Modern Hive
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Basic Beekeeping -- The Modern Hive

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The Modern Hive

    At one time, honey bees were kept in a number of shelters.  These included: 

  • wpe56166.gif (25077 bytes)Skeps like the one shown on the left.
  • Logs often called bee gums which were cut from  trees and set upright on a base to which was added often a box on top to gather the honey.
  • And a number of other containers such as jars.  You may want to check out an interesting book titled, "The Archaeology of Beekeeping" by Eva Crane to see other examples.

In 1853, the Rev. L.L. Langstroth published  a book called "The Hive and the Honey Bee" which changed beekeeping in a very profound way.   This book describes the use of the modern bee hive as we know it today.  The Langstroth bee hive is now the standard bee hive used in many parts of the world.

wpe55069.gif (917831 bytes) Shown here is a cut away view of the inside of a Langstroth hive.  Shown is a bottom board on which the boxes sit, a bottom deep hive body called the brood chamber, a queen excluder to keep the queen in the brood chamber, a medium honey hive body called a "super", and a comb honey section hive body called a "comb honey super".  Above the comb honey super is an inner cover and a top cover is placed over everything to protect the hive from weather.  Within the hive boxes are removal frames that hold the comb built by the bees.  We will discuss each in just a little bit.

What makes this hive so remarkable is not that Langstroth discovered hanging frames (that was done earlier), or that he used a box to put frames into (that was done earlier as well).  Langstroth recognized that bees failed to build burr comb between a space of 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch.  If the space was smaller the bees would use propolis to glue it up, and if it was larger the bees would build comb into the space.  Thus we as beekeepers must use equipment that recognizes this natural habit of the bees to provide that "bee space" as it is called.  Thus frames in a box must be at least 1/4 of an inch from the side of the box and not more than 3/8 of an inch from the side of the box.  The space must also be provided between boxes, and the inner cover.   If this space is violated, the bees will cement everything together, making it very difficult to remove frames for examination, or the removal of boxes.

Although all the equipment needed to build a bee hive can be done in a wood shop, we would recommend that the beekeeper at least buy a box "super" to use as a pattern.  It is very important for everything to be of a standard size.  Else where in this site are plans to build bee equipment.  Today the 10 frame hive body is considered standard.  There are other sizes, but when you begin to have 8 frame equipment, or 11 frame equipment, you will suddenly find that parts are not interchangeable.  Stick with 10 frame equipment.  It will resell much better than any of the other sizes.

Each part of the bee hive explained:

The Bottom Board   

    We are going to start at ground level and move up.   The bottom board supports the hive.  It is the floor of the hive with a 3/4 inch rim around three sides to allow the bees to enter the hive.  It also extends 2 inches in front of the boxes to provide a landing board for the bees.  Here bees take off for the fields to gather nectar and return to be met by other bees, called guard bees who check to make sure the arriving bee belongs to the hive.  Bottom boards must be strong to hold the weight of the hive.   They must also be well protected against rot.  Because it is close to moisture in the soil, it is the first to show any sign of decay or rot.  Another piece of equipment associated with the bottom board is a hive entrance reducer.    The purpose of the reducer is to restrict the entrance so a weak hive can defend itself and is installed in the fall to reduce damage from mice and prevent drafts from blowing wind.

The Hive Body       wpe33247.gif (10937 bytes)

The standard 10 frame Langstroth hive body will vary from dealer to dealer.  The inside dimensions are critical.   Depending on the thickness of the wood, the inside dimensions are:  9 19/32 inches from top to bottom, 14 11/16 inches from side to side for the front of the box, and 18 5/16 inches from side to side for the side of the box.  A rabbet is provided on the top side of the box fronts for a resting place for the hanging frames.   A great advantage of this type of hive box is that more boxes with the same dimension can be stacked one above the other and the bees will move up into the upper boxes and store honey there.

Frames                   wpe54382.gif (23058 bytes)  

The purpose of the frame is to hold the comb made of wax securely within the hive box.  A frame is made of up a top bar usually 1 1/8 inches wide and 19 inches across the top.  It is notched for the end bars.    The end bars can be of various depths.  If the end bars are 9 1/8 inches they will go into a deep hive body "super".  If the end bars are 6 1/4 inches they will go into a medium hive box "super".  If the end bars are 5 3/8 inches they will go into a shallow hive box.  Notice that I have been using the term "super".  Beekeepers usually refer to boxes as supers.  The bottom bar can be either solid or split.  If you are buying frames in a catalog, you will need to know the size of box the frames are going to go in before you buy the frames.

