A beekeeper’s journey: Part 1 – Choosing the type of hive

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The first of a three-part blog series, describing how Sarah decided on her choice of hive.

Choosing a hive

My personal journey started as a child visiting the Boston Museum of Science. I fell in love with the display of a working hive behind a piece of plexiglass with a sign challenging visitors to find the queen. I was hooked, but it took another 20+ years before I actually became a beekeeper.

In the interim, I learned a lot about bees, hives styles, the food supply, and organicsEveryone’s bee keeping journey is a little different, but one thing they all have in common is that there will be mistakes, and lessons learned, along the way. The bees will teach us and guide us, if we let them.

A thriving hive often starts with where the bees live; not the geography, the physical hive. Just as we need appropriate shelter to thrive, so do bees.

The Langstroth Hive

To the uninitiated, a beehive is either thought of as something in nature (most people picture what is actually a hornet’s nest) or those stackable drawer-like boxes sometimes seen in fields or on roadsides. That type of hive is called a Langstroth hive.

While thought of as “traditional,” Langstroth hives were invented by humans in 1851 and, as I learned, actually force bees to do things counter to their natural instincts. For example, in order for the beekeeper to be able to inspect a Langstroth hive, the bees must build their comb inside a rectangular wooden frame. In nature, bees build their comb in a beautiful catenary curve. To give Langstroth credit, however, it was the first top-opening hive to have moveable and removable comb.

Forcing bees to work in a manner counter to nature inevitably led to problems. Because the bees natural defense were lower, mites, foul brood, and other hive illnesses were able to thrive. Once again, humans intervened and started adding chemical treatments to the hive on a scheduled basis, whether or not a problem existed. Just as over-use of antibiotics has bred drug-resistant bacteria in humans, over-use of chemicals in the hive has brought about treatment-resistant issues there.

For some, this is still a chosen method. The hives are stackable and do not require a lot of horizontal space. And some argue that the honey production is greater, but that’s a topic for another day.

Personally, I dislike the idea of adding chemicals to anything and I’m pretty convinced other biota doesn’t enjoy it either. Bees have known how to thrive for millions of years before humans got involved, so I went looking for a method that would more closely mimic nature and allow the bees to be bees without much, if any, interference from me.

The Warre Hive

The Warre Hive was also invented by humans, but tries to mimic the hollowed out trunk of a tree bees typically use in nature. In the early 20th century, a French pastor was trying to design a hive, which would be ideal for over-wintering in harsher climates. After studying over 300 different types of hives and taking into account the needs of both bees and humans, he developed a hive, which has no frames and requires less management. Unfortunately, it does often mandate the use of chemicals.

Overall, it does an excellent job of mimicking bees’ natural homes, but it doesn’t easily comply with the human-made law that all comb in a hive be moveable so that it can be inspected. While the comb within a Warre Hive is technically moveable, the hive itself is quite heavy and as the bee colony grows and produces brood and honey it becomes even heavier. It’s frequently impossible to perform a hive inspection without the use of heavy equipment.

I’m a small person and just a hobbyist. I couldn’t see bringing in a crane every time I wanted to look in my hive. Not to mention the space necessary for such a procedure! And, as with Langstroth hives, I really wasn’t interested in using chemicals. So, my search continued.

The Top Bar Hive

The first time I heard of a Top Bar Hive was when I signed up for a beekeeping class at a local non-profit conservation area. Honestly, I signed up because it was about bees and it was on my birthday weekend. I had no idea what Top Bar Hives were, but taking that class turned out to be the best thing I ever did on my beekeeping journey.

Top Bar hives do not have frames. Instead, similar to the Warre hive, they have bars that lay across the top. Bees hang from them in their catenary curve to build their comb. The sides of most Top Bar hives are slanted to hold the curved comb shape and the bars have a bevel to them, which encourages the bees to build their comb straight so that the comb can be moved and removed for inspection.

Although bees living in a Top Bar hive are still susceptible to mites and other hive pests, the wire mesh and removable hard bottom provide a creative, non-chemical solution. With the bottom lowered or removed so that the wire mesh is exposed, powdered sugar (not the kind from the store that also often contains corn and will upset bee tummies) is sprinkled over the top of the hive onto the bees. The bees feel dirty, bathe, and remove both mites and sugar. Even better, the hive design provides a way to monitor mite levels and treat only when/if necessary.

Despite these challenges (I live in NH – brr!) I still opted for this method. Although the horizontal design is less natural in some ways, the lack of chemical use and low requirement for human intervention were appealing. I have yet to successfully over-winter a hive, but I know of others in the area with similar hives who have, so I’m not giving up!

I know the bees like the hive and the reasons they didn’t not survive the winter were human errors.Over-wintering in a Top Bar hive is tougher, especially in cold climates. The hives are horizontal rather than vertical and thus provide the bees with less insulation. They also need to be positioned in such a way that the hive door is protected from wind and damp entering during the cold months.

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