Updated on June 12th, 2021
Beginning beekeepers need to choose what type of hive they wish to use. There are 3 main types of hives: Langstroth, Warrè (pronounced WAR-ray)and Top Bar hives. Langstroth and Warrè hives consist of vertically stacked boxes. Top Bar hives are single body horizontal bodies. There are other forms of horizontal hives also.
The best type of beehive for beginning beekeepers is the Langstroth hive. Due to its wide popularity and modular design, Langstroth hives have important advantages over other types of beehives:
- Many equipment suppliers;
- More beekeepers available to assist with advice or mentoring;
- Greater honey yield potential by adding boxes;
- Interchangeable boxes and similar sizing among manufacturers;
- Multiple methods for honey extraction; and,
- Easy transfer of comb, brood, and food stores between hives as needed.
Langstroth hives have certain disadvantages that may warrant an alternative choice by beginning beekeepers.
- Langstroth boxes full of bees and honey can weigh between 50 and 90 pounds which may be undesirable to anyone lacking physical strength to handle them.
- Langstroth beekeepers need storage space for equipment not in use (such as during winter) making them potentially unsuitable for those with limited space.
In this article, we will explain the Langstroth hive in detail. We also discuss why you might prefer another a Warrè hive or some type of horizontal hive when you start beekeeping.
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What Is A Langstroth Hive?
Langstroth hives consist of rectangular boxes of identical length and width. This permits vertical stacking. Frames set inside the hive provide a location for comb building.
According to Wikipedia, Rev. L. L. Langstroth “is considered to be the father of American beekeeping.” He wrote Langstroth’s Hive and the Honey-Bee: The Classic Beekeeper’s Manual (available here on Amazon).
About Bee Space
Langstroth is often credited with discovering “bee space”. Bee space is that distance of 3/8 of an inch where bees can travel but will not build comb.
Designed with all the parts based on bee space, the Langstroth hive is completely modular. Generally, bee space is provided:
- between the frames and the hive walls;
- between frames in the lower box and the bottom board;
- between two frames;
- between frame bottom bars in one box and top bars in another; and,
- between the top bars of the upper box and the inner cover.
You will find some cases where bees violate the bee space with comb but this is usually a minor problem. Strip such “burr comb” away with a hive tool.
Langstroth Hive Components
From the bottom up, a Langstroth hive consists of the following components.
A bottom board provides a base and entrance to the hive. Bottom boards can be solid or screened.
Screened bottoms can be opened or closed with a chloroplast board. Screened boards help with ventilation when open. Closed boards catch mites and other debris from the hive for inspection.
The bottom board should be set on some type of stand to keep it off the ground away from moisture or certain predators (like skunks and raccoons).
An entrance reducer is used on the bottom board to vary the entrance size from time to time, as needed.
Atop the bottom board sits one or more hive bodies.
Hive bodies are 19″ long to accommodate frames (described below). The width of bodies varies on whether it holds 10, 8 or 5 frames.
Three main depths determine what size frames to use:
- Deep boxes (9-5/8”) for the brood and some of its food stores.
- Medium boxes (also called supers – 6-5/8”) for brood and/or honey to be harvested.
- Shallow supers (5-11/16”) only for honey to be harvested.
Detailed size specifications are found on Wikipedia at Langstroth Hive if you’re interested.
In a Langstroth hive, brood rearing is generally confined in the lower boxes. Upper boxes are for honey. That’s why a common arrangement is 2 deep boxes on the bottom with medium supers above.
Frames And Foundation
Frames are rectangular structures (wood or plastic) inserted in a Langstroth hives. Within the frames, bees build their comb. Comb is used for brood rearing and food storage.
See our article What Is Honeycomb? (Talking Beeswax) for more information on how bees build and use wax comb.
Frames are removable for beehive inspections and honey harvests.
Each hive box contains the appropriate number of frames with the proper depth for the box.
Optional plastic or wax “foundation” is set inside the frames. Foundation is embossed with hexagon shapes and provide a base for bees to build wax comb. (Note that some alternatives to the Langstroth hive do not use frames or foundation.)
Frames can be “foundationless“. A simple guide on the top bar is all honey bees need to begin building comb.
However, we recommend that beginning beekeepers start out using foundation. You can always change later to try foundationless beekeeping.
See our article Foundation (or Foundationless?) for more information.
Inner And Outer Covers
An inner cover with a ventilation hole in the center sits on the uppermost box. It may have a notch on one side to provide an optional upper entrance. The ventilation hole also provides a place for bees to reach a feeder set on top of the inner cover.
An outer cover over the inner cover can be migratory or telescoping. A migratory cover fits tightly over the boxes to assist in transporting the hive. A telescoping cover hangs over all sides of the hive protecting it from the elements.
Optional Langstroth Components
There are many optional components available for Langstroth hives. For newbies, we think there only two that warrant your attention.
