Equipment


What's on this page?



Equipment

Throughout history, there have been many types of hives that people have kept bees in.  However, if you’re living in the United States, chances are, you’ll be working with what's called a Langstroth hive.  The Langstroth hive was invented primarily as a result of the discovery of beespace.  Actually, I’m simplifying the story greatly.  Langstroth was able to implement the idea of beespace to allow the frame holding the comb to be a separate and removable part of the hive as his design limits the area bees can propolize together making frame manipulation easier.  The Langstroth hive is by far the most common in the United States and is used to a great extent in many other places as well. 

As you can see, I have plenty of my own.

Yard Full
                            of Langstroth Hives

For the most part, I'm going to be focusing on the Langstroth hive.  It's what I use, and it's what most everybody in my country uses.  It's not perfect, but it works and it works well.  There's one other thing, Langstroth's hive did not look like our modern "Langstroth" hives, but similar.  The more important aspect is the Hoffman frames.  What is important to remember is that what you'll see here is called a Langstroth hive and the frames are Hoffman frames.  Those are the names.  If you want more details on the history, please do look it up.  Let's take a closer look.


The Frame


The Hoffman frame consists of four pieces of wood, a top bar, a bottom bar, and two identical end bars.  The top bar is the main structural unit of the frame.  It is thick and all else hangs from it.  The end bars also serve as the spacers to keep other frames at the correct distance.  That was Hoffman's innovation

No frames and this is what you get.  Mike used this box to feed granulated sugar which is discussed below.

Hive
                            without Frames

The specific details of the size of the Langstroth hive are mostly unimportant except for a few details.  I base most of my understanding on the size of the frame.  The frame is the most difficult part to build and if you’re building your own hives, probably worth buying rather than making.  The top bars must be separated by a 3/8” gap and the endbars of the frames are separated from the ends of the hives by the same gap.  Frames are typically 1 3/8” on center (though I use a more natural 1 1/4"), meaning that the end bars are that wide as well.  Some beekeepers space them wider for honey storage with a fork like apparatus, and some like to use narrower end bars for the brood area.

You can learn how to build frames here if you're interested.

There are a number of standard size (height) frames and some more which used to be common but are not now.  Probably the most common is the deep frame measuring 9 1/8” tall.  Deep frames are often used to keep the brood nest in but also for honey collection and extraction in many operations as well.  Next to that, commonly used usually for honey but increasingly for the whole hive is the medium which is 6 ¼” tall.  Smaller than that is the shallow at 5 3/8” which is almost always used for only honey storage.

Frame
                            Sizes

There are other less common sizes of which I do not own any.  There is the Dadant deep (about a deep and a half), the double deep (about 18 ¼”), and the comb honey super (smaller than the shallow).  One other style of which I do own one is the Ross Rounds super which uses special plastic frames with circular comb sections.  If you are interested in any of these types of frames, you can look them up.

Frames are usually designed to hold foundation which is a base upon which the bees build the comb.  Frames typically incorporate a slot in the underside of the top bar into which the foundation goes.  Foundation types include wax, plastic, and once upon a time, aluminum.  The aluminum didn't work well because it is far too conductive to heat.  Plastic works well because its heat conductivity is much closer to that of wax.

There are also plastic frames which contain the frame and foundation all built into one unit.

Mann Lake PF-100

Above all as frames are considered, I recommend that you pick the size frame you want and go with it.  I’ll go into more depth in the standardized equipment section below.


The Box

Langstroth boxes are about 3/8” taller than the frames, ¼” above the frame and 1/8” below.  This is achieved by the use of the frame rest at the ends of the box which is usually 5/8” deep and extends the width of the box.  The ears of the frame sit on the frame rest and simultaneously provide proper spacing both vertically and while the frame endbars align horizontally to maintain correct bee space on all sides of the frame.  Sometimes the frame rest is deeper if the box is meant to be used singly to maintain beespace at the top or to allow for a metal frame rest to be installed.

Common sizes for the deep, medium and shallow are 9 5/8”, 6 5/8”, and 5 ¾" respectively.  Depending on the manufacturer, measurements may vary by 1/16” or more in certain places.

