Modern beehives make the beekeepers job easier. There are a number of different types available, but they all work on the same principle. Hives are designed to allow us to raise bees for the production of honey and for pollination purposes, in a non-destructive manner. Mostly constructed from wood, they literally include hundreds of different pieces. When I first got interested in beekeeping I remember being pretty confused by all the different parts of a hive and what they were for.
So what are the different parts of a beehive? Modern hives are made up of several components stacked on top of each other. A bottom board constitutes the floor of the hive. The brood box sits on top of this and is separated from honey supers using a queen excluder. This device separates the functions of brood raising and honey storage. The upper hive box is closed with a lid, usually with an inner and an outer cover.
Each part of a hive has its own important role to play. Some parts are essential, while others are optional. Getting to know the different pieces and what they’re used for is an effective first step for any budding beekeeper.
What would we do without Beehives?
Before the invention of modern beehives, beekeepers used to catch swarms and put them into containers such as skeps (straw baskets with an open base). Skeps had no internal structure for bees to build honeycomb, and harvesting honey usually involved the destruction of the bee colony. The arrival of a swarm of honey bees in a village was a big event! This is before cane sugar became widely available and often honey was the only source of sweetness available. The person who managed to catch the swarm was a happy beekeeper indeed!
But harvesting honey from these containers was very inefficient since bees were killed at the end of each season. Beekeepers had to start again and hope they could catch a new swarm.
Today the modern hive lets us easily inspect and manage bee colonies, and harvest honey without killing bees at the end of each season.
The Importance of Bee Space
The beehives we use today are designed around the principle of bee space. This is the amount of space which honey bees leave free of honeycomb so they can circulate around a colony and go about their business. This distance (equal to about ⅜” or 1cm) leaves bees just enough room to move around and does not vary. Any larger distance is filled with comb, and smaller spaces are filled with propolis (bee glue).
Beekeepers began to understand the importance of bee space in the 18th century. By building hive boxes with frames which had just enough room for bees to circulate, no more and no less, the bees left this space untouched and the beekeeper could remove the frames without breaking honeycomb each time they inspected them.
One of the first hive types to incorporate bee space is the Langstroth hive. (Amazon) Today, the Langstroth hive remains the most popular hive type in the world (unless you live in the UK where the most popular design is the National Hive).
What are the Parts of a Beehive
The parts described below are based on the popular Langstroth hive, but the function of other beehives is very similar. Hives are generally made up of a series of components which stack on top of each other. This makes it easy to examine the interior and expand or contract the hive according to the growth of the colony.
A quick note about general hive organization. Beehives have a box at the bottom where the queen is located. This is where all the new bees are produced. This is known as the brood box. The term “brood” is used to refer to baby bees at various stages of growth, from eggs to newly emerged bees. Above this is another box known as a honey super, used for storing honey. These two types of boxes are separated by a wire mesh known as a queen excluder. The holes in the mesh are big enough to let worker bees through, but the queen bee’s big butt won’t fit. The queen excluder keeps the two functions of brood rearing and honey storage neatly separated.
A hive stand is what your entire hive will sit on and it serves a couple of important purposes. The first is to prevent damp entering the hive. Bees hate moisture and too much of it can kill them. In a natural situation honey bees always choose a nest site which is elevated off the ground and isolated from the damp… Pretty smart bees! So give them a hive stand that avoids humidity entering their colony.
Another advantage of an elevated hive stand is that it’s easier going on your back! It’s fairly common knowledge that beekeepers suffer from bad backs at some point. All that bending to pick up hive parts. A height of about 2 feet (60 cm) is an ideal minimum. You’ll thank me for it later!
You can find commercial single hive stands, or some beekeepers build large multiple hive stands. The advantage of the multiple stands is that you can leave enough room between hives to place hive parts during inspections and avoid having to bend over to pick them up. You can construct them out of cement blocks and wooden beams. But remember they need to be able to support a lot of weight (a single beehive full of bees and honey at the peak of the season can easily weigh 220 lb / 100 kg). You also need to build them level and straight. On the other hand, single hive stands can be easily purchased if you want to avoid the manual work of building. Single stands are easy to stabilize on an uneven surface. Some of them come with a built in frame perch such as these ultimate hive stands. Just be sure to get one adapted to an 8 or 10 frame hive depending on your choice.
Some stands include a landing board. This is a kind of landing platform or front porch for incoming and outgoing bees. Bees will land on it if they’re provided, and for observation purposes they are good for new beekeepers. They let you learn a lot about the activity of a colony through observation by giving you a glance of your bees before they disappear into the interior. You also get to see all kinds of stuff that gets pushed out of the hive. However, landing boards are not a necessity. Bees don’t need them. And in some climates they can hinder honey bees. If snow builds up on the landing board it obstructs the entrance, and in wet weather bees can get glued to a damp landing board. But overall for beginners I think landing boards have some advantages.
Bottom boards form the floor of the hive. In general you’ll find two types of bottom board: screened or solid.
