Hive talkin’

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You heard it here first. The Langstroth hive is in desperate need of a makeover.

It’s important to note, as I rant about the inadequacies of the most popular beehive in the world, that Kevin and I are only one-season beekeepers, and we haven’t harvested one drop of our own honey. When we open our hives and look at the frames, we need help from our friends Claire and Paul, of the Barnstable County Beekeepers’ Association, to make sense of what’s going on with our colonies. We are not experts.

One of our hives -- Big Bee -- still surviving as of this week

And the Langstroth hive is the industry standard. It’s those boxes you see in fields across the country, come pollinating time. I have no idea how many are in use, but it must be in the bazillions. So just where do I get off complaining?

My beef is not with the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, L.L to his friends. As far as I can tell, he was an entomological genius. Somehow, between writing sermons and ministering to the needs of his flock, he found time to make observations about bees that helped make large-scale beekeeping viable. The discovery that bees fill a space that’s a quarter-inch or less with propolis, but a space three-eighths of an inch or more with comb revolutionized the keeping of bees.

That was in 1851. One hundred and sixty years ago!

It is a testament to the importance of Langstroth’s discoveries that his hive design is still in use. In fact, his book, Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-bee, is still in print. As someone who can’t seem to keep a book in print for more than about a year, I very much respect that accomplishment. (I think Langstroth would be gratified to know that his text is available as an e-book from Project Gutenberg, and downloadable.)

But still, the hive needs a makeover.

My first inkling of this came at this time last year, when we were assembling the two Langstroth hives that now stand on our property. That meant turning almost 1000 pieces of board, frame, foundation, and pins into two bee-habitable boxes. It was a mind-numbing job.

We had to get it done quickly, though, because we had to paint the hives. They needed paint in order to withstand the elements, but we had to let them sit outside, painted, until the smell dissipated because bees hate paint.

Then we just had to cross our fingers, because if a disease like American foulbrood happens to infect your hive, you have to burn it to cinders.

And that is where my litany of what’s wrong with the Langstroth hive begins. It’s machined in a zillion parts, many of which are ill-fitting. It has to be painted in order to survive outdoors. It’s made of a material hospitable to certain pests, and that must be destroyed in the event of infestation.

Not to mention that it’s made of modular boxes that stack, and lifiting the top one off to get to the bottom one is both disruptive to the bees and, since a full chamber can weight 90 pounds, heavy work. It’s also not cool enough in the summer, or warm enough in the winter.

Besides that, at about $200., a Langstroth hive is expensive.

To hell with the better mousetrap. We need a better beehive.

There are alternatives. I’ve been following along as Paula, of Weeding for Godot, builds a top-bar hive from scratch, and she seems to be doing it in about the same time that it took us to merely assemble ours. She’s making it out of wood, so she’ll still have the paint and pest issues, but at least she’s doing it on the cheap.

I’ve read about both successes and failures with top-bar hives – a simple hive with only one chamber and foundationless frames – and I don’t know enough about them to have an opinion. The kind of better beehive I’m looking for, though, is mass-produced and weather-resistant.

There are a couple of companies making beehives out of plastic, and that, I think, is the wave of the future. In particular, the good folks at Omlet, a British company that brought you the Eglu chicken coop, sell a hive called the Beehaus. It’s made of plastic, it houses the bees on one level, and comes at least partially assembled.

Too bad it’s $765.

There’s also an Australian company, Bindaree, that sells plastic hives, which look like standard-issue Langstroth, but in high-density structured foam polypropylene. Also assembled. Also expensive, though not quite so very.

Here’s my question – where’s Little Tikes when you need them? Somehow, they seem to make molded plastic boxes of all shapes and sizes, and incorporate them into products that don’t break the bank. It seems to me that the Turtle Sandbox, at $34.99, could be retrofitted to be a beehive without much trouble.

Sandbox, $35.

Beehaus, $765.

I know that bees are finicky about plastics, and some materials might have your colony abandoning your hive for the nearest hollow tree, but the fact that Omlet and Bindaree have found plastics that work indicates that it can’t be that hard.

Any plastics specialists out there? Want to work with me to develop a better beehive? I think it’s a money-maker, but that’s not what I’m in it for. I want a book that stays in print for 160 years.

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Comments

  1. Hey Tamar-thanks for the link.

    The only reason I went with a top bar hive is that I could build it myself cheaply. There was no way I’d be able to make a Langstroth hive. Actually, I think it was your post about putting together your hives that finally put me off them.

