The Beehive

Bees have been kept by Beekeepers for thousands of years (earliest examples used in Egypt ~2450BCE) in order to harvest the Honey from their colonies. They are usually housed in an artificial container called a Hive. There are lots of designs that have been used all of the World to contain a colony of Bees.

The Apiary

The area that a Hive is set up within is called an Apiary. This can be almost anywhere, Bees are kept on farmland, within forests, community gardens,even residential gardens or rooftops!

The ideal hive location has easy access (so you can tend to your hives), good drainage (so the bees don’t get wet), a nearby water source for the bees, dappled sunlight, and minimal wind.

These conditions are what the Bees require, but obviously other issues need to be taken into account, such as securing the Apiary from damage or theft, the views of neighbours etc!

In general, Beekeeping in residential gardens is a completely viable option, as long as consideration is given to neighbours.

Good practice would include:-

  1. Avoid placing hives near a boundary unless it is solid such as a wall, fence, building or hedge.This will force the bees to gain height quickly if the hive is facing the object.

  2. If room is limited enclose the hives on the remaining sides with something dense at least two metres high to make the bees gain height.This could be a wooden panel fence, fine plastic netting or a trellis with quick growing plants such as honeysuckle.

  3. If you only have a small area available decide the maximum number of hives you will keep at this site and stick to it, but remember that during the summer it is quite common to increase for a number of reasons.

If your garden is small or your family and neighbours aren’t keen on having bees near them there is no point in confrontation and you would be best advised to look for a site elsewhere.

Working in the Apiary

When working in the Apiary, it is vital that the area around the Hive is clear, so that the heavy Hive parts can be moved safely. The recommended work area around a Hive is 9 times the size of the Hive itself (see diagram below). Usually you would from behind the Hive, in order for the Bees to have unrestricted access to the Hive Entrance throughout any inspection work.

The diagram below shows the working space around a single Hive:-

The Skep

The first artificial Hives, called Skeps, were built ~2000 years ago from wicker. These Bees would fill the Skep with "Wild" comb. Bees construct "Wild" comb to efficiently fill a space with as much comb as possible, whilst still allowing space to move around (known as the "Bee space").

Skeps were useful as they provide a strong, weather resistant container for the colony. However, they are not waterproof and in order to harvest the Honey, the colony must be destroyed. Also, Skeps are almost impossible to inspect for disease or parasites. Because of this, it is illegal to house Bees in a Skep in the United States. Whilst it is not illegal to use a Skep within Scotland, it is not recommended due to these issues.

Skeps do have a use as a container when catching a Swarm as a more robust alternative to cardboard, for more information please see - Swarming.

A Skep made of wicker

"Wild" comb in a Skep

The Modern (1850's+) Hive

The key innovation of the Modern Hive was the use of convenient vertically-hanging frames, on which bees build their comb, and moveable compartments to house the Bees.

There are many different styles of Modern Hive, but there are two main types of Bee Hive used in Scotland:-

  1. The Langstroth Hive

  2. The National Hive

The Most common type in use in Scotland is the National Hive, either made of Wood or Polystyrene.

Other types of Hive that may be seen are:-

  1. The Smith Hive

  2. The WBC Hive

  3. The Top Bar Hive

  4. The Flow Hive

All modern Hives share the same basic features, as can be seen in the diagram below:-

The video below shows a simple tour of inside a Bee Hive:-

Starting at the base of the Hive and working up gives the opportunity to understand the main parts of a modern Hive.

Hive Stand and floor

A good strong foundation is vital to the stability of the entire Hive. Hive Stands can be constructed from a range of materials, but the key requirement is to keep the Hive elevated from the damp ground in a secure way. Depending on where the Hive is, a Hive Stand can also protect the Hive from invading insects such as Ants.

Wooden Hive Stand

Breeze block stand

Metal Hive Stand

Stand & Hive above flood water

The floor of a Bee hive used to be a solid wooden panel to insulate the Hive and prevent access from below, but it is now a much more common practice for this to be replaced by a Open Mesh Floor. The Open Mesh Floor allows ventilation (reducing the problems of damp in a Scottish Hive) and allows good management of Varroa mites, whilst still preventing access to the Hive.

