A Look Inside The Hive: A Guide To Choosing The Best Honeybee Hive

Crushing honeycomb
Crushing honeycomb to produce honey. Photo by Adrian Iodice

With so much focus on the plight of honeybees in the media these days, beekeeping has had a huge resurgence. Beehives are popping up in every suburb, in every city of the world. Everybody wants to help the bees!

WHY AND WHERE TO KEEP BEES?

Bees are the best pollinators: our gardens thrive with fruit and vegetables when we have a hive in the vicinity. Raw honey and wax are amazing gifts of nature. And the enjoyment bees give can be overwhelming. Bees need all the help we can offer them at the moment, by giving them clean organic gardens to forage in they will be much healthier.

Bees can be kept on your roof, in your backyard or on acres of land. They can be kept in all sorts of climates – from the tropics of Far North Queensland to southern Tasmania: they will adapt. If they can find a diverse range of flowers to forage, they will thrive.

HIVE CHOICE

Often the type of beehive and the management techniques employed is not well considered. Most colonies end up in conventional white box style hives such as the Langstroth.

Modern beekeeping practices mean hive movement, frequent hive inspections, artificial queen rearing programs, routine medication and sugar-water feeding, which reduce colony vitality and weaken the bees’ immunity.

Fortunately permaculturalists, and other holistic carers, with their understanding of ‘the big picture’, are promoting ‘natural beekeeping’ as an alternative – becoming ‘bee-carers’ rather than ‘beekeepers’. There are several things to consider when choosing a hive.

HIVE INSPECTION

Most beehives mentioned in this article need to have the roof taken off to inspect and harvest. All the heat and vital nest scent is lost in a quick upward draft; it is believed the nest scent acts as a protective cloud around the bees and keeps out pathogens.

CARE OF THE BEES

This is mostly about how honeycomb is treated. Sometimes comb is put back into the hive after extraction to be refilled with nectar by the bees. This maximises honey yields and saves time because the bees don’t have to build more comb.

However, when comb is reused, season after season, beeswax – a type of fat – absorbs heavy metals and toxins such as herbicides, fungicides and insecticides that the bees pick up from the plants they forage on. Over time the comb and the hive become a highly toxic environment for the bees to live in.

QUEEN CARE

Forcing the queen to live out her life in the brood box, using a queen excluder, suppresses the whole colony. It also forces the queen to lay eggs in a very limited space. Wing clipping of the queen, to stop her leaving the hive during a swarm, is another way that commercial bee management suppress the natural swarming impulse.

In natural beekeeping the swarm is celebrated: as a ‘rebirthing’ of the colony as an ‘organism’. Catching swarms multiplies and refreshes bee yards (apiaries) with local strains, which have more vigour and are less susceptible to disease.

MAINTENANCE

In framed hives, building frames can be a tedious job . Frames have to be built, wired, and foundation needs to be melted in place. Specialised tools have to be used and skills are required. Hives also need to be protected from the weather with some sort of timber finish. Most hives are painted with timber paints, but natural beekeepers generally use raw linseed oil and beeswax.

MATERIALS

The material of the hive and its components are important to consider. For example, the impact of plastic on bee health is unknown. Significant lengths of stainless steel wire are used to hold the foundation in place on the frames in some hives. It is questionable what effect this may have on the bee organism.

SHAPE

The shape of the hive can be important because in the colder months cold spots develop in the far corners of some hive designs. This creates more work for the bees to maintain an even temperature throughout the hive.

FOUNDATION

Wax foundation, a thin sheet of wax embossed with the hexagonal cell shape, is used in Langstroth hives. However, different races of bees build different cell sizes that change to suit the cast or size of bee or the amount of nectar coming in. Wax foundation has a one-size-fits-all design which doesn’t necessarily suit the bees. In natural beekeeping bees are encouraged to build their own honeycomb. Plastic foundation is starting to be used by conventional beekeepers; this off gasses and is detrimental to the health of the bees in the hive.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Hives and some hive parts are being made out of plastic! We need to consider the environmental impact from their manufacture and disposal. It’s also important to consider the health impact that these hives have on bees.

