The Anatomy of a Langstroth Beehive
Maybe you want to buy a Langstroth hive but have no idea what parts you’ll need, or maybe you’ve already got one, but aren’t quite sure what everything is called and how it goes together. Either way, this guide will help you get to know the Langstroth hive like the back of your hand.
To start off the “Hive” is what the bees live in, not to be confused with the “colony” which refers to the bees that live in the hive. In the wild the hive is often a hollow in a tree. Back in the day, Skeps or Log hives were used. While some super cool people still make hives out of logs, most people nowadays use a modern, “moveable frame hive” In fact, here in Pennsylvania, it is illegal to keep bees in any hive that doesn’t have moveable frames (more on frames a little later). There are many, many different types of moveable frame hives, but I recommend the Langstroth style hive for beginners. You can read a bit more about my reasoning for this in my recent post “Getting Started With Beekeeping – What Do You Need?”
In this post, I will be focusing on the various parts of the Langstroth hive and how they function. There are two standard sizes of Langstroth hive – and eight frame and a ten frame. They are identical in function, but in a ten frame hive, each hive body holds ten frames, whereas an eight frame hive is slightly narrower, so that only eight frames fit in each hive body. Whichever style you pick, be sure to be consistent. A ten frame cover won’t fit on an 8 frame body.
Let’s start from the bottom up.
A hive stand isn’t really a necessary part of the hive, but it’s a good idea to keep your hive up off the ground. A hive that is set directly on the ground can become damp, and pests may find it easier to wander in (although you may see those issues at some point regardless). It is also nice to have your hive a foot or so off the ground to prevent injuring your back during an inspection. They sell purpose-made hive stands that can range anywhere from $20 to $100, but I’ve had plenty of luck setting hives on top of a few cinder blocks, wooden pallets, or even paving stones. How fancy you want to get with it depends on your personal taste and what is practical for you, but the basic idea is don’t put your hive directly on the ground.
There are several types of bottom boards, but the most common types are screened and solid. Some beekeepers swear that the screened bottom boards provide better ventilation and keep your bees happier on hot days, while others hold that solid bottom boards keep the bees warmer during the winter.
Both arguments make sense to me, but since screened bottoms come with a board that can be inserted to cover the screen, essentially making it a solid bottom, when you want, my vote goes to team screened bottom board. The screened bottom is also nice for dealing with mites.
That being said, solid bottom boards are usually a few bucks cheaper and work just fine. I have some of each and I haven’t noticed much of a difference in the health or performance of my bees.
An entrance reducer is a little stick of wood with different sized notches cut into it. Basically you stick it in the entrance of the hive and it blocks off all the space except for a small gap. Pretty simple, but very handy. Entrance reducers can help prevent robbing in the late summer and fall, and reduce cold drafts in the winter.
Hive bodies are the boxes that make up the hive. They come in three sizes – Deeps, which are 9 5/8” tall, Mediums, which are 6 5⁄8” tall, and Shallows, which are 5 3⁄4” tall. The original Langstroth hive was comprised of all deep hive bodies, but recently most beekeepers use at least some mediums for honey, because they weigh a lot less when full. Some people use a combination of deeps and mediums, while other use all mediums. No one I’ve talked to uses shallows, but someone out there must, or else the bee suppliers wouldn’t sell them.
Personally, I’m an all mediums girl (except for a few deeps which I haven’t managed to phase out yet). There are a lot of arguments to be made for deeps, but using different sized hive bodies means you have to use different sized frames and foundation. Which means a lot more work keeping track of equipment, and I’m not the most organized person out there, so I like to make things easy on myself.
Inside each hive body are frames. Although they may seem like just little rectangles of wood (or sometimes plastic), moveable frames are the technology that has made modern beekeeping possible. Before there were frames, beekeepers couldn’t open hives to inspect for disease or harvest honey without killing the colony. Then along came the Langstroth hive, which made it possible to remove comb without damaging the hive or colony. Langstroth was not the sole contributor to the notion of the movable frame, but it was his careful use of bee space that led to the birth of beekeeping as a viable industry. If you want to know a little more about bee space, you can read one of my earlier articles all about it here: http://www.sarahplusbees.com/beespace-and-bur-comb/
History lessons aside, the frame is basically just a rectangle of wood. The bar that runs along the top is a bit longer so that it can sit at the top of a hive body. In an 8-frame hive, there are eight frames per hive body, and a 10-frame hive has – you guessed it, ten frames per hive body. Frames come in three different heights – shallow, medium and deep – which correspond with the sizes of hive bodies. If your ten frame hive has two deep bodies and three mediums, then you will need twenty deep frames and thirty medium ones.
