Updated on September 11th, 2022
Honey bees are eusocial insects that nest in colonies of overlapping generations. The colony divides labor and shares the caring of the brood.
In the wild, tree cavities (or similar spaces) are common nesting locations that shelter honey bees from the elements and predators. People often refer to these nests as hives; however, they are just nests. So what is a beehive?
A beehive is a manufactured structure that mimics a natural honey bee nesting site. Beekeepers use them to manage honey bees and harvest hive products like honey. Bee hives are typically made of wood though other materials may be used. Beehives consist of either vertically stacked boxes or a single, horizontal cavity.
The most common beehive in North America is the vertical Langstroth hive.
This article discusses the standard features of beehives and how they work.
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What Is A Bee Nest?
Bees build nests to raise their young and store food where they are protected from the elements and predators. Different types of bees choose other locations and styles for nesting.
Some bees, such as leaf cutter bees and sweat bees, nest in the ground. According to Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Department of Entomology, “70% of all the 20,000 species of bees nest under ground.”
Carpenter bees bore into wood to nest in places like the fascia boards on our barn. [INSERT PHOTO]
Carpenter bees, leaf cutter bees, and most sweat bees are solitary bees meaning they nest alone, though they may live close to one another.
What Is A Honey Bee Nest?
Unlike solitary bees, honey bees are eusocial insects.
Eusociality is characterized by cooperative behavior among individuals of the same species through reproductive division of labor, the overlap of generations, and colonial nesting.
Learn more! See our article What Are Honey Bees? A Beginner’s Guide To The Honey Bee for more details on the amazing honey bee.
In the wild, the western honey bee builds nests in open cavities such as tree hollows or even the walls of a building. Sometimes, particularly in warm climates, honey bees may build nests in open locations with comb hung from overhangs. [INSERT PICTURE]
A honey bee nest consists of multiple sections of hexagonal (six-sided) wax cells. Spacing between honeycomb sections permits the bees to move freely within the nest.
The queen bee lays eggs in honeycomb cells to raise brood while the colony stores pollen, nectar, and honey in other cells.
Learn more! See our article What Is Honeycomb? (Talking Beeswax) for more information about how bees make wax and build comb.
What Is A Beehive (Or A Hive)?
People sometimes refer to naturally located bee nests as beehives or hives. Technically, beehives (or hives) are manmade structures designed to house honey bees. The purpose of the beehive is to facilitate the management of honey bees for the benefit of beekeepers.
Early humans had to gather honey by locating nests in the wild. Eventually, beehives were developed to “domesticate” honey bees and make honey gathering more efficient.
Over time, the design of the honey bee hive changed and developed into today’s familiar boxes.
Check out The Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, Honey, Recipes & Other Home Uses (available on Amazon) by Richard A. Jones and Sharon Sweeney-Lynch, Part One for more about the history of beekeeping and the development of the beehive.
Modern beehives have removable components that allow the beekeeper (and government inspectors) to check the hive for disease and pests. Removable parts also make it possible to efficiently extract honey without killing off the bee colony.
In addition, beehives allow the beekeeper to adjust the size of the bees’ home in accordance with the colony’s space needs.
When the population grows, and honey storage is peaking, the beekeeper provides extra room for expansion.
After the honey is harvested and the colony population drops for winter, the beekeeper reduces the size of the hive, making it easier for the colony to maintain proper temperatures in their house.
What Is A Beehive Made Of?
Modern beehive is generally made of wood though some creative beekeepers use other materials. Plastic, insulated hives are also available.
Pine is the most common wood used to make beehives. Pine is light, relatively inexpensive, and widely available. However, it is not exceptionally durable; painting or other treatment helps it last longer.
Cedar and cypress are two durable kinds of wood also popular for beehive construction. Unfortunately, they are more expensive than pine and not as readily available. However, both cedar and cypress are much more durable than pine.
See our article Painting Beehives | Why & How To Paint A Beehive for more information on how to prepare beehives to extend their useful lives.
Several companies make plastic insulated versions of the Langstroth hive. Manufacturers claim these insulated hives provide better protection against extreme weather conditions, prevent moisture buildup in the hive, and are more durable than woodenware hives.
We have not tried these plastic hives, but we see several potential downsides to their use.
Plastic hive design seems to differ by manufacturer, which can lock you into a specific supplier for future needs. We know bees like wood; they may not adapt to plastic appropriately.
Plastic hives appear to be more expensive than wood. However, the extra cost may be offset by a longer life.
One of our favorite beekeeping YouTube creators, Vino Farm, designed his own wood version of an insulated honey bee hive. Check out his video below.
If you are interested in trying out plastic insulated hives, check these options available on Amazon.
Types Of Beehives
Bee hives come in two primary formats: vertical and horizontal.
Vertical beehives are the Langstroth hive and the Warré hive.
Vertical hives consist of a series of vertically stacked boxes. The main hive boxes sit on a bottom board, contain frames or bars for building comb, and are covered on top. Other types of boxes and components can be added.
Langstroth and Warré hives are managed differently, but both imitate a tree hollow where honey bees can nest.
Learn more! See why we recommend the Langstroth hive as the best type of hive for beginning beekeepers.
Unlike vertical hives, horizontal hives consist of one large box that runs parallel to the ground.
Examples of horizontal hives are Top Bar hives, Langstroth Long hives, and Layens hives.
Like vertical hives, horizontal hives also use bars or frames where bee colonies build honeycomb.
Beekeepers regulate the amount of space using solid frames, or follower boards, that can limit the colony’s access to part of the beehive.
Learn more! See our article about horizontal hives for more details.
How Many Bees Live In A Beehive?
An initial bee package used to start a colony is about 10,000 bees.
In spring, the queen lays eggs to expand the colony’s population to take maximum advantage of the future nectar flow. The larger the population and space available, the more honey the colony can produce when resources are available.
A colony with a productive queen may expand to a peak population of between 50,000 and 80,000 bees.
There is one queen (most of the time) and hundreds of male drones within this population, while the rest are female worker bees.
How Long Will Bees Stay In A Hive?
A honey bee has a relatively short life span of about two months, except for the queen.
However, since a honey bee colony consists of overlapping generations, a colony may inhabit a hive for years though the individual members of the colony change regularly.
If a hive fails to meet a colony’s needs critically, the entire colony may abscond at any time looking for a new home.
Partial colonies may “swarm.” For example, a colony may swarm when there is insufficient space to expand the population. The queen swarms with about half the bees to find a new home.
When the colony swarms, they leave behind either a new queen or enough resources for the remaining bees to raise a new queen.
See our article Why Do Bees Leave A Hive? (Absconding) for more information.
In the wild, honey bees build a nest in an empty, protected space such as a hollow tree.
A beehive is a manmade structure designed to house honey bees by imitating those natural spaces.
However, in common usage, people often refer to a honey bee nest as a hive located in either a natural or manufactured space.
Carpenter Bees Entomology at the University of Kentucky