The hive

Most of the estimated 245,000 honey bee hives in the United Kingdom are managed by an army of 44,000 amateur keepers. There are also roughly 200 professional beekeepers who between them, manage approximately 40,000 colonies.

Bee farmers tend to use Commercial equipment but the hobbyists use a variety of hives including the Dartington, William Broughton Carr (commonly abbreviated to WBC), Langstroth and Langstroth Jumbo, Dadant, Rose and Top Bar. In Scotland, the most popular hive is the Smith and in England and Wales, it’s the National.

One thing’s for sure, it’s difficult to manage different types of hive in a single apiary because their various parts and frame sizes are incompatible. So, once you’ve made a decision about what type of equipment you’re going to use, it’s best to stick to it. Before you decide, it’s a good idea to see as many different hive types as possible as needs and preferences vary. This is a topic we discuss during our introduction to beekeeping course.

You should also bear in mind, there’ll be times in your beekeeping adventure when you’ll wish to transfer bees to or from other beekeepers and this is much easier if you’re using the same equipment.

Regardless of what type of equipment you choose, all modern hives are made up of similar components. The information on this page is based on the Standard National Hive but the components described apply to most hives commonly used in the United Kingdom.

The British Standard National is a form of Langstroth hive which was regulated by two British standards in 1946 and 1960. It’s the most popular design currently used in the United Kingdom.

Like the Langstroth, the National is made-up from a stack of modular components but it’s dimensions are smaller than the Langstroth to suit the less prolific British bee and our temperate climate

The original specification of the British Standard National detailed a stand, a solid floor (now usually superseded by an open-mesh floor to allow the reduction and monitoring of varroa infestation), a deeper brood box, shallower honey super boxes, a section rack (for production of sections of comb honey), a crownboard and a roof.

Dimensions of the standard National hive

The boxes are 18⅛” (460mm) square in footprint: the standard brood box being 8⅞” (225mm) tall, and the shallower super 5⅞” (150mm) tall. The walls are ¾” (19mm) thick.

BS National standard brood box with frames shown through cutaway (one of the eleven frames removed to show detail).

The internal frames are supported on runners on two sides of the box, in a deep rebate formed by the two-piece construction of the sides.

The National beehive is specifically designed to house frames detailed in the standard. These are 14″ (355mm) wide, with a height of either 8½” or 5½” (216mm or 140mm).

In the brood box, up to twelve frames can be used but, once propolised, twelve is difficult to work with and now, eleven frames (with, perhaps, a dummy board filling the space) is more typical.

In honey supers, between nine and twelve can be used, depending on the spacing chosen. Although if nine frames are chosen, it’s advisable to use drawn comb to prevent the bees building cross comb. The National frames have a long top-bar (17″ or 432mm) giving them lugs of 1½”/38mm that rest on the runners.

Warm way or cold way?

Because the boxes of a standard National hive are square, it’s possible to orient frames in two ways in relation to the entrance. The frames can be set parallel to the entrance which is called ‘warm way’ or perpendicular to it, which is ‘cold way’. There’s always a certain amount of good-natured discussion amongst beekeepers about which way is best and this article from Dave Cushman illuminates some of the arguments. One thing’s for certain, having the choice of which to orientate your boxes gives your more flexibility in how you work.

Bottom bee space or top bee space?

The National hive provides ⅜” (9mm) bottom bee space. That’s to say, the top surface of the frame bar is flush with the top of the box and the lower surface of the frame, one bee space above the bottom of the box.

Therefore, when two boxes are stacked on top of one another, there is exactly one beespace vertically between the frames in the lower box and the upper one; designed to prevent the bees filling excess space with brace comb.

Top or bottom bee space is another subject keepers can spend hours debating. Have a quick look at this beekeeping forum to see what I mean!

Hive components

Blue: roof

There are various roofs available. A pitched roof provides better drainage and perhaps looks more attractive in a garden. It also provides space above the crown board which can accommodate some types of feeder (or fondant) without adding an eke.

Some beekeepers prefer flat roofs (which are cheaper) particularly where hives are placed close together as the flat roof of an adjacent hive can provide an extra work space!

Grey: crownboard

Crownboards are typically made from 6mm plywood framed with ¼” x 7/8” cedar wood laths. On some crownboards (especially those designed for Smith, Langstroth and Dadant hives) there is one bee space on one side only. National, Commercial and WBC crownboards typically have one bee space on both sides. Most have two cut out slots to accommodate two plastic porter bee escapes.