Open Mesh floor with landing Board

Hive Body or Brood Box

The main section of the Hive is the Brood Box.

In a National Hive (see below), the Brood Box contains 11 frames + 1 Dummy Board, within which the Queen will lay the Brood from the colony and is where the eggs, larvae and pupae develop. To contain a colony that is particularly large, two brood boxes can be used stacked on top of each other.

A Dummy Board is a usually a solid wooden block shaped like a frame, which replaces one of the frames. As this will have no comb on it, it is removed on inspections, giving extra space to manipulate the actual frames.

It is the Brood Box that contains the entrance to the Hive, usually along the length of one side of the Box.

Brood Box with Frames

Hive entrance

In Winter, when the Bees mainly remain within the Hive, the Hive is at risk from pests as the Bees are not able to defend the Hive when they are cold or if they are clustering close to the top of the Hive. To prevent Mice and other pests entering the Hive, the Hive entrance can be blocked with either a Mouse Guard or Entrance Block.

A Mouse guard is usually made of metal or plastic and consists of a line of holes large enough for Bees to pass through, but not mice.

An Entrance Block is usually made from wood and simply reduces the size of the Hive Entrance to make it easier for the Bees to defend.

Mouse Guard

Entrance Block

This is the way

There are two ways that frames can be placed within the Brood Box, the "warm" way or the "cold" way. There is no actual temperature difference between the two, the names are left over from when the Hives used to have a solid floor below them. The difference in set up is as follows:-

  1. Warm Way - The Frames run parallel to the Hive Entrance.

  2. Cold Way - The Frames run perpendicular to the Hive Entrance.

Note - It is only the National Hive that can have its frames placed in either way, as it is the only square shaped Hive. The other Hive types are rectangular, and therefore the frames will only fit in one way, the "cold" way.

The difference in set up can be seen in the diagram below:-

Warm Way

Cold Way

Our Hives are operated in the "warm" way. For the point of view of the Bees, it doesn't really matter which is used, but there is a greater risk of Starvation Isolation if set up in the "cold" way. This occurs when the Bees feed to one end of the Box and can't move to stores at the other end, and so starve (see - Preparing for Winter for more information).

The Queen Excluder

The Queen excluder is is wide mesh or grill barrier that is placed on top of the Brood Box. The gaps in the excluder are wide enough for Worker Bees to pass through, but too small for the larger Queen and Drones to pass through. This confines them to the Brood Box. We want the Queen confined to the Brood Box, as if she is allowed to lay in the Honey Supers above, it makes it much more difficult to harvest clean Honey.

Steel Queen Excluder

Excluder in use

Honey Supers

Placed above the Brood Box, the Honey Supers (short for superstructure) contain frames that only Worker Bees can access. This means that these will be used exclusively for storing Pollen and Honey.

A Super is added above the Brood Nest once it has expanded in size after overwintering. The timing of this depends on the area, but the basic rule is to place a Super on the Hive once the Brood Box is 80% full. Leaving it longer than this gives an increase risk of Swarming, as the growing colony would be looking for more space.

At the end of the Summer season (or earlier if the colony is particularly vigorous with a good access to nectar), when the Bees have built up large enough stores within the Honey Supers, the frames are removed and the Honey extracted. For particularly active colonies, more than one Honey Super can be used.

Care must be taken to ensure that enough Honey is left to ensure the colony survives the Winter, if too much is taken then Beekeeper must feed the Bees over the Winter.

A full Honey Super is very heavy, they can weigh up to ~15kg each. Due to this, care must be taken when moving a full Honey Super.

Brood Box only

Brood box + 1 super

2 Brood + 2 Supers

The Top of the Hive

The Top of a Hive consists of two parts; a Crown Board and an outer cover (the Roof).

The function of the Crown Board is a solid board that covers the top of the Hive. It usually has one or two feed/Bee escape holes in it which are kept covered when not in use, to prevent Bees entering the roof space. The space between the Crown Board and the outer cover is used both as a ventilating air space and as a space for placing feeders over the Winter. These feeders are accessed by the Bees through one of the two Feed Holes.

