Bees are some of the most extraordinary creatures in existence. There are roughly 20,000 different species of bees across the globe in environments with flowering plants. As pollinators, they provide the vessel for sexual reproduction between these plants, allowing new generations to spring up and for fruit to grow. They possess a complex social hierarchy, a capacity for language, incredible intelligence, and the ability to build elegant, convoluted structures called beehives to house larvae, protect the queen, and provide a space to produce honey that will both support the hive and allow for human harvest. In this article, we will cover the different types of beehives that bee colonies construct and inhabit.
Beehives are freestanding structures that bee colonies inhabit. They provide three distinct functions:
- Protection of the colony, especially the queen and larvae
- Production facility for honey
- Honey storage
There are many types of beehives. Colonies can thrive in hives of their own design or find shelter in artificial, man-made structures where they can assimilate. Within the structure, bees will construct hexagonal cells made of beeswax. This is called the honeycomb—that proverbial structure always associated with bees—and it is where they store their sweet honey. Other parts of the hive are devoted to the queen so she can continuously produce offspring up to a rate of 1,500 eggs per day. She also oversees areas for nurturing her eggs, or larvae bees. Worker bees are constantly attending to the queen’s every need, taking care of the brood, or venturing out of the hive to collect the pollen necessary to produce the honey that fuels bee society.
Bees are versatile creatures. They are adept at finding ideal areas they can either inhabit or construct a framework around using beeswax—which certain worker bees secrete through specialized glands—and their own saliva. There are three types of natural beehives.
Bees are cavity-dwelling creatures, and wild colonies will often find enclosed spaces ranging in volume from 15 to 100 liters in which to construct their hive. Once a suitable candidate tree has been found, ideally one with a south-facing entrance high enough to escape predators, they will strip off the tree’s layers of bark to provide a smooth surface, then seal the wood with propolis, a waxy “bee glue” made from beeswax and saliva. They will then construct hexagonal cells using beeswax to form the structure of the hive. These are by far one of the most recognizable types of beehives out there.
Underground hives are the preferred nesting location for wild bumblebees, so we will rarely see the common honeybee, apis mellifera, maintaining subterranean abodes. The queen bumblebee will select a suitable hive site shortly after awakening from hibernation in the early spring; these sites are generally abandoned burrows or tunnels from small mammals. She lines the burrow with dried grass and moss to prepare for the birth of the first brood of worker bees who will help construct the hive upon their maturity. This will be the home of the hive for the next year. After winter, the queen will migrate again and prepare another underground nest.
Aerial hives are like hives constructed in hollow trees, but instead of being inside the tree itself, they will be attached on exposed surfaces of the tree or on the sides of cliffs—anywhere that the bees can lay a firm foundation. Bees in aerial beehives use the same process as bees who create hollow tree hives: they put down a layer of wax and propolis as a foundation, then construct the hexagonal honeycomb structure on top until they achieve the desired size and shape. In these types of beehives, the bees can assimilate themselves into the physical structure of the hive, using their bodies as an additional layer for protection from predators and the environment.
Bees can extend their wings to waterproof the exterior of the hive and can also coordinate flapping their wings to cool the hive down during the summer months.
So far, we have discussed the types of beehives found in the wild. In the next section, we will explore the types of artificial beehives that professional and amateur beekeepers use, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Langstroth beehives are the quintessential hive used by both amateur and professional beekeepers alike. These beehives comprise at least two boxes stacked on top of each other, with a thin slit entrance at the bottom of the hive. Most Langstroth hives consist of 10 frames, but this number is not set in stone. Langstroth hives are practical, allowing ease of access for the keeper while providing a suitable environment for the colony.
They are also easily expanded by stacking additional boxes on top of the existing hive. These boxes, referred to as supers, come in various depths. Their practicality makes it easy to see why these hives have been in use since the early 1850s.
- Simple to maintain
- Ease of access for the keeper
- Good environment for the hive
- Easily expandable
- Easy to find support and supplies
- Bulky and heavy
- Bees must be smoked to work with
- Human intervention is stressful on the hive
These types of beehives are like the Langstroth beehives just discussed, but there are key differences between them. Warré hives are meant to more closely resemble the inside of a tree, an ideal hive location. They still comprise individually stacked boxes, but instead of frames, there are slats—known officially as top bars—at the top of each box that the colony can build honeycomb on from the top down. As opposed to a Langstroth hive, when expanding on these types of beehives, boxes are added to the bottom, as opposed to stacking on top with a Langstroth hive.
Warré hives can fall victim to antiquated beekeeping laws in certain states, which state that a hive must have movable frames to facilitate an easy inspection. We recommend checking with your local municipality before investing in a Warré beehive. While the top bars are not as simple to work with as the frames in a Langstroth hive, the lack of structured frames is preferable to the hive, and they are far lighter.
- Easy to access and expand
- Lack of frames is more natural for the colony; makes harvesting easier
- More natural setting helps with overwintering
- Bees make better use of honey stores
- May not be able to remove top bars for inspection
- Illegal in some states
- Greater difficulty in finding support and supplies
Top-bar hives are relatively new in the beekeeping market. These types of beehives comprise a single long box on a stand, giving it the greatest ease of access for the beekeeper. It cannot be expanded as Langstroth and Warré beehives can, but the simplicity of design, ease of access, and limited hive size make it ideal for the hobbyist. Like a Warré beehive, the top bars provide a starting point for the construction of the honeycomb, making it a foundationless system that bees prefer.
Working with the hive does not place as much stress on the colony as with Langstroth hives, so a full suit or smoke is unnecessary. One drawback is that this type of beehive does not provide as much protection from the heat, and special attention must be paid during wintertime to ensure the survival of the colony.
- More natural setting for the hive
- Light and simple to work with
- Working with the hive is less stressful for the colony
- Ideal for the hobbyist
- Not as much protection from the elements
- Honeycomb can be malformed or break off
The types of beehives that a colony can inhabit are many and not limited to the types discussed here. Bees are a versatile species that can make a home out of almost any encapsulated space. In the wild, bees will use hollowed out spaces in tree trunks, abandoned burrows or tunnels, the sides of trees and cliff faces to build their homes. In the world of beekeeping, several types of beehives exist to suit the needs of the professional or amateur keeper.
Langstroth hives are by far the most common, with a massive community of support and ease of access that allows for plentiful harvests. Like Warré beehives, they can be easily expanded by adding additional boxes, or supers, and they provide a great degree of protection for the hive. Warré beehives—slightly modified, frameless versions of Langstroth hives—provide a more natural environment for the hive. The top bars do not weigh nearly as much as the frames of a Langstroth hive, making harvesting easier. However, top bars may not be removable which makes them illegal in some states. Check with your local municipality before investing in a Warré beehive.
Finally, the top-bar hive offers the easiest solution for the hobbyist beekeeper. They are easy to maintain and work with, their removable top bars allow for a simple harvesting process, and bees prefer the foundationless system of honeycomb construction. Their design does not, however, allow for as much protection as the other types of beehives we have discussed, so special care must be paid particularly in the wintertime to avoid colony collapse.
Featured Image by bernswaelz from Pixabay