Langstroth, Top Bar Hive, WBC, National, Dadant, Commercial or Skep Bee Hives
Although there are many different types of hive, in America the Langstroth hive is almost ubiquitous. Some hives can even be easily made by a competent handyman, but which is the best beehive? Let’s start by defining the difference between swarm and hive. Many people use the term bee hive when they mean swarm or nest.
Technically a hive is a container for a bee colony. If a colony of bees makes its home in a hollow tree it is a nest. If you see a large ball of bees on the branch of a tree it is probably a swarm, although if the weather is mild sometimes bees build combs hanging from a branch, so that would also be a nest. A swarm is transient, a nest is permanent, and with encouragement bees will build a nest in something provided for them such as a hive box.
The Langstroth Hive is by far the most common type of honey bee hive, both in North America and most parts of the world. It has a very basic construction, consisting of boxes with four sides, with a roof and floor at the top and bottom. These boxes, containing frames, are stacked on each other, more being added as necessary.
In Britain there are six different types of hive available. These are the National, Commercial, Langstroth, Dadant, W.B.C. and Smith. Top Bar hives are also used, but these are usually homemade rather than being available from bee supply companies.
Apart from the Commercial and National boxes, most of the parts of these bee hives are not interchangeable which makes life somewhat difficult on occasions.
You will have seen pictures of a bell shaped container, known as a skep this is usually made from some type of grass, reed or perhaps rope.
Beekeepers still sometimes use these for collecting swarms because the bees seem to like them. I imagine the bees find it easy to hang on to the inside surface. Very old cottages in Europe occasionally have platforms or niches let into an outside wall to accommodate a number of these.
This type of hive was cheap and easy to construct. It has the disadvantage that it is difficult to harvest the honey.
The usual method was to collect swarms in skeps throughout the summer, increasing the number of the beekeeper’s colonies. When it was time to get the honey, perhaps half of the colonies would be killed by suspending the skeps over a hole in the ground in which some sulphur was burned. Once the bees were killed, the honey combs could be removed for consumption.
This had the effect, over the years, of favoring the bees with a high propensity to swarm. In a modern system it is much more efficient to try to prevent the bees from swarming since the loss of a swarm, which is not collected, is a significant loss of resources for the beekeeper.
It is double walled with outer sections made up of splayed sections or “lifts” which protect separate loose boxes inside containing the frames. The space between the two boxes are supposed to offer insulation, however bees are very able to control the temperature by buzzing to generate heat, or evaporating water to cool down.
Since it looks very appealing and has overtones of nostalgia, it is only used as an ornament these days. Sometimes what appears to be a WBC hive is in fact a cover for a water valve or electrical box.
It’s comparatively expensive to produce, using almost twice as much wood as the modern designs. Traditionally painted white, but cedar versions are also available, which add to the aesthetic value. Even so it has much less room inside and is all but impossible to transport when full of bees.
TBH or Top Bar Hives were designed specifically for bee keepers in Africa. Although I believe the idea originated in Greece in the seventeenth century.
It’s construction is very flexible, many different materials can be used from old refrigerators to oil drums. This means that hives can be made very cheaply and easily with very few tools.
The bees build natural combs attached to the bars rested across the top, which are then removed when full of honey for consumption or sale if there is a surplus. There is the additional advantage that no extraction equipment is required. The combs are eat, honey, wax and all, delicious!
A favorite of mine is an Observation Hive, not for actually keeping bees long term, but as a means of showing the behavior of honey bees to people without having to take them out to the apiary and ‘suit-up’.