Educational Guide


The hive is the home of the bees. Bees’ natural hives may be a hollow tree, the wall of a building, or a small cave in rocky areas.

The hive is the man-made structure in which the honey bee colony lives. Over the years a wide variety of hives have been developed. Today most beekeepers in the United States use the Langstroth or modern ten-frame hive. A typical hive consists of a hive stand, a bottom board with entrance cleat or reducer, a series of boxes or hive bodies with suspended frames containing foundation or comb, and inner and outer covers. The hive bodies that contain the brood nest may be separated from the honey supers (where the surplus honey is stored) with a queen excluder.

Moveable-frame hives have several advantages. You can get three to ten times more honey from these hives, and the honey is much easier to harvest. In addition, it is much easier to check the progress and health of your bees at any time and to control swarming. Each part of the hive has a specific function.

Detailed description of Hive

Hive Stand

The hive stand, actually an optional piece of equipment, elevates the bottom board (floor) of the hive off the ground. In principle, this support reduces dampness in the hive, extends the life of the bottom board, and helps keep the front entrance free of grass and weeds. Hive stands may be concrete blocks, bricks, railroad ties, pallets, logs, or a commercially produced hive stand. A hive stand may support a single colony, two colonies, or a row of several colonies.

Bottom Board

The bottom board serves as the floor of the colony and as a takeoff and landing platform for foraging bees. Since the bottom board is open in the front, the colony should be tilted forward slightly to prevent rainwater from running into the hive. Bottom boards available from many bee supply dealers are reversible, providing either a 7⁄8- or 3⁄8-inch opening in front.

Hive Bodies

The standard ten-frame hive body is available in four common depths or heights. The full-depth hive body, 95⁄8 inches high, is most often used for brood rearing. These large units provide adequate space with minimum interruption for large solid brood areas. They also are suitable for honey supers. However, when filled with honey, they weigh over 60 pounds and are heavy to handle. The medium-depth super, sometimes called the Dadant or Illinois super, is 65⁄8 inches high. While this is the most convenient size for honey supers, it cannot be cut efficiently from standard-sized lumber. An intermediate size (75⁄8 inches) between the full- and medium-depth super is preferred by some beekeepers, especially those who make their own boxes.

The shallow-depth super, 51⁄16 inches high, is the lightest unit to manipulate (about 35 pounds when filled with honey). This size has the greatest cost of assembly per square inch of usable comb space. Section comb honey supers, 45⁄8 inches high, hold either basswood section boxes or plastic rings and section holders. Section comb honey production is a specialized art requiring intense management and generally is not recommended for beginners. Some beekeepers prefer eight-frame hive bodies. These were mostly homemade, but one U.S. bee supplier is now selling eight-frame boxes as English garden hive boxes. Beekeepers rearing queens and/or selling small starter colonies (nucs) prefer to use a three- or five-frame nuc box usually with standard deep frames. These can be purchased from bee supply dealers and are constructed from wood or cardboard, the latter for temporary use only.

Different management schemes are used according to the depth of hive bodies utilized for the brood area of the hive. One scheme is to use a single full-depth hive body, which theoretically would give the queen all the room she needs for egg laying. However, additional space is needed for food storage and maximum brood nest expansion. Normally a single full-depth brood chamber is used when beekeepers want to crowd bees for comb honey production, when a package is installed, or when a nucleus colony or division is first established. Most beekeepers elect to use either two full-depth hive bodies or a full-depth and a medium or shallow for the brood area. However, using hive bodies similar in size permits the interchange of combs between the two hive bodies. Beekeepers who wish to avoid heavy full-depth hive bodies may elect to use three shallow hive bodies for the brood nest. This approach is certainly satisfactory, but it is also the most expensive and time consuming in assembly since it requires three boxes and thirty frames instead of two boxes and twenty frames.

Frames and Combs

The suspended beeswax comb held within a frame is the basic structural component inside the hive. In a man-made hive, the wooden or plastic beeswax comb is started from a sheet of beeswax or plastic foundation. After the workers have added wax to draw out the foundation, the drawn cells are used for storage of honey and pollen or used for brood rearing.

Frames are 175⁄8 inches long and either 91⁄8, 71⁄4, 61⁄4, or 53⁄8 inches high to fit the various hive-body depths. Each frame consists of a top bar, two end bars, and a bottom bar. Top bars may be either grooved or wedged; bottom bars are split, solid, or grooved. Some types may have advantages over others, but the choice is generally a personal preference that includes consideration of cost. Top bars are suspended on ledges or rabbets in the ends of the hive body. V-shaped metal strips or metal frame spacers are often nailed on the recess for reinforcement. A popular commercial end bar has shoulders to help ensure correct bee space between adjacent frames and side of the box.

