What kind of beehive styles are there?

Thinking about beekeeping? Once you decide to be a beekeeper (woo hoo!), you get to decide what kind of hive you want to run. The only thing the bees want is a dark cavity, about 40 liters/10 gallons in size, that stays dry and has a small entrance they can defend. We as beekeepers want a little more. We want something easy to work with, that we can expand in size, that generates maximum honey production or is portable for pollination services or is “natural” for the bees or is inexpensive or is easy to manage or is light, or all of the above. We humans have a lot of wants. Make sure you’re familiar with what your state and local municipality want too, since inspectable frames are usually required in the US.  And while you’re going through this decision phase, if you aren’t already, find some local beekeeping meetings and a mentor(s)! It’s good to do a lot of research before you make your decision. And start slow so you don’t invest a lot of money buying hives you don’t like. Here are some beehive styles that you can choose from when deciding how you want to keep bees.

Frame hives: Langstroth hive

Beehive style: Langstroth hives. Classic white beehives sit in a green field.
These are Langstroth hives. Photo credit: beggs via Flickr cc
This is a frame from a Langstroth hive. Note the wooden frame surrounds and supports the comb with this beehive style.
This is a frame from a Langstroth hive. Note the wooden frame surrounds and supports the comb. (We actually use Hoffman frames in a Langstroth hive- you can impress your friends with this trivia… or not 🙂 ) Photo credit: Barefoot In Florida via Flickr cc

These are the most common hives in the Unites States. If you drive by a field with white boxes stacked up on each other and bees flying in and out, they are most likely Langstroth hives. Reading material, equipment and mentors are easy to come by for these hives because they are so common. There are two different sizes available: 8 frame and 10 frame hives. The 10 frame size has been traditional, but more and more new beekeepers are running with 8 frame hives which are lighter. They were originally designed by LL Langstroth in 1852 in the US after he discovered “bee space” and today we use Hoffman frames. These are the hives commercial beekeepers almost always work with and are known for being the most convenient to move around and great for honey production.

Read more about the Pros and Cons of the Langstroth hive here.

Horizontal top bar hives: Kenyan and Tanzanian top bar hives (KTBHs and TTBHs)

Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Notice the long length and sloped side of this beehive style.
Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Notice it’s long length and sloped side.
Top bar with suspended comb. Notice there is no frame around the comb to support it with this beehive style.
Top bar with suspended comb from a KTBH. Notice there is no frame around the comb to support it and the comb sides are slanted, guided by the inside dimensions of the hive.

These hives originally were first designed in ancient Greece but have been used in East Africa because they are simple and inexpensive to build. They are a horizontal cavity in which the bees attach their comb straight onto the “roof” which is made up of top bars or strips of wood. Above the top bars is a cover to keep out the weather. Their horizontal design makes it convenient for African beekeepers to open the back of the hive, smoke the bees to move them up to the front and collect honey from the relatively aggressive African bees. These hives are gaining in popularity in the US because they are inexpensive to build and require little lifting: you only have to be able to lift a top bar with the attached comb. The Kenyan hives have sloped sides and the Tanzanian hives have straight sides. The sloped sides may (or may not!) encourage less comb attachment to the wall that the beekeeper has to cut through to work the hive. There is less reading material available on these hives and finding a mentor may be harder than for a Langstroth.

Read more about the pros and cons of horizontal top bar hives here.

Vertical top bar hive: Warré:

Warre hive in a field of golden rod and wildflowers. This beehive style is a vertical top bar hive.
Warre hive in a field of goldenrod and fall flowers.  Photo credit: Shawn Caza via Flickr cc
This is a view up into a Warré hive body. Notice there are no frames around the comb in this beehive style.
This is a view up into a warren hive box – notice no frames around this comb.  Photo credit: Shawn Caza via Flickr cc.

The Warré hive is another beehive style gaining in popularity in the US. It was designed in the 1940’s by Abbé Émile Warré in France after years of experimenting with different hives designs. The hive is supposed to mimic a tree, allowing the bees to attach their comb to the top bars in each box and extend them towards the ground. As the hives fill up with comb, new boxes are added underneath the stack (which is the opposite of how Langstroth hives are expanded with new hive bodies added to the top). This hive is the most hands-off of the three mentioned so far and has the fewest available mentors for it, unless you’re lucky and live somewhere like Portland, OR. There is also less available reading material. You can either buy a hive or build one yourself as plans are freely available online. Warré’s idea was that this hive would be inexpensive, have lighter boxes than the Langstroth hive and be available to everyone. “The People’s Hive” he called it.

Read more about the pros and cons of Warré hives here.