Crown Board

Crown Board + Feeder

The outer cover fits partly down over the top box and secures the Hive, making it weathertight. It is usually covered in metal or roofing felt.

There are two main types of roof used for Hives, a Flat roof or a Gabled Roof. The choice makes no difference to the Bees, and is mostly aesthetic. However, an upturned flat roof can be used to stand any removed Honey Supers or Brood Boxes removed during inspections on, whilst a Gabled Roof cannot.

Gabled Roof

Flat Roof

Types of Hive

The Langstroth Hive

The Langstroth Hive was developed by the American Loranzo Langstroth, in the 1850s. The langstroth Hive is a major improvement over the Skep as it was the first practical moveable frame Hive. This means that Frames of Bees and Honey could be removed and returned to the Hive without destroying the colony. Langstroth is also recognised as the first person to identify the "Bee Space", the correct spacing between frames.

The Langstroth Hive is the most common type of Hive used in the United States and Australia.

The images below show the main parts of a Langstroth Hive:-



The National Hive

The National Hive is a variation of the Langstroth Hive, and is the most common in use in the UK. The National hive is smaller than the Langstroth and easier to move, with a small square footprint that can be stacked efficiently on pallets or backs of trucks allowing beekeepers to move hives to pollinate agricultural crops, in particular orchards and heather.

Due to its small size, the National can become overcrowded if containing a particularly large colony, a may require two brood boxes.



The National Hive is available in two different Materials; Wood (generally Red Cedar) or Polystyrene (known as a Poly Hive).

Wooden National Hive

Poly National Hive

The two types both have benefits and drawbacks to them, and the choice is up to the individual Beekeeper:-

The Smith Hive

The Smith Hive is a Hive designed in Innerleithen, Peebles making it a Hive designed specifically for the Scottish climate.

In Scotland, the winters can be severe. Not only can Bees freeze in excessively low temperatures, but the insects can exhaust themselves expending enough energy to keep an even moderate-sized hive warm. The Smith Hive’s compact size makes the Bees’ task of warming the hive in the winter much easier. This means healthier and better-rested bees in the spring.

The small size, also, has another advantage to Beekeepers. In Scotland, the Bees can be moved to sources of nectar such as Heather or Oil-Seed Rape. This movement keeps the Bees’ travel distance low and the available supply of nearby nectar high. For the Beekeeper, a smaller hive is obviously easier to move.

Smith Hive

The WBC Hive

The WBC Hive was developed by William Broughton Carr (hence WBC) in the 1890s and is the only modern double-walled Hive. This gives excellent insulation in colder climates, but does mean the Beekeeper must perform more heavy lifting (as the outer walls need to also be removed during inspections) that other types of Hive. The biggest issue with a WBC Hive is that the frames are not interchangeable with other types of Hive (National Hive is the exception).



The Top Bar Hive

Unlike the more common types above, the Top Bar Hive is a horizontal set up Hive. Instead of frames of wax, individual bars are laid across the top of the hive cavity. The bees build their comb down from these bars naturally, without the use of a 4 sided frame or foundation. Generally the bars are a wooden wedge or strip with a guide to ensure combs hang straight. The colony is kept in a small section by dividing boards, which are moved along the Hive as the colony increases in size.

The top bar Hive is a good choice for someone with mobility issues, as the most that has to be lifted is a ~2 kg top bar, as opposed to a ~45kg full super.



Flow Hive

A Flow Hive is based on a Langstroth Hive, but has the ability to extract Honey, without removing the frames from the Hive.

The frames contain a partially-formed plastic honeycomb lattice with vertical gaps. Bees fill in these gaps with beeswax and the cells with honey.

Note - This Hive design is Australian, and struggles to work well in Scotland due to a combination of the weather, Honey consistency and legislation difficulties for selling a food product that was bottled outwith a kitchen environment.



When the mechanism of the frames is activated, the vertical gaps are offset by one half of a cell, breaking the wax seal and allowing the honey to flow down through the cells into a channel at the base of each frame and out into a collection vessel.

The system is then reset and the bees remove the capping and refill the cells, beginning the process again.

The video below shows this process:-

Overview of Hive types