Screened bottom boards have a wire mesh screen which is ideal for improved ventilation. This is important because it helps regulate temperature and control humidity inside the hive. The wire screen is also said to be useful for controlling pests such as varroa or even wax moth. Some of the mites of these pests fall off bees during cleaning or when bees brush against surfaces. Mites fall through the hive, out of the screened bottom, and out of the hive were they can no longer climb back into the nest. This is obviously true for other hive debris as well, so it tends to keep the interior of the hive slightly cleaner.
Note that only about 10% of mites are lost with this process so you still need to apply other pest control methods.
The best screened boards have a “tray style” design (like this one on Amazon) so that a tray board can be slid in place to close the bottom of the hive. This is useful to close off the hive during winter and for collecting hive debris when performing mite control which involves counting the mites collected on the inspection tray.
Solid boards have no opening. Ventilation is reduced, but in colder climates this feature is appreciated. They tend to keep the bottom of the hive warmer and as a result, some beekeepers report that bees are encouraged to start brood rearing earlier in the season. Also brood is raised lower down on the frame because of the warmer temperature. All kinds of sticky hive debris tends to gather on the floor of solid bottom boards, so they need regular cleaning.
Whatever type of bottom board you choose they need to be sturdy because they support the weight of the rest of the hive.
An entrance reducer is designed to … well… reduce the size of the entrance! No prizes for that deduction! They sit between the bottom board and the lowest hive box and they’re used to control movement into a hive. For example in the winter they prevent pests such as mice getting into the hive. A limited entrance size also helps when hives are being robbed, so bees can fight off invaders more easily.
This component is basically just a piece of wood with different size holes. You turn the entrance reducer by 90 degrees to change the size of the entrance hole.
The size of these things seems to vary a great deal from one manufacturer to another. Make sure you get one from the same manufacturer as your other hive parts to avoid frustration!
This is an optional component but some beekeepers can’t live without them! A slatted rack (sometimes called a brood rack) is a handy piece of equipment which helps with ventilation and congestion. At the height of the season there can be a large number of bees moving around a hive. A slatted rack provides additional space underneath the brood box and is used as a welcome breathing space for bees. It reduces overcrowding and bees will take advantage of the space to ventilate the hive through fanning.
The additional space also helps to keep the brood frames warmer in the winter. In a similar way to the solid bottom board, the queen tends to lay eggs lower down on the brood frames.
When installing a slatted rack make sure you put it the right way up! They have a shallow and deep side. You need the shallow side to face upward and be aligned with the frames in the brood box. Otherwise the additional space will be filled with burr comb by the bees, making it difficult to swap brood boxes around for brood management.
This is the lowest box in a hive and contains the frames of brood. It’s where the queen lives and lays her eggs. The brood box is generally the biggest box type. They need to be spacious to accommodate the growth of the bee colony throughout the season. If a colony outgrows the first brood box, a second one can be added to provide extra room.
Some people call this part a “deep hive body” or “brood chamber”. I’ve also seen them called a “deep super” or “brood super”. I think calling them a “super” is a mistake. Honey supers are the boxes that sit on top of brood boxes for collecting honey. They are called “supers” because they’re “superimposed” on the brood box. So a “brood super” is rather a misnomer IMHO.
The brood box contains a series of frames which bees use for building wax comb. It’s a good idea to consider the size of the boxes you want. Most manufacturers construct Langstroth hives in two sizes: 10 frame or 8 frame. A full brood box can get very heavy. If you want to limit the weight you have to carry, consider getting an 8 frame hive. If you’re main objective is producing large colonies and a lot of honey, then go for the 10 frame variety. Just watch your back!
All beehives use frames. The Langstroth hive uses rectangular shaped wooden frames. Frames are fitted out with a sheet of foundation. This is the surface on which the bees will build honeycomb (referred to as drawing comb in beekeeper language). Foundation often has a hexagonal honeycomb pattern embossed on the surface to encourage bees to draw comb. Frames are generally made of wood, but you can also find all plastic varieties.
There are many different types of foundation used in frames. Choosing which type of beehive foundation to use can be quite daunting for new beekeepers. A traditional choice is wax foundation. This gives good results but can be time consuming to prepare. A more modern alternative is plastic foundation. There are even some beekeepers who prefer not to use foundation at all! These are known as foundationless frames.
Frames are similar in dimension from one manufacturer to another but not exactly the same. For this reason it’s a good idea to always use the same frame type in a hive to avoid problems with bee space (if bee space isn’t respected inside a hive then bees start to build burr comb which can get messy).
The height or depth of the frame needs to correspond to the height of the hive box being used. Sizes include deep, medium and shallow. Deeps are usually found in brood boxes because they tend to be bigger. Medium and shallow frames are used in medium or shallow honey supers.