Foundation           wpe28357.gif (184696 bytes)

Foundation is what the bees build wax comb on.    Foundation comes in many sizes and thickness.   Usually we have thought of foundation being the wax sheet with starter cells pressed into the wax.  Things have changed.   You can still buy wax foundation in all sizes.  It even can be bought with supporting wire embedded in the wax.   If one is working with wax foundation, it has to be placed into the frames.  You would need to have frames with a top bar that has a removable wedge.  You would also need a split bottom bar.  The wax foundation is held in the frame by fastening the wax sheet to the top bar with the removable wedge. The split bottom bar holds the wax sheet at the bottom of the frame.  To hold the foundation straight in the frame, a beekeeper usually uses cross wires stretched from the end bars and embedded into the wax.

However, many beekeepers are turning to plastic foundation.   The ad shown above for plastic foundation gives you an idea of the various sizes and choices one has when selecting it.   One can buy one piece plastic frames which include the foundation.  No work at all in getting them ready for the bees.  Just put them into the hive box and you and the bees are ready to go.  Plastic foundation is also made for wood frames.   Every beekeeper has an opinion on what is best.  Our advice would be for the new beekeeper to try both.  This way you can also learn to develop knowledge and prejudice toward which you favor.

What happens if you don't use frames and foundation in a box?  I was hoping that no one was really thinking this way but here is the answer.  The bees build a mess in a hive body.  This is not much better than the skep  of  old.   One can not inspect or examine a box that has no frames in it if the bees have filled the box with comb.  Believe it or not, but I have seen this situation occur to new beekeepers who were just to busy to build frames to put into their new hive body.  You need to put frames into the box.


Queen Excluders

A big question often discussed at bee meetings is "Do you really need a queen excluder?"   Again, you will find individual beekeepers who like or don't like them.  They are often called honey excluders because bees don't like to go up into the supers above through the queen excluder.   The purpose of the queen excluder is to keep the queen in the brood chamber so the queen doesn't lay eggs and thus have brood in the honey supers.  It is almost mandatory to have queen excluders on bees when you are producing comb honey for sale.  Queen excluders can be purchased with a wood rim around the metal excluder or one can buy all metal excluders.  They even come in zinc and plastic.

Honey Supers

These are the boxes with  frames and  foundation for the bees to store surplus honey.  They come in four basic sizes.  

  • The shallow 5 3/4 inch super that uses 5 3/8 frames.

  • The medium (Illinois) 6 5/8 inch super that uses 6 1/4 inch frames.

  • The deep 9 9/16 inch super that takes 9 1/8 inch frames

  • Comb honey supers**

**Comb honey supers are 4 3/4 inches deep.  They require special supplies to produce the comb honey.  The beekeeper has the choice of the old standard section boxes that require section holders, separators, flat tins and springs.  Or the beekeeper can use what are called "Ross Rounds".   In a Ross Round super the bees build comb into round section rings.   Our advice to a beginner is to pass on the comb honey sections until you have a year or two experience.  It takes strong bees and special management to produce good comb honey sections.  If you really want comb honey, a easier way is to use the standard shallow frame with thin wax foundation and when the bees have capped the honey in the frame, you can cut sections of it out and put it into freezer bags or jars.  One will find clear boxes or cut comb honey trays in the bee catalog which can be used to sell cut honey.

Inner Cover     

wpe85936.gif (9164 bytes)The inner cover does several thing.  First it provides a dead air space for insulation against heat and cold.  Second it prevents the bees from gluing the top cover to the top bars of the super under it.  With an inner cover, the top cover is easy to remove from the hive.  One other advantage that comes to mind is the hole allows bees to reach emergency food if it is required.  Granulated sugar can be poured onto the inner cover near the hole and the bees will be able to get to it during even the coldest of days.

The Top Cover 

This is a cover that fits on the top of the hive.  In the north, the cover is usually one that telescopes down around the inner cover and an inch or so down over the top super.  This is called a telescoping cover.   Many commercial beekeepers use what is called a migratory cover.   This cover is a solid cover that does not extend beyond the sides of a hive body.  The reason for this is the bee hives are usually on a pallet and the hives on the pallet are set against each other - side to side.  There is no space between the hives  for a telescoping cover to fit down into.