Choosing Your Hive: A Closer Look at Langstroth, Warre and Top Bar Hives - by Bee & Bloom

Choosing Your Hive: A Closer Look at Langstroth, Warre and Top Bar Hives

Bees are remarkably adaptable creatures. For millions of years, they have been perfecting the art of establishing their hives and using the land's resources to grow and care for their colony.  Long before there were any manmade beehives around, honeybees were taking advantage of naturally-occurring, hollow cavities that would protect them from rain and insulate them from the cold. Once humans came on the scene, we had to figure out how to trick the bees into inhabiting a space that we could easily access and manipulate. Enter: the beehive. Choosing your hive style is one of the most important decisions you'll make as a beekeeper. We are going to examine the three most popular hive styles and help you decide what would be most appropriate for your bees, your location, and your personal management practices. 

The choices:

The three most widely recognized hive styles are the...

Langstroth Hives

Right now, Langstroth hives are the most popular hive style in North America, as well as in many other parts of the world. They became the industry standard due to their interchangeable parts and ease of transportation. These hives feature multiple rectangular boxes stacked vertically, with bees constructing their comb on individual frames that allow the beekeepers to remove and inspect each one.

Langstroth hives were invented by Lorenzo Langstroth and patented in 1852, but Langstroth was not the first to come up with the idea of keeping bees in boxes. Instead, he designed the frames to rest inside the box. His frames featured wider sides, that when racked together, create the perfect bee space.  This ⅜” space allows bees to walk on the surface of neighboring combs back to back.  

Langstroth hives are comprised of a roof, inner cover, multiple hive body boxes, frames, and a bottom board. These hives are standardized and can be come in many different configurations due to the three available box depths (deep, medium, and shallow) and two widths (8-frame and 10-frame).  

The majority of beekeepers use either deep boxes for the brood nest and additional medium “supers” for honeycomb on top, or an all medium box configuration for both brood and honey. There are advantages to both styles of beekeeping, but remember that you will have to lift your boxes during inspections (and they can be heavy). Full, deep Langstroth boxes can easily weigh up to 90 pounds, and even the smaller medium & shallow boxes can weigh beween 40 - 60 pounds!

Since Langstroth hives are so widely used, there are many available resources to help new beekeepers get started. With a variety of books, video tutorials, and websites dedicated to Langstroth hives, you will never be lacking in learning materials. Additionally, your local beekeeping association will most likely be made up of a majority of Langstroth keepers. This should make it easy to find a mentor.  

Warre Hives

The Warre hive (pronounced war-ray) is a vertical box system similar to the Langstroth, but features removable top bars instead of frames and utilizes square boxes instead of rectangular boxes. This style of hive was invented by a French monk, Emile Warre, in the early twentieth century. Warre was concerned that beekeepers were manipulating bee colonies too frequently and set out to design a hive that more closely resembled how wild honey bee colonies operate.  

Warre hives are made of a roof, quilt box, stackable square boxes with eight top bars and a bottom board. The roof of a Warre hive telescopes over the edges of the quilt box and protects the whole hive from harsh weather. The quilt box rests directly below the roof and above the hive boxes and is separated from the boxes below by a piece of canvas or burlap. It holds absorbent material, such as wood shavings, to collect excess moisture from the hive. It also acts as an insulating layer to preserve warmth. The hive boxes are square and have an internal rest on two sides for the top bars.  Each box contains 8 top bars that need to be evenly spaced by the beekeeper to maintain the appropriate bee space. 

When more space is needed in the hive, extra hive boxes are added below the lowest populated box.  This practice is called "nadiring".  Since bees generally build from top to bottom in wild hives, Warre theorized that this was a more natural way to expand the hive (as opposed to the Langstroth practice of adding boxes to the top).  As the bees move down into the new box to build comb, the queen will be encouraged to move down and begin laying in the fresh comb. The comb above will be converted to honeycomb as the adult bees emerge out the brood nest. Honey boxes can be pulled off the top of the hive for harvest. 

Warre hives are standardized, but some builds may use wood of varying thicknesses.  Beekeepers will want to monitor the top bars in Warre hives and watch out for cross combing, as well as comb attachments along the side of the boxes.  An L-shaped tool is helpful for cutting any attachment points, so that you can safely remove top bars to inspect your colony.  Some commercial builders and DIY beekeepers do choose to build partial or full frames for their Warre boxes.  

Warre hives are not as well known here in the States, so resources may be limited in your area. They can be a good option for beekeepers who would like a hive with a smaller footprint, that have more built-in insulation to protect your hive from the seasons. 

Top Bar Hives

Contrary to popular belief, top bar beekeeping is not a new idea. In fact, it has existed for hundreds of years! Beekeepers would place strips of wood over empty cavities and allow the bees to draw comb from underneath. Today, we have two main styles of horizontal top bar hives: the Kenyan top bar hive and the Tanzanian top bar hive.  The Kenyan top bar hive has angled, long sides resulting in a trapezoidal hive shape, while the Tanzanian has straight sides with 90 degree angles (think long, rectangular box).  

The Kenyan top bar hive was invented in 1971 by two Canadian beekeepers looking for a cheaper and simpler alternative to Langstroth hives for a development program that was taking place in Kenya. Their original design was a hollow, trapezoidal cavity covered by a row of top bars that completely cover the internal hive space. Bees built down from the top bars and moved either left or right horizontally through the hive. 

The active hive space is flanked on both sides by a moving wall (called a “divider board”), that allows the beekeeper to expand and contract the hive space as needed throughout the season. We prefer this style of top bar hive to the Tanzanian style, because the comb is more stable - especially when working in hot summer weather!

In a top bar hive, the top bars are wide enough to accommodate bee space on either side of the comb.  Many top bars feature a center guide that helps the bees build down the center of the top bar, rather than off to one side. These can be built-in as a wedge in the top bar or simply made by gluing popsicle sticks down the center of the bar.

Even with a guide, bees may build off-center on your top bars. This is called cross-combing. While cross-comb can happen in any hive, it is a particular concern with top bars. To avoid cross combing, inspect your hive frequently (once every 1-2 weeks) after first installing your bees.  Any comb that is not straight can either be gently pushed into shape or cut off and reattached using zip ties. Once you have a few straight combs, you can alternate built comb and empty bars to help guide the bees. 

Top bar hive designs are not standardized, so there are many different designs available for purchase, and many plans available for download if you are handy and want to build one yourself!

Top bar hives are becoming increasingly popular in the US.  They are a wonderful alternative to box hive systems especially if you have limited ability to lift heavy boxes! That being said, it may be more challenging to find beekeepers in your area using this style of hive, and there are fewer resources available online and in print (although that is changing)!

To Wrap It Up...

Regardless of what hive you end up with, we recommend researching your choice thoroughly. If you have the opportunity to get some hands-on experience with the style you are interested in, that's even better! Remember that best beekeeping practices will vary by location, and every area will require different management and preparation based on your weather, nectar flow and bees.

Note: There are, of course, many alternative hive styles aside from these three! Skeps, sun hives, long hives... A quick Google search will show you a whole host of neat honeybee homes. If you are interested in learning more about a particular hive, we recommend seeking out a beekeeper familiar with that hive to go over management techniques and help decide if it is a good fit for you. 

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