper boxes once they are full of honey. Bees are allowed to escape or are removed from the open box, then the comb is cut away from the bars and the honey pressed out. Harvesting is done in later summer or fall to ensure the boxes are full and that brooding bees have moved to lower boxes.
Although these hives are not as common as Langstroth or even top-bar hives, they are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, especially among hobbyist beekeepers who want to do things in a more "natural" way.Pros
Minimal inspections are required.
The foundation-less system is more natural for bees.
The system is appealing to those interested in more natural styles of beekeeping.
The size and shape of the hive are more natural for bees, providing better overwintering and use of stores.
The top bars cannot be removed for inspection of the hive because the bees attach comb to the insides of the box.
The Queen can access all frames for laying brood which complicates and fouls the honey crop.
The comb is destroyed when honey is extracted. This means the bees must use more resources to rebuild comb which can reduce honey production.
This design is Illegal in some states (some state laws require movable comb hives).
The system does not use the standard equipment used in other styles of beekeeping.
Because the system is somewhat uncommon, information on how to manage the hives may be difficult to come by.
Beekeeping is as much an art as it is a science. Many technological advances have been introduced including new types of hives, methods of inspection, honey extraction and much more. For the backyard hobbyist, learning the basics of colony structure and behavior is the first step in becoming a successful beekeeper. The best way to learn the basics is to observe and work hands on with your bees.
Decide how much time and effort you want to devote to beekeeping and this will help determine what type of set up will best serve your purposes.
Buchanan, Stephen. Letters From the Hive. Bantam Books 2005. ISBN 0-553-80375-1
Graham, Joe. The Hive and the Honey Bee rv. 2010 Dadant and Sons. ISBN 0-915698-09-0. p. 538