Because the frames are just the right width, the bees will generally draw comb straight down from the top bar, and have just enough room between the frames to walk around without feeling the need to add propolis or comb and stick everything together. I say generally, because if there’s one thing I’d like to impress on any new beekeeper, it’s that bees have minds of their own, and even with equipment that’s stood the test of time, it’s still very possible to end up with a big, unworkable mess. To help encourage the bees to draw their comb out straight, many beekeepers use foundation.
Foundation is a thin wax sheet with a very specific hexagonal pattern printed on it which is inserted into a frame. The bees will draw out the little hexagons into full on comb, and because the foundation was straight, the drawn comb will be straight too (magic!).
There are many types of foundation – foundation with vertical wires, foundation with horizontal wires, small cell foundation, even plastic foundation. I don’t want to sink too far into the foundation-options-rabbit-hole, so basically for a beginner, get regular foundation with wires, the vertical stuff is really simple to use. When you have the basics down, there are some great reasons to look into small-cell foundation or going foundationless altogether, but if you’re just starting out, you have enough to worry about without fussing over foundation.
The brood nest isn’t really a hive component, so much as a spatial concept. Like how my studio apartment has a “dining room” and an “office” even though the “office” is just the corner of the room where my desk happens to be and the “dining room” is a table pushed against the wall.
In simple terms, the brood nest is the lower area of the hive (the bottom 1-3 hive bodies) where the queen hangs out and lays eggs, and where the brood hangs out until it pupates and emerges as an adult bee. The brood nest is the heart of the colony, it’s where the magic happens.
In the winter time, the hive will consist of the brood nest plus whatever surplus honey stores are required to survive the season. The hive is kept small to reduce the amount of space the bees need to keep warm and free of pests.
During the warmer seasons, when there is a nectar flow, bees will store surplus honey above the brood nest. It is important to make sure that the bees have space above the brood nest to store more honey or else the bees will stop producing honey, or they may decide the place is entirely too crowded and swarm. This is why beekeepers add “supers” above the brood nest
A super is a hive body that is placed above the brood nest for the bees to store honey. The act of adding a super to your colony is called “supering”. Strong colonies may need many supers during a season to maximize honey production and prevent swarming. When referring to the physical wooden box, the terms “hive body” and “super” are basically interchangeable, but when referring to a hive that holds an active colony, the “brood nest” and the “supers” are treated as separate areas. To go back to my studio apartment analogy – I could have two identical tables, but the one in my “dining room area” is a dining table and the one in my “office” area, is a desk. If you take them out of the apartment, They are both just “tables”.
Also like my studio apartment, sometimes things get messy. The idea is that a queen will stick to laying eggs in the brood nest and never even visit the supers, but the reality is that sometimes she will decide to wreak havoc on your honey crop by laying a bunch of eggs in and amongst the honey supers. This is a bummer because you don’t want to kill a bunch of larvae when you harvest your honey – and because no one wants larvae in their honey.
To avoid this, some beekeepers use a queen excluder, which acts like a sieve, allowing worker bees to reach the honey supers, but making it impossible for the larger queen to get through. While I’ve never actually used a queen excluder to keep a queen out of the honey supers, they are sometimes handy for other issues that may arise, so if you want to try it out, it’s not a bad investment.
The inner cover is basically a wooden board that fits your hive. It goes on top of the hive, under the outer cover. While it looks fairly innocuous, but it’s actually a very clever, multifunctional device. There is a hole in the center, which allows bees to pass through so you can add an empty super above the inner cover to create a little “attic”, accessible to the bees through the hole, which can be used for feeding, or for temperature control. There is also a little gap cut on one side. You can place the inner cover gap-side down on the hive to create an extra entrance at the top of the hive, or gap-side up if you don’t want a top entrance. Of course, if you opt for the top entrance and the bees don’t like it, they will just seal it shut themselves with propolis.
There are a few different types, but most people use the “telescoping” outer cover. This is a great option because they are cost effective, weatherproof and they are flat so you can set things on top of the hives, or use and upside down cover to stack you hive bodies on during an inspection.
A telescoping cover is slightly larger than the hive, so it fits down over the top with a bit of wiggle room. If your inner cover is gap-side down, push the outer cover toward the front so that it doesn’t cover up the top entrance. Or push it toward the back so that it does cover up the top entrance.
Not an official hive component, but important nonetheless. Stick it on top of the hive so the cover doesn’t blow off! Cinder blocks or bricks also work great, or in very windy locations I’ll wrap the whole thing with a ratchet strap (though they are not as weatherproof). I also find the rock gives my hives that professional polish.
Ok, not really, but it’s still nice to keep things from blowing away.