Thinking About Keeping Bees? Part 3: Hive Options, Hive Preparation
February’s issue, Part 3, covers the variety of hive options available to help you determine the configuration of your first hive(s). Careful consideration is required, as after you’ve set a course on major components (like hive body size), changing direction will mean additional work and expense.
Throughout this series, we’ve been operating under the following three assumptions. For an explanation of why, please check out the first article in the series, in our December ’12 issue.
The assumptions are:
- Assumption 1: You will purchase equipment.
- Assumption 2: You will use a Langstroth hive.
- Assumption 3: You will purchase bees.
Hive Equipment Variables
While writing this article, we became a bit overwhelmed about all of the variables in selecting the equipment that will be the bedrock of your apiary … and we’re not newbees. It can be overwhelming. Please look for our recommendations throughout, noted with this symbol.
If you don’t want to even read about all these variables, there’s a great recommendation following the explanation of all the options, called, appropriately, “A Great Recommendation.”
A Langstroth hive is comprised of a stack of components, including multiple boxes. Each box is called a hive body.
Hive bodies come in three different sizes:
- Standard deep: 19-13/16” x16- ¼” x 9-9/16”, usually just called “deeps”
- Medium or Illinois super: 19-13/16” x16-¼” x 6-5/8”, usually just called “mediums”
- Shallow super: 19-13/16” x 16-¼” x 5-3/4”, often referred to as “honey supers” or “shallows”
What is Typical?
Arguably the most common type of hive is comprised of two deep bodies, with a varying number of honey supers on the top. That configuration is still probably the most common, although the number of deeps and honey supers will vary, depending upon geographic location, whether the hive is used for honey production or breeding, beekeeper preferences, time of year, etc.
While this basic configuration was mainstream for many decades, it is certainly on the decline. For many good reasons, it is becoming increasingly common to find hives comprised of just medium hive bodies.
A hive comprised of all medium hive bodies offers several advantages to the beekeeper, such as:
- Just one size of hive body needed—greater interchangeability (the box can be a brood box as well as a honey collection box) and requiring less storage room.
- Only one frame and one foundation size to ensure you have available.
- A medium is lighter than a deep body—easier on everyone’s back, and easier for the not-so-muscular (or shorter) beekeeper.
Why Not All Shallows Then?
A logical question we often hear is “if I’d use mediums instead of deeps because of weight, shouldn’t I go a step further and use all shallows?” The answer is no. Bees prefer the larger surface of a deep or medium frame for the brood nest.
8- or 10-Frame Boxes?
While 10-frame equipment has been the standard for decades, there probably isn’t a really good reason for that with 8-frame now readily available. Eight-frame is not only easier for the beekeeper, it also works for bees. As many beekeepers have been puzzled by over the years, honeybees rarely fill all 10 frames with honey or brood anyway, so why use 10-frame equipment?
Eight-frame hive body advantages include:
- Weight—less of it, saving wear and tear on our backs
- Many beekeepers believe it is easier to expand a nuc into an 8-frame instead of a 10-frame box; the bees seem to like the smaller box better. As your apiary expands in future years, you’ll be splitting successful hives into nuc boxes (typically five frames), and then will need to move them into larger boxes. Eight frames is an easier adjustment for them than 10.
- Pest minimization: A healthy hive without too much room to patrol will better keep small hive beetles and other undesirable pests under control. Danny G., from Tennessee, elaborated: “Small hive beetles, where I live, seem to be a real problem. Strong hives can manage them. Weaker hives battle and sometimes, even with vegetable oil pans, etc. the battle is lost; the bees leave. One thing I am going to try is utilizing a 5-frame nuc to start 3-pound packages, as they grow move them to 8-frame and then to 10- frame hives, thus reducing the area inside the hive required for the bees to patrol as they increase in number. This requires monitoring and frame movement and a few extra boxes.”
- You’ll need 20% less frames and foundation per box, a gain potentially offset by the need for perhaps more boxes. This point is certainly debatable, and filled with many variables, but we’ll provide a bit of explanation…A booming colony can quickly fill frames. If there are only eight in the box, they will be ready for the next box sooner. A good beekeeper, (not a bee haver) will be monitoring their expansion closely. You may need to put on the next box sooner than you would if you have 10-frame equipment; and over a significant number of hives, you may need a few more 8-frame boxes than you would 10-frame. In our opinion, this is not a significant advantage or disadvantage, but it is one we hear on occasion, so we wanted to cover it.
