Anatomy of a Beehive

We have been staying busy over here throughout the past few weeks. Our garden is completely planted and the greenhouse is almost empty besides a few straggler pepper plants that will find their way into containers in the coming weeks. We also dismantled our old garden trellis and built a whole new one that is not only much sturdier, but much more attractive. We even had our first harvest of our 2021 garden: a small bowl of peas! The peas are all going strong and there are tons of tiny peas that will be ready for harvest within the next week or so. Everything else is growing right along, and the garden and all of our raised beds will be booming by the end of this month. It’s been three months of intensive gardening between soil blocking, seed starting, garden prep, and transplanting, but seeing our garden with all of the beds planted is quite a satisfying feeling. Now we enter the maintenance phase until our crops start coming in. 

We have also been spending lots of time preparing for the arrival of our new packages of bees. As mentioned in a previous post, we lost both of our beehives last fall, so we have been without bees since November. At first we were really disappointed, but the loss of our bees allowed us to move the location of our apiary to a much better spot for the bees and for us. One of the biggest mistakes we made as beginner beekeepers was positioning our hives about six feet from our garden – a location that was way too close to our daily foot traffic. An improper hive location mixed with some other beginner beekeeping mistakes (that we will go over in a future blog post) led to angry bees, frequent stings, and disgruntled beekeepers. We have since moved our apiary to a small cleared area of woods on the back edge of our yard where the woodline begins. We had started clearing this area in the past for a few other potential ideas, but we never ended up doing anything back there. When we got the opportunity to find a different location for the apiary, we both agreed right away that the little area in the woods would be the perfect spot.

Although the wooded area was already somewhat cleared, over the past few weeks we have been doing more intensive clearing, burning brush piles, mowing, tilling up the ground, and broadcasting a mass amount of wildflower seeds that will hopefully grow and inhabit the soil for years to come. We heard from our bee guy a few days ago, and we will tentatively be picking up our packages on Friday evening with plans to install them on Saturday morning, weather permitting. I figured since we will be actively keeping bees again as of next week, it would be a good idea to do a short lesson on the anatomy of a beehive so that all of the non-beekeeping folks who follow along with us can actually understand some of what we are talking about. So let’s dive right in!

The first thing you need to know is that there are many ways to accomplish everything when it comes to beekeeping, and the hives are no exception. There are a handful of different types of hives that allow people to keep bees, and the most common and user friendly hive is called a Langstroth hive. All three of our hives are langstroth hives, so to keep this short and sweet, our anatomy lesson will solely discuss the specific parts of a Langstroth hive. The first element of the hive configuration is not actually a part of the hive itself, but is equally as important: the hive stand. A hive stand can be anything from some cinder blocks to a fancy plastic prefab stand ordered from a beekeeping company. The goal is to have something to rest the hives on so that they are off of the ground as well as to provide some sort of ventilation and insulation. Our hive stands are made from a flat piece of wood with holes drilled in the middle to aid with ventilation. The flat piece of wood is attached to a post that has been secured into the ground with concrete. The hive stands are tilted slightly forward to aid in drainage in case any water gets into the hives during inclement weather. 

The first actual part of the hive itself that sits on the hive stand is the bottom board. The bottom board forms the floor of the beehive and provides a single point for bees to enter and exit the hive. Like everything in beekeeping, there are two different kinds of bottom boards to choose from: a solid bottom board or a screened bottom board. The difference between the two lies in their respective names – the solid bottom board is made from a piece of solid wood, and the screened bottom board simply has a screen on the bottom. We chose to go with screened bottom boards for our hives to aid in ventilation and pest management. Using a screened bottom board will help to control the infamous varroa mites by allowing displaced mites to fall through the holes in the screen rendering them unable to return to the hive.

