Poly Hives

Some of Murray McGregors Poly Hives
Some of Murray McGregors Poly Hives

At this time of the year, many beekeepers are preparing trips to Stoneleigh and/or Harper Adams to attend beekeeping supplier trade shows. New or future beekeepers may find that the vast array of available options is difficult to navigate. Polystyrene hives have recently grown in popularity, so I thought I’d write about my experience.

I use Langstroth hives because their size is more appropriate for my bees and the frames are far more robust than the flimsy things in National hives. Poly Langstroth hives have been available from Scandinavia for many years. Because of economies of scale, their price tends to be lower than other types – most of the world uses Langstroth hives. The top bee space provided by Langstroth is much better than the standard bottom bee space in Nationals, in my opinion. I use wood and poly and have done for years, so I can see the pros and cons of each. 

Money Money Money

One big plus point in favour of polystyrene is a lower price. A hive kit, consisting of a complete hive (minus frames) comprising a single brood box plus two supers will set you back something like this:

  • Honey Paw Poly Langstroth £125 (Modern Beekeeping)
  • Cedar Langstroth Assembled £338 (EH Thorne)
  • Cedar Langstroth Flat Pack £267 (EH Thorne)
  • Paradise Honey Poly National £136 (Modern Beekeeping)
  • Pine National Assembled £115 (Modern Beekeeping)
  • Cedar National Assembled £325 (EH Thorne)
  • Cedar National Flat Pack £250 (EH Thorne)

Hive Preparation

There are many other hive types and excellent beekeeping equipment suppliers, but you get the point. Except for the pine hive, wood is much more expensive. You have to paint polystyrene to protect it from solar degradation. In contrast, cedarwood does not need to be treated, although I stick some wood stain on mine. I might be weird; in fact, it’s almost a certainty, but I also paint yacht varnish on the edges of poly boxes. Varnish dries hard and makes the boxes more robust to withstand hive tool damage when prising them apart.

Varnish on the edges of poly hives

Some hives, e.g. Paradise Honey, have hard plastic along the edges of the boxes, making them much tougher. However, these types are not as compatible with other hive types because they use a tongue and groove type of arrangement. You can use poly hives and wood together, but it looks messy – I’m going to tidy mine up this season to get the whole hive, either all wood or all poly. A shabby aesthetic creates an unprofessional impression, which I hope to avoid. It’s part of my new resolution to try to be less messy. I’m going to try to be neat, tidy and organised. You’ve got to have a dream, right?

In The Frame

Walrus putting wax into frames

I am not a fan of National frames because the long lugs are weak. My Langstroth frames come from Sweinty in Denmark; they are made from linden wood and are very strong. I buy them assembled and pre-wired, then buy wax foundation separately from KBS and melt the wax into the wires by passing an electric current through. It takes about ten minutes to do a box of frames. Generally, I have nine frames with worker foundation and one with drone comb in a brood box. Once the comb is drawn, I often drop down to nine frames per box. My prefered frame type for supers is plastic frames because they last ages and avoid ‘blowouts’ when extracting. I have to paint melted wax onto plastic frames to make them attractive to bees. 

Short lugs and strong frames (Langstroth)

Putting A Lid On It

Another variable is the roof type. Basically, you’ve got telescopic or migratory. The latter takes up less space and is superior for stacking hives onto a flatbed for those chasing crops or offering pollination services. Of course, if you are going on a long journey, you will use a screen instead of a roof, but it’s still good to have migratory lids as they take up less space. I mostly leave a rock on each hive’s roof to stop it from being blown off, but using a ratchet strap is much more secure. The poly lids definitely fly off in high winds, clearly a downside. The insulating properties are positive; warmer in winter and cooler in strong sunshine.

Weighty Issue

Poly hives weigh much less than wood, which makes lifting boxes easier. Another difference is that the brood nest tends to be started from the centre in wood, where it’s warmest. In poly, the bees often clustered against one hive wall because the walls are highly insulated, making it warmer there. The other thing I’ve noticed is that the bees are more likely to be moving about in winter in the warmer poly hive; in wood, they tend to stay quite tightly clustered. Interesting, but ultimately I’m not sure what difference that makes to me as a beekeeper. 

Insulation and Ventilation

Overall I can’t say with any certainty that poly is better or worse than wood. In my opinion, wood looks better and is less likely to be damaged by bees, beekeepers or wildlife. A mesh floor is essential in a poly hive but not a wood one. Using the solid floor/poly hive combo resulted in lots of dampness and mould. I prefer solid floors with wood hives with a small mesh area for ventilation. I also strongly advocate sticking some Celotex or Kingspan into the roof of a wooden hive – it can stay there all year round. Some have claimed a higher honey crop from poly hives, but I haven’t seen that in mine personally. Murray McGregor uses thousands of both hive types, and he says you get more honey from poly – he should know. For me, if money was no object, I think I’d use wood, but the price difference makes poly very attractive. 

Pete Watt, aka Polyhive has been advocating their use forever.

Walrus

Currently writing a book called "Interviews with Beekeepers"

6 thoughts on “Poly Hives

  1. Hi Steve.
    Do you paint top and bottom of the boxes with varnish?
    Does the yacht varnish not make the boxes stick together?
    I’ve made UFE solid floors for my Maisemore nuc boxes, not in use yet. I usually over winter those on 14×12 and a super. So you think a solid floor in this case is a mistake?
    Cheers Dani

    • Hi Dani, I do put varnish on top & bottom and they don’t stick together too much if I leave it outside to dry over a few days. I wait until it just feels like a hard surface. Regarding solid floors and poly, I did it with large hives and felt it was way too wet inside but others may not have had that problem, I don’t know. Not sure about a nuc. It was an over-wintering problem not the summer.

  2. Hello Steve

    Don’t forget the Thorne’s Bees on a Budget hive … £165 for cedar plus the QE, and frames/foundation for the brood and two supers. Sure, the boxes aren’t as good as their first quality cedar boxes, but they’re more than adequate and the bees will do just as well in them. My first hive was one of these. It was secondhand. It’s still in use every season and is as good (or bad) as it was when I got it.
    They do a Langstroth offering as well for £125 of a similar quality, again with all the frames and the QE.

    “A shabby aesthetic creates an unprofessional impression” … welcome to my world 😉

    Cheers
    David

    • Hi David,
      Shucks, I didn’t do the detailed research. Thanks for the info. I’m hearing timber prices are through the roof so I suppose hives will jump in price soon.

      Yeah, I’m a messy beekeeper hoping to get more organised. Glad it’s not just me! This season I have a helper so I’m hopeful!

  3. Hello Steve

    Having taken on the care of someone’s bees, I have to learn about Langstroths now, and embedding foundation in frames in particular. Do I have to buy a small car battery to heat the wires? Other devices (model rail transformers, car battery chargers etc) all seem to have safety cut-outs rendering them useless as soon as you join the contacts together.

    Many thanks
    Archie

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