Oh bee-hive

Let me preface this post with a caveat - I am a total novice beekeeper and I have much to learn, and much more experience to gain before I can feel confident in sharing opinions about the specifics of beekeeping. However, when I was trying to figure out how to get into beekeeping this is the sort of information I craved, and it wasn't always easy to come by. So I am offering this up as thoughts only. Our bee school teacher told us that for every two beekeepers you get three opinions, so you can be sure that not everybody will agree with what I type. Please feel free to comment if you heartily disagree with me on any points - I am a willing recipient of your experience!

Okay, caveat done.

There are so many different types of hives available, so it is hard to know which one to get when you are starting out. And to be honest, depending on how you are getting your bees, your type of hive may already be decided for you - if you are transferring a swarm or buying a bee package, then you can use whatever you like. If you are buying a nucleus hive then your choice of hive will be dictated by the types of frame you are transferring... I will do another post about buying bees soon, but it's worth keeping this in mind.

I had read several books and countless blog and magazine articles about hive choices before I was ready to get my bees, so I already had opinions about the "right" and "wrong" types to get. As with many things, there are very loud voices out there, and it's hard not to get caught up in the opinion sharing. But what it seems to all come down to is that as a beekeeper you have a foremost responsibility to care for your hives and manage them properly. The type of hive is going to dictate a little bit how you do that, but not change the fact that you must do that.

So, the choices.

Langstroth hive: The one that you see most often in the Canberra-region seems to be a wooden box Langstroth hive. The Langstroth is made up of (bottom to top): the risers, which create an opening for the bees to enter; a full-depth box of frame called a brood box; and then additional boxes on top called supers, where the honey is stored (although brood will be laid in the supers unless a queen excluder is place between it and the brood box - this can be another point of controversy, so I'll touch on it in a later post).  There are frames in each box and each frame (usually) has a thin sheet of foundation wax attached to it. Again, as with most things, the use of foundation wax can be controversial, with some people believing in foundation-less hives. Later post!

Personally, the Langstroth hive is the type of hive I would buy if I was starting from scratch and getting a bee package or catching a swarm. They are reasonsbly priced, fairly universal so it's easy to get parts, and they have a simple attractive design. From my very limited experience, my only real concern is their longevity - in Australia they are usually constructed from radiata pine, which is very quick to weather. Even if it is painted for protection, they seem to have a lifespan of about, at most, 5 years before the wood splits, rots and warps and starts to fall apart (which is exactly what has happened to the hives we were given as a housewarming present). I'm sure that this could be extended if they were repainted and repaired, but that would require moving the colony into a new hive in order to do the repair work. The wood is also susceptible to fungal rot, so may need to be pre-treated with appropriate chemicals.

Plastic hives: I didn't go with wooden box Langstroth hives and what that really comes down to is who I learnt from and how I obtained my bees. The two hives that we have are based on the same basic Langstroth design (i.e. brood box on the bottom, supers on the top), but are made from plastic. Plastic hives were not even on my radar before I started beekeeping, and purists would object loudly to their use. I totally get it - it's PLASTIC! But it's a funny thing - when you start to actually work with bees and learn how to inspect them and manage them, I think the biggest impact on your decision making about the equipment you use will be the people who teach you, and the equipment they use. My teacher had around 40 plastic hives and one wooden one, and he was absolutely adamant that in our conditions the plastic one is the better choice.

Again, I know that this opinion is controversial, but I can see the benefits of plastic hives (obviously, as I have wound up with two of them!). They don't weather and degrade. They are double-walled, so they regulate temperature much better (relevant in our climate, where it easily varies between -10°C in the winter and 40°C in the summer). They are compatible with wooden box parts (same measurements), so old Langstroth equipment can still be used. They don't require repainting or need any other chemicals to be applied to help maintain their condition... although plastic itself is a chemical, so I really feel that is a moot point.

As I said above, if I was choosing hives without having learned to beekeep on the plastic ones, I would be most inclined to the wooden ones. For goodness sakes, I am trying to reduce my use of plastics, not add to it! But I am very happy with the hives we have, and do feel like they are actually the best option for our climate. And, as I said above, I think the most important consideration in beekeeping is doing appropriate hive inspections and ensuring the health of your colonies - equipment choice seems to be an important, but secondary, consideration.

