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Choosing The Best Beehive

There are lots of different beehives, but really only 2 major types - moveable frame beehives and top bar hives.

In the Western world, moveable frame beehives are the most common, but there are dozens of different designs. Generally the parts of each are not interchangeable, so you are best to pick one type of beehive and stick with it.

Moveable frame beehive

Moveable frame beehives

Top bar beehive

Top bar beehive

Moveable frame beehives

The most common designs of moveable frame beehives are

 - the Langstroth Hive

 - the National Hive

- the Commercial Hive

- the WBC Hive

The Langstroth Hive


Before the invention of the modern beehive, bees were kept in upturned baskets called skeps. 

When the honey was harvested the colony was destroyed and all the bees killed, which was obviously not good for either the bees or the beekeeper.

In the mid 19th century, Reverend LL Langstroth patented a 'moveable frame' beehive. This was based on the idea of 'bee space' which was a crucial breakthrough in beekeeping.

Bee space was identified by Langstroth as the gap that bees need to pass easily around the hive. Inside any breehive, bees will fill all the gaps but leave passageways just wide enough to crawl through. These passageways give the bees enough space to work on opposite sides of the comb and pass each other back to back.

Langstroth realised that when the space between two surfaces in the hive is the right size (the bee space), the bees will respect the space and leave it free, rarely filling it with propolis or comb.

He calculated that 3/8 inch was the ideal space between any 2 surfaces in the hive.

Bee space

Langstroth then designed a beehive where the frames could be easily removed, and where all the gaps between the frames, around the walls and above and below the frames were exactly 3/8 inch.   

This meant that the frame could be lifted out without destroying the hive, and was truly revolutionary. Rev. Langstroth is still considered the "Father of American Beekeeping."

All modern moveable frame beehives are still based on the Langstroth Hive, and the Langstroth hive itself is still the most commonly used beehive today - especially in the United States. It is a simple hive in construction and easy to maintain and, especially if it is common in your area, is often a good choice.

The promise of well pollinated gardens and a gift of a jar of delicious home produced honey can do wonders to bring wary neighbours on board :)


The National Hive

The National Hive is a variant on the Langstroth, and is the most common hive in the UK. It has a much smaller brood box than the Langstroth.

Some beekeepers argue that it has too little brood area for the modern productive bee. Although you can overcome this by adding on another super to the brood box (known as a "brood and a half"), one drawback is that it makes it more difficult to locate the queen.

The supers (the part of the hive where the honey is stored) are also smaller, and this has the advantage that they are much easier to handle when full of honey.

The WBC Hive

The WBC Hive is the classic traditional beehive, named after its designer William Broughton Carr.

WBC hive

Unlike the other moveable frame hives which are single walled, the WBC hive is double walled. The outer part is made up of pyramid sections, giving the WBC it's distinctive look. The inner part is separate loose boxes which contain the frames.

Its main advantage is that it stays cool in summer and warm in winter. Also, because it is double walled, the supers themselves are thinner and so lighter to handle.

The main problems with WBC hives are that they are a complicated design and cumbersome to work with. To get at the supers, all the outer sections have to be removed first, so in practical everyday terms they really are inferior to the other beehives.

WBC hives

But they do look very pretty :)

The Commercial Hive

The Commercial Hive, as the name suggests, is best suited to commercial beekeepers. It is very similar to the national hive, except that the frames are deeper and so hold more honey.

While this can be seen as an advantage, it does make them heavy and difficult to handle manually when they are full of honey. For this reason, hobbyist beekeepers tend to stick to the lighter, more manageable beehives

There are many other beehive designs based on the Langstroth hive. The Dedant is popular in France, the Smith common in Scotland, and too many others to mention have their regional followers.

Which one you choose will be influenced by a lot of factors, including price, materials, availability, and local conditions. A good general guide is stick to what is popular with local beekeepers in your area - a beehive which works for them will likely be a good beehive for you too.

Top Bar Beehives

Top bar hives are a totally different design of beehive. Whereas Langstroth type hives have full frames with 4 sides complete with wax foundation, a top bar hive just has bars along the top (hence the name). The bees build their own honeycomb on these bars, and this is removed completely at harvest time.

Top bar beehive

Top bar hive

Triangle top bars

Triangle top bars

Another top bar hive

You then transfer these frames to your hive, and as they already contain brood, honey and pollen, your bees will get off to a much better start.

Although the top bar hive is not a new concept (records suggest it has been used since the 17th century), the modern version has it's roots in 1960's Africa. It was designed for use particularly in Kenya (and for this reason is sometimes known as a Kenya hive).