Some hives (e.g. Kenyan top bar) can be simple to make using recycled timber, with plans available on the internet. Make sure that the timber isn’t treated with chemicals or insecticides.

PESTS

Some hive designs have lots of nooks and crannies which gives pests (e.g. the small hive beetle and wax moth larvae) places to hide. By reducing likely hiding spots, bees can manage these pests themselves, which reduces the need to use insecticides.

EXTRACTING HONEY

Different hives require different procedures for extracting honey. The most simple and cost effective way to extract honey is to cut the honeycomb off the bar from a top bar hive and then crush it, either in a sieve or with a honey press. These presses cost around $350.

Or you can make a press using an old car jack and timber – check the internet for ideas. Conventional beekeepers use a centrifugal extractor. A three-frame, quality extractor can cost around $550.

TRANSPORTATION

Ease of transport is only important if you are a commercial beekeeper, looking to cash in on a honeyflow – a mass flowering. If you don’t mind a little less honey, and are happy with pollination and the enjoyment of clean raw honey to eat, trade or share with your friends, then transportation shouldn’t be an necessary.

COST

Some hives are mass produced, available from all beekeeping suppliers and easily shipped to all corners of Australia. Others are handcrafted by specialised hive builders and, depending on the timber used and location of the builder, prices can vary considerably. If you want something that looks great in your garden and is more bee-centric, it’s worth paying a little extra. To follow are some examples of beehives.

LANGSTROTH HIVE

LANGSTROTH
Photo by Adrian Iodice

This is the most commonly used hive in many parts of the world –the hive boxes you see stacked when you travel through the countryside, usually white.

Pros:

  • easy to manipulate, dissect and inspect
  • honey can be extracted from the comb using a centrifugal extractor
  • extracted combs can be put back into the hive for bees to refill with honey
  • more honey can be harvested
  • transporting the hive is relatively easy
  • parts and hives are readily available at all beekeeping supply stores
  • most beekeeping courses and books will teach using management techniques for this hive.

Cons:

  • techniques and parts were developed to maximise honey production
  • parts need to be measured and cut precisely to stop bees from filling gaps with either wax or propolis
  • wiring and waxing frames with foundation is extremely time-consuming
  • lots of fidgety parts and bits
  • pests have lots of places to hide
  • the oblong shape causes cold spots to develop over the colder months
  • access can only be gained by taking the roof off
  • supers are stacked on top of the brood box, heat rises above the brood
  • the queen is restricted to the bottom box
  • wax comb absorbs pesticides and heavy metals over time
  • plastic components and hives are becoming more popular
  • full boxes are heavy to lift or move.

Price: around $300

Conclusion: the Langstroth hive is a commercial beehive and, in my opinion, most of its management techniques have no place in backyard beekeeping!

THE HEX HIVE

hex
Photo by Adrian Iodice

A stackable, hexagonal-shaped hive designed and built by Willow Hankinson in Australia. It uses both, three-sided frames and top bars to fill in the gaps.

Pros:

  • takes standard frames, readily available from beekeeping suppliers
  • Australian made
  • honey can be extracted from the framed honeycombs using a centrifugal extractor
  • top bars of honey can be crushed
  • extracted combs can be put back into the hive for bees to refill with honey
  • bees are encouraged to build natural comb
  • the hexagonal tower shape eliminates cold spots by creating a natural vortex to circulate air flow
  • easily transportable
  • frames can be placed cold or hot in the hive
  • the hive is hand crafted from reclaimed materials
  • the pitched roof holds a cushion of air which helps to insulate the hive
  • aesthetically beautiful
  • the queen has access to all areas of the hive.

Cons:

  • parts need to be measured and cut precisely to stop bees from filling gaps with either wax or propolis
  • pests have lots of places to hide
  • access can only be gained by taking the roof off
  • wax combs absorb pesticides and heavy metals over time
  • full boxes are heavy to lift or move.