Crownboards are like a ceiling in the hive. They are essential to prevent the bees propolising the frames to the roof! The crownboard is placed directly over the broad box or above the top super if these have been added.

Plywood boards provide good insulation when placed in the usual position above the top super and below the roof. They are also used when clearing bees with porter escapes.

A crownboard fitted with plastic Porter bee escapes which usually come with it. If used correctly, these provide a very effective method of clearing bees from the honey supers prior to harvest.

When feeding bees, the food is placed directly over one of the slots if using a rapid feeder, or both slots if using a bucket or contact feeder. In the winter, the crownboard is often placed directly over the brood body.

There are also transparent versions available, made from Perspex or plastic. These have the benefit of allowing the beekeeper to look into the hive without opening it but they are more difficult to clean than the plywood versions. The plastic cannot be scraped without scratching it.

Brown: honey ‘super’ box

The super is where the bees store excess honey which the beekeeper will remove when it’s capped. During periods of favourable weather, when there is a good nectar flow, beekeepers will stack two, three or even four supers above the brood box and queen excluder. Once honey has been extracted, the supers with their sticky frames must be returned to the same hive.

The bees will re-store the residue honey elsewhere, cleaning your comb in the process. On a standard National hive, at least one full super of honey must be left on the hive for the bees to feed on during winter. Any other supers are removed at the end of the season to reduce the total space in the hive to help the bees keep it warm.

Yellow: super frames

British standard super frames (or shallows) usually come in packs of ten. They are suitable for National or WBC super boxes. They either come with straight side bars (and will therefore need to be spaced with plastic spacers) or with Hoffman side bars and are therefore self-spacing. The frames can be fitted with either wired or unwired foundation or with strips of foundation which the bees draw down into comb.

Purple: queen excluder

The queen excluder is either a thin sheet of plastic or zinc with slots or holes punched into it or a metal frame surrounded by wood. The wooden frame allows for one bee space on either side. The importance of bee space on a queen excluder shouldn’t be under-estimated as bees tend to stick the other types to the frames. Bee space also allows bees to move freely around the hive.

The holes in the plastic or metal grid are big enough to allow worker bees to pass through but are too small for the larger queen and drones. This means the drones and queen are restricted to the brood chamber but workers can pass freely into the supers to store honey.

The queen excluder is used to separate the brood box from the honey supers so that laying activity is restricted to the brood chamber and only honey can be stored in the supers meaning it is available for harvest.

The metal grid type is more durable than the plastic and is easier to clean. It is also easier on the bees’ wings!

Red: standard brood box

The brood box is the largest chamber of the hive and is where the queen lives all the time. She lays her eggs here and it’s where the colony raises brood and stores pollen. A certain amount of nectar and honey is also stored in the brood chamber. The proximity of this honey to the brood nest means it’s easily accessible by the colony and is never harvested by the beekeeper.

The maximum size of the colony is determined by the size of the brood chamber and that in turn is dependant on the type of hive. During the spring and summer when the bee population is increasing, beekeepers commonly split a colony by removing some of the frames (containing brood, pollen and honey) from the brood chamber to start a new colony in another hive. The frames are then replaced with frames of foundation. This is a good method of swarm control and for making increase.

National brood boxes are available in two sizes; standard and deep. Either size is compatible with the other hive components (floor, supers, crownboard and roof). The standard box will not be large enough for a strong colony at peak population but space for the brood nest can be increased by adding a super under the queen excluder (beekeepers call this brood and a half) or by adding another brood box (this is called double brood).

The deep national has been designed to accommodate the brood nest at peak population and as that population starts to decline towards winter, the bees are also able to back-fill the box with significant honey stores.

Pink: Brood frames

Frames should be assembled carefully to ensure maximum strength. When filled with brood and honey they can be very heavy and the beekeeper will need to turn them during inspections to view both sides. If a frame collapses, it’s disastrous for both bees and beekeeper! How to build a frame.

British standard brood frames (or deeps) usually come in packs of ten. They are suitable for National or WBC brood boxes.

!!Confusion alert!! In the context of frames, the term ‘deep’ refers to brood frames and ‘shallow’ refers to super frames. You will see the notations ‘DN’ for Deep National or ‘SN’ for Shallow National used on packaging etc. Unfortunately, the term ‘deep’ is also used in relation to brood boxes and means something completely different. It refers to the larger 14”x12” National brood box to distinguish it from the standard National brood box.

Frame types DN1 and DN2 have straight side bars so will have to be spaced with plastic spacers. DN4 and DN5 have Hoffman side bars so are self spacing. DN2 and DN5 have slightly wider top bars and are therefore more robust but it is more difficult to fit plastic spacers to the wider bars.

