All boxes are not created equal. Pick the one best for you.
by Ross Conrad
In the old days choosing a home for your bees was relatively easy. Bees were kept in a portion of the original tree that the swarm had moved into (log gum), or other handy containers made of wood, mud or straw (skeps). Beekeepers being the way beekeepers are, started to experiment over time with various designs and styles in an effort to “make ‘em better.” Some developed frames (or top bars), designed to be placed inside the skep. Others developed additions that could be placed on top of the log gum, or under the skep in order to provide the colony with additional room for expansion when needed. One thing led to another, and today we have so many options and choices for bee hives that it can create a bewildering experience for the beginning beekeeper.
Now if you are just getting started and preparing to choose the style of hive your bees will call home, the easy thing to do is to just ask your mentor, the instructor of your beekeeping class, or your neighborhood beekeeper what hive is best. This approach will help you cut through all the options to the best choice for you and your area…or will it? The person you ask is likely to simply recommend what they use which is usually what they were taught to use by their mentor or teacher. Their decision may work well for them, but is it really the best choice for you? In order for you to make a more fully informed choice, here is a summary of the primary options currently available.
The Conventional Deep Langstroth Hive
The hive patented in 1852 by L. L. Langstroth that opens from the top and features movable frames has become the most commonly used style of hive in the world.
The deep Langstroth-style hive body that is 9-5/8 inches high, holds 10 frames and designed with bee space in mind has long been the standard brood box for managed colonies. While a single deep box is often sufficient for bees in Southern climes, in Northern regions, two deeps are usually utilized for the hive proper in order to provide additional room for brood rearing and food storage. The deep super can weigh upwards of 80 pounds when filled with honey, so having an additional empty deep box into which frames can be transferred during manipulations/inspections rather than moving the whole hive body at once, might just save your back. Of all the options, the deep Langstroth hive body tends to provide the greatest expanse of uninterrupted comb into which the queen can lay her eggs (something that queens seem to prefer). Nowadays however, the conventional Langstroth hive made up of deep brood boxes is starting to become not so common and conventional.
With the advent of so many backyard beekeepers taking up the craft of apiculture during the past decade there is a growing trend in the use of medium sized boxes for hive bodies which, at 6-5/8 inches tall, only weigh about two-thirds as much as a comparable deep when full. This size box is often called a Western, or Illinois Super. The big advantage of using all medium boxes for both the hive body and the honey supers is that you only have to inventory a single frame size for all your equipment and never have to worry about the incompatibility of your frames of comb and boxes. When three medium boxes are used for the brood chamber it creates just about the same size hive cavity as two deep hive bodies. Beekeepers down south may use two medium supers in place of a single deep. The drawback to using all mediums is that you will need to use more pieces of equipment and will end up with significantly more frames to handle when conducting frame manipulations and inspections compared to deep brood boxes. Also due to their shorter height, more medium boxes will be required for honey storage than when deep supers are used. The additional frames will significantly increase the amount of work needed to extract honey during the harvest.
At 5-11/16 inches high, the shallow box is the lightest option for regular use as a hive body or honey super. Shallow boxes can be used as hive bodies if need be, but they have the same drawbacks as the medium sized boxes only accentuated! As a result, shallows are most commonly used as honey supers. You may see boxes that are 4¾ inches deep being offered for sale by beekeeping supply companies. These are not extra short shallow supers, but specialty boxes made especially for comb honey production.
Another fairly recent development is the popularity of eight-frame Langstroth-style equipment. Available in either the deep or medium sizes, an eight-frame box is lighter by about 20 percent than its 10-frame counter part and being narrower, the center of gravity when grasped with both hands is closer to the body making it easier to lift. The downside is that an eight-frame hive will need to be taller than a comparable 10-frame hive due to the smaller cavity space created by the eight-frame box. This can provide an additional challenge in years when there is a strong honey flow and the supers are stacked up like a skyscraper requiring use of a ladder to reach the top. The narrow base can also make the eight-frame hive more likely to topple over in heavy winds, especially when top heavy during those good honey years. Since the majority of beekeepers still use 10-frame equipment, it may also be harder to resell used eight-frame equipment to another beekeeper should you ever decide to give up your beekeeping career.