    Anyway, since putting it together, I’ve realized that it’s going to be a mixed bag. It will be easier for me and my bad back to get into the hive- I won’t have to lift heavy supers out of the way. However, I’m really worried that the neighborhood raccoons are going to find it a cinch to get into, and I haven’t figured out how to ‘coon-proof it yet.

    The research lead me to believe that bees don’t care what they live in, as long as it suits their purposes. The top bar hive was based on an ancient Greek practice of laying sticks across a basket. I imagine you could do something similar with the top bars and a 5-gallon Home Depot bucket hung up on a post. Just drill some entrance holes and put a waterproof top over it and call it done.

    I might try that next, depending on how the first hive does. Hey thanks for helping me figure out Plan Bee.

  2. This time last week I’d have been fascinated but I don’t think I’d have understood a word of that Tamar. But I’ve just started a beekeeping course and last weeks class was all about hives. I was thinking of you wondering how your bees were. Here in the uk we don’t have so many Langstroth hives so we went through the pros and cons of them and various other types readily available in the uk. They do all seem to have their flaws.

    I have to admit as a beginner I don’t like the idea of a plastic hive but give me a year or two of involvement in beekeeping and I may have put my luddite tendancies to one side.

  3. I too have wondered over why the Langstroth hive is so long lasting. I have researched hundreds of different designs and configurations. And honestly so far weighing all the pros and cons it is just not easy finding one that trumps Langstroth in all areas. some are handier, some are cheaper, and some are easier. However, while dated, Langstroth’s own design wasn’t divinely inspired. His work was a culmination of several different designs that came before him. And at least for me its still the best. Granted the set up I use follows a lot of Michael Bush’s ideas and suggestions and has simplified beekeeping for me quite a lot. I use all 8 frame medium boxes, brood chamber, supers, all the same. This reduces weight, and simplifies interchangeability. All my frames fit all my boxes. I don’t paint. Yes my boxes will get that weathered look. 5-6 years down the line they may start to crack and split. replacing a box every year or two is worth it to me not to have to continually keep up on the paint job. At least I know that on the inside they are already sealed and weatherized by the best interior designers in the buisness. I use several other of Michael’s ideas, you can read about them at bush farms.com. It sure has taken a lot of the stress out of the hobby and makes beekeeping more enjoyable for me. You should check out his laying flat plan for beehives. It is kind of a hybrid between a topbar and a langstroth.

  4. Kim Graves says:

    I’m building a top-bar hive from http://www.backyardhive.com/ But I’m not going to paint it. If you keep wood off the ground and either let it dry or keep it dry it won’t rot. It’s the paint that keeps the moisture in the wood causing the decay.

  5. I don’t have hives but belong to a local beekeepers club in anticipation keeping one or two. Just got this alarming email from the newsletter editor. Beware of bee rustlers!

    “Hello All.
    We have had reports yesterday of bees being stolen in the last few days in the Walderton and Marden area, north west of Chichester.
    In one instance only the brood box and bees were taken, and the other, a complete hive with bees, located fairly close
    to a country lane was taken. They are obviously being taken by those knowing exactly what they are doing. We should warn members to be vigilant, and indeed to ensure those living around where they have hives are aware that this is going on, and if they see anything suspicious, to call the police “

  6. I just got an e-mail from a reader, Myrna, who said:

    “Betterbee makes a nice plastic/dense called Beemax foam hive for 167.95. Thats for 2 hive bodies, 2 supers, inner cover, telescoping top, bottom board w/ varroa screen and all 1 piece frames. See them at betterbee.com.”

    I’ve been reading about them, and it seems that plastic frames (from Pierco) have good acceptance if they’re coated with wax.

    This issue clearly requires more investigation …

    • Been a while since I checked in on your bee adventures … wishing you a honey of a good season. We’re commercial, so I realize the experience is not the same, but Langstroth hives and Pierco plastic frames work for us! Good luck!

  7. Tamar, the hive I envision for myself isn’t cheap, but it sure is pretty: http://www.thegardenhive.com/

    I could never have a Langstroth…I can barely lift 40-lb bags of dog food (though I do, every week). I do love TBHs, as they seem more amenable to natural, chemical-free bee-keeping, which really appeals to me. The garden hive I linked to above is sort of a funky TBH, since it comes with a sliding super…which I would want to jury-rig to use as a Warre-style quilt box, actually.

