Nest Habitats

Long, long ago – the Skep.

by Larry Connor

The western honey bee uses a variety of cavities for it’s home. The bees have general requirements only, and are quite flexible about where they nest. They want a dry chamber of a suitable volume, where there is good ventilation and a small entrance to protection from predators. Both honey and bee brood are sought as foods for a wide variety of wild animals and birds, so the social bee has evolved to use cavities in trees and rock outcroppings some distance off the ground. Depending on the area where the bees are living, the habitat determined the most popular nesting site. In desert areas, rock outcroppings are very popular places for bees, especially if they are difficult for predators to reach from the ground. Where trees are able to grow in both tropical and temperate locations, the preferred nesting site is in a hollow living tree. Bees are less likely to live in dead trees than living trees, suggesting the moisture in the living tree is beneficial to the colony or that living trees last longer than dead trees and are a better choice for a nest. Bees use resin from nearby flower buds to line their nests, the nearly magical propolis that creates a moisture and pathogen barrier between tree and the growing nest of bees.

Top-Bar Hive.

Top-Bar Hive.

The interaction of honey bees and humans has provided an increased number of structures for honey bees to occupy. A hut or cabin seems to offer a great place for bees to set up housekeeping, especially if it provides protection from predation. Wall partitions, floor joists and roof timber provide scout bees the right space for swarms to occupy. Cavities like baskets, carrying devices and agricultural voids are popular homes. Nowadays bees will occupy most any dry cavity that offers the proper volume of space, is dry, and has an opening with a southern or eastern orientation. Empty cavities, from unused grills, large bird houses, mail boxes, and even water meter containers attract bees. There are differences in the habitat of different races of honey bees. For example, the African bee will use a smaller nest cavity than European bees.

Habitats by Humans for Bees

The transition of honey bees to cavities made by humans apparently occurred between five and ten thousand years ago. Various designs were used based on materials found within the existing community, including hollowed-out wood, woven baskets and clay cylinders and more.

Hollowed-out trees (gums) – In areas where trees were found and humans had the skill to cut down large trees, the keeping of hollowed-out trees, sometimes called gums in the United States because of the use of the gum tree (several species are called gum trees, including tupelo) became common. The initial step was to mark a tree in the forest with cuts in the tree to claim ownership. The bee nests were opened to remove honey but not destroyed, so the bees would continue to maintain a nest in its location. This lead to the felling of the tree and cutting it in such a way that the trunk could be set up in a primitive apiary – a few of these apiaries still exist as examples of early beekeeping methods. Some times boxes were placed on top of the cut gum hives to allow the bees to expand into and allow the harvest to honey or to make up a new hive. In other situations, the bees were allowed to expand into woven baskets, serving as a precursor of the modern honey super. This honey and wax could be crushed and allowed to drain into containers. Hollow wooden logs were also used horizontally, and even stacked like cordwood to provide for many bees in one location. Or the logs were hung from trees to keep them away from predatory mammals and birds.

Clay pots and cylinders – Where trees were less abundant or absent, humans created clay pots and cylinders to keep colonies of bees for harvest. The cylinder system, still in use in northern Africa, allowed the beekeeper to remove a clay or wooden disk at the end of the cylinder and take out honey without destroying the bees inside the hive. Swarms were captured and put in front of hollow cylinders, allowing the beekeeper to collect a large number of colonies stacked up like cord wood. Trees were also used horizontally much the same way as clay cylinders.

Woven baskets (skeps) – Woven containers, shaped into baskets or large tubs, were used to house bees by many European cultures. Skeps were the dominant domicile for honey bees in European Middle Ages, and recesses in walls and the sides of buildings, called boles, are well documented in England. Skep beekeeping was a successful way of capturing swarms and keeping bees to produce honey and wax for the household, with the benefit of mead from the water used to was the wax. In North America the skep was used until about 1800. Their use faded in popularity because of the abundance of timber allowed beekeepers to either keep bees in gums or to build special boxes for the bees. The precursor of a honey super was a small basket called an eke placed on top of the skep.

Modern Wooden Hives – In 1852, Massachusetts clergyman L. L. Langstroth developed a beehive that combined his discovery of the bee space with a movable frame, top-loading hive which proved to be a giant step forward in the evolution of modern beekeeping. The ability to move frames in a hive, and to do it from the top of the colony, allowed for further development of methods to make increase nuclei hives, allow the development of comb foundation and the honey extractor that utilized centrifugal force and bottling the final liquid honey product. The Langstroth hive eliminated the need to crush the comb to harvest the honey. Drawn combs could be reused from season to season and became valuable reusable resources rather than being destroyed with every harvest.