Mixing It Up
Today the hive that is made up of a single sized box is relatively rare. Most hives utilize one size box for the hive body and a smaller box, either a medium or shallow for the honey supers above. Down South for example a medium is often placed above a single deep, while the double deep more common in Northern regions, is often topped with medium or shallow supers that are placed above for the collection of honey that is intended for harvest. Eight- and ten-frame equipment however, cannot be used on the same hive very effectively due to the varying widths. This lack of interchangeability suggests that one should get either eight-frame equipment, or 10-frame equipment and stick to that size throughout their beekeeping days. Otherwise the day will inevitably come when a ten-frame super is needed and all that is available are supers designed to hold eight frames, or vice-versa.
Top Bar Hives
Alternatives to the Langstroth hive have become popular. The most common alternative to the Langstroth hive is the Top Bar Hive (TBH). The Top Bar Hive comes in two styles, the Kenyan TBH that features sloping walls, and the Tanzanian TBH that has straight walls. Top bar hives typically consist of a single box, but since their use and production has not been standardized in the way that the Langstroth hive has, the TBH comes in a wide variety of sizes. Beekeepers who build or purchase top bar hives that feature a top bar that is the same size as the Langstroth top bar find that their compatibility with the Langstroth hive is very convenient when performing certain hive manipulations or if they decide to move their bees from one style of hive into the other. Top bar hive inspections can only be conducted one frame at a time. Unlike with Langstroth-style supers, there is no ability to move large numbers of frames quickly and honey production tends to be limited requiring a lot of additional labor. This is why it is unlikely that the majority of commercial beekeepers will ever switch over to top bar hives.
The Warré hive offers another alternative to the Langstroth hive. Unlike the top bar hive however, the Warré has established interior dimensions that are standardized and the hive has the ability to be “supered” from the bottom as the colony expands. As with the TBH, combs are typically attached to a top bar and allowed to be built naturally without the aid of sheets of foundation. Warré hives tend to be better for honey production than TBH, though raising the entire hive in order to add a super to the bottom of the colony may be challenging.
In the continuing effort to improve upon bee hive design, some beekeepers will experiment with their own unique hive designs. Here again, designs that feature frames or top bars that are compatible with the standard Langstroth hive make life easier, especially when transferring bees, brood and comb into or out of a Langstroth hive. As long as the hive design incorporates the bee space and a removable frame into its design, it should not run afoul of the bees’ preferences, or state laws that require a movable frame to enable inspections for diseases and pests.
So what type of hive is best for you? If lifting heavy objects is a concern the top bar hive, or a Langstroth hive – especially those made up of eight-frame medium boxes – may be the best options. Much also depends on your purpose for keeping bees. If honey production is important then a Langstroth or Warré hive is likely to be more satisfying. If you will be keeping bees such as Italians that tend to build up early in late winter/early spring, Langstroth and Warré hives rather than a TBH will allow for easier expansion of the honey storage area in order to help ensure enough room for the extra honey that the Italian bees will need to survive the winter without supplemental feeding. Just remember that if you experiment with more than one style of hive, try to ensure that the top bars from each hive are the same length so that combs may be moved from one hive to another to simplify any hive manipulations that you may want to make in an attempt to correct hive issues or relocate colonies.
Bees are incredibly resourceful and adaptable and are able to thrive in almost any type of cavity that we provide. From my point of view, it is not the box that you keep your bees in that is critical as far as the bees are concerned, but how you care for them that matters most.
Ross Conrad is author of Natural Beekeeping, revised and expanded 2nd edition. Join Ross and the Colorado Beekeeping Association in Broomfield, CO from 8:30-5:00 for an advanced beekeeping workshop on Saturday January 24, 2015. http://coloradobeekeepers.org/ross-conrad/