    Since I don’t yet keep bees, please take everything I say with a grain of salt, but I would worry about a non-wood hive in New England. I’m not convinced that cold is as much of a problem as moisture in the hive. (Feral bees live in tree trunks and survive the winter just fine, right?) Wood absorbs moisture and possibly helps the bees to thermoregulate, if it’s thick enough. I worry about hives made of synthetic materials…where does all the condensation go? Does it drip down on the colony?

  8. Did you hear the latest NPR story on plastics this week?
    http://www.npr.org/2011/03/02/134196209/study-most-plastics-leach-hormone-like-chemicals

    It’s hard to know if this is hype or not, but plastic is a REALLY new invention (in the scale of mankind and beekind). What other materials might work? Ceramic is probably too heavy, ditto glass. Perhaps a woven straw with wax for waterproofing? Just thinking aloud…

  9. Paula — I like how you think. My understanding is that raccoons aren’t the primary problem with hives (although I know you bear them a particular antipathy), but skunks are relentless. Perhaps if you put the hive high up, on a platform with legs too skinny for a predator? I’m very curious to see how you do. (And I just love the bucket-hive.)

    Sebbie — The running joke about beekeepers is that if you poll 6 of them you’ll get 7 opinions. I take that to mean it’s hard to go wrong.

    Rodney — Michael Bush is now on my reading list. I’m in favor of simplification, and a system where all the boxes are the same, they aren’t cripplingly heavy, and you don’t have to paint them is very appealing. Thanks for the reference.

    Kim — Well, that’s two votes for not painting. Keep me posted on your hive — I’m very interested in the top-bar model.

    Kristin — That’s the first I’ve heard of bee rustling! Luckily, our hives are secluded enough to be out of view from any potential rustlers!

    Yvette — That is pretty indeed. It’s very similar to the one Kim and Paula are building. Are you tempted to try and do it yourself? It would be about a tenth the pricem, but it would require power tools and the skills to use them.

    Liz — I did see that story. I even read the study. The problem is that we don’t know what it means in real life. These were plastics that were put either in salt water or in alcohol, and they were detecting the chemicals at low levels. Would those chemicals leak if the plastic were outside, in a beehive? And then there’s the question of the chemicals themselves. We’ve been told to eat lots of soy, in part because of the phytoestrogens, which seem to have a protective effect against some diseases. Is there any chance these chemicals would be *good* for us? Long shot, I know, but we don’t know the answer. Then there’s the problem of amounts. The first rule of toxicology is that the dose is the poison. It’s possible that these chemicals, even if they’re harmful at high levels, are harmless at low levels.

    It’s not easy to be a sensible consumer of information like this because there’s just so much we don’t know. A lab result is one thing, and a human — or apian — health problem is quite another.

    I’m a believer in better living through chemistry. I don’t think that things that are natural are necessarily better — they often are, but we have to be on the lookout for times when they’re not. I grow oysters in plastic mesh bags. I do my work on computers that have all kinds of man-made materials. I owe my life to anti-arrhythmic drugs. There’s an intrinsic appeal to housing bees in wood, but there may be advantages to other ways. Straw with waterproofing– thatch, essentially — might be great! So might plastic. Let’s all keep experimenting.

    End of rant!

  10. If Michael is on your reading list, prepare to dig in. His site has as much information and ideas as about any full book on beekeeping i’ve ever picked up.

  11. Jeash Tamar,
    I think you’re being a bit hard on the “build a hives” we got.
    There were lots of parts to put together but I felt they were made well. The box did say to assemble right away to prevent warping…..
    Only one of my hives made it this far. The one that didn’t make it had swarmed multiple times. They left plenty of honey for us to feed the alive hive if need be.

    • Yeah, I know part of the problem is that we waiting a little too long to assemble some of the frames. But there were sooooo many!

      Sorry you lost one of your hives, but at least they left some honey behind. Are you going to get new bees this spring?

  12. That’s what has kept me from joining the beekeeping fraternity: the start-up costs. Hives (and chicken coops for that matter) seem costly in relation to the actual materials. Moreso if the design is over a century old. For now, I’m relegated to swapping eggs with a local beekeeper

  13. Kim Graves says:

    @Jen, I agree that raising chickens for eggs, veg for the plate, and bees for honey is more expensive then going to the super market. But maybe not as much as we think. If we do honest accounting and factor in the cost of environmental damage done by agribusiness; the cost of keeping a military to keep the oil flowing that makes the fertilizer used for growing veg; the cost of the animosity of our politics that only maintains the status quo; then the cost food suddenly becomes very high. So I raise eggs, grow veg, trade for venison, and will keep bees if for no other reason than to say “I know the real cost.”