Box Size—What Does Kelley’s Recommend?
All medium equipment, because that allows you to use the same size box for your entire apiary, and medium boxes are deep enough for brood and also great for use as honey supers.
Eight-frame versus 10? This decision doesn’t have the future implication as significant perhaps as hive body size does. Thus, we don’t have a strong recommendation here, other than whatever you choose, be consistent.
Another factor that might need to weigh into your decision is what your beekeeping buddies are using if you might share or someday gain their equipment. If there is a spectacular nectar flow and you have no spare equipment, you may need to borrow another box … if a beekeeper you trust has one available.
Hive Body Materials of Construction
There are three predominant materials from which hive bodies are manufactured: wood (usually either pine or cypress), plastic, and Styrofoam. The latter two offer advantages of being lighter weight, and providing increased insulation against hot and cold extremes.
The majority of hive bodies are still made of wood, although plastic and Styrofoam are gaining a foothold.
Properly protected and properly used, wooden hive bodies will weather well and last several years. Pine hive bodies are still the most prevalent, although cypress hives are widely used as well, especially in areas where humidity is an on-going issue.
Arguably, wood needs to be treated for protection against the elements. An advantage of this is that there are thus limitless options to having a hive that is aesthetically pleasing, from hive bodies painted in your team colors, to something fun and beautiful.
Styrofoam and Plastic
We’ve heard from beekeepers who don’t like Styrofoam because they aren’t as durable (and are tough to repair), and we’ve heard of two cases where ants built nests in the foam.
We’ve talked with major commercial beekeepers in China and Turkey who swear by the utility of plastic hives. There are some very sophisticated, well-engineered plastic hives designed to be particularly well-suited for commercial application, with interlocking components for adding pollen and propolis collectors, for example.
As this series of articles is directed toward beginning beekeepers, we’ll conclude this discussion now.
Our recommendation is wooden hive bodies. Repairs to a crack in the side of a wood hive body, for example, are easier because a portion of the body may be replaced. Plastic or Styrofoam hive bodies are typically one piece. Also, many beekeepers feel wood, as it is more natural, is a better box in which to keep bees.
Bottom Board Options
Bottom boards are either screened or solid:
A solid bottom board is used by some beekeepers to assist with hive warmth, and for new installations. Because it reduces air flow in the hive, it helps the queen’s pheromones more quickly permeate the hive. Kelley’s is selling fewer and fewer solid bottom boards however, because of the advantages of screened bottom boards.
A screened bottom board assists in mite control. Of equal importance—it enhances ventilation, which is especially critical in the winter to help keep the interior moisture level down. Thus, even in the north, many beekeepers use screened bottom boards year-round.
Our general recommendation is a screened bottom board.
Top Cover Options
There are two types of top covers—wooden and plastic / fiberglass. These days, either type of commercially manufactured cover is about the same when it comes to heating and cooling properties, and bearing the weight of, for example, a concrete block to hold it down. Following are some considerations to help you select which is best for you.
Wood covers are preferred by the appearance-minded beekeeper, among others. They provide a more natural look, and may be painted to match the hive bodies.
Other considerations include:
- Fit nicely over boxes
- Breath—assisting airflow in the hive
- They are more natural and therefore perhaps appealing to the bees than plastic / fiberglass covers
- May deteriorate more quickly than plastic / fiberglass, unless they have an aluminum cover, which Kelley’s all do
If you’re not purchasing your equipment from Kelley’s, examine the bottom side of the top cover before purchase. Some manufacturers use slats of wood beneath the aluminum cover, providing small hive beetles a great place to hide. Because of that Kelley’s now uses a solid board for the top cover interior.
Another wood cover option is the attractive gable roof cover (Cat # 49-CH). Apiaries are beautiful anyway, hives with this top cover are even more charming. Woodland elves sold separately.
Plastic / Fiberglass
There are many reasons to select this type of top cover, including:
- Unbeatable durability
- Multiple uses—customers often request them because they’re ideal for unloading honey supers onto—they are a form-fitting, leak-proof tray for a hive body of drippy honey frames
- They are not going to rot
- Ventilation: Our covers provide interior ventilation ridges. If you’re not buying them from us, you may want to rethink that decision!
This isn’t a critical decision. We prefer the plastic / fiberglass cover because of its utility, but also appreciate the look of all natural hives. This is one area where you can easily have both if you have multiple hives.
