Beekeeper Terms: 12 To Know Upfront

We’ve added a glossary to our site to help you learn some beekeeper terminology. As a new beekeeper, let’s go over 12 beekeeping terms you should know from the outset.

1. Hive

Hive can refer to the actually colony of bees. Most beekeepers use the term referring to the colony’s home and the box or boxes that make it up.

There are 3 main styles of hive boxes you’ll come across (and I won’t count these toward the 12 terms):

  • Langstroth boxes are rectangular and vertically stacked. They vary in width and depth depending on the intended use and how many frames they hold. I suspect you will start with Langstroth boxes as they are quite common. The pictured boxes are Langstroth.
10 frame hives with 2 deeps
10 frame hives with 2 deeps

  • Warre boxes are square and also vertically stacked. Unlike Langstroth boxes they are consistent in size. The don’t use frames. Bees build comb affixed to bars within the hive.
  • Top bar hives are single-body horizontal boxes. Like Warre hives they use bars, not frames.

Related article:

3 Main Beehive Types (Which To Choose)

2. Frame

A plastic or wood frame is designed for the bees to build honey comb. Frames can be deep, medium or shallow depending on the box you are using. Width of the boxes determines the number of frames it holds (10 or 8 or less).

3. Foundation

Foundation is a thin sheet of beeswax (possibly with wires) or a sheet of plastic coated with beeswax. Foundation is inserted in a frame. Bees use the foundation as a base upon which to build their wax comb.

While many beekeepers use foundation, it is not necessary. As mentioned earlier, Warre and Top Bar hives do not use frames and therefore no foundation. Even in Langstroth hives you can use foundation-less frames.

Foundation-less frames can come with special issues like cross-combing. As a new beekeeper, foundation is a simpler way to get started. You can transition to foundation-less later (like we did) if you desire.

Foundationless frame and frame with plastic foundation
Foundationless frame and frame with plastic foundation

4. Comb

Comb is the hexagonal (six-sided) wax structure where the queen lays her eggs, brood develops and the bees store pollen and honey. If you’re like me, you will be in awe the first time you open your hive and fine freshly drawn, translucent comb. It’s an engineering marvel of nature. Nearby are bees on foundation-less drawn comb.

Fixing comb on foundationless frame
Fixing comb on foundationless frame

5. Smoker

A smoker is a metal container used to slowly burn material to produce smoke. The smoker limits the amount of oxygen for the fuel to produce a smouldering effect. A leather or plastic bellows provides fresh air as needed. Properly prepared, a smoker will smoulder for quite a while.

I usually use wood shavings and dried pine needles. Don’t use anything with chemicals (like shavings from pressure treated wood).

Keep your smoker handy
Keep your smoker handy

The smoke is used to calm bees during a hive inspection. Puffing some smoke on the bees causes them to gorge on honey. This may be an emergency preparation for leaving the hive in the event of a fire. It also disrupts the bees transmission of alarm pheromones.

The smoker is your friend. Keep it handy but try to use it sparingly.

6 – 8. Bees

Okay. You probably think this is stupid. You know what a bee is…more or less. But do you know the various castes of bees and their assigned chores? 

  • Of course you know the queen bee. The one and only queen rules the colony. Once mated the queen produces all the eggs, as many as 2,000 per day. She is longer and more tapered than the other bees. Her health is critical to the health of your hive. The colony takes it cue from her pheromone levels which decline with age.
  • Drones are male bees. Drones are larger than other bees though not as long as the queen. The have no stinger and are not built to forage. Their sole functions are to mate with virgin queens and help maintain the hive. In the fall they are evicted from the hive to preserve food stores for the winter. The queen will make new drones the following spring by laying unfertilized eggs. Oh…and after a drone mates with the queen, his abdomen is ripping from his body as he pulls away and he dies. Yikes!
  • Worker bees are the smallest and make up most of the colony. During their life span (about weeks), workers take on different chores as they age:
    • Cleaning cells
    • Taking care of the queen and nursing the brood (nurse bees)
    • Fanning to maintain proper temperature and humidity in the hive
    • Removing debris
    • Storing food brought in by foragers and turning it into honey
    • Propolizing cracks and crevices
    • Removing dead bees (mortuary bees)
    • Building the wax comb
    • Guarding the hive (you’ll meet these guard bees)
    • Foraging for nectar and pollen

9. Bee Space

When you assemble your first hive you’ll notice a symmetry in the spacing between frames, the space between the frames and the hive walls, the space between the frames in one box and the frames in the box below it. This bee space of about 3/8″ leaves room for bees to move freely within the hive.

This gap is left free of wax and propolis. Bees leave this space naturally in the wild and it is considered in the design of your hives.

10. Propolis

Propolis, also called bee glue, is  sticky resinous mixture created from saliva, beeswax and fluids secreted by plants that is picked up while foraging.

Bees propolize cracks and crevices. Openings smaller than the bee space are likely to be closed up. They will glue frames and the inner cover to the hive box. Propolis is one reason you need a hive tool on an inspection. The hive tool gives you the leverage to break the propolis bond and remove hive parts.

You might also want to check out the potential medical uses of propolis as it “seems to have activity against bacteria, viruses and fungi.” according to WebMD.

11 -12 Bee Package and Nuc

Bee packages and nucs (pronounced “newks”) are covered two ways bees are provided by suppliers.

A bee package is a box containing bees fed by sugar syrup and a caged queen. A nuc is a mini-hive with bees, a queen and some frames with brood and food stores.

For more details on packages and nucs see Where To Get Bees For A Hive? Think Local (and Get a Nuc)

More to Learn

You’re going to come across a lot of terms you’ve probably never heard before. Don’t be intimidated. We’ll try to cover them in our articles with links to our Glossary or other helpful resources.

Related Question

What are some good books to learn beekeeping terminology?

My two favorite books on beekeeping are The Backyard Beekeeper which is very detailed with great photos. I also refer often to The Beekeeper’s Handbook which has superb illustrations and excellent information.

About Us

Melanie and Jim

I’m Melanie Howard. My husband, Jim, and I want to share with you everything we’ve learned about beekeeping since we were newbies 6 years ago. Maybe the the ups and downs we’ve experienced can help you along the way.

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