A Bee in the Bonnet

I thought I should record some notes on different types of beehives.  My grandfather was an avid beekeeper and used Langstroth hives, the box hives you typically see. These were designed in 1852 by Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth after he realized that bees required a certain bee space between each frame. Bee space is the distance bees require to work between their combs, and is a critical measurement when designing a hive.

Langstroth HiveLangstroth received U.S. Patent 9300 for his efforts, and with some modifications his hive is now preferred by most beekeepers. Langstroth hives work well for commercial honey production and for hobbyists. The hive is somewhat complicated, though, with parts such as a bottom board, outer cover, inner cover, frames, and top cover to name a few. The image here has the base hive body with two supers on top.  The Wikipedia entry has all the gory details if you would like to learn more.

As for me, I’m just hoping to enjoy some bees, pollinate some flowers, and gather some honey. A top bar hive, abbreviated as TBH, is a simple design consisting of a box with bars on top to hold the comb. Aunt Bea's Backyard BeehivesWhile there is no standard design for such hives, many vendors advocate their own particular approach. The image here shows the type of hive I eventually decided to purchase after some angst. The basic design is a bottom board with angled sides (three boards) with a cover for the top.  The entrances can be at the top or bottom and on the end or side; and you can add features such as viewing windows, hive dividers, and feeders.  I plan to discuss optimal TBH design in another post.

While you can certainly construct a horizontal hive by laying sections of a Langstroth hive side by side, Langstroth hive’s are typically managed vertically.  The bees are provided with foundation frames, made of beeswax or plastic, and are thought to save comb building time, increase honey production, and guide the bees to build straight comb within each frame.  Honey is extracted from the combs using centrifugal force, allowing the combs to be reused. Studies have found that pesticides can build up in such reused frames, potentially harming the bees over time if the beekeeper is not careful.

Of course, just as you can lay out a horizontal Langstroth hive, you can use foundationless frames and not reuse your comb as is typically done in a top bar hive. You can also build foundation frames for a top bar hive, though this is unusual, so at the end of the day it is really a matter of preference.  I was hooked on top bar hives after reading Les Crowder’s book, so really never considered using a Langstroth hive.

In a TBH, as typically envisioned, the bees are given an open space and allowed to do what they do: build comb, store honey, and raise brood. The term brood refers to the egg, larva, and pupa stage of a bee’s live, and the brood comb is where the queen lays her eggs, the larva develop and turn into pupa, and eventually hatch into a buzzing bee.  To harvest honey, the beekeeper removes a full comb and crushes it to extract the honey.

A TBH does require some extra labor.  Because the space is somewhat open, I’ll have to check it regularly to ensure the bees are building properly aligned combs, especially in the beginning.  A Langstroth hive allows for ongoing expansion, so the restricted space of a TBH can lead to more frequent swarming. Should be manageable, but a number of authors recommend starting with the Langstroth hive because they might be easier to manage.

As for me, go big or go home, I’ll stick with my top bar hive.

According to the UK Phrase Finder site, the phase “bee in your bonnet” derives from a Latin phrase “to have bees in one’s head” with a similar meaning.

6 thoughts on “A Bee in the Bonnet

  1. Be interested to hear your journey with top bars, we have one at the apiary at the moment though the rest are all national. I liked the phrase finder. When I have butterflies in my stomach, my boyfriend says it’s because of all those insects I think about!


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