PHOTO: Shawn Caza/Flickr
When we decide to keep bees, we do so knowing bees are essential for good pollination, and of course, we love the honey they produce. What sometimes isn’t clear, though, is what type of hive will suit us best. This decision depends on factors that vary among beekeepers. To help you make the right choice for you and your farm, here are three hive options to consider.
1. Langstroth Hive
This ubiquitous “bee box” is the most popular option for modern beekeepers. It was invented by Dr. L. Langstroth, a Massachusetts minister and beekeeping hobbyist, in 1851 and was the first hive to contain removable frames, which allowed beekeepers easier access to the hive for bee inspections. A Langstroth hive consists of a bottom board, one or two deep supers (18¼-by-14¼-by-9½ inches), one or two honey supers, an inner cover, an outer cover and the frames.
- Easy Harvesting: The advantages of a Langstroth hive are numerous, but honey collection tops the list. Langstroth hives make it easier for beekeepers to assess honey supplies and remove the desired frames, and the honey-harvesting equipment is readily available.
- Standardized Equipment: You can take brood and honey frames from a strong hive and share it with a weaker hive, because for the most part, components are standard in size and shape. This also means you can find replacement parts when needed, and there is a plethora of equipment and tools available.
- Movability: Compared to a top-bar hive or a Warré hive, a Langstroth hive is easier to move because the components can be disassembled and restacked.
- Production: Langstroth hives are designed to minimize drone production and maximize honey and brood. Langstroth hives are a good choice if you’re into rearing queens or collecting propolis and pollen.
- Ventilation: Ventilation is important on sweltering summer days, which is a big draw of the Langstroth design. It has better ventilation than the top-bar hive, yet still allows bees to cluster well in the cold of winter.
- Easy-To-Find Info: The Oregon Master Beekeeper Program points out that Langstroth hives might be best for beginners because of the availability of information and ease of manipulation.
- Weight: A fully loaded deep super can weigh upwards of 60 pounds! Not all beekeepers are weightlifters.
- Aesthetics: Langstroth hives aren’t natural-looking or beautiful, though the sight of these boxes are so common people tend to not notice them.
- Unnatural Design: Bees tend to prefer building comb in tall, rounded structures, and with the rectangular shape of the Langstroth, beekeepers often must move outer frames toward the center so the bees will use them, which disrupts the bees’ work and causes them to work harder to get the hive to an ideal temperature and humidity. Bees maintain a certain level of humidity and temperature, and disrupting that stresses the colony and can put them at risk for infection and intruders. Besides, it’s a lot of work for bees and beekeeper.
2. Warré Hive
If you’ve never heard of Warré hives, you’re not alone. Developed by a French pastor, Emile Warré, the hive style is gaining popularity in the U.S. Warré spent his life using and studying various types of hives and in the early 1900s, he created what he called “The People’s Hive.” The design is smaller than a Langstroth hive, with components that are square rather than rectangular (12 inches square and 8 inches deep) and with boxes added to the bottom rather than to the top.
- Hands-Off Beekeeping: A vertical adaption of the top-bar hive, the Warré hive is designed to mimic a hollow tree, which helps colonies withstand winter’s cold, and bees build their comb on foundationless frames. This design minimizes beekeeper intervention, which, of course, makes for happy, healthy bees, and is an ideal hive when pollination is one of your major goals.
- Temperature and Humidity Control: The hive is topped with an insulating box of sawdust sandwiched between two layers of cotton fabric. This construction helps furnish moisture and temperature control.
- Aesthetics: Although Warré hives are square, they have a less utilitarian style and can look quite picturesque in a yard or garden due to their size and peaked-roof design.
- Production: If boxes are added in timely fashion, honey production can be comparable to that of a Langstroth system.
- Price: Warré hives can be expensive if you don’t build it yourself, and the components are not as universally available as the Langstroth.
- Two-Person Job: Because Warré hives are built from the bottom up, you need a second person to help you add supers.
- Harvesting Tools: Harvesting honey isn’t as simple as with the Langstroth hive because honey-extraction equipment is mostly geared for frames of a Langstroth hive.
- No Front Feeder: There is no place on a Warré hive for a front feeder, which calls for extra innovations to supplement your colonies when needed.
3. Top-Bar Hive
Top-bar hives have been around for centuries in one form or another, though they’ve only lately gained popularity in the U.S. Simplicity is the operative word here:. In this hive type, wooden bars with wax strips attached to the underside to encourage comb building are suspended over a hive cavity, and no artificial foundation is used. Evidence indicates that beekeepers in ancient Greece used baskets or pots for this purpose. Typical top-bar hives look like long one-story wooden, slightly triangular boxes on legs, with a lid and screened access on the ends. Some people add a plexiglass panel to one side so they can observe the colony at work.
- Price: Start-up costs are fairly low for top-bar hives because they’re easy to make yourself.
- Hive Access: It’s easier to work the hive because you remove one frame, which typically weighs 3 to 7 pounds, at a time, and you have no heavy supers to deal with.
- Saves Space: You don’t have any extra hive parts (like supers) to store with this type of hive—just block off part of the hive until your colony needs more room.
- Minimal Disruptions: With a top-bar model, bees suffer minimal disruption as you work the hive, and if your main purpose is pollination, this might be the best design.
- Temperature Regulation: Top-bar hives make it harder for bees to regulate temperature, especially in cold weather. The wide, one-level box design makes it more difficult for the bees to cluster to stay warm, and a cold snap could more easily devastate colonies.
- Inconsistent Production: Honey production is harder to gauge than with a Langstroth hive: How much do you take? How much do you leave?
- No Standardized Equipment: Standardized equipment for top-bar hives is not readily available, especially if you build your own box.
- Queen Rearing: Raising queens in this type of hive is more challenging, as sequestering the active queen is difficult.
Ultimately, the biggest factor in determining which type of hive you choose is your purpose for keeping bees: pollination or honey. Next, think about the amount of time you want to devote to beekeeping, the cost of start-up, the availability of equipment, the strength of your back and ultimately, the health of your colonies. There’s no wrong choice here, and in the end you’ll be on your way to an exciting new hobby.