Selecting a Beehive

honey bees

As we’re moving into Fall, I’m starting to think and plan for next Spring.  I plan to spend a decent amount of the winter in the workshop, building projects that I will need when Spring arrives.  I want to start keeping bees and chickens in the Spring, so the Fall and Winter will be spent in preparation for those activities.  First and foremost on the beekeeping front, I will need a beehive.

Which Beehive to Build?

This is my dilemma.  There are 4 primary beehive types, all with their own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Top-bar
  • Warre
  • AZ (or Slovenian)
  • Langstroth

honey beesEverywhere I’ve looked, Langstroth hives are by far the most prevalent.  Invented by L. L. Langstroth in the 1850’s, this hive became the standard by which all others are measured, I think.  We’ll go through them one by one:

Top Bar Hives

top bar hiveThese hives are probably the easiest to build for yourself and provide a good introduction to beekeeping.  If you want to try your hand at keeping bees, this may be a good start.  They consist of a box with a trapezoidal cross-section with bars (sometimes with handles) laid across the top.  There is almost always a hinged lid that protects the top of the hive bars.  The entrance is 1-3 holes in the front near the bottom.  The hive can be expanded/constricted by the use of inner walls attached to the same type of top bar as used for the comb.

Pros:

  • Quick and easy to build
  • Easy to maintain
  • Simple to add an observation window
  • Easy expansion until the hive box is full
  • No complicated-to-build frames

Cons:

  • Limited opportunity for expansion.  Once all the top bars have comb, the hive is full and cannot be expanded.
  • Collecting honey requires destruction of the comb
  • No separation between brood (reproductive) comb and honey comb
  • Not easy to work with individual combs for troubleshooting, inspection

Warre Hives

A Warre hive is sort of an expandable top bar hive.  It consists of a floor with an integrated entrance, then one or more hive-body boxes with top bars.  On top of the uppermost box is a top-bar cloth and a quilt (box with wood shavings for insulation purposes).  Finally, the roof goes on top of that.

Pros:

  • Easy to build from readily-available supplies
  • Expandable to the limit of the beekeeper.  I have seen pictures of some Warre hives over 6 feet tall.
  • No complicated-to-build frames
  • Reasonably easy maintenance
  • Simple
  • Natural

Cons:

  • Boxes get heavy when full of comb and honey
  • Collecting honey requires destruction of the comb
  • No separation between brood comb and honey comb
  • Not easy to work with individual combs for troubleshooting, inspection

Langstroth Hives

The Langstroth hive, as stated above, is probably the most-used hive in raising bees for personal or professional purposes, at least in the U.S.  It consists of a bottom board, one or more hive boxes (supers), frames (usually 10 to a super), and the cover(s).  All of the supers are the same length and width, but accommodate three differing depths (deep, medium, and shallow) based on the frame size.  Likewise, the frames have a fixed length and width, but three different depths.

Pros:

  • Control of all aspects of the colony, down to individual combs
  • Can be built from readily-available materials
  • Standardized dimensions of all hive parts
  • Supers and/or frames can be purchased easily from multiple sources

Cons:

  • Supers can get heavy, especially deep supers (up to 100 pounds each)
  • To get to a super or comb in the middle, all of the components above must be removed

Slovenian (AZ) Hives

image from imgur.com

Finally, the Slovenian hive.  These are beautiful hives, usually gathered together into a bee house or even a bee-truck!  They consist of the equivalent of two or three 10-frame levels, all the same depth.  All the frames are the same size, too.  The queen stays in the bottom set of frames because a queen excluder is integrated in the design.  Essentially, the bees do their business from the front of the hive and the beekeeper does his or her work from the rear.  Read more about them here.  There are both an outer door and inner door in the rear, allowing for the beekeeper to feed the bees when necessary without disturbing the entire colony.

Pros:

  • The bees are less stressed by the beekeeper’s activities
  • All hive maintenance is done from one side
  • No heavy lifting is needed
  • Hive boxes/supers are not moved around, so bees are less likely to get squashed.

Cons:

  • Limited expansion of a single hive colony
  • More expensive and more complicated to build
  • Slovenian frames have a standardized size, different from Langstroth
  • Information is less readily available on construction and colony management

What should I build?

I think the sweet spot is somewhere between a Slovenian hive and a Langstroth hive, however those don’t exist.  Being able to expand the hive size beyond three boxes seems a good idea, as does managing from only one side without heavy lifting.  That said, I think I should probably have some beekeeping experience before experimenting with different hive constructions.  I’m still on the fence about my first foray into building a beehive.  What do you think?  Which should I build?