Standard boxes are 16 ¼” wide by 19 7/8” long measured on the exterior and using ¾” (1 inch nominal) lumber.  This allows the box to hold 10 normal frames.  However, there are as many versions of the hive as there are numbers of frames that can fit in it.  Typical is 10, but 5 is very common and used for nucleus hives or ‘nucs.’  8 frames is another standard common in its use to decrease weight.  Some people like to use double wide hives which hold about 21 frames.  There have even been very long hives used, as long as four or five boxes set side by side.  This is an option if you want to build your own boxes and want to worry less about lifting.  One of the ideas I’m testing is the square hive, a hive that is 19 7/8” square, holding about 12-14 frames.

Here are the three normal sizes of boxes, shallow, medium, and deep.

Box
                            Sizes

For a long time, the deep has been the go-to box.  Deeps are typically used for the broodnest.  A double deep is what is most often used to overwinter hives and double deeps make up many if not most migratory hives.  Some beekeepers use nothing but deeps in their operations.  Dee Lusby’s hives in Arizona are virtually all five deeps high.   In a dollars per square inch of comb, deeps are about the cheapest of the three standard sizes.  Frames are only slightly discounted for smaller sizes because they each still require the exact same number of cuts.  However, when making your own boxes, 1x8s are often much cheaper than the 1x12s needed to make deeps and they are typically of better quality due to the fact that 1x12s use more wood and it is harder to have few knots.

Here is a 120 frame extractor extracting deep frames.



Oftentimes, medium boxes are used for honey production.  A medium weighs about 2/3 of what a deep weighs and that substantial difference can be crucial in being able to lift the box.  More beekeepers are using mediums for their entire hives lately.  There are a few reasons for this besides the weight.  Some find that the queen more readily crosses the gap between medium frames because her laying pattern is much larger than a medium frame while being only slightly larger than a deep frame.  One of the disadvantages of using all mediums is that one needs to handle about 1/3 more frames in a single hive.

Shallows are most often used for honey production or cut comb production or chunk honey production.  I don’t have much experience with shallows.  I own one of them and I use them to set other boxes on when I’m working the bees.


Standardized Equipment

In my view, it’s important to limit the number of sizes of boxes and frames you have.  I have never regretted using a single size for all my years of beekeeping.  I have regretted that the size I used was deeps because of how heavy they are and some minor problems I’ve had keeping foundation and comb in the right place.  I’ve also discovered now that I’m using foundationless frames that as the bees build the comb, it stays nice and straight for about six inches, but then they start to go odd directions with it.  It works with mediums but not quite so well with deeps.

Another thing to think about is what you are going to do with your hives.  Many people just want some honey, but I’d like to produce nucs.  Most nucs sold consist of deep frames but there is a growing demand for medium nucs as well.  It might be beneficial to keep both around to provide both products.

The biggest benefit to keeping one size of frames is interchangeability.  I do not use queen excluders because they create more problems than they solve.  So, it is common at certain times of the year for the queen to end up laying brood higher in the hive than would usually be expected.  If I want to rearrange the hive or split it, I don’t have any concerns at all about moving frames here and there because they are all the same size.  When using different sizes, one is left with a medium hive in a deep box which has a piece of free style comb attached to the bottom of it or a deep frame needing to be placed in two mediums and more comb at the bottom.  Either that or you have to wait for the comb to be depopulated before manipulating it.  It’s just easier and more carefree when all the frames are the same size.

When I started, I was trying to emulate Dee Lusby so I went with all deeps and hives of 5 boxes tall. 

Five Deep
                            Hive

Michael Bush uses 8 frame mediums and at least six boxes tall. 

Michael
                            Bush's Hives

Most I’ve heard about use either mediums or deeps, however, I have heard someone say they’d like to use shallows.  I don't think they actually did it though.


The Lid

The typical lid is a combination of the inner cover and the telescoping cover.  The inner cover is a frame filled in with Masonite or thin plywood, and the telescoping cover is a frame larger than the perimeter of the hive and covered over on one side with metal flashing.  Since both of those are a little harder to build, I use a commercial style cover of my own simple design.  It consists of two 1x6s and one 1x8 and some 1x4s to hold it all together.  The 1x8 goes in the center and is rabbeted on both sides.  The 1x6s are rabbeted on one side to mate with the 1x8 so that each overlaps by ½”.  I glue these together and then add 1x4s along the ends on the top.  Migratory covers typically have a lip along the front and back which keeps the lid on better and protects the endgrain.  With my upper entrance type, that design doesn’t work.  After the lid is assembled, I caulk the joints with paintable silicone caulk.  Do not use painter’s caulk, it does not handle shrinking and swelling well and cracks.  Always paint everything  but the internal surfaces of the hive with at least two coats of paint.  There are other finishes as well.

