Types Of Beehives: Pros & Cons

Back in the old days, when people wanted honey they would find a nest in a tree, cut the tree down, and completely destroy the hive to harvest the honey. Thankfully, we’ve developed methods of beekeeping and honey extraction over the years that don’t destroy beehives. 

Hives are divided into two categories: removable-frame hives and fixed-comb hives. Removable-frame hives have frames that can be removed for both inspection and honey collection. 

They have been preferred by most commercial and backyard beekeepers for centuries because their removable frames allow beekeepers full access to their hives for inspection and honey collection. 

They are also easier to build. Some examples include Langstroth, top bar, Dadant (a top bar variation), and the newest one on the market, the Flow Hive, which is especially designed for easy honey collection. 

Fixed-comb hives have frames that are not removable. They tend to be less popular because many beekeepers like to collect honey, plus they are illegal in some states and countries. 

Some beekeepers still use them because they feel they are a more natural environment for the bees, and they are not as interested in collecting honey. Some examples are Warre, skep (a kind of coil basket), and log hives (yes, a hollow log). 

The three most common types of hives are the Langstroth, top bar, and Warre hives, and those are the ones I will discuss here. 

The Langstroth Hive

The Langstroth hive is the most common beehive among beekeepers, both commercial and hobbyist. They are widely available and easy to find in stores that carry beekeeping supplies. 

Lorenzo Langstroth patented the Langstroth hive in 1852, but it wasn’t manufactured until 25 years after Langstroth’s death. The Langstroth hive was influenced by the design of the leaf hive, invented by Francis Huber in the 1700s. 

The leaf hive had frames that resembled pages in a book, but they weren’t removable. Langstroth’s hive was the first with removable frames.

Not much has changed in the last 150 years from its original design. The Langstroth hive is made up of movable boxes that are stacked in layers. Each box contains removable frames. These boxes are called bodies or hive bodies. 

The frames are where the bees build their comb. As in all removable-frame hives, the frames can be removed for bee inspection or honey extraction, and then replaced. In addition to Langstroth’s hive invention, he also discovered bee space.

Bee space is the ideal amount of cell space bees need to be able to easily move between structures in the hive—and Langstroth discovered that it’s ⅜ inch. At that size (give or take a tiny, tiny bit), the bees leave the space open as a passageway. 

Any smaller and they regard it as a crack in the hive and seal it up with propolis. Any larger and they fill it in with extra wax. So in a Langstroth hive, there’s about ⅜ inch between each of the frames and between the frames and all the other parts of the hive.

Langstroth’s invention helped turn beekeeping into a commercial business by giving beekeepers direct access to the honey and wax without destroying the hives, thus allowing future production for repeat harvest. 

Langstroth hives can be manufactured fairly easily by someone with basic carpentry skills. Because of their square design and stackable sections, they are easy to transport—another feafeature commercial beekeepers (who sometimes rent out their bees) like. 

The square design also allows ease of access, and that has helped beekeepers inspect the hive closely and see when there is a problem, thus reducing disease and infestation in their colonies. 

When choosing a Langstroth, you need to decide if you want an eight-frame hive or a ten-frame hive.

The difference is the number of frames each section will hold. The eight-frame sections weigh less, since they have fewer frames, making them lighter and easier to lift. It’s something to consider if you can’t lift a lot of weight.

Pros Of Langstroth Hives

The predetermined cell size (aka bee space), designed on the foundations of the frames forces bees to make specific cell sizes instead of letting the bees determine the size of their cells. Because the frames are oriented horizontally, the bees are also forced to draw their comb sideways instead of down, as they would do in nature.

The foundations used in the frames for the Langstroth hives often contain chemicals and therefore can never truly be considered organic. However, you can use frames without foundations if you want to avoid the chemicals that can be found in foundations. 

Each section of the hive body, when filled with brood or honey, can weigh anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds (depending on how many frames are inside). This heavy weight makes it hard for one person to operate, inspect, and handle the hive.

Top Bar Hives

In top bar hives, the frames lift out vertically. They also have one long horizontal hive body instead of stackable sections. They resemble a long box that is either straight like a rectangle (known as the Tanzanian hive) or angled in a V-shape, often with a pitched roof (known as the Kenyan hive). Both types of top bar hives have frames that are accessed from the top of the hive.

