Hives for Bees: Seeking balance

Choosing a hive can be very confusing for beginners. The many different hives available are presented according to their usefulness to the beekeeper and one is left to choose between them. Faced with such a choice, it is tempting to conclude that, from the point of view of the bees, all hives are the same or, to put it another way, any hive will do. This attitude is widespread, even among some who style themselves natural beekeepers or those who adopt a so-called balanced approach to beekeeping. The latter label prompts the question: whose balance? One can be forgiven for concluding that the ‘balance’ in question refers only to the beekeeper. This article asks where the balance lies in terms of the bees: a question that perhaps should no longer be ignored in a world where bees are under increasing stress.

To be bee-centred rather than man-centred means setting aside the desires of the beekeeper and asking: what would be the form of a hive designed by the bees themselves? Of course, since we are not bees, we can never truly answer that question, but we can at least try. Having tried, we can then explore what compromises we are asking of the bees when we place them in man-made hives. We can begin to explore the balance between the needs of the bees and the needs of the beekeeper. Different beekeepers will come to different conclusions as regards this balance. Some will wish to have hives that are fully bee-centred. Others will wish to have hives that allow them to satisfy their desire to harvest at least a modicum of honey whilst still maintaining a bee-friendly design.

Before we address the question of what constitutes a bee-friendly design, we must consider, at least briefly, the nature of the organism itself: the bee. For Victorians, whose designs dominate conventional beehives, there was a simple answer: bees are insects. From this it followed that a bee colony is a group, albeit a large one, of such insects, living in a box. Modern biologists, however, tell a very different story. Researchers such as Jürgen Tautz (‘The Buzz About Bees’) see the whole bee colony, both the bees and the comb, as a single organism – sometimes termed a superorganism. The term ‘Bee’, with a capital ‘B’, is sometimes used to describe this whole organism and to distinguish it from the individual bees that, along with the comb are a part of it. Tautz describes this organism, the Bee, as a quasi-mammal. It maintains its body heat independently of the external temperature and rears its young internally – the classic signifiers of a mammal. When looked at in this way, the Bee, taken as a whole, is strikingly different from a box of cold-blooded insects.

We can now turn to the question of what sort of home this organism would build if it could. Seeking out bee colonies in hollow trees or wall cavities does not give the answer, as these spaces impose physical constraints upon the architecture of the colony. Occasionally, however, bees create a colony that is almost free of constraint, attached only at the top to a branch, the roof of a cave or the inside of a man-made space.

While the comb that hangs from the supporting branch or roof follows a catenary curve that is familiar to beekeepers who do not use foundation in their hives, the upper part follows the profile of the branch or other surface to which it is attached. On occasion, however, the bees build comb from a thin branch or two and incorporate these into the body of the comb. Such examples show us what an unconstrained example of an entire bee colony, the Bee, looks like. We see that the Bee is egg-shaped. Here is particularly good example:

The Sun Hive

Some decades ago, walking in the forest near his home, the German beekeeper and sculptor, Günther Mancke came across such a bee colony. The egg shape was emphasized by the fact that this colony, this Bee, had coated itself in a skin of wax and propolis. Here is the drawing Günther made:

Günther had spent his life studying the relationship between form and function in natural structures. He was so taken by this extraordinary demonstration of the normally obscured body of the Bee that he set about designing a hive based on what he had seen. Thus was born what is now known as the Sun Hive.

Heidi Herrmann

As can be seen, this hive reflects exactly the shape of an unconstrained bee colony. The hive is woven from straw in the manner of a skep, or, more correctly, two skeps, one inverted below the other, joined at a central wooden platform. If