Beekeeping and Different Bee Apiaries Explained

Updated on May 8, 2018
Stacy Hannert profile image

Stacy lives on a small homestead in Northern Michigan. She is a passionate amateur apiarist and nature lover.

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Are you considering keeping bees? Maybe you're concerned about the plight of the honeybees or you're hoping to increase yields in your garden, or hey, perhaps you just really love honey (it IS a superfood).

In recent years, hobby beekeeping has grown in popularity as we've all become more aware of the perils of a declining bee population. Right now, being an ally to our pollinators is vitally important because of the plethora of obstacles facing honey bees thanks to pollution, pesticides, and disease.

Creating your own home apiary is just one of the many ways you can help the bees and benefit yourself. But the first decision you have to make (after of course, making the decision to keep bees) is how you'll house them. The three most common housing options for bees are called:

  1. Langstroth hive (a unit that allows the bees to enter from the bottom and utilizes individual frames to allow the bees to build their comb)
  2. Warre hive (a low-maintenance option that doesn't use frames)
  3. Top bar (lightweight and simply designed)

All have advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the best type of bee apiary to get started with all comes down to the details. Use my guide on the differences between Langstroth, Warre, and top bar hives to help you decide.

Hive Types Compared

Type
Best For
Good to Know
Langstroth
Maximum honey production
Bee health problems are prevalent and careful management is reccomended
Warre
Simulating bees natural environment
Newer method that may require an extra set of strong hands from time to time
Top Bar
low financial and time envestment
Not ideal for cold climates

Types of Hives

Langstroth's, Top Bar and Warre.

All About the Langstroth's Hive

The Langstroth's hive is the standard in modern bee keeping and includes any modular beehive that has vertically hung frames, a bottom board with a convenient entrance for the bees and boxes containing frames for brood and honey. "Brood" is the term used for the honeybees developing larvae - baby bees in the making, basically.

The lowest box of the hive is for the queen to lay her eggs and the boxes above serve as a place for the honey to be stored.

Generally, a Langstroth's hive has an inner cover and top cap to provide weather protection. This type of set up is designed for maximum honey and is easy to transport from one location to another.

Because this type of hive is the most common method for housing bees, the access to informative material and equipment is a real bonus for new beekeepers, however the Langstroth's hive isn't without drawbacks which include:

  • Being designed for maximum honey also means that the comb size is predetermined for honey storage as opposed to any of the other functions of the comb.
  • Brood cells are naturally a different size than honey cells. The extra space in the brood cells leaves space for parasites like the Varroa mite to enter the cell with the growing larvae. Varroa mites are between 1-2 millimeters, but are no small matter. Between 2015-2016 Varroa mites are believed to have caused the loss of 44% of honey bee colonies in the US. For this reason, bee colonies housed in Langsroth's hives seem to be at an increased risk of disease and parasite infestation.

Spring is the official start of bee season up north.
Spring is the official start of bee season up north. | Source

About Top Bar Bee Hives

Developed in Kenya in the early 1970's, this hive design is very basic and easy to build at home using plans from sites like BeginningBeeKeeper.com if you want to skip out on the hefty price tag which starts around $200 and climbs from there.

The basic body of the hive is a long trapezoid with bars laid over the top and a roof to cap it off.

The use of bars as opposed to frames, like the Langstroth utilizes, means that the bees are able to build their comb the exact size they need instead of being limited only to the space provided in the frame. A definite plus to this type of hive is that it creates a fairly natural environment for the bees. It's smaller size and lack of additional boxes means that its easy to maneuver. I'm perfectly capable of working my own Top Bar hive without a veil, suit, or smoker since for inspection or harvest only a few bars at a time need to be removed. This also means minimal disturbance for the bees and that in turn which equals less of a chance of getting stung!

When the colony grows too big or a honey harvest is desired, the last few bars with comb attached are carefully removed and replaced by empty bars. The comb is then crushed and the honey strained out and separated from the wax and other contents.

As with anything, here's the drawbacks of using a Top Bar style hive:

  • The crushing method of honey extraction means that a significant amount of bees wax is also harvested. This can be good for the bee keeper but possibly hard on the hive since wax is more time consuming than honey for the hive to produce.
  • This long, low hive design also poses a new challenge in colder climates. The bees can be more prone to typical "winter kill". They raise their brood in the center of the hive and when cold weather strikes they may have a hard time deciding to move together toward their honey stores in the back of the hive. Once they splinter into different groups they aren't able to use each other for warmth and the entire colony quickly dies.

The Warre Bee Hive

Warre hives are designed to mimic the shape of wild bee hives. Vertical cavities in trees are some of the most popular sites for wild honey bees and the Warre hive mimics this by combining factors from both the Langstroth's hive and the Top Bar.

The body of a Warre hive is a stack of boxes, but unlike Langstroth's hives the new boxes are added to the bottom of the stack and not the top.

As with the Top Bar, the honeycomb is drawn out on simple bars laid across the top. This aspect of putting the empty boxes on the bottom helps keep the brood lower in the hive and honey higher. This design feature also means that as winter progresses the colony will move their brood up the hive following the stores of honey. Bees are able to build the comb exactly as they like and move about the hive in a natural manner.

My only real concern with using the Warre hive is the need for putting fresh empty boxes under full hive boxes. This might be fine for some people, but my upper body strength is not up to the task of safely lifting a heavy hive of bees and their stores of honey to place the new box underneath. With an extra set of hands this task is probably manageable enough. Unfortunately, my extra set of hands is usually my husband who's allergic to bee stings.

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About Beginner Beekeeping

How many hives do you need to start beekeeping?
Is it better to build your own hive or buy one?
How Much Outdoor Space do I Need to Keep Bees?
Just one!!
I personally opt to buy instead of build. Though, if you already own woodworking tools some hives are very simple to build.
Next to none. Bees can even be kept on urban roofs. Though you should check that your city does not have an ordinance against keeping bees.
Checking in on the Top Bar hive. When it's harvest time, the comb is crushed and the honey is strained from the beeswax.
Checking in on the Top Bar hive. When it's harvest time, the comb is crushed and the honey is strained from the beeswax. | Source

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© 2018 Stacy Hannert

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