The top bar hive dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, and is preferred by beekeepers who have back issues or limited strength. It is placed off the ground on stands that make it the perfect height for ease of access.

Unlike Langstroth and Warre hives, top bar hives are just one story high, and the bees’ comb hangs down from removable top bars (there’s no frame). The bees draw their comb down from the bars placed in the top of the hive, mimicking what they would do in nature.

As the design of top bar hives has evolved, manufacturers have included side windows into the hives, allowing beekeepers to peek at their bees without any disruption to the hive whatsoever. 

This makes hive inspection less invasive, and the window provides beekeepers with hours of free entertainment.

Pros Of Top Bar Hives

Top bar hives are preferred by those with limited physical strength. One person can easily handle a single bar full of honey, rather than having to lift an entire Langstroth or Warre section. 

They are also at perfect mid-waist height, so they are convenient to access for inspections and honey extraction.

Top bar hives are considerably easier to construct than a Langstroth or a Warre hive. They also have fewer components, making them cheaper to buy. They are very simple in design and operation.

Additionally, the bees draw their comb down from the top bar, making each cell naturally, as they would do in the wild. Their cell size is not predetermined, and the bees are free to create their combs the way they see fit. 

Since you can remove one bar at a time without removing an entire section of the hive, there is less disruption to the colony.

Beekeepers claim bees in a top bar hive are happier and calmer. Certainly, top bar hives are a more natural approach to beekeeping.

Cons Of Top Bar Hives

Because of their design, top bar hives do not allow room for expansion; you will need to get more hives if you want to expand.

Some beekeepers claim this design isn’t good for cold-weather beekeepers because bees don’t like to move horizontally when it’s cold. In colder temperatures, bees will stay in the middle of their hive and eat all the honey there instead of going to the combs on the left or the right of the hive to get honey, because it is colder toward the ends of the hive. This means they can’t access their food stores in colder weather.

Since the frames for a top bar don’t have sides or a bottom, the comb weight isn’t supported, the way it could be in a hive with foundations. Because of this, the comb is often damaged during honey extraction and you (and the bees) won’t be able to reuse the comb.

The bees will have to start over building new comb, which takes time. More time building a comb means a longer time to produce honey.

Since the top bar hives are less popular, it is more difficult to find a mentor or someone with experience to help you. However, they are becoming more popular as the interest in natural beekeeping is on the rise.

The Warre Hive

Abbé Émile Warré developed the Warre hive 
in the early 1900s. Much like the Langstroth hive, the Warre hive is a vertical hive with stackable boxes. 

However, the boxes on the Warre hive get added at the bottom. Similar to a top bar hive, the Warre hive doesn’t use frames or foundations. Rather, the bees draw their comb downward much as they would in nature.

Warré didn’t believe in opening the hive for internal inspections, and the top bars are fixed so they can’t be removed. The hive was designed to emulate a tree. 

With the smaller hive design and the frameless hollow boxes, the Warre hive gives the bees a more natural environment in which to build their combs.

One issue all beekeepers have to deal with is moisture in the hive. Moisture and cold can kill bees,so it’s very important to protect them.The Warre hive is designed to keep cold and moisture out with its unique quilting box.

Pros Of Warre Hive

Like the top bar hive, the Warre hive is a more natural approach to beekeeping. The foundationless bars allow the bees to create their own cell sizes, bee space, and comb. 
The quilting box design helps absorb moisture and keep bees warmer during the cooler months.

Since the Warre design is based on a hands-off approach, you won’t need to perform inspections inside the hive. The smaller design of the Warre hive makes it lighter to handle when you extract honey. Some beekeepers claim that they can collect as much honey with a Warre hive as with the Langstroth hive.

Cons Of Warre Hive

 Fixed-frame hives are not legal in all states or counties. Some beekeepers do not like fixed combs because you cannot check on the hive, the queen, or the health of the colony.

Due to the complexity of the design of the hive, construction is more difficult for the novice carcarpenter. I would suggest buying the Warre hive already assembled. 

As the hive boxes fill with honey and brood, they gain a lot of weight. Since you have to lift the hive vertically to add the new box to the bottom, this becomes very hard for one person to maneuver. 

As with the top bar hives, the combs in a Warre hive are not supported by a frame, so the comb is more fragile and honey extraction generally means you won’t be able to reuse the comb. Which also means it will take the bees longer to produce more honey, because they have to rebuild their combs from scratch.

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