Homebuilt
                            Lid

Michael Bush uses a simple lid made of the right sized piece of plywood.  To that, he attaches two construction shims at one end to make an entrance.  Very simple and effective.
Bush Top
Here's the one that I made out of a piece of plywood I used for a lid back the the old days when I first started.  It used to be the sign for some sort of business.  Holds up quite well in the weather.  It's probably as old as I am.



The Parker Shim

For entrances, both top and bottom, I use a shim I built and lovingly refer to as ‘The Parker Shim.’  It’s a modification of the Imrie Shim that includes a landing board or awning depending on how you use it.  Lately, I’ve taken to using them as awnings.  This eliminates the possibility of snow piling up on the landing board and blocking the entrance.

Parker Shim

My shims are constructed by making a frame of 3/4” square stock that follows the perimeter of the hive and extends out the front where there is a board linking across creating a landing board and entrance.


The Bottom Board

Normal bottom boards use flat boards connected around the edges by a board with a dado so that turned one way, there will be a ¾” entrance and the opposite way makes a 3/8” entrance.  I use the same design for my bottom boards as my lids except that I place a shim on them to allow for an entrance.

Regular
                          Bottom BoardEntrances

Due to skunk problems, I occasionally block the entrance on the bottom completely off in the spring.  As a way to facilitate this, I have begun constructing ten frame nucs to serve as the bottom box.  My ten-frame nuc design includes a semi-permanently attached bottom board of similar construction to those mentioned above, but instead of a slot type entrance, I drill a 1 ½” hole in the front and attach a disc entrance that allows me to close it at will and with little effort.  The box itself is largely normal except that it is a little longer at the bottom so that there will be proper beespace below the frames.  Instead of 1x4s to tie the bottom together, I use 2x4s which link with the 2x4s I’ve placed on the pallets some of the hives sit upon.

Ten
                            Frame NucNucs on Pallet


The Hive Stand

There are as many ways to put a hive on a stand as there are ways to build a stand.  You can see what I'm talking about directly above.  You’ll have to use whatever is convenient for you.  I have found that two cinder blocks work just fine.  Others use pallets or custom pallets.  Some try to keep skunks out by placing the  hives as high as they can stand.   As long as the base is sturdy and doesn’t settle differentially, you should be fine.


The Nucleus Hive

Nucleus hives are very important to the sustainable treatment-free apiary.  They allow a number of operations otherwise made more difficult.  They facilitate in splitting, queen rearing, swarm catching, queen storing, and sales.  A nuc is a small hive.  In contemporary thought, a nuc is generally thought of as a hive consisting of four or five deep frames.  This allows a couple frames for brood and a couple for stores.  Done right, this hive can be overwintered to provide replacements for dead outs at a minimum of resource outlay.

They can be made in the same way as normal hives, or you can go in cheaper directions.  I build most of my nucs from plywood.  They look like this before and after painting and finishing. 

Unpainted Nuc5 Frame
                            Nuc

I'm using the Drew Coates design, but there are others out there which are very similar.  I also made a change in that the lid lip is made from scrap lumber rather than piece of plywood.  Also, I find it much easier to rip all the pieces lengthwise from the plywood rather than to orient it exactly the same as he does.  If I had a table saw that could rip wider pieces, it would be different, but that's what I have.

I also make 6-frame medium nucs from my scraps when I'm building boxes.  They look like this:
[6-frame medium nuc picture to be inserted later, it's not that special, made of 1x dimensional lumber]


The Syrup Feeder

Though with proper management feeding should just about never be actually necessary, sometimes conditions or situations conspire to leave the bees with not enough stores for winter.  In 2011, I had a very wet spring, and a long hot dry summer.  That combined with the number of splits I did left all of the hives with virtually no stores.  So throughout the fall, I fed many gallons of 3:2 sugar syrup.  I no longer recommend feeding syrup at all.