The next component of the hive is the first hive box, better known as a super. Deep supers (also known as hive bodies) are large sized hive boxes that are the largest components of the hive. In a typical hive configuration using deep supers, two deep supers will be stacked on top of each other to make up the brood chamber (baby bee nursery). The two deep supers are typically where the queen will lay her eggs and where workers store pollen and honey for food. Each deep super has enough space to house over 50,000 bees. The second type of supers found in a langstroth hive are referred to as honey supers. Honey supers are smaller hive boxes that hold the frames where the bees store the majority of their surplus honey. It is from these boxes that beekeepers harvest honey from the hives. Honey supers come in different sizes, but are always smaller than deep supers. It is recommended to use honey supers, or “medium” supers, for honey because frames full of honey are very heavy and even medium supers can be hard to lift when they are full. Although a common configuration of a hive is two deep supers on the bottom with numerous medium honey supers stacked on top, medium honey supers can also be used for the entire Langstroth hive. In this configuration, the beekeeper must allow three medium supers worth of space for the brood chamber and the bees’ essential food stores. We chose to go with all medium supers for our hive configurations because the mediums are easier to pick up and move when they are full (deep supers can weigh up to 100 pounds when full!), and this also allows us to completely interchange and mix and match all of our equipment. 

Each super – deep and medium alike – houses either eight or ten removable frames which serve as the heart of the hive. Frames are made from wood, plastic, or a combination of both, and they typically have a foundation of hexagons made from plastic or wax in the middle. The bees use the foundation as a model to build their wax onto. Frames come in different sizes to fit the super that is being used, and frames for deep supers will be larger than frames for medium supers. Supers also come in 10-frame or 8-frame sizes, so depending on the specific capacity, each super will house either eight or ten frames at all times. We use wood frames with black plastic foundation because the plastic foundation holds up better against pests and it is easier for us to spot eggs against a black background when we are doing our inspections.  

Placed at the front of the hive between the screened bottom board and the first super is a small piece of wood referred to as the entrance reducer. An entrance reducer is used to protect a small or unestablished colony from honey thieves that come in the form of wasps and other bugs, or even small rodents. The entrance reducer does exactly what its name states – it reduces the size of the hive entrance. The entrance reducer limits access to the hive and helps control ventilation and hive temperature in the cooler months. It is placed loosely at the hive’s entrance until the colony is of substantial size and has enough guard bees to defend the entire entrance of the hive. It is common practice for beekeepers to put entrance reducers on their hives over the winter to help regulate the hive temperature as well. The next part of the hive is the inner cover. The inner cover is a wooden cover that goes on top of the uppermost super, and it provides the proper amount of working space and ventilation that bees need. It has an entrance hole or notch to the outside as well as a hole in the middle.

The next part of the hive is the inner cover. The inner cover is a wooden cover that goes on top of the uppermost super, and it provides the proper amount of working space and ventilation that bees need. It has an entrance hole or notch to the outside as well as a hole in the middle. The inner cover sits just underneath the final layer of the hive: the outer cover. There are a plethora of different outer cover types, but the most common is a telescoping cover. Telescoping outer covers fit over the inner cover and have sides that hang down over the topmost super to protect the colony from inclement weather just like the roof on a house. Many outer covers are made with galvanized metal for weather resistance and overall longevity. Outer covers range from simple to fancy, and it is the beekeeper’s personal preference which style they decide to go with. We chose A frame covers just to give our hives a little extra curb appeal. 

And there you have it! A crash course on the basic anatomy of a Langstroth honey bee hive. We hope that this has been helpful to anyone following along that is new to or interested in bees. If you’re interested in becoming a beekeeper, please reach out to us! We would love to share some of the mistakes we’ve made and things we’ve learned along the way to help you get started.  We will be sure to post another update once we install our packages – hopefully next weekend. We are in the midst of a nectar flow right now between the honeysuckle blooming as well as some mystery trees that are all over our property that have thousands of tiny white flowers that smell heavenly. We are crossing our fingers that the flow lasts at least until next weekend when our bees arrive. To bee continued! 


Beekeeping for Dummies

Beverly Bees

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