A queen excluder is a metal or plastic grid designed to permit the passage of worker bees, but not the queen, between boxes.
An excluder placed above the brood boxes prevents the queen from laying eggs in your honey supers.
We tried using excluders but found that it hindered production in the upper boxes. Bees seemed slow to move into the supers.
Without the excluder, we had little problem with brood in the upper bodies.
An escape board confuses bees so that they can travel between boxes in one direction only.
Escape boards can be discrete components or created by adding inexpensive parts to an inner cover. (See the accompanying video.)
Prior taking a box for honey, place an escape board beneath it. Over the course of a day or so, bees will make their way down to the lower boxes.
Honey is easier to harvest without bees on the frames.
Advantages of Langstroth Hives
- Due to its popularity there a lot more resources available. It’s most likely the hive of choice among your local beekeepers. Popularity also means a wide range of suppliers and equipment.
- The ability to keep adding boxes provides greater honey yield potential than some alternatives that consist of a single hive body.
- Consistency in size makes boxes easily interchangeable and similar among manufacturers.
- You have more choices for honey extraction methods using frames with foundation.
- Frames permit easy transfer of comb, brood and food stores between hives as needed.
Disadvantages of Langstroth Hives
- Hive inspections are more disruptive than with some alternative hives. Inspections require moving boxes and frames to see what’s going on.
- Boxes can be exceptionally heavy. A deep hive full of bees, brood and/or honey can weigh between 70 and 90 pounds. A medium super with honey is about 50 pounds.
- Bees do not build natural sized comb cells on foundation. Foundationless hives can have cross-combing issues.
- Foundation may contain traces of contaminants. The impact of this is minimal if you buy from reputable suppliers.
- You need storage space for equipment not in use. Boxes are only added when needed for colony expansion and removed when they are not needed.
Be careful moving heavy hive boxes. See our article Is Beekeeping Dangerous? for more information.
Offsetting Some Disadvantages Of Langstroth Hives
We think the advantages of Langstroth hives outweigh the disadvantages, particularly for a beginning beekeeper. The ease of finding equipment and advice is important.
You can make adjustments that minimize some disadvantages of Langstroth hives:
- Use all 8-frame, medium hive bodies for lighter boxes. You will get rid of the much heavier 10 frames deeps. Your back will thank you.
- We recommend that newbies start with foundation because it’s easier. Once you are more comfortable, consider foundationless frames. You’ll have no foundation to buy, no possible contaminants and natural sized comb cells. Cross-combing can be controlled with regular inspections and proper leveling.
One drawback to 8-frame bodies is a lack of certain standardized components. It’s easier to find components for 10-frame boxes. However, we have yet to find this a major problem.
The unique feature of the Flow® Hive is its honey extraction device. Bees make honey in specially designed frames. Honey is released directly into containers without the need to remove frames.
Flow® Hives are very appealing but are rather expensive. They make honey extraction look really, really easy. You’ll still have to learn how to maintain your hive and work with the bees.
Warré hives were developed by Abbé Émile Warré, a French priest and beekeeper. After many years of experimentation, he came up with The People’s Hive described in his book Beekeeping For All.
The Warré type of beehive mimics the way bees build comb in the wild. Vertically stacked hive boxes are square and identical in size. The inside of the hive bodies is like a tree hollow the bees might call home.
The boxes are generally used with top bars only. However, frames are available consisting of a top bar and 2 side bars but no bottom bar. Frames, if any, do not use foundation. With this design the bees build their comb downward.
Atop the hive bodies sits a quilt box. The quilt box is filled with wood shavings or other material to absorb moisture out of the hive. A cloth or screen sits between the quilt box and the top hive body. This prevents the quilt box from being glued to the top bars with propolis.
A gabled rooftop provides ventilation and weather protection for the hive. Unlike Langstroth hives, new hive boxes are added to the bottom of a Warré hive. This is called nadiring.
As the honey stores move up in this manner, the lower box becomes the brood chamber. Being in the lower boxes helps insulate the brood. Also, bees tend to move up in the colder, winter months to stay warm. In a Warré hive they are moving up to the stored honey for sustenance.
Warré hives are meant for minimal intrusion by the beekeeper. In the spring a box or two may be added to the bottom. In the fall, a box or two of honey is harvested from the top.
Advantages of the Warré Hive
- Warré hives simulate a natural bee environment.
- Hives are low maintenance with minimal intrusion over the course of a year.
- Foundationless comb is designed entirely by the bees.
- Small, square boxes are lighter and easier to maneuver than larger Langstroth boxes.
- Consistent box sizes makes boxes interchangeable.
- Square boxes can be set at alternating directions for winter reducing drafts and improving heat retention.
Disadvantages of the Warré Hive
- Smaller boxes usually mean less honey at harvest time.
- Lack of a full frame and foundation limits the methods of honey extraction. Centrifugal extraction will not work. Cut comb or crushed and drained comb are the only options.
