From the type of honeybees you choose to the number of beehives you manage—and how you choose to manage them—there is seemingly endless variability in beekeeping. For new and expanding beekeepers, deciding which kind of beehive to use is yet another variable in play.
Your beekeeping goals, local climate and budget are a few factors to consider as you weigh your options. Your equipment’s interchangeability is paramount, too.
Michael Bush, author of The Practical Beekeeper book series, primarily uses modified Langstroth beehives. “I run all eight-frame, medium Langstroth boxes,” he says. “Full of honey, they don’t weigh over 50 pounds, and I use them for everything.”
Well, nearly everything. Bush also keeps bees in some top bar hives, Slovenian hives, Flow hives and a Huber observation hive. But he doesn’t necessarily recommend mixing and matching your own beehives to such a degree.
“If you’ve got five different kinds of hives, what are you going to do when this one is queenless and you need a frame of brood?” he asks. “With five different kinds of hives, you don’t have any interchangeable parts—unless you went out of your way to make sure they were all interchangeable.”
The Langstroth Hive
Interchangeability—and the ability to easily expand colony size as needed—are just part of the appeal of Langstroth beehives for David T. Peck. Peck holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University’s department of neurobiology and behavior and serves as director of research and education at Betterbee.
“All of my bees are in vertical, Langstroth hives,” he says. “Bees have been living in vertical, hollow trees for millions of years. So they’re pretty well-adapted to that configuration.”
Filled with individual, moveable frames, Lorenzo Langstroth’s series of stacked supers has become ubiquitous in North America. “The standardization in the U.S. is something that makes our beekeeping market hard to change, because there’s only the one style and almost everyone uses it,” Peck says.
In fact, accessories such as the Hogg Halfcomb and Ross Round comb-honey systems only work in Langstroth beehives. “With both of those, you have a section—a cavity—that the bees will walk right up into, will naturally build comb into and will fill with honey,” Peck says. “Then, once the [comb-honey frames] are full, you can take them out, put them either into a round or square container, label it and bring it to your farmers market.”
What’s more, formic acid and certain varroa mite treatments were designed specifically for use in Langstroth equipment. “That’s where they’ve proven that the rate at which the medicine is released from the pad is going to come out and then be ventilated by the bees and vented out of the open entrance at the right rates so that the bees survive and the mites die,” Peck says. “Those tests have not been run and validated on top bar hives or on horizontal hives or on different designs.”
That’s not to say such medications can’t be used in other beehives. But, he adds, “That’s not the labeled and intended use for those products.”
The Top Bar Hive
Plenty of beekeepers, looking to skip chemical pesticides and artificial foundation, have gravitated to top bar beehives. Unlike its vertical Langstroth counterpart, the top bar hive is a long, horizontal box with individual foundation bars suspended across its top. Bees attach natural comb beneath the bars. Beekeepers pull individual frames—rather than heavy Langstroth supers—to inspect one at a time.
“The modern top bar hive—called the Kenyan top bar hive—was actually invented in Canada as part of a Canadian government and university international development grant,” Peck says. “They designed that so they could go to sub-Saharan Africa or to Latin America where they were trying to encourage people to keep bees in order to boost their economic productivity or pollinate their crops. “In those climates, the bees tend to do pretty well.”
What about Minnesota or upstate New York?
“The top bar hive has a tendency to get the bees working off in one direction and then move them too far away from their honey,” he says. “Instead of the heat of the cluster slowly rising and warming that next layer of honey upwards, the heat from the cluster rises, but the honey is on the other side of that top bar trough. Now the bees have to march through very cold temperatures to try to get there and get more fuel.”
Still, Bush sees at least one clear advantage: “If you’re handy with materials and have access to scrap wood, you could probably build a top bar hive for free … [but] you can get natural comb by doing foundationless [frames] in any kind of box…. And you can build a long hive and put Langstroth frames in it and not have to lift boxes.
“So, you can get that without doing a top bar hive.”
The Flow Hive
For its part, the Flow hive is a variation on the Langstroth hive. “Except the Flow hive has a super that you can harvest without having to take it off,” Bush says. He was sent early versions of the Flow hive to try before they hit the market and a few more since they’ve become commercially available.
Developed by Stuart and Cedar Anderson, the Flow hive features specially designed plastic frames paired with a crank mechanism to facilitate the honey harvest. “Basically, it’s made up of a whole bunch of strips of plastic that have half of a cell on the right and a half of a cell on the left,” Bush says. “And there’s just two kinds of those, and they’re all put together to make this long frame.
“One of the kinds of cells stays put and the other one moves up and down. So, you stick the crank in underneath and you turn it. It pops half of [the cells] up, which makes a zigzag channel, so the honey can run out and air can come in at the top.”
Bush allows the honey to run through tubes that drain into a 5-gallon bucket. Finding brood mixed in with the honey harvest hasn’t been an issue.
“The honey cells are extra thick, so that the queen won’t want to lay in them,” Bush says. “The cells are also purposely an odd shape or an odd size, so the queen won’t want to lay in them, because it’s not quite right for a drone and it’s not quite right for a worker.”
Because honey cell cappings remain intact even during harvest, the flowing honey doesn’t make a mess inside the colony. Although Bush appreciates the design, he can’t justify its expense. “If I had very many [non-Flow hive colonies], I could buy an extractor for less than I could buy two or three of these Flow hives,” he says.
But for beekeepers with just a couple of beehives—rather than a couple hundred—the Flow hive could be worth the price.
If money’s no object, you could build a bee house complete with Slovenian beehives. Also known as AZ hives—named after their creator, Anton Žnideršič—Slovenian hives are made to fit neatly within a larger, often climate-controlled structure.
The hive entrances face outside the bee house. The backs of the beehives are contained inside the bee house, which is roomy enough for the beekeeper to comfortably work.
“An AZ hive opens from the back, and the frames pull straight out,” Bush says. “[The beekeeper] can sit in an air-conditioned bee house where his extractor is. He can go over to the hive, pull the frames out, uncap them, put them in the extractor, extract and put them back in.
“All in his 70-degree, air-conditioned honey house. And he’s never even gone outside.”
Because individual frames are removed, rather than entire supers, there’s no heavy lifting. Also, the ability to heat the bee house even by a little could make all the difference for beekeepers with harsh winters.
Even so, Slovenian hives aren’t for everyone. “Here’s the problem with the Slovenian hive,” Bush says. “The frames are an odd size, because that’s what they use in Slovenia. So, they won’t fit in a typical [Langstroth frame] extractor. Another problem is that the typical foundation that’s available here won’t fit in the frames.”
Fortunately, a Georgia-based beekeeper eventually did modify the Slovenian design so that it could accommodate Langstroth-sized frames. Nevertheless, Bush’s Slovenian hives aren’t tucked inside a fancy bee house.
“It doesn’t work very well for me, mostly because I need to have them up off the ground more,” he says. “I open the door and I’m kneeling behind it trying to reach in and pull out frames. It just kills my back and knees.”
Better to find that out on a small scale. “Even if you tried one [kind of hive] and it seemed to work, I wouldn’t go out and build 1,000 of them,” Bush says. “Start small, make sure you like it and then grow it organically.”
This article appeared in Hobby Farm Home, a 2023 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. In addition to this piece, Hobby Farm Home includes recipes, crafting projects, preservation tips and more. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Healing Herbs and Goats 101 by following this link.