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 desired, this platform allows the hive to be suspended several meters in the air, reflecting the bees’ preference to live well above the ground; as shown by the research of Tom Seeley in the Arnot Forest. The entrance is in the centre of the base of the hive, and is annular. The top surface of the funnel shape provides a landing platform for bees entering and leaving the hive.

The upper part of the hive contains wooden arches. These taper to a fine edge on the lower side and it is from this point that the comb is built. Foundation or other comb guides are neither used nor needed.

The upper and lower sections of the hive can be independently removed. A waxed cloth (removed in the photo below) covers the arches in the upper section and prevents the colony attaching comb to the inner part of the upper skep. If the hive is accurately made and assembled, it reflects the catenary shape of natural comb and experience shows that the colony feels no need to attach its comb to the walls of the lower part of the hive. The arches themselves are removable, along with the attached comb.

Michael Joshin Thiele

This comb is being held by a bee inspector:

Readers who are thinking that removing such a comb requires care are correct, but it must be remembered that the design parameters of this hive intentionally place the convenience of the beekeeper in second place to the requirements of the Bee.

As mentioned, Tom Seeley showed that, in a hollow tree, comb is built from the top down. Exactly the same happens in the Sun Hive. The comb is built without the need for foundation, as is used in conventional hives. Honey is stored naturally at the top of the comb, above the brood. In the long combs of the Sun Hive, pollen is frequently stored in a ring that extends right around the central brood area, giving nurse bees easy access to it, wherever they are in the brood area. This contrasts with conventional hives, where pollen is generally stored in an arch above the brood area. The lowest part of the comb provides expansion room and is used for temporary nectar storage during times of high nectar flow. The Bee is thus able to grow downward in summer and to contract upward in winter, accessing stores that have already been warmed from the winter cluster below.

A central opening at the top of the hive gives access to an optional further skep, or box, that serves as a super for honey that can be harvested by the beekeeper. This super can also be used for housing a feeder in poor summers. The interior conditions of the hive are maintained entirely by the Bee itself with no interference by the beekeeper. There is no queen excluder, open mesh floor or other mechanisms that are present in more conventional hives. Although the hive can be treated for varroa through the top opening, experience indicates that this is often not needed, as the Bee naturally maintains its internal conditions such that varroa is kept at low levels.

Objections are often raised that the Sun Hive lacks practicality. It is true that, in comparison with other hive types, the Sun Hive would be less convenient for the beekeeper who wishes constantly to open his or her hives by way of management, but convenience of intrusive ‘management’ by the beekeeper is not the primary consideration behind this hive. Rather, from the perspective of the bees, one can see it as an archetypal hive against which one can compare other hive types in terms their bee-appropriateness.

The Warré Hive

The Warré hive was developed by a French abbot of the same name after experimenting with hundreds of hive types in the early part of the 20th century. Intended as a hive that is both bee-friendly and simple to construct and use, the Warré hive has many of the attributes that occur in the Sun Hive. True, it departs from the egg-shaped, rounded, aspect of the Sun Hive, but it still affords the bees the freedom to build vertically in a relatively unconstrained manner without the use of frames, foundation, queen excluders and the like. New boxes are placed underneath existing boxes. This is referred to as ‘nadiring’ in contrast to the ‘supering’ of conventional hives. Hives can be nadired with as many boxes as needed, so the Bee can expand downward, as it does in nature. Surplus honey can be harvested from the topmost boxes.

David Heaf

Comb is built from top bars placed in each box and these are furnished with comb guides. These may be strips of wood on the underside of the bars or some form of wax starter strip. The sides of combs are often partially attached to the inside of the box, reflecting the observations of Seeley and Morse that bees do this in hollow trees (The Nest of the Honeybee, 1976). This is a noticeable difference from the Sun Hive where the lower part of the combs is rarely attached to the hive body. A specially developed long bladed Warré knife is used to cut these attachments when necessary.

The top bars in the uppermost box are covered with a cloth and the hive is topped with a ‘quilt’ – a box filled with wood shavings or similar. Warré hives are often used without an open mesh floor. Combined with the quilt, this arrangement gives plenty of thermal insulation and aids the retention of nest heat and scent. The quilt allows respiratory moisture to move upwards and away from the brood nest, particularly in early spring. The top cloth is often heavily propolised. The use of propolis in this manner and the general characteristics of the hive appear to contribute to bee health. Many Warré beekeepers in the UK find it unnecessary to treat their bees for varroa.

Although not used as extensively as conventional hives, the Warré finds popularity with many natural beekeepers. There are commercial Warré beekeepers in its home country of France and in North America.

Horizontal Top Bar Hives

Various horizontal top bar hives have been developed over the years. They are often promoted as avoiding the lifting necessitated by vertical hives. This, however, is a beekeeper advantage and here we are looking at the balance of advantages and disadvantages from the viewpoint of the bees.