The Components of a Bee Hive & Their Functions for the Colony
Posted by Gypsy Shoals Farm on
The more you learn about beekeeping, the more you will be amazed at how perfectly efficient a bee colony operates. Just like the bees themselves, each part of their hive design serves a very specific function to the colony as a whole. They truly are nature’s master architects.
As beekeepers, we try to emulate the same ideal conditions of their natural design into a system that we can work inside to manage the hive. The result is the Langstroth hive design. Although there are other designs used, this is the most common colony setup in the United States. As a result, equipment and replacement parts are easy to find and competitively priced.
The hive stand itself can be made of anything from commercially designed hive stands to cinder blocks from the hardware store as long as it serves these three purposes:
- It must be able to hold a few hundred pounds of weight. Once your hive is operating at maximum efficiency and the honey supers are filling up, the last thing you want to happen is for the hive stand to collapse and send the colony crashing to the ground.
- Raises the hive off the ground for easier lifting by the beekeeper. One 10-frame honey super full of honey weighs over 30 lbs. Lifting and removing the various boxes/chambers on a beehive can be hard on the back. Raising the hive off the ground eases the strain on a beekeeper’s back.
- Elevates the hive off the ground to deter several different types of hive pest problems such as ants and breaking the wax moth development cycle. Entire books have been written on the various pests that can enter a beehive, but in general, just know that it’s a best beekeeping practice to raise your hives off the ground.
The bottom board is the floor of the beehive. It usually extends longer on one end to offer a place for bees entering and leaving the hive to land and take off. The entrance to the hive is formed when the brood box is placed on top of the bottom board, leaving one side open for the bees to enter the hive. There are two common types of bottom boards, solid or screened, and each has its’ benefits and drawbacks.
Solid bottom boards are more popular in colder climates. Although they reduce overall ventilation in the hive, they keep the hive warmer and thus, bees will tend to start rearing their eggs and larvae earlier in the Spring. Solid bottom boards are also a necessity if you plan to move your beehives frequently for pollinating crop fields. Screened bottom boards can be easily damaged through frequent lifting and transportation from field to field.
Screened bottom boards have a lot of benefits and are very popular in the Southern U.S. and warm climates. The wire mesh screen improves ventilation, which is beneficial in controlling the temperature and humidity inside the beehive. The screened bottom board also provides an additional measure towards the control of varroa mites in the bee colony. These mites fall off the bees when they brush against the hives surfaces or during cleaning. The varroa mites fall out of the screened bottom board, essentially removing them from the hive population.
The entrance reducer is an optional part of the beehive that most beekeepers find essential. The purpose of an entrance reducer is to adjust access in and out of the hive, depending on the hive’s particular needs at the time. The smaller the entrance, the less space the guard bees have to protect from foreign invaders such as wasps and yellow jackets. However, this also can be used to open or close ventilation depending on the seasonal temperatures.
The brood chamber is the first large box on top of the bottom board. This is where your bee colony lives or dies. The queen lives in the brood box and meticulously works over the beeswax foundation laying a fertilized egg in each cell. This is where the nurse bees tend to the developing bees. This is where the worker bees store the pollen and honey that the nurse bees will feed the developing larvae.
The brood box is interchangeably called a deep box. This is simply referring to the larger (or deeper) wood box with larger (deeper) foundations and frames that are appropriate for housing the growing colony and all the provisions that are needed for bee development.
Note: Beekeepers will often prefer to have a single brood box or a double brood box. I prefer to fluctuate depending on the how the colony is growing. When a colony looks like it has outgrown a single brood box you can either split the hive or add an additional deep box and allow the colony to expand within the system. In the Autumn, when the colony begins conserving its’ resources and downsizing for the Winter, you may wish to remove that second brood box. (Just make sure that your queen is in the brood chamber remaining!) I’ve also left the additional deep box on through the Winter and then done a simple walk-away split in the Spring to turn one expanding beehive into two.
The queen excluder can be made of many different materials (plastic, metal, or metal in a wood frame) but the concept is still the same. The purpose of the queen excluder is to allow workers bees to pass into the honey supers and keep the queen bee inside the brood chamber. This is accomplished because the openings on all queen excluders are big enough for the workers bees to easily pass through while the queen is too large. Since she is too large to fit through the openings, she is forced to remain laying eggs in the brood chamber only. This also prevents her from laying eggs in your honey supers and makes it easier to locate her because you know which box she resides in.
With the queen confined to the brood box, the boxes that are called “supers” are stacked on top of the queen excluder for the bees to make, cap and store the honey that they produce beyond what is in the brood chamber. This is the liquid gold that it the goal of most beekeepers. These boxes are called “supers” because they are “super” or “extra” on top of the actual bee colony brood chamber.
Supers are usually shallower than deep boxes for the sole purpose of being easier to handle when they are full of honey. Honey is heavy! An average 10-frame honey super will weight at least 30lbs. With that being said, there is no rule that you have to use shallower boxes for honey supers. The bees will treat the foundation the same and as long as your queen is confined to the brood chamber, they will fill it with capped honey.
An average honeybee hive will require 3-4 supers per hive. Keep in mind that you don’t want to add of the empty honey supers to the top of your hive at once. The bees have to protect their territory from invading pests. A small colony cannot protect that much vacant property and your hive becomes susceptible to small hive beetles (SHB) and wax moths. Add an additional super as each box approaches 85% full (capped and uncapped) with honey.
Note: I prefer to add my new honey super underneath the almost full one (instead of on top of it). I find that the bees notice the extra space as they pass through it to get back to where they were previously working.
The inner cover forms the ceiling of the beehive and it placed on top of the honey supers (or brood box if you don’t have any honey supers on the hive). The inner cover usually has a large circular hole in the top which can be used to attach a feeding jar to the hive and also offers additional air circulation. Most have a notched area where bees can exit the hive. You will find that your bees will enter and exit the hive through both the bottom entrance as well as the hole in the top of the inner cover.
The telescoping cover is larger than the inner cover and provides the entire hive with a protective barrier to the weather and climate. It’s the roof to your beehive. Copper, zinc and aluminum are common materials used for the outer telescoping cover.
Note: Either strap down or weigh down your telescoping cover with a brick. They are easily lifted off of the hive in high winds and the last think you want is for the inner workings of your colony to be subjected to pouring rain.
The Langstroth Hive design is available in either 8-frames or 10-frames per box. This is purely the beekeeper’s preference and some prefer the 8-frame because each box weighs less and it’s easier to manage. Understanding the parts of your hive and how your bees use them is the foundation of your beekeeping skills. The more you learn, the more you will be in awe at how brilliantly designed a beehive truly is.
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