Price: $450 [available from Willow Hankinson in Warburton Victoria, +61 425 859 651]

Conclusion: beautifully constructed and developed for natural beekeeping.

FLOW™ HIVE

flow
Photo by Flow Hive

As I understand it, this is basically a Langstroth hive with a few extras for the convenience of the beekeeper (and, the inventors claim, for the wellbeing of the bees). Because the Flow™ wasn’t available at the time of writing I could only speculate on its pros and cons.

Pros:

  • honey can be extracted by turning a tap
  • parts are made in Australia, should be fairly easy to replace or buy
  • the queen is free to wander around the hive
  • transportation of the hive should be fairly simple
  • no harvesting equipment is necessary.

Cons:

  • honeycombs are made of plastic
  • lots of fidgety parts and bits to deal with
  • pests have lots of places to hide
  • the oblong shape causes cold spots to develop over the colder months
  • access can only be gained by taking the roof off
  • the honey box is heavy to lift to inspect the brood
  • wax will not be available for selling
  • honey cells may not all be ripe for harvesting; honey may ferment once harvested
  • honey may crystalise in the plastic combs, and be difficult to extract
  • may cause a separation between the keeper and the bees.

Price: $600

Conclusion: a newcomer and controversial; many questions about this hive were raised at the Beekeepers Association of the ACT recently; time will tell how effective this hive is.

WARRÉ HIVE

warre
Photo by Kirsten Bradley

Introduced into Australia by Tim Malfroy in 2006, this hive was designed as a stackable, vertical top bar hive, but without frames. Tim has modified this design by introducing three-sided frames. The hive comprises: a floor; three boxes, 300 mm square; frames without wire or foundation; a quilt; and a roof.

Pros:

  • management principles are bee friendly
  • Australian made
  • individual boxes are fairly easy to lift
  • bees are encouraged to build natural honeycomb
  • empty boxes are added under the brood box, so brood is always at the top where the heat is
  • shape allows a natural vortex to circulate air flow, minimising cold spots
  • the queen has access to all areas of the hive
  • by harvesting the top box, and adding new boxes below, new comb is constantly being built so eggs are always laid in fresh comb
  • comb is crushed, no extracting tools are necessary
  • wax can be sold or made into goods
  • the quilt provides insulation, absorbs moisture and stops condensation forming on the ceiling in colder months
  • boxes are easy to build – plans are readily available on the internet
  • hives are easily transportable.

Cons:

  • a lifting device is needed when adding a new box under two or more full boxes
  • comb is often attached to the frame below
  • frames are not available to buy, and are difficult to make, even for good woodworkers
  • when frames are used pests have lots of places to hide
  • frames need to be measured and cut precisely to stop bees from filling gaps with either wax or propolis
  • access can only be gained by taking the roof off.

Price: around $600

Conclusion: a great hive for bees and beekeepers.

DOME HIVE

dome
Photo by Nick Killey

This hive’s design was inspired by the bee-centricity of the Sun Hive (German, woven, aerial, dome-shaped). The hive is a curved top bar hive, and can be hung from a tree or shelter, or placed standing on a tripod. It consists of 101 pieces of kiln-dried pine assembled into a top dome, a bottom dome and a central ring. Inside there are ten top bars for honeycomb, and two for ventilation.

Pros:

  • the egg shape creates the ultimate vortex inside the hive, which promotes great air flow
  • the rounded shape promotes a healthy and strong colony
  • bees are encouraged to build natural comb
  • pests have little place to hide because of the smoothness inside
  • the queen has access to all areas of the hive
  • the bottom comes away, which allows for easy inspection
  • the top dome lifts, so top bars and comb can be lifted out
  • Australian made (Victoria) from plantation timbers
  • easily transportable
  • looks fantastic
  • for the bees’ sake, it’s a pollination hive.

Cons:

  • the hive is relatively new – no honey is harvestable – so not much performance information is available; however, indicators are good
  • old brood combs will be difficult to cull.

Price: $800.