    • I’m lousy with venison. If I lived closer, I would happily swap you for honey.

      I agree that what we pay for food rarely reflects the actual cost, in real terms, of its production considering environmental costs, fuel costs,etc. At a microeconomic level, for our two-person household it’s simply financial constraints that make it necessary for us to barter for honey, (though we are self-sufficient in meat and eggs, and provide almost half our own vegetables.)

      I love reading about beekeeping, and live vicariously through other beekeepers and their experience of the bees.

  14. If you come up with a better version of a beehive, can I buy a set of plans? The manufactured super boxes are great, but they contain a lot of “not-really-needed” work, too. Bees are just as happy with lap joints as dovetails. Pine is not the only wood that can be used economically. What is available to you where you live? Poplar won’t last long, but fir or hickory might be worth a try. Is there a sawmill nearby? You might be able to get “rough cut” or true dimension wood of many species from them for far less money than the S4S wood at the big box lumberyards. Just keep thinking and tinkering, something good will happen.I have solved a few my challenges with just a little improvisation, others I am still working on. No matter what, enjoy your bees. I am sure you will get some honey before too long.

  15. Tamar,
    When I found your blog today, I clicked on Bees because bees are on my mind. Figuratively…well….I’m pretty sure just figuratively.
    It just so happens I built a top bar hive out of scrap lumber for less than $10.00 last year, captured a swarm and, unlike my other friends, who have Langs, my hive came through the winter with a happy healthy hive. My friends lost 4 out of 5 hives between the two of them and all failed hives had mold and moisture issues when opened. I have a theory about a possible reason.
    We live in the Pacific Northwest and our winters are not so hard, cold wise, but very damp. All the Langstroth hives were dutifully and beautifully painted. I did not paint mine. Instead I designed a roof which kept the hive body completely dry, and left the wood bare to “breath”. If you think about it Latex paint is just a coating of plastic. This speaks both to the issues brought up by you and others here. Plastic does not breath. You could vent it, but increased ventilation will decrease the warmth in the cluster which is critical to winter survival of the hive.
    I have designed and built a bigger and better hive this winter with mostly purchased lumber and a few scraps. Including hardware it cost less than $35.00. A cheap hive and healthy bees, you can’t ask for more than that!

  16. Desiree says:

    How does one extract honey with top bar hives? Since there are no frames, don’t you risk the bees creating one swooping chunk of wax? How do you fit that in an extractor?

    • Desiree, I’m sorry to say that I don’t have the faintest idea, and I’ve wondered about the very same thing myself. But lots of people use top bar hives, so there must be a way.

    • Hi, Just checking back to see what the bees were up to. I thought I’d take a moment and explain the top bar hive a little more. I love their simplicity and affordability. I just started my second one this spring with a swarm from my first hive.
      The top bar hive is as much for collecting wax as it is for collecting honey. The bees build their natural shaped comb on the bars and when you choose to harvest, I harvest in early summer just before the biggest nectar flow, you take out the honey combs from each far end of the hive and cut the entire comb into a container and replace the bar for the bees to rebuild. The queen tends to stay in the middle of the hive and so there are rarely brood in the outer honey combs.
      Then you smash the comb and let gravity do it’s work. When the honey has run out you can melt and filter the wax and use it for candles, lip balm etc.
      Top bar hives are not really a honey machine, like commercial hives (Langstroth). Bees work a little harder to produce a little less honey but are in control of their own environment. Top bar hives are more for bee health and the side benefit for the keeper is honey and fresh wax and the keeper never has to lift heavy supers, only one bar at a time.

  17. Hi Tamar,

    I have written a review of the beehaus which you’re readers might find of help.

    Roger

  18. Hi Guys,

    I designed a fiberglass beehive based on Langstroth dimensions and it is working like a charm. I designed it in kit form and is assembled in 20 minutes with an Allen Key. The whole hive, including metal base, 1 x brood, 2 x supers and all frames and lids comes to 20kg complete.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/236406173175253/

    I am off to receive an innovation award for this hive next week as it is a first and has a life span of 50 years.

  19. I am of course a fan of the Langstroth Hive and prefer it to the top bar hive, but that aside, it just seems so unnatural to keep bees in a plastic hive. Maybe someone could develop an MDF (Medium-Density Fibreboard) material that would fit the bill. They are cheap and mostly natural, but currently do not stand the winter very well. I believe there might be a market for a hive from this material if it could be done well.