Even more beehive styles…

And then you can geek out on alternative hive styles, of which only a FEW of what is available worldwide are listed here:

  • Skep – the classic “Winnie the Pooh” style hive of days gone by seen below, it had to be destroyed to collect honey, also killing the colony of bees

    A roofed shelter contains 8 visible skeps. This beehive style is ancient and rarely used in the US anymore because you have to destroy the hive and kill the bees to collect the honey.
    Photo credit: Buckeyein Triad via Flickr cc
  • Sun hive – a top bar hive variant of a skep with a bottom entrance, info on building them is available the amazing interwebs and there’s a book on them by Guenther Mancke
  • Rose hive – an Irish variant of the British national hive that uses only one size hive body (the British national hive is a frame hive much like the Langstroth), new hive bodies are added to the middle of the stack (remember? with Langstroths you add new boxes to top and  Warrés you add to the bottom?). Tim Rowe invented this design and authored a book
  • Golden mean hive or Golden hive – this is a top bar hive with “golden mean” proportions which is reputed to make the bees more productive – some are Kenyan style with slanted sides or some have straight sides like the one pictured below

    A red golden mean hive with a bright white lid sits on green grass with a strand of colorful prayer flags above it. This bee hive style is a top bar hive whose proportions are supposed to help the bees be more productive.
    Photo credit: downstream via Flickr cc
  • Caternary hive – a horizontal top bar hive with a curved bottom which mimics the curve bees use to finish their comb naturally, it was designed by Bill Bielby in 1968
  • Log hive – the closest thing to a natural bee tree, these don’t usually don’t contain any frames and so aren’t legal in most areas of the US, but bees like ’em (a fancy one pictured below).

    A beekeeper 4 meters in the air, inspects a log hive suspended in a tree. Log beehive style.
    Photo credit: michal.t. via Flickr cc
  • Horizontal frame hive– uses medium or deep sized Hoffman frames in a horizontal hive body and Langstroth supers (hive bodies) can be applied to it
  • And there are soooo many more if you look around on the internet – walls of bee hives with a little room behind them to work the bees, round tall Asian hives with straw tops, European carts of bees, etc etc etc
In a yard, a cement pillar holds up a shelter containing 5 bright yellow and blue hives.
This beehouse was designed by Jože Plečnik (1872–1957), the great Slovenian architect. The beehouse is holding 5 AZ (Alberti-Žnidaršič) beehives and is in the garden of Plečnik’s house. Photo credit: yellow book via Flickr cc
Lithuanian bee hives. These beehive styles are unique as they are the height of a man and carved into the shape of a large head. Several horizontal hives can be seen in the background.
Lithuanian bee hives. A. Drauglis is planning on building his own hive based on these, so watch his Flickr page. Photo credit: A. Drauglis via Flickr cc
In a field of bright green grass and wild flowers, 4 log bee hives stand. Each has a flat rock on top and several holes bored into the side. Log beehive style in France.
Log hives in France. Photo credit: Gabludlow via Flickr cc

What I did:

My first year I bought two 8 frame medium Langstroths so I could get support from local beekeepers. I also installed an unexpected swarm into a Kenyan top bar. I plan in my second year to buy a couple of double nucs (Langstroth style, medium sized), build two more Kenyan top bar hives with different dimensions from my first, and build two Warré hives. That should keep my busy and help me discover which hives I really like best. And I’ll share my opinions here.

Beekeepers, what styles of hives are you keeping and what do you like and dislike about them? Comment below and help us noobs out.

Future beekeepers, what is important to you as you consider what kind of beehive styles would work for you? Please comment below. You’ll help others by sharing your thoughts.

Enjoy exploring the different beehive styles. Happy Beekeeping!!!

Bees feast on honey.
Bees feast on honey.

6 Replies to “What kind of beehive styles are there?”

  1. The golden hive pictured has been my most successful hive over the past four years, in terms of colony viability and temperament. I tend to three different golden hives, all of them have been continuously viable since they were started, and require the least attention of the six I tend. On average, they only produce four to five pounds of honey surplus each year, but production volume is not goal with these hives. Sanctuary and observation are my main purposes for using the golden. Finding a supplier or capable fabricator is difficult. The frames’ wood work is precise, the comb edge on the top bars fine, and the box structure strong and tight.

    1. Thanks for your feedback on the Golden hive. It’s on my to-do list to try running one sometime. Did you make yours or purchase it?

  2. Look at you! I’m doing research for a class I’m teaching and was looking for information on the Warre hive. Your fabulous article came up and then I looked at the author name. I thought to myself: I know that name! I know you from instagram. 🙂 I’m enjoying looking around your blog. 🙂

  3. The “beehive” supposedly designed by architect Jože Plečnik, are actually 5 AŽ (Alberti-Žnidaršič) beehives in a “beehouse” that the said architect designed.
    In Slovenia its more common for beekeepers to have these “houses” for the beehives, where there’s usually as many as 60 AŽ beehives in one house, i suppose there can be even more.

    example of 60 beehives in a beehouse
    http://www.cebelarstvo-dremelj.si/data/upload/20120429_111219.jpg

    best regards

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