- Warré hives are much less popular than Langstroth hives. There are a limited number of suppliers; dimensions can vary which may lock you into one source of new boxes.
- Lower popularility means fewer resources available (like experienced local Warré beekeepers).
- Nadiring boxes can be quite a bit of work (the one time a year you need to do it).
For more detailed information about Warré beekeeping, check warre.biobees.com.
Unlike Warré and Langstroth hives, horizontal hives are single-box cavities where the bees expand horizontally.
Horizontal hives can take various forms and dimensions. Common types of horizontal hives are:
- Top bar hives;
- Horizontal (or “long”) Lanstroth hives; and
- Layens hives.
Generally, horizontal hives sit on stands about waist high for easy access. This also reduces ground moisture and small predators from infiltrating the hive.
Horizontal hives offer viable options for beekeepers needing to offset the disadvantages inherent in Langstroth hives, particularly the need to move heavy boxes.
See our article What Is A Horizontal Hive? for a detailed discussion on these alternatives.
Top Bar Hives
Top bar hives are considered the oldest type of man-made beehives and are a very common type of horizontal hive.
Wedge-shaped bars (or bars with a guide strip) hang across the top of the cavity of a TBH. The wedge gives bees a starting point to draw comb downward.
The hive body is usually sloped along the sides. Since bees don’t attach comb to the sides of the hive, comb is formed in triangular shape. Without foundation or a full frame, this shape keeps the comb more stable when a bar is removed from the hive.
A TBH top can be flat but a gabled top provides air space for ventilation. A well-designed TBH allows the beekeeper to lift the cover without completely removing it.
One or more bee entrances can be created along the sides or ends of the hive. Additional screened openings can be added for ventilation.
Solid boards attached to top bars (called follower boards) create separate sections. This controls the amount of space used by the bees.
TBHs need regular inspection to check for cross-combing, fix broken comb and determine if the bees need more space. A lot of TBHs have a viewing window so you can check on the hive without opening it.
With a single body construction, hive inspection only requires lifting one bar at a time. This is less disruptive to the colony and you may find the bees to be more docile as a result.
If you’re an DIYer, you’ll find lots of plans and videos online showing how to build a TBH. The hive body can be made with relatively inexpensive materials.
Dimensions of TBHs vary. If you DIY, you may need to make every component (top bars, follower boards, hinged roof, etc.) yourself.
TBHs more suitable for hobbyists than commercial beekeepers.
Advantages of Top Bar Hives
- Single body construction means no lifting and repositioning many boxes.
- No storage needed for unused boxes off-season.
- Top bars with comb, honey and brood are light to lift.
- Without foundation, bees build natural-sized comb cells.
- Hive inspections are minimally invasive.
- Queen excluders are not a consideration.
- Space is easily reduced in winter to keep the colony close together.
- TBH can be fun DIY project.
Disadvantages of Top Bar Hives
- Without frames and foundation, honey harvesting cannot use centrifugal extractors. Comb honey or crushed and strained honey are the only options.
- As with Warré hives, their relative popularity vis-à-vis Langstroth hives means fewer resources at your disposal.
- TBH dimensions can vary widely. This means you will have limited sources of replacement equipment if needed.
- More frequent inspections are required. TBHs are less suited to outyards and should be nearby.
- The size of your single body TBH limits honey production.
Long Hive (Horizontal Langstroth)
A variation on the Langstroth hive is the Long Hive or Horizontal Langstroth.
A Long Hive body is similar to a TBH except that’s designed to accept standard Langstroth deep frames. The elevated hive is easy to access. Only one frame is moved at a time during inspection. Frames with foundation allow centrifugal extraction. Foundationless frames should be wired for stability.
These seem to be mostly DIY projects. While the standard frames are widely available, the boxes and accessories are not. Most online search results are for plans, not equipment. Examples are plans from Abbott Farms.
Combining the advantages of a TBH with standard Langstroth frames may make this the best beehive for you.
Frederick Dunn, a popular YouTube beekeeper, built his own horizontal Langstroth.
A Layens Hive is something of a riff on the Langstroth horizontal hive. It’s a single hive body with deep frames inserted horizontally.
Frame sizes are unique to the size of the hive body; they are not standard Langstroth frames.
The Layens hive is not widely available from suppliers. Dimensions can vary and they do not use standard Langstroth frames. For these reasons, we don’t think it’s the best type of beehive for newbies despite its advantages.
However, if you want to build or purchase one, check out HorizontalHive.com. They have everything you could want related to Layens hives: hives, frames, plans, books, and even training.
We think the advantages of the Langstroth hive outweigh its shortcomings making it the best beehive for most beginning beekeepers.
However, if the traditional Langstroth hive is not suitable for your circumstances, a Warré or horizontal hive may be the best beehive for you.
There is nothing that prevents you from having multiple types of beehives in your apiary. Each colony is independent and will adapt to the environment you provide.
Feel free to experiment with alternatives. It’s part of the fun.