Backyard Beekeeping: Hives Demystified

Up until recently, when I thought of  a beehive I thought of a box sitting on legs or a little table, either stacked or single, or I thought of cartoons where cylindrical hives were hanging from trees. I had heard the names of different types of hives, but I never knew what they meant or the difference. Today, so you won’t be confused when you talk to the honey vendor at your local farmer’s market, we’re going to look a at some different types of hives. Starting with the popular Langstroth hive.

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See the Langstroth frame structures inside (photo credit: emmabliss.wordpress.com)

The Langstroth hive has been in use sine the mid 1800s and is that box hive I was talking about. It is used by many backyard beekeepers because the bees build their honeycombs into frames that come in the hive which makes managing the bees and moving the combs easier, allowing the beekeeper more control in accessing and harvesting the combs. This design is considered to be the prototype for all moveable frame hive designs. The boxes are easily manageable, can be stacked, and can be moved around with no problem. Prior to this type of hive, developed by Rev. Langstroth in Philadelphia, bees were generally kept in skeps (more on those in a minute) or gums, hollowed out logs. This method is reported to produce the greatest backyard honey yields.

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Here you can see how the bees made free form combs hanging from the bars (photo credit: www.medinabeekeepers.com)

The Top-bar hive is a top competitor to the Langstroth for backyard beekeepers and there appears to be almost 2 devoted camps. The Top-bar hive, to me looks more like a trough with a lid. They are stationary hives that do not have frames inside, but have simple bars that are aligned at the top on which the bees build their own honeycombs that hang down from the bars. This type of hive is simple and less exact to build and is very popular in areas of the world without much access to building resources. While the designs you find most popular now are newer to the  states than the Langstroth (since the 1960s), the tub style has been documented in use in Greece since the 1600s. These hives are less expensive to build and are quickly  gaining popularity because it is seen as a more natural way of keeping bees. Many beekeepers observe that their bees are healthier and seem to be happier in the Top-bar style hive, but that honey yields are smaller.

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 The Warre hive has a very pretty look (photo credit: www.natural-beekeeping.co.uk)

Next we’ll look at the Warre hives. This is a totally new type of hive to me (I have not seen these in person) and was developed in France in the mid 1900s. This is also a stacked hive style, like the Langstroth can be, but uses an internal system similar to the top bar in that it does not have pre-made frame structures. Each time the bee population needs more space a new box is placed under the existing boxes. It is favored as a more natural method than the pervious 2 and is gaining popularity. I think these are very attractive.

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Sun hives look like party decorations! (photo credit: Milkwood.net)

Finally the skep and Sun hive. Skeps are like baskets placed upside down and have been in use for 2000 years. This is a very beautiful style of hive and is most reminiscent of the hives in cartoons. Inside the external woven and/or mud structure, the bees create their own comb structures. This structure is much harder to remove the honey and comb from and historically often resulted in the destruction of the hives and the bees. The historic skep model has influenced a new movement of Sun Hives, which were developed in Germany and are gaining popularity as bee colonies continue to collapse. They are hives that focus on keeping bees as pollinators rather than honey makers. It is like an upside down skep hung in a high place. This is a very natural way of keeping bees, but is not intended for easy honey extraction, so it may not be a great choice for a backyard beekeeper wanting lots of honey.

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See how the comb in a wild hive hangs in sheets similar to the Warre or Top-bar. (photo credit: stpeterealestateblog.com)

There are quite a few more wild, traditional, and commercial types of hives, but knowing these 5 types of hives should get you started, either in conversations with beekeepers or down the road to becoming a beekeeper yourself!

What type of hive to you aesthetically the best?

Seeds to Sprout:

A beekeepers comparison of Langstroth and Top Bar hives, a PDF

Discover more about the Sun Hive

Check out Abbe Emil Warre’s book Beekeeping for All in a free PDF

Beethinking is a resource for hive supplies

Learn more on Top-bar beekeeping in this Mother Earth article

See what the official Backyard Beekeepers Association has to say about things

Want to learn more about colony collapse disorder and what you can do to help? Check out the film The Vanishing Bees

 

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Posted in Animals, Ecology, Education, history, Insects, International, Naturalists, Stewardship, Uncategorized, urban nature
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