Field Guide to Beekeeping
The Langstroth Hive
by Jamie Ellis
Managed honey bees have lived in a number of different types of hives designed by beekeepers over the last couple of centuries. The early hives were simply cavities of any type into which beekeepers would install a swarm of bees. Though honey bees will readily nest in many types of cavities provided to them, one cannot manage a colony easily if it is allowed to make comb in any direction it wishes. Given the choice, bees will attach comb to the ceiling of their home and layer it vertically in sheets as the hive grows. Beekeepers wanting to work these colonies and harvest the honey they contained had to disturb the bees significantly. Entire combs often were cut out of a target hive, sometimes leading to the colony’s demise. Beekeepers and hive architects developed a number of hive styles in response to the problem of destructively harvesting honey from colonies. Any review of bee hive development over the years will yield interesting information (and photographs) about the history of hive design. Ultimately, the bee hive went through many prototypes before arriving at the type of colony most beekeepers use today.
The most commonly-used, “modern” bee hive was designed by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in the mid-to-late 1800’s. Langstroth was a minister, but he also indulged in the art of beekeeping. He is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Beekeeping” or the “Father of American Beekeeping”. Langstroth’s contribution to hive design rested on a simple observation: worker honey bees do not put wax or propolis in spaces that are 3/8 inch. This distance is now called “bee space”. Due to his observation, Langstroth designed a hive that has internal spacing between all of its components of 3/8 inch, thus making it possible to remove the combs from the colony without them being destroyed. Langstroth developed the first truly successful “movable-frame hive”.
Figure 1 shows the typical Langstroth hive arrangement used by many beekeepers. It is important to remember throughout my discussion of the Langstroth hive that beekeeping is both a profession and an art. As such, opinions vary considerably about the approach to using the various hive components. I simply describe herein the most common parts of a Langstroth hive. Furthermore, the names for each piece of the hive vary somewhat by the region of the U.S. where the piece is used. I try to include as many common names for each piece of equipment as possible, recognizing that I, undoubtedly, will omit some of the names inadvertently.
All hives are covered by lids (or covers) that protect the hive from the elements. Beekeepers use two major styles of lids on their hives. They are shown in Figure 2 and are the telescoping cover (outer cover) or migratory cover (migratory lid). Telescoping covers are usually covered by a thin piece of sheet metal that offers added protection against the elements. They are called “telescoping” covers because they protrude past (or “telescope”) and hang over the edge of the hive. These lids must be used in conjunction with inner covers (Figure 3) because of bees’ copious use of propolis (a sticky mixture of various plant saps and resins). Bees will glue the lid to the frames underneath it using propolis. Because telescoping covers hang over the edges of the uppermost super, one cannot easily pry such a cover from the frames if it is glued to them, hence the need for an inner cover. Inner covers fit flush with the uppermost super so they can be pried from the frames below. Most inner covers also contain a hole that accommodates the Porter bee escape, a device used as a one-way valve for limiting bee return to the area left when traversing the escape. The inner cover also can aid in the upward ventilation of a colony if a notch is cut in its rim. Air can leave the colony first through the hole that accommodates the bee escape and then through the notch in the rim.
The benefits of telescoping covers/inner covers lie with their sturdiness and resistance to the elements. Commercial beekeepers typically do not like to use them because they are bulky and expensive compared to the alternative lid style available. Furthermore, the telescoping nature of the lids does not allow colonies to be stacked close to one another, thus resulting in a loss of space efficiency when loading colonies on a vehicle to move them.
Many beekeepers use migratory lids (Figure 2), so named because they facilitate the migratory nature of some bee hives. The migratory lid lies flush on the uppermost super so colonies can be stacked tightly together on a moving truck. Migratory lids often contain a hole into which an inverted jar can be placed for purposes of feeding bees. The lid of the feed jar (pointing down into the colony) contains small holes from which the bees can drink sugar water or corn syrup.
Langstroth hives are composed of a series of stackable boxes that can be added or removed as the hive grows or shrinks respectively. The boxes are called a number of different names (see Table 1). However, they are typically referred to as “supers” when used for honey production or “brood box” when they house a laying queen and the resulting brood. They may even be called “hive bodies” since they constitute the external, physical structure of the hives. The name “super” likely comes from the idea that more of the boxes can be added to the top of a colony. Beekeepers use “super” as a noun (the physical box) and a verb (to “super” a colony is to add more boxes to it).
There are three heights of boxes used for the Langstroth hive. They are the deep, medium (or Illinois) and shallow boxes. Most typical hive arrangements (such as that shown in Figure 1) have 1-2 deep boxes used as the brood chamber(s) and 1+ honey supers which are usually shallow or medium supers. That convention is changing today as many people find it easier to work colonies composed strictly of shallow or medium boxes. A full deep box can weigh 60+ lbs, depending on the comb contents (brood, honey, etc.). Full shallow and medium boxes weigh significantly less. Some people, such as children and the elderly, find colonies composed exclusively of these two box types to be more conducive to hive management.
The boxes are made to accommodate “frames” and the industry standard box has room for 10 frames. Many beekeepers are beginning to use 8-frame boxes due to the lighter weight of the resulting colony. One final note: I recommend that beekeepers not use shallow AND medium supers in their operations. Shallow frames can fit in medium supers, leading to management inconveniences further down the road. Beekeepers typically choose one or the other box to use, but not both.
The beauty of the Langstroth colony .....