If you have decided to start keeping bees for honey, you may be surprised to learn about the variety of opinions regarding the best methods for getting started. Bees, of course, have been building hives without any intervention on our part for millennia, but modern hive designs have made the decisions a little more complicated.
With modern hive design, bees make more honey, colonies live longer, and honey is easier to harvest. The equipment is calculated to shape bees’ natural instincts to suit the needs of the beekeeper.
Beekeeping helps the local bee populations thrive by promoting pollination and growth of bee-friendly plants, and colonies will be healthier and better sheltered in their hives than in the wild.
When you are starting out, the main hive designs you will encounter will be the Langstroth hive and the top bar hive. It is possible to find resources claiming that either of these is “best for beginners,” so it can be difficult to make a decision. Each hive design has pros and cons that you should weigh when considering your future apiary.
The Langstroth Hive
The modern standard for beekeeping, the Langstroth hive was developed in 1852 by Philadelphia native Reverend L.L. Langstroth. A bee enthusiast, he noticed that bees given less than three-eighths of an inch of space would not build comb in that space.
He used this information to design a hive with removable frames, called supers, to enable beekeepers to keep parts of the hive separate, and more easily harvest honey.
The Top Bar Hive
Most modern top bar hives consist of a wide box covered with wooden bars measuring about 1¼ inch each. The bottom of the bars may be notched or ridged to give a surface for the start of the honeycomb. Because there are no frames, the bees do not fill the space but instead build free-form. The spacing of the bars is designed so that they can be removed from the hive one bar at a time without disrupting the rest of the hive.
Advantages of Each Hive Design
The Langstroth hive is popular in North America. It is possible to buy apiary start-up kits that will include everything you need, including a hive. When you want to purchase additional equipment, such as queen excluders or supers, it is easy to do so because sizes and shapes are standardized. The Langstroth hive winterizes easily, as it can be insulated and was designed to prevent the invasion of pests. Lastly, collecting honey from the hive is fairly simple: segregate the bees from the super you wish to harvest using smoke or an escape board, remove the super, uncap the comb with a knife, and empty honey from the comb using a centrifugal extractor; combs can be kept intact for many years.
The top bar hive, by contrast, can be constructed at home with materials on hand, making it far less expensive. Although it is more work to begin, the top bar hive allows for a beekeeping style that is less invasive to the bees, which may promote colony health and honey production. For example, it is easy to inspect sections of the hive; when the bees are quiet, simply lift a bar to inspect the comb, and carefully replace. With informed management, honey produced in a top bar hive may be of higher quality; the bees will naturally segregate the queen from the honey production area of the hive, preventing lower quality honey from being produced there. Harvesting the honey does not require any additional equipment: Merely remove the bar, cut the comb, and crush it to extract the honey; you can also produce beeswax as a by-product.
Choosing Your First Beehive
When you want to start beekeeping, meet a local expert. It can be useful to learn from someone well-versed in your climate and local environment. Which bee-friendly plants will grow best for you, which diseases and pests do you need to watch for, and what can you expect through the seasons? Ask them about hives before buying to get a local opinion.
If you want to custom build your hive to your specifications and troubleshoot your own solutions, then top-bar is probably for you. If you want to start producing honey as soon as possible and have greater control over your colony, you’re probably looking at Langstroth hives. Consider your work style and long-term goals, and honey production will become a life-long craft.
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