Inner Cover Options
There are some beekeepers who say you don’t need inner covers. We generally disagree. They serve many purposes, including:
- Keep the outer cover from sticking to the box
- Provide another layer of insulation for temperature extremes
- Provide an easy method for ventilation and a top opening in colder climates by cutting a notch in the short end
- Some of us feel they allow a less threatening, more controlled approach to the hive—when you open the top cover you can often tell the temperament of the hive and either smoke (or walk away) if necessary
- Allow for less invasive hive checks if you’re just doing a quick assessment of activity level or comb drawing or capping, for example. Those things may often be determined just by looking through the hole in the inner cover.
Inner covers come in many styles—wood, plastic, and one piece top and inner covers known as migratory covers, used predominantly by commercial beekeepers.
Our Recommendation: We do recommend the use of an inner cover. As the performance of wood and plastic is about the same, we have no strong recommendation as to which you should select.
A frame is exactly that, a four-sided structure that surrounds (once the bees build it) honeycomb. Frames are either made of wood, or plastic.
One of the most bewildering things for newbees and established beekeepers alike is the variety of frame styles, and Kelley’s offers several.
If we were to describe the features and advantages of each type, it’d take about five pages. We know this, because we wrote that article over a year ago—please see our December, 2011 issue for the comprehensive article on frame styles.
Luckily, there are no bad decisions here; it comes down to preferences.
Our recommendation? If using medium boxes choose Kelley new style frames, 17-N, where the wax foundation (#624) drops in from the top and the foundation (bees love beeswax) is a bit deeper. If you live in the far south where hive beetles are an issue you may want to close the top with melted beeswax or paraffin to eliminate a beetle hiding place.
We also recommend the SGX frames, with a beeswax-coated plastic foundation. If you decide to use plastic frames, they come with a grooved top and bottom bar, making it easy to snap the foundation in place. If you want a one-piece solution, check out the plastic frame foundation as seen above, Cat # 122-BFA. If you live in an area where hive beetles are a real problem, you may want to consider it as the frame molding has areas where those destructive beetles may hide.
“Foundation” is a thin wax or plastic sheet imprinted with hexagonal cells. A sheet is inserted in to each frame to serve as a guide for bees to manufacture honeycomb, a process called “drawing out comb.” Providing foundation also helps a hive get to the human’s favorite stage more quickly, the stage of filling the comb with golden honey. Drawing out comb is so labor- and resource-intensive that most bees do not make excess honey beyond what they need the first year. As a reality check, don’t expect honey the first year.
Foundation comes in two general types—wax and plastic. Additionally, there are a few different cell sizes of wax foundation, although not for plastic foundation as of this time.
Do You Even Need Foundation?
Like many other hive components, there are lots of options for foundation. Another option is to have no foundation—allow the bees to create their own. As this series is aimed toward the beginning beekeeper, we won’t recommend this option. Providing foundation for the bees to work will help maximize their (and your) chances for first year success.
Wax foundation from Kelley’s is all beeswax; other suppliers may mix paraffin with beeswax. Most of the foundation we sell has a 5.4mm cell size, although we also sell foundation with a smaller cell size. The smaller cell size may be helpful for minimizing Varroa mites, see our December, 2011 newsletter for an article explaining why.
Plastic foundation is more durable, and pops into an SGX frame, or if you choose a one- piece frame/foundation combo there is no frame to assemble. You can find plenty of beekeepers who tell you their bees don’t like it and hesitated to use it; you can also find plenty of beekeepers who swear by it.
Plastic foundation comes in three colors—white, black, and lime green.
Black plastic is preferred by some beekeepers for use in the brood box. Against that black background it is easier to see the larvae with the sunlight pointing into the frame, helpful if you are grafting, or are a newbee challenged by finding eggs. (Which challenges we “old bees” also.)
Green has a larger, drone-suggested cell imprint. Frames of drones, when disposed of, may be helpful in controlling Varroa mites. See our June, 2012 newsletter for an article about why and how drone comb is used.
We recommend beeswax foundation as opposed to plastic—bees seem to prefer it and we like to keep things inside the hive as natural as practical.
What Cell Size?
Honeybees build honeycomb with different cell sizes. Generally speaking, if left to their druthers, or if they’ve never worked commercial comb, honeybees tend to generally build a smaller sized cell. This may be helpful in naturally minimizing Varroa mites.