Conclusion: I believe this is the ultimate beecentric hive. [contact nick@domehives.com]

KENYAN TOP BAR HIVE (LES CROWDER VERSION)

kenyan
Photo by Adrian Iodice

The original was designed in Canada in 1971 for aid workers to take to Africa. The ‘Les Crowder’ version is better suited to the Australian environment than the Phil Chandler. The body of the hive looks somewhat like a half hexagonal trough, of about 1.2 metres long and about 500 millimetres across the top. The sides taper down to form the hexagonal shape. About thirty-three bars rest across the top, forming the roof; this is what the bees attach their honeycomb to.

Pros:

  • can be made using scrap timber with imprecise measurements
  • plans are readily available on the internet
  • not many places for pests to hide
  • inspection is from the side, minimizing loss of heat and vital nest scent
  • honey is harvested from the outer bars, away from the brood nest
  • bees build natural comb
  • the queen has access to all areas of the hive
  • old brood comb can be easily moved out to the ends and then culled
  • a smoker is rarely used; bees are more relaxed because their roof is not taken off
  • comb is crushed, no extracting tools are necessary
  • wax can be sold, traded or made into products
  • can be built so that it stands at waist height, eliminating the need to bend
  • a lid covers the bars – stops rain, and shades out the sun
  • well suited for the elderly or people with disabilities, no heavy lifting needed

Cons:

  • cross combing can occur
  • a small amount of wax may sometimes attach to the wall of the hive not easily transportable.

Price: Under $100 if made from scrap and up to $950 for very well crafted durable hives.

Conclusion: I think the Kenyan is by far the simplest no fuss hive to use and really goes hand in hand when it comes to permaculture principles

GOLDEN HIVE (EINRAUMBEUTE) OR ONE-ROOM HIVE

golden
Photo by Michael Thiele

The Golden Hive was designed by Thomas Radetzki about 30 years ago for bio-dynamic beekeepers in Europe and introduced to Australia four years ago. It is a one-room hive and has deep, large frames that can accommodate brood, pollen and honey on the one comb. Its built using the golden mean numbers.

Pros:

  • 30 years of use have proven it to be an exceptional hive for bee health
  • the queen can move freely throughout the hive
  • a wax cloth covers the top of the frames and can be rolled open to only expose one frame at a time. Fewer bees are disturbed this way
  • no heavy boxes to lift as frames are harvested one at a time
  • easily transportable
  • no wire or foundation is used in the frames thin timber skewers built into the frames hold the comb stable when extracting
  • the hive can be built on legs so it can be worked at a comfortable height
  • frames can be easily inspected
  • bees are free to build cell sizes as they require
  • brood comb is constantly culled
  • the hive has a false wall that can be moved laterally to increase or decrease the size of the internal space when needed

Cons:

  • expensive extracting equipment is necessary unless comb is cut and crushed
  • heavy to lift when it needs to be moved
  • the oblong shape can create cold spots in winter
  • parts need to be precisely measured and cut to stop bees from filling gaps with either wax or propolis
  • pests have lots of places to hide due to the frames.

Price: $650 Contact Tobias Mager on +61 403 008 504 or adrian@beekeepingnaturally.com.au

Conclusion: This is an excellent hive that really takes the bees’ wellbeing into consideration and also offers a commercial beekeeper a truly workable option.

OVERALL CONCLUSION

Until recent years, backyard beekeepers have been directed towards conventional beekeeping methods: to maximise honey production without considering the health of bees. Most backyard beekeepers, because they’ve learned commercial management techniques, have not questioned how they manage and treat their bees.

The difference between conventional beekeeping and natural beekeeping is like the difference between a monoculture farm and a biodynamic or permaculture garden. Natural beekeeping is about providing optimal conditions for the health of the bee colony. There are now some fantastic alternative options that are great for bees and beekeepers alike, and I encourage you to use them.

Adrian Iodice teaches natural, sustainable honeybee care in Melbourne and Bermagui over spring and summer: see www.beekeepingnaturally.com.au

Author

Leave a Reply

Shopping Cart

No products in the cart.