Every year, about now in my part of the world, a new intake of future beekeepers starts evening classes run by their local beekeeping association. These courses are generally excellent from what I’ve seen. Beginner classes are the right way to go for somebody with little knowledge of what’s involved. You need to understand honey bees’ biology and life cycle; everything else stems from that.
The thing is, you can’t really argue about the biology of the honey bee. Well, not much anyway. So we fight about everything else. Beekeepers love to have strong opinions about their beekeeping. They like to defend their position and frown on those who go a different way. Not everyone is like this, but whenever people organise themselves into groups/committees/associations, the opportunity for one-upmanship and politics rears its head. Beekeeping does not escape from this, and it’s not the bees’ fault.
For those new entrants to the fray, the initial questions probably concern the location of their future bees. Where will they live, and what in? However, unless there is some urgent reason for racing out to get bees, I think many people would benefit from a year of helping other beekeepers rather than setting up their own. Suppose you can find a local apiarist who will take you under their wing, and you tag along whenever they inspect their bees. In that case, you’ll probably make better decisions about your future beekeeping. You get the pleasure of being with bees without the responsibility and stress that many beginners often feel.
There are a surprising number of things to consider when choosing a hive. You should start with two hives, not one because when something goes wrong with one of them, you will have resources (bees/brood/stores) in the other one. Once you invest in beekeeping gear, which isn’t cheap, you will find it tricky to change course. I’m going to assume that you want to use modern hives with removable frames rather than something like skeps or log hives.
It’s also a good idea to try to systemise your beekeeping. It may not make much difference when you have two hives, but you never know – you might end up with ten or twenty or fifty or more one day. The more hives you have, the more you realise that having uniform equipment throughout is a huge benefit. As a curious (some might say restless) soul, I tried out different hive types and materials, so several of my apiaries look the opposite of uniform. Trust me; I wish all of my hives were of the same size and material, and from now on, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.
Wood or Poly?
Regarding materials for hives, it boils down to wood or polystyrene. There are different types of both. Western red cedar is lovely stuff because it contains oils that naturally protect the wood from rotting. It doesn’t need to be painted and is not unduly heavy, plus it’s pretty hard wearing. Pine is cheaper but heavier, and it needs painting. Poly hives are now reasonably common; they are very light, generally more affordable than wood and need to be painted to protect them from sun damage. Poly is more easily damaged, in my experience, and sometimes bees (and other wildlife) chew it, scratch it or peck it. The pecking part is birds, not bees.
There is always some debate about insulated vs non-insulated hives. Poly hives are insulated by definition, of course. I think that it’s best to cut a piece of 25mm thick PIR insulation board (Celotex/Kingspan) to fit into a wooden roof, then leave it there all year round. I don’t believe in insulating the walls of wood hives. But don’t let me stop you if that’s how you want to spend your money. My wild speculation is that in the cooler wooden hives, the bees are more likely to be tightly clustered for longer and probably free of brood for longer than in the warmer poly hives in winter. Bottom line: loads of experienced beekeepers have successfully kept bees in all manner of boxes, so it probably isn’t as important as other factors like nutrition and disease. In my opinion, smaller colonies such as nucs benefit from the insulating properties of poly more than big colonies.
The amount of space required in the brood nest depends on the bees. If you had the most prolific bees and a young queen laying like crazy (2,000 eggs per day at peak times), then the space needed just for brood is about 42,000 cells. When you add in the room for pollen and an outer arch of honey, you need at least 60,000 cells in the brood area. For smaller colonies, say a queen laying 1,000 eggs per day at peak, the required space is halved, i.e. 30,000 cells.
Nationals are the most commonly used hives in England. The simple fact that most people in an area use a particular hive type is quite a good reason to follow suit. It means that if you buy a nucleus colony, the bees will be on the correct frames for your hives. I don’t like them because:
- They can be too small.
- The long lugs on the frames break easily.
- They are an odd shape and more complicated to make than others.
- They usually are bottom bee-space.
Many people get around the ‘too small’ problem by running hives as ‘double brood’ with larger colonies, which makes sense. The brood area is 2,200 square inches (50,000 cells).
These boxes fit on top of nationals, but they are deeper and don’t have the rebate – they are a simple box – so there is more space for bees. No stupid long lugs, either. The brood area is 3,000 square inches (70,500 cells). Some people use a commercial brood box with national supers above. The size is excellent for more prolific bees, and compatibility with national boxes is an advantage in my area.
Another variation on the national hive is the Smith, which is more common in Scotland. These are a simple box (no rebate), but the internal dimensions match a national. The frames have short lugs. Basically, the Smith is a more sensible national hive because it’s simpler to make, and the frames are more robust. Still, it is not compatible with national equipment because the external dimensions differ. It’s also too small for prolific bees. Brood area same as national.
Langstroths are by far the most commonly used hives globally, although sizes vary slightly from one country to another. I changed over to Langstroths for my beekeeping after my first few years. The box is rectangular, not square and the frame lugs are short. I prefer them, simple as that. It’s not particularly scientific. Curiously, the volume of the brood chamber is 40 litres, which is the size chosen by swarms according to Honeybee Democracy by Tom Seeley. The brood area is 2,750 square inches (61,400 cells), and they are top bee space. I love them, but I don’t suppose my bees care.
I know somebody who uses these monsters. Brother Adam used a modified dadant hive; he wanted to be able to see the structure of the whole brood nest in one box, to be able to assess the queen properly. They are big and heavy. The brood area is 3,740 square inches (85,000 cells), and they have top bee space. The thing is, if your bees need less space, you can reduce it with dummy frames, so they do provide flexibility.
There are other hives, such as long hives, but I don’t know much about them. Another thing is floors. Nowadays, it’s standard to buy open mesh floors, sometimes called ‘varroa floors’. The true purpose of mesh floors is ventilation. I make my floors because you can’t buy the type I want, but I’m odd. It’s hard to know whether mesh floors or solid floors are best, or even if it makes much difference. It’s another thing for beekeepers to fight about!
I sell nucleus colonies to beekeepers, and as most beekeepers near me use national hives, that’s what I sell them. It means that I have plenty of national nucleus hives – generally Payne’s poly nucs – but I sell them rather than move them into full-sized equipment. Over time I’ve noticed more people asking for nucs on Langstroth frames, which is interesting, but nationals are still the mainstay.