Cover Story

 August 2015


Taking Measure of Bee Space

by Peter Loring Borst


The Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth is remembered chiefly for the hive that bears his name, the Langstroth hive. However, its design is based on his most important discovery: bee space. What is this space and what is so important about it?

A Little History
People have been aware of this space for as long as honey bees have been kept in hives. The Greeks equipped hives with bars under which the bees were induced to build their combs, giving beekeepers a significant amount of control. These hives were similar to present day “top bar hives.” With such hives, the beekeeper can inspect the brood, find the queen, remove honey, and even make divisions by removing combs of brood and bees.
In short, most of the activities we do with frame hives can be done with bar hives. The chief difficulty with most bar hives is that the bees fasten the combs to the walls of the hive, so that the beekeeper has to cut them out in order to remove them. Cutting combs is annoying to the bees and can cause a lot of honey to run all over the place, making bee work a sticky mess.

Frame hives had been around for a long time, but most of them were difficult to operate. The problem with early frame hives was not just the comb cutting but the fact that bees tend to propolize (glue) everything together and render the various parts unmovable. For example, the famous “leaf-hive” of Huber allowed complete access to the inner workings of the colony. The hive consisted of hinged frames in which the combs were built but when closed, the frames touched each other on all surfaces. There was no outer box; rather, when the hive was closed, the frames became the enclosure. The bees tried to glue everything shut to prevent moisture and pests from entering through any cracks or openings, and to stabilize the hive parts. Essentially, the hive had to be pried open each time. Bees are very annoyed by the cracking and snapping of stuck together hive parts.

The Rev. Langstroth experimented with the many hives of the day; he was an avid reader and knew of the experiments in Europe. He was aware of the hives of Prokopovych, Berlepsch, Dzierzon, and so forth. Many of these were in widespread use, which is a testimony to the ingenuity and determination of beekeeping pioneers. One of the most successful beekeepers of the late 1800s was John Harbison, who was among the first beekeepers in California. He had hundreds of frame hives, which opened from the side like the European hives. Back-opening hives are still common in Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia.

Langstroth was committed to a top-opening hive. His early hives were basically bar hives in wooden boxes. The chief difficulties were, as I mentioned, cutting the combs loose and also, the problem of the bees gluing the cover down to the frames, so that removing the hive top was a challenge. In Langstroth’s early hives, the bars were flush with the top, leaving no spaces between them and the hive cover. One way to get around this problem, which is still employed today, is the use of a quilt or cloth over the top of the frames. Various styles have been used, such as enameled canvas, plastic sheets, or even burlap sacks. The cloth is laid over the top of the frames or bars, and the wooden hive top is placed over this. The hive top is easily removed, without the annoying prying which ensues when the lid is stuck down. The inner cloth is easily peeled back to reveal the frames or bars.

The Eureka Moment
Over time, Langstroth understood that if the clearance between the top bars and the lid was just so, the bees would neither propolize the gap, nor build excess comb, both of which interfere with the ease of opening the hive. In his own words:

Returning late in the afternoon from the apiary, which I had established some two miles from my city home, and pondering, as I had so often done before, how I could get rid of the disagreeable necessity of cutting the attachments of the combs from the walls of the hives, and rejecting, for obvious reasons, the plan of uprights, close fitting (or nearly so) to these walls, the almost self-evident idea of using the same bee-space as in the shallow chamber came into my mind, and in a moment the suspended movable frames, kept at suitable distances from each other and the case containing them, came into being. Seeing by intuition, as it were, the end from the beginning. I could scarcely refrain from shouting out my “Eureka!” in the open streets (Naile, 1942).

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