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.
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.
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.