As a beginning beekeeper you’ll come across 3 main types of beehives to begin your hobby:
- Warré (pronounced WAR-ray)
- Top bar
We’ll explain each of these hive types and why you should start beekeeping with Langstroth hives.
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 (described below), 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 of 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. If you decide to try Warré hive, you can purchase equipment at The Warre Store. The Warre Store also has an informative section on Warré Beekeeping.
Top Bar Hives
Unlike Warré and Langstroth hives, a top bar hive (“TBH”) is a single-box, horizontal cavity. Top bar hives are considered the oldest type of man-made beehives.
A TBH is typically raised to about waist height on a stand. This reduces ground moisture and small predators from infiltrating the hive. At this level, the hive is easily accessible by the beekeeper.
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.
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).
Langstroth is often credited with discovering “bee space”. Bee space is that distance of 3/8 of an inch that bees will not build in.
Bee space is the basis for the design of the Langstroth hive, the most popular hive in America. Most people envision a Langstroth hive when they think about beekeeping.
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.
Designing all the parts with bee space based on bee space makes the Langstroth hive completely modular.
With all the parts designed for bee space, Langstroth hives are completely modular. Generally, bees will not propolize or build comb with bee space:
- between the frames and the hive walls,
- between bottom bars in one box and top bars in another, connecting the sides of two frames, or
- 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.
From the bottom up, a Langstroth hive consists of:
- 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 is set on some type of stand to keep it off the ground.
- An entrance reducer sits on the bottom board to vary the size of the hive’s entrance.
- Atop the bottom board sits one or more hive bodies.
- Hive bodies all have an exterior dimension of 19 inches.
- 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.
- Each box contains the appropriate number of frames with the proper depth for the box.
- Frames may or may not have foundation as a base for the bees to draw comb. See our article Foundation (or Foundationless?) for more information.
- An inner cover with a ventilation hole in the center sits on the uppermost box. (We cut a notch on one side of our inner covers 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.
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.
Optional parts for a Langstroth hive include:
- A queen excluder is a metal or plastic grid designed to permit the passage of worker bees, but not the queen, between boxes. Placing an excluder above the brood boxes assures that only honey will end up in the combs of the upper boxes. (We tried using excluders but found that it hindered production in the upper boxes. Without the excluder we still had no egg laying in the upper bodies.)
- An escape board confuses bees so that they can travel between boxes in one direction only. Prior taking a box for honey, place an escape board beneath end. Over the course of a day or so, bees will make their way down to the lower boxes. It’s a lot easier to remove a bee-free super.
- Various equipment can be used to feed the bees in Langstroth hive as we explain in another article.
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 is readily available.
- The ability to keep adding boxes provides greater honey yield potential than alternatives.
- Consistency in size makes boxes easily interchangeable and similar among manufacturers.
- You have more choices for honey extraction methods using frames with foundation. Of course, this also requires additional equipment.
- Frames permit easy transfer of comb, brood and food stores between hives as needed.
Disadvantages of Langstroth Hives
- Hive inspections are more disruptive with the need to move boxes and pull frames.
- 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 contaminants. I think the impact of this is minimal if you buy from reputable suppliers.
- You need storage space for equipment not in use.
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 the negatives:
- Use all 8-frame, medium hive bodies. These boxes are fully interchangeable (like a Warré hive). You also get rid of the much heavier 10 frames deeps. Your back will thank you.
- Consider going foundationless. 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.
- Transferring frames makes it easier to add colonies by splitting hives.
One drawback to 8-frame bodies is a lack of standardized equipment. It’s easier to find components for 10-frame boxes. We have yet to find this a major issue.
Some Other Hive Types
Long Hive (Horizontal Langstroth)
A variation on the Langstroth hive is the Long Hive.
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.
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.
A Layens Hive is something of a riff on the Langstroth horizontal hive. It’s a single hive body with deep frames inserted horizontally.
The catch is they do not use standard Langstroth frames. This makes them unsuitable for a newbie.
Make your new hobby as simple as possible and go with Langstroth hives to start. As you become more knowledgeable and less reliant on outside sources, feel free to experiment with all kinds of hives.
Can I use different types of hives in the same bee yard?
Yes. Each colony is independent and will adapt to the environment you provide. You will run into minor obstacles like how to combine weak colonies from different hive types. Experiment with hives. It’s part of the fun.