Field Guide to Beekeeping

October 2014

Hive Choice and Configuration


Open any beekeeping equipment catalogue and you will be inundated with all types of hive types and configurations. The overwhelming number of options is compounded further when you ask another beekeeper what hive configuration you should use. Are you going to use double deeps, single deeps with excluders, multiple shallow or medium supers, Langstroth hives, top bar hives, etc.? Beekeepers have many options when deciding what type of hive and hive components should form the basis of their beekeeping operations. You are, of course, free to choose the hive style configuration you like. You should remember to choose the design that you want, a design that will complement your beekeeping style and goals. I hope this article will help you make an informed decision.
In general, there are eight major decisions you will need to make when determining what type of colony you wish to manage. These decisions are: (1) type of hive, (2) hive configuration, (3) hive construction materials, (4) number of frames to use in the equipment, (5) the type of foundation to use in the frames, (6) whether or not to use queen excluders, (7) the type of bottom board you will use, and (8) the type of hive lid you will use.

(1) Type of hive
There are a number of hive types used by beekeepers in the U.S. and around the world. I will limit my discussion to only a few of the available types, namely the Langstroth colony, top bar hives, Warré hives, and other, miscellaneous, hive types.

A) Langstroth hives - I discussed Langstroth hives (Figure 1) in detail in my March 2014 ABJ article so I will not review these hives in any great depth here. This hive is the U.S.-standard hive that beekeepers use; its basic design is used around the world. It is not the only hive design used around the world, but it possibly is the most popular design.
The basic premise of the Langstroth hive is that a single box contains movable frames and that multiple boxes (supers) can be added to the single box as the colony population grows. The frames and other parts of the hive are movable because the internal components of the colony are constructed to take advantage of “bee space.” Bee space is a gap size (3/8 inch) in which bees will not build comb or place propolis. This, then, keeps bees from fastening all of the hive components together with wax and/or propolis. Thus, the frames can be removed from the colony and the supers pried apart easily.
Langstroth hives are easy to find, purchase, assemble, and support, largely because of their popularity and widespread use. Furthermore, the standardized size of Langstroth colonies generally allows beekeepers to purchase hive equipment from multiple equipment manufacturers with reasonable assurances that the hive components will fit together as if they were manufactured by the same vendor. Finally, and with no disrespect to the other hive designs, Langstroth hives have been used by hobbyist and commercial beekeepers alike. The hive’s design has been tested under all conditions and vetted by scores of beekeepers. I, personally, do not think that any other hive design rivals the general use and functionality of the Langstroth hive, though I know many people would argue that point.  Regardless, my discussion of the points associated with one’s choice of a hive style will proceed under the assumption that most beekeepers will elect to use Langstroth hives.

B) Warré and top bar hives – I grouped these two hive designs because they share some similarities and because they probably are the second most popular hive types in the U.S. Do not hear me wrong; far more people in the U.S. use Langstroth colonies than any other hive type. Top bar and Warré hives are a distant second and third, respectively, hive type used by beekeepers. Both hive types are based on the top bar approach. Top bar colonies do not use the traditional frames that are present in Langstroth hives and their relatives. Rather, the bees are placed in the hives and given only a series of top bars from which the bees suspend their combs. These hives typically do not contain foundation so the beekeepers have to use management techniques to encourage the bees to suspend one comb per top bar rather than across many.
Top bar, or Kenyan, hives are oriented horizontally. Thus, colonies expand backwards from the colony entrance, this facilitated by the addition of more top bars behind the existing top bars. These hives are popular among some hobbyists, but rarely among commercial beekeepers, though I do know a couple of commercial beekeepers who prefer to use these hives. In contrast to top bar hives, Warré hives are oriented vertically. Consequently, supers can be added as the colony grows, though these supers usually are added below the brood nest rather than above it as in Langstroth hives. I was made aware of Warré hives only a few years ago. However, I regularly get questions regarding this hive type when I travel to and speak at various beekeeper meetings. Therefore, it seems to be gaining in popularity.
The proponents of both hive types report countless benefits using one hive or the other, including that these hives are cheaper to build and manage. Most of the purported benefits center on the idea that keeping bees in these hives is more “natural” than keeping bees in Langstroth style hives. I submit to you that beekeeping ceases to be natural the moment one takes a colony out of a tree and inserts it into any manmade box. Be that as it may, there is not much data to support the claims made by users of top bar and Warré hives. This does not mean that the colonies do not live up to the hype. It only means that there are not much data available to support the hype. Perhaps one day, rigorous studies will be conducted on the hive types and the data compared to like data from Langstroth colonies. Regardless, those interested in keeping bees with top bar or Warré hives might consider purchasing and reading the following two guides.
- Mangum, W. 2012. Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure Combined. Stinging Drone Publications, Bowling Green, Virginia, USA. 411 pp.
- Heaf, D. 2013. Natural Beekeeping with the Warré Hive. Northern Bee Books, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, UK. 106 pp.

C) Miscellaneous hive types – This is the catch-all category of hive designs. There are two basic categories: (1) moveable frame hives and (2) fixed comb hives. To be honest, almost every country and/or region has its own unique hive type. For example, the British Standard National hive is popular in the United Kingdom, but is virtually unused in the U.S. Thus, it would be hard to purchase and maintain with additional equipment since the hive and its components are largely unobtainable in the U.S. Then, there are the WBC hives, Long Box Hive, etc. Many of these are based on the movable frame concept, but they would be impossible to support unless one made their own equipment.
There are two main types of fixed comb hives. These include log hives (or “gums”) and skeps. I group these hive styles together, not because they are similar in design, but rather because my comments about both are similar. Log hives are basically hollowed tree trunks that are fixed on the ground or in another accessible location. Skeps, one of the oldest manmade hive designs, are woven hives that resemble upside-down baskets with a hole at the base. The premise of both log hives and skeps is that you dump in a swarm of bees and away they go. The bees fix their comb to the top and walls of the hives. The combs are not removable and the colonies are not managed easily. For these reasons, the ownership and maintenance of log hives and/or skeps is illegal in many states. Both are novelties and cannot be used in management-intensive situations.
Many of you have chosen or will choose to use Langstroth-style hives. This is, after all, the popular choice. A smaller subset will choose top bar or Warré hives. I, personally, believe that you can use what you want to use. I am biased toward Langstroth hives, largely due to their ease-of-use and general availability. That said, I respect the approach of beekeepers who use the lesser known hive styles. If you are on the fence with what style to choose, I recommend that you get one or two of a couple of types of hives and try them for yourself. No one knows what you will like better than you do! Nevertheless, I will progress through the rest of this article assuming that you chose Langstroth hives; after all, most of you will.

(2) Hive configuration
My definition of “hive configuration” is the approach you take with the boxes when developing the hive you manage. For example, many beekeepers run (a beekeeper term for “use”) single deeps. This simply means that they have a single deep brood chamber serving as the core structure of their colonies. On the other hand, ...