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John's Beekeeping Notebook

American Beekeeping History
The Bee Hive


The brood nest in skeps were usually destroyed when harvesting honey.Box hivePrior to the middle of the 1800's, most bee hives in North America and Europe were simple shelters for the bees.  Skeps, log gums and box hives were common types of hives in this period.

Bees attached their wax combs to the hive's roof and walls, just like they do in wild hives.  Today we refer to these types of hives as fixed-comb hives.

Skeps were made from grass straw, and often had sticks inside to provide support for the honey combs.  Beekeepers inspected skep hives from the bottom.  

Box hives were simple shelters to house a swarm of bees.

Later log gums often had honey supers added on top. Box hives were hard to inspect for queen-rightness.Log gums were made from hollow logs, fitted with a roof.  

Sometimes a box or container was added on top of a log gum or box hive for the bees to store honey. 

It was also hard to get honey from these hives without damaging or destroying the bee colony and getting the bees upset (they sting, you know!).

Some hives in the 1800's used clever designs that discouraged  queens from laying eggs in some parts of the hive, so honey could be harvested without damaging the colony.  These beekeepers knew that queens tended not to lay eggs in more than one area in the hive, so they made side and top compartments with passageways for the bees. Center brood nest and side honey compartments

Hive with honey compartmentsThe hives shown here have a place for the brood nest in the center, and places for honey storage on the sides.  This is a kind of queen excluder that relied on the behavior of bees instead of a physical barrier.  Today, we know that pheromones influence organization within a bee hive

Skeps can have supers too!Some skeps and box hives from the 1800's also had a second container, or "super" for the bees to store honey such as the one at right.  Nutt Collateral Hive

The "Nutt Collateral Hive" at right is a particularly fancy hive that used the concept of a pheromone-based queen excluder.  The use of supers and separate honey compartments allowed the beekeeper to remove honey without destroying the colony.

Supers were sometimes put on top of log sections, or "gums", so that honey could be harvested easily.     

In these hives, it was hard to know when the bees had a problem with disease, or when they became queenless or were starving.  The beekeeper could not inspect each comb to see what was wrong.  

Fixed-comb hives like the ones above were popular until the 1850's, and yielded 10-15 pounds per colony each year, according to Root's ABC book from 1895.  Of course, many things helped increase honey yields since then, including the Italian bee.

It was known for a long time that bees liked to build their honey combs about 1 and 3/8 inches apart.  Honey comb is about one inch wide, so this left a 3/8 inch passageway between the combs.The bee space concept was apparent in this hive.  

Some beekeepers built hives that forced the bees to build combs along "top bars" that were spaced about 1 and 3/8 inches apart.  Top bars allowed the beekeeper to carefully remove combs for inspection without damaging them.  These are called movable comb hives.  This hive from Greece in the 1600's (right) uses this concept.

Movable comb hives allow beekeepers to start new colonies easily by dividing a hive.  They also allow beekeepers to inspect the health of colonies, find the queen, and even cut honey comb without destroying the brood nest.  Bees in movable comb colonies were disturbed less than bees in fixed-comb hives, so beekeepers received fewer stings!

Many movable comb hive inventions used "frames" for the bees to build their combs inside.

Huber's leaf hive. The Leaf Hive, invented in Switzerland in 1789 by Francis Huber, was a fully movable frame hive.  The combs in this hive were examined like pages in a book.  A.I. Root and E.R. Root credit Huber with inventing the first movable frame hive.

Huber's contribution was also acknowledged by Lorenzo Langstroth, inventor of the hive style that is most commonly used today:

"The use of the Huber hive had satisfied me, that with proper precautions the combs might be removed without enraging the bees, and that these insects were capable of being tamed to a surprising degree.  Without knowledge of these facts, I should have regarded a hive permitting the removal of the combs, as quite too dangerous for practical use."
- L.L. Langstroth in Langstroth on the Honey-Bee, 1860.

The Quinby frame sides were 1 and 3/8 inch wide.Quinby's hive was secured with a cord.The Quinby closed-end frame hive had many good features of a movable-frame hive.  The side bars of the Quinby frame (at right) also formed the walls of the hive.  Some successful beekeepers were using this hive as late as the 1890's.
Skeps, log gums and box hives remained most common style of bee hives, despite these movable comb inventions in the 1700's and early 1800's. 

Langstroth's hive was fitted with a comb honey super.Comb foundation was also invented in the 1850's.A major improvement in hive design was made in 1851 by Lorenzo Langstroth.  He built a hive with frames that hung from the top ends of the hive, leaving a 3/8 inch space between all sides of the frames and the hive body.  

His clever design used the principle that bees usually do not build comb in 3/8 inch passageways.  If the space is bigger than 3/8 of an inch, the bees will build comb.  If it is less than 1/4 inch, they will attach propolis.

Langstroth's frames were easily handled without breaking the comb.  Today we refer to the 3/8 inch passageways as a "bee-space."  This practical hive is the direct ancestor of the modern hive that is most popular today.

In describing the benefits of his hive with movable frames, Langstroth wrote:

"...the chief peculiarity in my hive was the facility with which they could be removed without enraging the bees .... I could dispense with natural swarming, and yet multiply colonies with greater rapidity and certainly than by the common methods .... feeble colonies could be strengthened, and those which had lost their queen furnished with the means of obtaining another. .... If I suspected that any thing was wrong with a hive, I could quickly ascertain its true condition, and apply the proper remedies."
- L.L. Langstroth in Langstroth on the Honey-Bee, 1860.

Some hives had insulated walls.HiveBy the 1890's, the movable-frame hive was largely adopted for general use.  Most of the hives in the late 1800's used Langstroth's bee-space frame concept.  Many of the hive designs were more elaborate than ones used today.

Both 8-frame and 10-frame hives were popular.  Some hives had double-thick walls filled with wheat chaff for insulation.

The Hoffman frame is almost unchanged in 100 years.By the year 1900, most modern beekeepers were using variants of the Langstroth hive with Hoffman-style frame, like the ones used today.

These inventions helped make beekeeping a viable business.

The modern bee hive has not changed very much during the 20th century.  The most significant beekeeping advances of the 20th century involved the extracting process and bee management.

The evolution of the bee hive will surely continue.  Can you guess what the next 100 years will bring?

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John's Beekeeping Notebook  http://www.outdoorplace.org/beekeeping/   Content from John's Beekeeping Notebook may be used for any non-commercial purpose except internet duplication, providing the source is acknowledged.  Created by John Caldeira, Dallas, Texas, USA    john@outdoorplace.org