Most beekeepers in the UK use wax foundation. It is made from natural beeswax and has been cleaned and rolled in a factory and then impressed with a hexagonal pattern which the bees use as a ‘blueprint’ to draw out their comb.

Wax foundation is available in either wired or unwired varieties. The wire provides added strength but does make refurbishing frames and rendering (recycling) wax slightly more difficult. Wired foundation, particularly in brood boxes, is highly recommended for new beekeepers.

Wax is a valuable commodity and should be recycled carefully. Processing wax It can be used for candles, cosmetics and polish or can be exchanged at your bee supplies shop for new foundation.

Plastic foundation is also available and is popular in other countries. A ‘wax spray’ is applied to encourage the bees to draw out their comb. Plastic foundation is strong and easy to use but there are concerns that repeated use may harbour disease and that plastic residues can end up in honey. Beekeepers also report that bees remove the wax spray to build comb elsewhere and that built comb sometimes falls away from the plastic foundation.

Lime: floor

The floor is a vital piece of equipment. Most are now open mesh allowing varroa to drop through thereby reducing the mite load in the colony. The mesh also increases ventilation in the hive, especially important in very warm weather. Some beekeepers (particularly in colder parts of the country or where the hive is in an exposed position) change the mesh floor for a traditional solid wooden one in the winter but that means mites groomed off by the bees or dislodged by their movement will not fall out of the hive.

A monitoring board can be fitted under the mesh floor to allow the beekeeper to count varroa. Counting varroa

Green: entrance block

It may just look like a strip of wood with a couple of notches cut out but the entrance block is an important piece of equipment. It helps to contain the internal temperature of the hive and keep frost out and so should be set to a small entrance earlier in the season. This also makes it easier for the bees to defend when the colony is smaller.

Many beekeepers open the entrance up later in the season to make access and egress easier for the bees. Others remove the block entirely. Removing the block also increases ventilation but if you get the chance to observe a wild colony, you may be surprised how small the entrance usually is.

In the days when solid floors were used, it was probably essential to remove the block to increase ventilation but now we have mesh floors, this may not be necessary and the entrance can be restricted throughout the season possibly to a third of the hive width.

If the entrance block has been removed, it should be refitted and the entrance reduced if the hive is being attacked by another
colony or wasps or if the weather is poor for that time of season.

Teal: stand

Not much is written about the hive stand but they fulfil an important function in the apiary and if designed properly, make beekeeping a bit easier.

The bees don’t worry too much what their hive is resting on (although they do seem to make good use of a well-designed landing board) and a hive that is perfectly level is definitely an advantage to the bees.

Bees’ natural inclination is to choose a site high off the ground so lifting them up about a couple of feet is good for them and good for preventing ‘beekeepers back’ when you are working with your hives.

As well as raising the hive off the ground, the hive stand provides a sturdy and secure base. It can be placed on bricks or slabs to protect the feet from damp and to keep vegetation from growing around the hive. Use a spirit level to ensure your base is level before placing the stand upon it. You may have one on your phone!

Wooden stands are often used but they must be stoutly built as hives weigh 50 to 100 kg (100 to 200 lb) when full. Another good and simple solution is to set each one on a concrete slab.

The ground in front of hives must be kept clear of vegetation. This is to prevent ground-dwelling critters crawling into the hive. Cut or trim regularly but don’t use weed killer.

Recent research has found that ‘hawking’ behaviour by hornets (and its protection from Asian hornets the researchers had in mind) is disrupted when long grass is allowed to grow in front of the hive. It prevents the hornet from picking off bees at will so the advice about long grass in front of hives may change in future.

As the beekeeper will normally work the hive from behind, a space should be left to provide convenient access. If the space is level and wide enough to accommodate equipment removed during inspections, working the hive will be easier.

It is generally believed that hives work best if the entrances face south or south-east. However this is not a matter of prime importance.

These hives face East and the bees do very well

Check your stands are:
– solid and firm and not rocking;
– level from side to side;
– sloping slightly from back to front with the front lower than the back.

Time spent on these details before the bees are in your hands will save much labour and heartache later. Siting your apiary.

Flow hives

Before we start on a comparison between the most popular hive types in the United Kingdom, let’s talk about about flow hives.

Flow hives look a bit like a cuckoo clock and are often attractive to those starting out keeping bees. The idea of drawing off honey at will, with little effort or disturbance to the bees, is certainly compelling and there is no doubt, the flow hive is an impressively designed piece of kit albeit more expensive than traditional hives.

