Choosing the Right Type of Beehive

Beehives between lavender and sunflower fields on the Plateau de Valensole
Jason Langley / Getty Images

When you are getting started in beekeeping, one of the most important choices is the type of beehive you'll use. There are several types, and your choice should be carefully made, since your choice 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.

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    Ten-Frame Langstroth Hive

    Langstroth hive
    carbonnyc/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    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. The bottom levels are boxes structured to allow brooding space for the bees, while the upper boxes are structured to hold wooden frames for the bees to fill with comb and honey. This style is called "ten-frame" because the interior of each hive contains ten frames for holding honey.

    Pros

    • This is the most common system and considered the universal beekeeping standard.
    • This is an excellent system where maximum honey-production is desired.
    • Most "old-school" beekeepers and commercial beekeepers in the U.S. use this style, and the techniques have been perfected over many years.
    • Supplies and informational support are easy to find.

    Cons

    • The system is bulky, and beekeepers find themselves storing extra parts.
    • The frames are heavy, each weighing upwards of 60 pounds.
    • The artificial cell size may contribute to health issues for the bees.
    • Beekeepers may need to smoke bees to calm them enough to work with them.
    • Working causes more disruption to the hive.
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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 hive full of honey, it will weigh only about 30 pounds, instead of 60 pounds for a ten-frame medium super.

    Pros

    • Same benefits as a ten-frame Langstroth hive, familiar setup as far as boxes and frames.
    • Smaller hives are lighter and easier to work with.

    Cons

    • 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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    Top-Bar Hive

    Top-bar hives are becoming more popular with backyard enthusiasts and sustainable farmers. It is the oldest and 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 very natural activity. There are no frames used, and no foundation required to keep the hive level. The bars are usually 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 of course 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

    • The design allows the bees to make comb with a natural shape and cell size.
    • This is a relatively inexpensive form of beekeeping.
    • The hive is light and easy to work with. The bars are light and easy to remove for inspection and harvesting.
    • Working is less disruptive to bees—you don't need smoke or full bee suit.
    • This design is suitable for people with disabilities or mobility issues.

    Cons

    • The bees can die in cold winters.
    • Combs can break off or form improperly.
    • You may have trouble finding local support for this type of beekeeping.
    • Ventilation can be poor if the hive is not built properly.
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    Warré Hive

    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 allows 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 foundationless system is more natural for bees.
    • The size and shape of the hive are more natural for bees, providing better overwintering and use of stores.
    • The system is appealing to those interested in more natural styles of beekeeping.

    Cons

    • The top bars cannot be removed for inspection of the hive.
    • This design is Illegal in some states (some state laws require movable comb hives).
    • Because the system is somewhat uncommon, information on how to manage the hives may be difficult to come by.
    • The system does not use the standard equipment used in other styles of beekeeping.