There are a number of different types of feeders, I will only be able to go through a few of them here.

The first feeder I'll talk about is the frame feeder.  I have some of them.  They come in several sizes and capacities.  I have medium ones that take up two frame spaces and a deep one that takes up a single space.  These feeders are notorious for drowning.  However, Mann Lake has come up with a solution where the bees are only allowed down through mesh tubes effectively separating them from the lake of syrup.

Frame
                            Feeder

Another style of feeder is the Miller.  It consists of a reservoir on top of the hive and a path for the bees to access it.  Properly built, these feeders have screen over the access ports so the possibilities for drowning are limited.  You can also access them without opening the hive.  One downside is that the bees tend to stop feeding from them earlier in the fall than with other feeders styles.

Miller
                            Type Feeder

Some people use a plastic bag filled with syrup laying on top of the frames with a slit cut in the top side.  I hear it's very effective, but I've never tried it.

There is also a style of feeder called a division board feeder.  It's a feeder made of a wood frame and masonite which divides the hive in half because it takes up all the space in the cross section of the hive.  This style of feeder is most often used to keep two or four nucs in a single box.  Below is a picture linked in from Kirk Webster's website of his feeders.

Division Board Feeder

As you can see, the feeder divides the frames to form four frame nucs.  Care must be taken to keep them from leaking.


Granulated Sugar Feeder

One method of feeding in winter is to feed granulated sugar directly.  The bees are able to consume it when it is too cold to take syrup.  You can do this by placing some paper towels on top of the frames and pouring sugar on them.  If it is too warm still, the bees may try to haul it all out as refuse.  I usually use my shims to provide space for the sugar, but in the case below, I trimmed the rotten bottom off a deep box to make a medium.  Then I trimmed most of the rot off to make a rim which holds the lid up enough to allow space for sugar.

Granulated Sugar Feeder

From the information I have gathered, this method is generally called the 'Mountain Camp Method' because though it has been around for a while, somebody on Beesource.com named MountainCamp was a big proponent and so the name stuck.  This is now the only method I use and only in very special circumstances.




Other Hives


There are many different types of hives.  In fact most countries in Europe have their own national hive.  In the US however, there are typically three that are well known.   They are the Langstroth as you’ve seen, the top bar hive, and the Warré or ‘people’s hive’.   Let it be understood that I keep bees in Langstroth style equipment and I have no experience with the following methods, especially Warré.  I use Langstroth because it is time tested, it is the most utilitarian, and the most efficient for producing a product.


The Top Bar Hive

The top bar hive has been around for quite a while.  It takes the frame style hive and simplifies it to a box and top bars rather than frames.  There are many ways to build top bar hives.  One day I plan to build a couple and try them out, but at this point, I’m too busy getting things running smoothly where I already am.

Inspecting
                            a Top Bar Hive

The downsides with top bar hives are related to their form.  There is no frame so combs are much more fragile.  They typically cannot be extracted.  Top bar hives produce less on average than frame hives.   That being said, top bar hives are much easier and cheaper to build for yourself than other types of hives.  And there is a growing segment of them among backyard and hobbyist beekeepers.  If you are interested in them you should look up Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries.


The Warré Hive

I’m not terribly familiar with "the people’s hive."  Its boxes are square and it uses top bars instead of frames.  Supers are added on the bottom and honey is harvested off the top.  Pretty much the only option for extracting the honey is crush and strain.  This is more a hands off type of hive.


How to Build Your Own Equipment

In the future, this section will contain tutorials on how to build your own boxes.  I am presently working on a video that outlines how to build boxes utilizing rabbet joints and using a table saw.


Conclusion

In truth, unique equipment considerations do not weigh very heavily on the field of treatment-free beekeeping.  I keep bees in pretty much the same hives as everyone else.  It’s convenient, it’s useful, and it makes things simpler.  So on this page, I’ve just tried to work through what’s out there for your education.  Hopefully you will take some interest in building your own hives as I do.  It is rewarding work and it is much cheaper than buying.  In the future, when I’ve tried keeping bees in a top bar hive, I’ll have more information on that.  I could relate all the stories I’ve heard about them to you, but that would be a little disingenuous since I haven’t experienced those things myself.  And in truth, I have no interest in the Warré hive.

And if you have any questions, feel free to email me.