This is the device which allows beekeepers to separate the functions of a hive into two orderly parts. This is basically a mesh which sits on top of the brood box and prevents the queen from moving up into the honey supers, so she can’t lay eggs in the honey stores. They can be made from plastic, metal, or wooden frames with a mesh across them. This one on Amazon is a good quality sturdy example.
Some beekeepers don’t like using them. It is said that worker bees don’t like to go where the queen can’t. I’ve also heard that they place additional stress on worker bees who have to squeeze through the holes and they don’t like to pass through them unless necessary. Others think they are an essential piece of kit!
For beginners, and If you like things neat a separated, then an excluder is a good idea. The methods applied to avoid using queen excluders require a little more experience.
A honey super is sometimes called “extracting super”. This is the hive box which sits on top of the queen excluder and above the brood boxes. The frames inside this box are dedicated to storing honey. Honey supers come in medium or shallow sizes and they’re smaller than brood boxes (about two-thirds the size in a Langstroth design). Bees tend to fill the frames more evenly in these smaller sized boxes, and the sheer weight of a honey filled super is another limiting factor. The most common type of super seems to be the medium, which is also known as an “illinois super”, apparently they originated in illinois! Just call them mediums and you’ll get along fine…
At the end of the season you harvest part of the bees stores by removing supers to extract the honey. Beekeepers leave enough supers in place to provide food over winter.
This forms the ceiling of the hive and sits directly on top of the uppermost honey super. They have an elongated entrance hole in the middle, and an entrance notch at the front (the entrance notch should point forwards). These holes help ventilation inside the hive, and can also be used as an escape hole during harvesting. They’re also used for inserting feeders during a nectar dearth (times when nectar sources are scarce).
A common error with inner covers is that they get installed incorrectly. You’ll notice that they have one side which is completely flat, and another side with a frame around the edge which create a shallow open space. Inner covers are said to have a winter and a summer position. You leave them in the summer position most of the year. This means the flat side faces down, and the ressed side faces up. This air gap provides a buffer against the outer cover which can get hot in the summer.
The type of covers made of plywood are much better. Other types tend to sag with age which causes problems with spacing inside the hive!
Sometimes bees don’t stock enough honey or maybe you were too enthusiastic when you harvested. At these moments bees need a helping hand to be fed.
There are a number of different types of feeders. Some can be attached to the entrance, and others fit between the frames inside a hive box. Some are even left out in the open near to a the hive.
Without going into too much detail, the feeders which seem to work the best are hive top feeders. These have the advantage that food remains enclosed inside the hive and is less likely to attract robbing bees or other predators. Also, bees have direct access to food from inside.
An internal hive top feeder is designed to hold a lot of syrup and uses clever devices to prevent bees from drowning. They are as big as a honey super and bees climb up through a slot to reach the syrup. Best used when you need to provide a lot of food to a large colony population.
A feeding shim has the same external dimensions as the beehive and is pretty much like an empty wooden box which provides space for feeding supplements. They are often used to feed sugar candy to bees during the coldest part of the year. Some beekeepers also call these shims “baggie feeders” because they can be filled with what looks like a freezer bag full of sugar syrup.
Another method of feeding is to use external hive top feeders with glass mason jars or plastic buckets full of syrup. These are turned upside down over the entrance hole of the inner cover (remember the hole they have in the middle?). They usually get surrounded with an empty hive box. Again this protects the feed from robbing bees, windy weather etc.
Feeders sit directly on top of the brood box where bees can get to the food easily (remember to remove the queen excluder or you’ll make it difficult for bees to reach the food). The feeder can then be closed like you would a honey super with the inner and outer covers.
Often referred to as a “telescoping cover” this is the roof of the hive and protects it from the elements. These are generally flat and are covered in some kind of metal sheet to provide protection from the rain (aluminium, copper, zinc or galvanized steel are all pretty common). For decorative effect some people put gabled roofs over their hives! The outer cover is larger than the external dimensions of the hive and fits down over the edges of the inner cover. This seems to be the reason for it being called a telescoping cover. The overhang provides added protection from the rain.
How is a Beehive Constructed
As you can see, modern beehives are made up of several components which are designed to make the beekeepers life easier (and a happier existence for your bees). The most common hive types are constructed from wood. Here you have a couple of choices of quality. Ordinary hives are built using some kind of pine wood. This resinous wood doesn’t stand up to the elements over time, so you will need to paint your hive to keep the wood protected and give it a longer lifespan. Some lucky people get hives made out of red cedar. This type of wood is long lasting and doesn’t need painting to protect it. The surface will oxidise and become grey, but the natural oils in the wood provide protection from the weather.
Before you embark on your beekeeping adventure I think the most important thing to choose the type and manufacturer you want to use and then stick to that same setup. Don’t buy hive parts from a variety of different places because, unfortunately, dimensions can vary slightly from one brand to another. This creates all kinds of size problems later. Also, try to get pre-assembled parts wherever you can to limit the amount of construction work.
A recommended typical setup for beginners is to have two brood boxes and at least three medium supers per hive.