By far the most common question we hear is, "Which type of hive should I get?" This is a complex question that boils down to: what do you want to get out of beekeeping? Is it strictly pollination and support of honeybee populations? A little honey? A lot of honey? Based on these types of considerations, you will want to determine what hive type will best suit your needs. We ask our bees what they prefer all the time but they never offer an opinion either way! Bees will be bees in whichever type of hive you choose.
The three most common hives used in the United States are the Langstroth Hive, Horizontal Top Bar Hive, and the Warre Hive. These are the three hives we sell and use in our own apiary. Each design has its own benefits and drawbacks; none of them are perfect for every situation. This handy table will help you determine which hive type is right for you.
Top Bar Hive
|Overview||Rising in popularity for backyard beekeepers due to its simplicity, ease of access, no heavy lifting, and few accessories required.||The most hands-off hive, ideal for those looking for a simple-to-manage hive with lighter boxes.||Most common hive in North America. Heavy boxes, lots of accessories and resources available.|
|Cost||Low to high. Costs range from very cheap (building your own) to high-end with all the bells and whistles and everything in between. Few accessories required.||Low to high depending on if building your own or purchasing one. Few accessories required.||Mass produced hives are relatively cheap, but required accessories and components add up and are costly.|
|Maintenance||The most frequent maintenance and monitoring, but no heavy lifting is involved.||The least maintenance. Boxes added to the bottom in the spring. Harvest in the fall.||Relatively little maintenance. Boxes can be added early in anticipation of colony growth or a strong nectar flow.|
|Weight||The easiest on the back. Once the hive is in place, lifting only involves 3-7lb combs.||Significantly lighter than the Langstroth, heavier than the horizontal top bar hive.||The heaviest and most awkward to lift and maintain, between approximately 30 and 80lbs, depending on the box size.|
|Production||Some expert top bar beekeepers maintain they harvest similar honey quantities from their Top Bar Hives and their Langstroths. More frequent inspection required.||Comparable production to Langstroth as long as boxes are added on time.||Arguably the highest honey production of the three, due to large box sizes.|
|Colony Health||Natural, foundationless combs improve colony health.||Natural, foundationless combs improve colony health.||With foundationless combs, the same likelyhood for survival as other designs.|
|Next Steps||Choose your Top Bar Hive||Choose your Warre Hive||Choose your Langstroth Hive|
The top bar hive, or more specifically the horizontal top bar hive, is the oldest idea of the three hive types being discussed. With this design a long cavity of some sort has wooden bars laid across the top, butting up against each other. From these, bees build their combs from the lowest point on the bars, filling up the cavity as they build. Thus, their combs end up hanging like slices of bread next to each other. Most beekeepers using this style pour in a swarm or package of bees at one end, and then continue providing the bees with more bars as they build through the box. With false backs (dividers called follower boards), beekeepers can expand and contract the amount of space to which the bees have access, prompting them to build in an orderly and tidy fashion.
In the mid 1900s, the Peace Corps introduced the horizontal top bar hive in Africa as a low cost alternative to standard box hives like the Langstroth. Since the top bar hives could be built from cheap materials with no need for a wide selection of power tools, they allowed impoverished areas to move away from subsistance, destructive honey hunting, to a more profitable means of tending bees. This has allowed many communities to benefit from honey and wax sales, using inexpensive hives in a sustainable manner.
Top bar hives have no stacking boxes or frames, thus there is no heavy lifting, and they don't require an extractor to harvest honey. Instead, the beekeeper harvests any time the hive is close to being filled. To harvest, beekeepers cut entire honey combs from the bars, to either eat or sell the cut-comb honey, or crush and strain the honey from the wax resulting in strained, clear honey and separated wax that can then be rendered for candles or balms.
Most modern of the hive designs we are discussing, the Warre hive was invented in the early 1900s by a monk in France named Emile Warre. He was a pragmatic beekeeper who wanted a hive that was inexpensive to build, easy to manage, produced honey, and was a good environment for the bees. He researched and experimented with over 300 hives, including those like the horizontal top bar hive and Langstroth hive, until he settled on his design. He called it "The People's Hive," as he thought it was a great design for all beekeepers.
This design is usually started with two boxes and a swarm or package of bees. The hive consists of stacked boxes with 8 top bars (similar to those of the horizontal top bar hive) evenly spaced across the top of each box. The bees build their own natural combs from the bars. The boxes are noticeably smaller than those of the Langstroth hive -- approximately 12" square vs 19"x14". This is because Warre looked at bees in nature and found that the cavities in which they lived, and the clusters of bees within, were much smaller than the managed hives allowed for.
Another noteable difference from the Langstroth hive is that boxes are added to the BOTTOM of the hive rather than the TOP. Many Langstroth beekeepers, at first, think this idea is crazy. However, when one observes feral colonies living in trees or other natural cavities, they ALWAYS build comb from the top of the cavity downward. The only reason bees build upwards in Langstroth hives is because beekeepers add the empty space on top. Bees will build in the direction they are able to. Thus, If you add empty space to the left or right (such as the horizontal top bar hive) the bees will build left or right. In the Warre they build down, like they do in a natural cavity and left to their own instincts.
By adding boxes to the bottom, bees continue moving their brood nest downward and eventually organize all of their honey stores to the top boxes. This creates a natural cycle of comb removal; key to perpetuating healthy colonies and hive environments. By adding to the bottom and taking from the top, all the combs will be cycled out every few years.
The most common hive in North America and Australia, the Langstroth hive was invented in the mid 1800s by the reverend Lorenzo Langstroth. The most important part of his invention, and that which he is most known for, is the moveable frame. There is much debate as to whether he truly was the first to create the moveable frame, but it is his hive that rose up to dominate the modern beekeeping world.
The Langstroth hive is made up multiple stacked boxes of various heights. The different box names are: deep, medium and shallow, which corresponds to the height of each box (deeps being the tallest boxes and shallows being the shortest). Most Langstroth beekeepers start their hive with either 2 deeps, or 3 mediums depending on their preference.
The boxes come in 2 widths -- 10-frame (the most common) or 8-frame. In our own Langstroth hives we use 8-frame medium boxes throughout the hive. This dramatically reduces the weight of the boxes, and makes all parts interchangeable.
As the colony builds through the boxes, the beekeeper usually adds boxes to the top (called supering) so the bees can continue building upward. Later in the season, after the colony has filled up the "supers," the beekeeper will remove the surplus honey supers, leaving the rest for the bees.
Inside the frames, most beekeepers use a thin sheet called foundation. These sheets of foundation are made from either beeswax or plastic, and they are pressed into the hexagon pattern to resemble that of a real comb. Upon installation, the bees draw this foundation out further, creating the cells into which their brood will develop and their honey will be stored. Often, this foundation has wires run through it for added strength. When it's time to harvest, the beekeeper will usually remove the frames and foundation, cut the caps off of the honey cells, and then spin the honey out in a centrifuge called an extractor.
What many don't realize is that when Langstroth first invented his hive, foundation wasn't readily available. Instead, he allowed the bees to build natural combs inside the frames (as they've built for millions of years). This is what we do in all of our hives.