There are plenty of beekeepers on both sides of this issue. A Kelley employee uses the larger, 5.4mm size both commercially and personally. While there are compelling points about using small cell to combat Varroa, she has also witnessed bees ripping apart the 4.9mm size that was provided to them, and rebuilding it to the size cells they want.
If you want to use small cell, purchase it. However, if you want to assure the bees are building the best cell size for them, then alternate your frames between foundationless and those with foundation. Once bees have drawn straight comb, slowly move the frames with foundation to other hives or the outside of the box, and use all foundationless.
A Great Recommendation
We’ve packaged all of this in Cat # 45-KIT-8, which answers other variable options by coming with a screened bottom board and a wood top cover.
Whew! Still with us? Hopefully yes.
And hopefully, you’ve already got your bees on order (see last month’s A-Bee-C article.) It is now time to order equipment.
While you might not be obtaining your bees until April or May, now is the time to get your equipment and get it ready, for two reasons:
- You’ll have a bit of work to do to get it ready before the bees arrive. As Sherry D. of Texas shared with us “I received my hive just days before my bees—not knowing how long it took to put it together, paint and prepare. I made it by the skin of my teeth” and
- You never want to order equipment once the “season” begins. Kelley’s busy season is mid-March through August as we serve beekeepers in all climates. As M. Shaw of Louisiana wrote “Don’t order in the middle of bee season if you need supplies is one of the things I wish I had known.” We will still get them to you—we have one of the fastest shipping rates in the industry. But, naturally we can be more responsive when orders aren’t swarming in.
Hopefully the information in this article has helped you decide what you want to order. If not, please check out our catalog for more information, or give the friendly phone-answering beekeepers at Kelley’s a call.
Phone, fax, internet—whatever works for you. However, what DOES NOT work for your bees (and therefore, you) is to pick-up what you need when you also pick-up your bees. Bees should be installed in that equipment asap, and you don’t want them watching you from their wire box while you’re banging your thumb with a hammer.
Time Estimates for Equipment Preparation
When you obtain equipment from us, it comes with assembly instructions (where assembly is needed), so we won’t repeat that information here. For details, please go to our website, and click on Education and then select Resources. There are all sorts of instructions there for all sorts of things.
How much time will you need?
- Assembling the hive bodies—probably an hour the first time you do it
- Protecting the hive from the weather (discussed below)—a couple hours per hive, depending upon what you decide to do … and possibly over a couple of days.
- Assembling frames—about an hour for 10 frames the first few times you do it. You’ll only need 10 (or 8 if you’re using 8-frame equipment) to get started, although we recommend you assemble all the first-season frames while you’re in the groove. If you order plastic one-piece frames, you’re ready to go as soon as you open the box from Kelley’s.
Protecting the Hive from the Weather
Most beekeepers paint their hives. It is an inexpensive way to protect the exterior surfaces (never paint where the bees will be) from the weather.
Conversely, many beekeepers do not paint their hives. Other options include staining them, waxing them, or simply not painting them. Kentucky State Apiarist Sean Burgess addressed this issue for us in a newsletter, providing the options of:
- Not painting, although the boxes will deteriorate more quickly.
- A water based stain—rolled or brushed, like Kelley’s ECO Wood (Cat # 115), which is a powder mixed with water that makes a stain.
- A dip—some people melt paraffin and beeswax and dip their equipment. I have never done this, it would require a lot of wax and paraffin as you have to have depth to cover the boxes.
- Copper napthenate.
Sean continued “All of these options seem a lot more labor intensive than applying two coats of good exterior latex, with the exception of maybe staining.”
We agree with painting them, and encourage you to use this opportunity to share your personality or personal preferences. While historically hives are white, there is no sound reason for that. Studies have shown that bees find their hive faster when it is readily distinguishable from other hives, either with color and / or markings. This may be a good opportunity to declare your love for your spouse, as when (not if) you catch “bee disease” your spouse may miss you.
Regarding color—the general guideline is something lighter, because a dark color absorbs so much heat in the summer. However, it doesn’t take much surfing of apiary photos on the internet to find that about any color and shade is being used in about every geographic climate.
Editor’s Note: I recommend maize and blue based on the many large checks I’ve written over the years to the University of Michigan. However, our Ohio customers may not want to pursue this option. A Kelley employee suggests red/white for her beloved UW Badgers.
Next Month’s Article
Our March issue will take you through preparing the site and setting up the hive(s) in anticipation of the soon-to-arrive occupants, as well as what to have ready for them and how to handle them upon arrival.