Top-bar hives: Another hive style that is becoming increasingly popular (if River Cottage Australia is used as the measure of popular self-sufficiency at least!) is the top bar hive, or Kenyan top bar. These are really cool hives, built in a shape that reminds me of a cradle, and often constructed with discarded wood. Instead of setting up the hive from bottom to top, like in the Langstroth style, the hive runs horizontally, so that brood is at the "back" of the cradle and the honey is at the "front". These hives are foundationless - the single bar of each frame is what the bees build their comb from.

Top-bar hives are really popular with permaculture gardeners because it is considered that the hive is much more natural and more closely resembles the bee's natural environment. I am really drawn to this idea, but I have my doubts as to what a bee's natural environment is... they will create a hive anywhere they choose, and often in completely absurd and seemingly unnatural spaces if left to their own devices! I guess my feeling on this is: managed hives are managed hives - they are human inventions and require human intervention. Whilst I like the idea of a more natural approach, my worry is that this leads people to think that the bees are just doing their own thing and no hive inspections or management is required at all. I can picture people attempting to catch swarms and plop them in their own homemade construction, without any instruction in good bee management, and I'd think that this is a sure-fire way to get and spread diseases. The other thing is that for our climate, where we get so cold over winter, there is far less insulation in the top-bar than in the Langstroth-style of hive, and it is more likely to lead to bee death due to cold exposure. So while this type of hive is not going to appear in our backyard anytime soon, they might be pretty great down on the coast if you still take the time to learn how to care for your bees.

Flow Hive: The only other common hive type that I have come across in my short stint of beekeeping is the Flow Hive. And we actually have one! It is currently sitting in its flat-pack boxes in the shed, where it has been since it arrived last year. Again, I had fully intended to start beekeeping with the wooden Langstroth hive we were gifted, as well as the Flow Hive. And I still might put the Flow Hive to use one day, although I have some concerns.

The Flow Hive is basically a Langstroth-style hive, but the honey super is made of plastic honeycomb, which can be split by turning a handle on the outside of the hive. This allows the honey to flow straight out and into your waiting jar. Amazing! There are lots of people who condemned the Flow Hive when it was released. I think some of the concerns relate to the use of plastics in the hive, and others to the prefabricated "honeycomb", which prevents the bees from drawing out their own comb, one of their key jobs in life. I can only think that those concerns are completely legitimate - it does seem to be messing with bee-haviour. Sadly, I didn't give any thought to that before we bought the Flow Hive, and now that I have just a teeny bit of knowledge I do have some unease with the concept... But I think other concerns about the Flow Hive encouraging backyard novices into beekeeping without taking the appropriate courses, and that the ease of the honey extraction might lead to people never opening the hives and doing appropriate inspections, are probably unfounded. Seriously, I don't think that they thing that was stopping people getting into beekeeping was ever the sticky mess of honey extraction. I just don't. For me, the reason it took so long to get into beekeeping was the question of how on earth to get the bees! I think there will be many many Flow Hives sitting in their flat-pack boxes all over Australia (and the world!) whilst their proud owners ponder how to get the bees that go in them.

Warre hive: The last hive that I often see mentioned in the books and articles is the Warre (pronounce war-aye) hives. They look a bit similar to the Langstroth from the outside, but they operate a bit differently inside and they sometimes have a nice little A-frame roof atop of them. I've never seen anybody selling or using a Warre hive though, and I'm definitely not familiar enough to give any information or opinions on them, but as they are around I thought it was at least prudent to mention them here.

Oh, and that beautiful basket hive up the very top of this post? That's a skep. They were one of the earliest type of man-made hives and you can still get them, but you usually have to destroy the whole basket (and therefore hive) to extract any honey, so they are perhaps not the best option for the backyard beekeeper!

So there you have it - my thoughts on hives... I hope that you will take this for what it is - the thoughts of an openly novice beekeeper. Please do feel welcome to contribute your thoughts and experience in the comments below!

Image sources: Skep hive // original photo //  original photo//  Top-bar hive  //  Flow Hive  //  Warre hive