Top bar hives are especially popular with 'natural' beekeepers, who see them as being much closer to what bees would experience in the wild.

But as with all alternatives, there are advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Top Bar Hives

Simple design

Top bar hives are less complex in their construction than Langstroth type hives, and can be built from many different types of materials. This makes them particularly suited to developing countries where resources are scarce and beekeeping isn't yet so "industrialized".

These attributes are making the top bar hive more popular in the western world as well. If you intend to build your own beehives (as opposed to buying them ready built), their simplicity means that you will not need expensive carpenter tools or advanced skills

Less expensive

If you intend to buy your hives, top bar hives are generally a much cheaper option. Again, their simplicity means that they are very few extra internal parts to buy.

Really, all a top bar hive is is a box with wooden bars along the top. The bees then start from scratch, the same as they would in the wild, for example establishing a colony in a hole in a tree. So with a top bar hive you do not use foundation wax (the wax on the frame that the bees 'draw out' on a standard beehive).

As well as being cheaper to buy, ongoing maintenance costs should also be lower.

Easy honey harvesting

Harvesting of honey from top bar hives is very simple. Because there are no frames, there is no need for a centrifugal spinner or other expensive honey harvesting equipment to extract the honey.

You simply cut the honeycomb off, and either use it as comb honey, or else crush the honey comb and sieve it to produce liquid honey which you can then bottle as normal.

More beeswax

Since you 'harvest' the wax every season, the amount of wax produced from top bar hives is much greater than from Langstroth hives. The downside is that there will be less honey produced (see below), but beeswax is itself very valuable.

It can be used for making candles, furniture polish, soaps and cosmetics, and many other products. Making your own beeswax products is a whole new hobby in itself!

Disadvantages of Top Bar Hives

Less honey

The biggest drawback with top bar hives is the amount of honey produced. If managed properly, bees in a Langstroth type hive will produce much more honey than bees in a top bar hive.

With Langstroth hives, the honeycomb is replaced after harvesting the honey every season, and so can be reused by the bees again and again.  

But with a top bar hive, all the honeycomb is removed when harvesting the honey. This means the bees have to produce new wax to build honeycomb the next season. It is estimated that to produce 1lb of wax, bees will use 8lbs of honey, so honey production will definitely suffer.

Of course whether this matters does depend on your motives for keeping bees in the first place. Many natural beekeepers see honey just as an added bonus, so feel this is not a big price to pay.

Honeycomb problems with top bar hives

In standard beehives, the bees have ready made frames to use as a starting point. But since there are no frames to guide them, the honeycomb tends to be more freeform in top bar hives.

Because of this, you may have problems like attachment to the side of the hive, and cross-combing (where bees build the honeycomb attached across several bars). This does make management of the hive more tricky, especially in terms of essential treatments such as for varroa mites or foulbrood.

On the flip side of that, the more natural approach is to leave the bees to their own devices and keep intervention to a minimum in any case.

Also, modern top bar hives are carefully engineered to keep this problem to a minimum.

Extra management

Because of the freeform nature of honeycomb building, top bar hives may require some more attention from the beekeeper to stop side attachment and cross combing before they become big problems. On the other hand, there are no supers to add or remove, so less work in this respect (although of course this is not the case with the Warre hive - see below).

In any case, most hobbyist beekeepers enjoy "working their bees" so any extra time and labour may not be seen as a drawback of top bar hives.

Generally, top bar beekeepers often tend to take a less interventionist approach, content to let mother nature run her course. The emphasis is less on production and more on just enjoying the bees and the beekeeping for their own sake. If this sounds like you, then top bar beekeeping could be the right choice for you.

Another Option: Warre Hives

A variant of the top bar hive is the Warre hive (pronounced war-ray). This was designed by French beekeeper Abbe Warre, and was intended to be as close as possible to the bees' natural home.

Warre hive
The Warre hive is made up of a series of boxes (or supers) stacked on top of one another - just like a Langstroth hive. But unlike the Langstroth the supers do not contain frames, only top bars. 
The bees instinctively start building comb at the highest point (in the top super) and work their way down through the supers one by one.

Traditionally more common in France, the Warre hive is now becoming increasingly popular among hobby beekeepers in other parts of the world.

Well known natural beekeeper Nick Hampshire is a strong advocate of Warre beekeeping, and has written a free introductory guide to natural beekeeping with Warre hives, which is well worth a read.

>> Click here to download a copy.
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