The Langstroth hive changed beekeeping and is the most commonly used hive design in the world. There are different variations in different countries, and even in North America there are several depth and dimension options that fill the bee supply catalogues. European beekeepers have even more variation in the Langstroth template.

Photo courtesy of Bee Thinking

Photo courtesy of Bee Thinking

During the first part of the Twentieth century French pastor Emile Warré experimented with different hive designs. His goal was to develop a simple hive design that was easy on the bees. Its key feature is a top insulation system and the practice of under-supering the boxes as they are added to the hive. This allowed the bees to build comb down from a series of bars at the top of the box, much like they would in a bee tree. In the Langstroth system, new boxes of frames and foundation are placed above the existing box. As additional room is added to the hive, the bees would continue to build downward.

The hive works in cold climates and is suitable for those who are able to make their own equipment, thus saving over the cost of purchase of the more complicated Langstroth hive. It could easily be constructed from the scrap lumber found at a construction site or from a house undergoing remodeling. Several manufacturers offer the hives but at a price that does not save that much money. The hive is functional for someone who wants a temperate-region top bar hive but does not find the Kenyan top bar hive to be suitable for reasons we will explain below. The hive is called the Warré Hive or the People’s hive. A Warré hive, with natural, unsupported combs are not acceptable in many areas, and are not suitable for commercial beekeeping. It would be hard to sell increase colonies unless you had a following of like-minded beekeepers. Yet the establishment of such hives with top bar hives makes them minimally acceptable to meet disease regulations in the United States. A simple box with top bar frames is certainly a simple way to keep bees.

I had just started working at The Ohio State University when I traveled to a meeting in Prague, where I saw images of a new hive for use in Kenya called the Kenyan top-bar hive (KTBH). Drs. Maurice Smith and Gorden Townsend were researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario. They had funding from the Canadian International Development Agency to develop a hive for use in Africa. They were developing a colony that would hang under trees or from poles to keep it out of reach of wild and domestic animals. There were only top bars on the hive, and sloping sides to the boxes. By using a side angle of about 30 degrees, the bees were less likely to attach the comb to the sides of the hive. Smith and Townsend were incorporating ideas from the hanging log hive with various top-bar colonies that they had seen.

Before the Kenyan hive other attempts had been made, and an ancient basket hive with top bars is known to exist in 1539 in Greece. Since the KTBH, other top bar hives have been developed, but all trace back to the Kenyan model. One modern African version has square sides that house Langstroth frames, making the frames interchangeable. The top bars measure the width of a comb plus a bee space, between one and one-quarter to one and three-eighth inches in width. This keeps the bees from building more than one comb on a top bar. A central strip of wax, foundation starter strip or a narrow piece of wood is used as the base of the comb. In the United States KTBH’s are usually mounted on a set of legs to provide working height and stability.

Top bar hives were immediately popular worldwide because of their simple design and less expensive construction. They are being constructed from recycled shipping containers, packing boxes and even old dresser drawers. There does not appear to be standardization among manufacturers and promoters of the hive. Bees are forced to move laterally rather than vertically, and the standard design has relatively poor ventilation. The long colonies can be divided into smaller units by the addition of a follower board the shape of the box. Frames may be a bit more awkward to manipulate and young comb will break if moved the wrong way. Honey must be harvested by a crushing-settling method that reduces the efficiency of extraction by centrifugal force; the honey is best harvested as cut comb honey.

Where Winter is mild beekeepers will experience good results with the KTBH. Tests in Canada showed that the bees have difficulty moving laterally rather than their preferred vertical Winter movement. Combined with poor ventilation survival has not been at acceptable levels for most beekeepers. I see this hive being used in northern areas where beekeepers kill the bees in the late Summer or Fall and harvest all the honey in the hive. Finally, the size and shape of the hive chance the dynamics of moving the hive for pollination and migratory purposes. I do not know of any BTBH’s that are being moved to California for almond pollination.

My recommendation is that all North American beekeepers be initially trained to manage Langstroth hives. This provides a successful hive that is commonly available and widely accepted. If a person is interested in expanding into either the Warré or Top-bar hive, they will have the experience of working with the Langstroth hive to appreciate the hive design’s strengths and weaknesses. As we see more an more plastic hives being introduced, we are likely to see the development of many hive designs that have novel features. My experience with plastic hives and plastic frames has been positive, and while I have friends who do not like them at all, I find the plastic equipment easy to use and observe that the bees build well with them, Winter successfully and are a fine alternative to wood hives. Some are quite expensive to purchase, which discourages their more widespread use.