Prior 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
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
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
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
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 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" 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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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
- L.L. Langstroth in Langstroth on the Honey-Bee, 1860.
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.
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
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?