There are those who say our climate is not suited to the equipment as honey rarely flows freely enough in our cooler temperatures and there are concerns about its plastic comb harbouring disease or contaminating honey. Some say, it’s easy to remove too much honey from a flow hive without realising. Others say flow hives break the connection between keeper and bees and are only attractive to those seeking to exploit bees for their honey with little interest in their welfare.

It has to be said that much of the criticism is from those who have not used the equipment but time spent researching beekeepers’ forums is not much more informative either.

Many beekeepers report success with their flow hives, others have abandoned the equipment in favour of more traditional methods. The fairest thing to say, seems to be, the jury’s still out! Meridian has a couple of members trialing the flow hive and we’ll report back when there is something conclusive to say.

Comparison between the different types of hive

Weight

Honey is heavy! Not to mention all that wood and metal-work, so it’s important you can ‘heft’ the considerable weight of the various hive parts.

Remember, as well as lifting boxes off the hive to inspect them, you may have to carry filled honey supers some distance in order to spin them out. Also, in a good year, you may have supers stacked high on the hive and these can be difficult to lift down particularly when working alone.

The table above compares the weight of each honey super (when filled) between the various hive types. The brood box for each hive type will usually weigh at least twice as much as the corresponding super for the type of hive.

Most hive types are available in polystyrene; a godsend to those concerned about the weight of the wooden versions. Poly hives are more difficult to clean though as they cannot be scraped or flamed. The only alternative is to paint them (many beekeepers use masonry paint for that purpose) but paint cannot be applied to internal surfaces as it may poison the bees.

Brood box capacity

In the UK, a strong colony of honey bees could reach a population in excess of 60,000 at the summer peak. It can be seen therefore, that some of the hive types shown above will not accommodate that peak population.

If a smaller capacity hive-type is chosen, the beekeeper must manage the hive to ensure the queen always has sufficient room to lay (see the section brood box above) or the colony may swarm prematurely.

As the skill of the beekeeper increases, having a brood box that does not accommodate the peak population will not be a problem; the beekeeper will know when and how to increase space for the queen to lay in.

In fact, ensuring the bees don’t have more space than they actually need is a key skill of beekeeping. Generally, a colony build-ups more quickly if the bees don’t have excess air to keep warm.

On the same point, larger capacity hives may be too big for all but the strongest colonies in the UK; some hives (like the Langstroth) were originally designed for warmer climates and more productive bees.

If a hive is too big for the colony is houses, the bees will struggle, particular in cold or wet weather. All these issues and your equipment choices are discussed in detail on our Introduction to beekeeping course or similar run by your local association.

Compatibility with other beekeepers

Not a major consideration perhaps but worth bearing in mind; it’s a good idea to find out what equipment other local beekeepers prefer. When you’re starting out, you might a like a local beekeeper to raise your first colony (obtaining a nucleus) and the process depends on them having compatible equipment. Later in your beekeeping career, you may be the one raising bees for somebody else or you may ‘inherit’ colonies from another beekeeper. These events are difficult to manage if you don’t have compatible equipment.

Ease of use

Some hive types are easier to manage than others. The WBC hive for example, is the quintessential British hive and many people recognise its shape from story books and illustrations. It certainly looks pretty and some say its characteristic double-walled design is beneficial to the bees in winter.

The WBC is more expensive than other hive types but could be a good choice if you just want a hive in your garden. WBCs can take up a lot of storage space (due to the different-sized boxes involved) so may not be ideal if you’re planning to expand beyond a couple of hives.

The double walls and tapered lifts does mean it’s more difficult to manage than other hive types especially for a new beekeeper and colony inspections take longer. The brood box capacity is also on the small side.

Some beekeepers report that colonies in WBCs take longer to build-up in spring due to the double walls cutting down on the Sun’s warmth but this might be an advantage in colder areas. The cavity between the walls can also get damp so regular maintenance is required to prevent this.

Foundationless frames

Other hive types (for example the top bar) do not have frames and some hives use ‘foundationless’ frames. The idea is that the bees will drawn down their natural comb. But beware, natural comb is difficult or impossible to inspect; it can easily fall out of the frame or off the bar. It can also be difficult to remove the bars without damaging the comb as bees often build cross comb in the gaps.

Some people intend to leave their bees to their own devices but this means pests like varroa cannot be monitored and there’s no way of knowing that your bees are healthy. Not managing your bees places them at risk and endangers the health of other local bees.

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