The comb foundation consists of thin sheets of beeswax imprinted on each side with patterns of worker-sized cells. Two basic types of comb foundations are distinguished by their relative thickness: thin surplus foundation is used to produce section comb honey, chunk honey, or cut-comb honey; a thicker, heavier foundation should be used in the brood chamber and in frames for producing extracted honey. Thicker foundations often are reinforced with vertically embedded wires, thin sheets of plastic, metal edges, or nylon threads. When deciding whether to invest in plastic beeswax foundation in plastic frames versus pure beeswax foundation in wooden or plastic frames, initial cost, assembly time, durability, and length of expected use are all factors you should consider. Plastic foundation and frames are becoming increasingly popular.

When using beeswax foundation in wooden frames, securing the foundation within the frame with either metal support pins or horizontal wires is necessary. The thin wedge of the top bar secures wire hooks extending from one side of the vertically wired foundation to help secure the foundation, ensuring that it remains in the center of the frame for proper drawing by the bees. Combs may be strengthened further by embedding horizontal wires (28 or 30 gauge) into the foundation with an electric current from a small transformer or by using a spur wire embedder. This activity is time consuming and difficult to master, but only a well-supported foundation results in well-drawn combs.

Frames with new foundation should only be given to rapidly growing colonies such as a package, swarm, or colony split (division) or to established colonies during a major nectar flow. Workers build beeswax combs of six-sided cells by adding wax to the cell base imprints on the sheet of foundation. When foundation is given to colonies during a nectar dearth, the bees will often chew holes in the foundation, thus resulting in poorly drawn finished combs. Beeswax is produced by four pairs of glands on the underside of the worker’s abdomen. As wax is secreted and exposed to the air, it hardens into flat wax scales. To produce comb, the bees remove the wax scales from the underside of the abdomen with spines located on their middle legs. The wax scale is then passed to the mouthparts where it is manipulated until pliable and ready to be formed into six-sided cells.

Queen Excluder

The primary functions of the queen excluder are to confine the queen and her brood and to store pollen in the brood nest. It is an optional piece of equipment and is used by less than 50 percent of beekeepers. Many beekeepers refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders” because at times workers are reluctant to pass through the narrow openings of the excluder to store nectar in the supers above until all available space in the brood chambers is used up. To minimize this problem, allow the bees to begin storing nectar in the supers before installing the excluder. Nectar stored in drawn comb will entice the bees to pass through the excluder. Never put supers of foundation above a queen excluder. An excluder is constructed of a thin sheet of perforated metal or plastic with openings large enough for workers to pass through. Other designs consist of welded round-wire grills supported by wooden or metal frames.

Frames of honey in the super directly above the brood chamber or comb sections act as a natural barrier to keep the queen confined to the brood nest. Properly timing the reversal of brood chambers in the spring with supering during a surplus nectar flow will serve the same purpose as a queen excluder. For this reason, queen excluders are sometimes used with the addition of the first supers (but again, installed only after some nectar has been stored in the supers) and then removed. Since beeswax combs used for brood darken with use, a queen excluder can help ensure separation of brood combs from honey combs to avoid unnecessarily darkening honey. Queen excluders also are used to separate queens in a two-queen system, to raise queens in queenright colonies, and for emergency swarm prevention. An excluder also may help in finding the queen. If you place an excluder between two hive bodies, after 3 days you will be able to determine which hive body contains the queen by locating where eggs are present.

Inner Cover

The inner cover rests on top of the uppermost super and beneath the outer telescoping cover. It prevents the bees from gluing down the outer cover to the super with propolis and wax. It also provides an air space just under the outer cover for insulation. During summer, the inner cover protects the interior of the hive from the direct rays of the sun. During winter, it prevents moisture-laden air from directly contacting cold surfaces. The center hole in the inner cover may be fitted with a Porter bee escape to aid in removing bees from full supers of honey.

Outer Cover

An outer telescoping cover protects hive parts from the weather. It fits over the inner cover and the top edge of the uppermost hive body. The top is normally covered with a sheet of metal to prevent weathering and leaking. Removal of the outer cover, with the inner cover in place, disturbs few bees within the hive and allows the beekeeper to more easily smoke the bees prior to colony manipulation. Beekeepers that routinely move hives use a simple cover, often referred to as a migratory lid. Covers of this type fit flush with the sides of the hive body and may or may not extend over the ends. In addition to being lightweight and easy to remove, these covers allow colonies to be stacked. Tight stacking is important in securing a load of hives on a truck.