A beehive intended for honey production usually consists of a stack of stout wooden boxes, approximately 45cm square. The lowest box, known as the ‘brood box’, is about 20cm deep, while the boxes higher up, called ‘supers’, are shallower and about 15cm deep. Within these boxes hang rectangular wooden frames in which the bees make their honeycomb, thousands of little hexagonal wax cells about 5mm across and about 11mm deep.
The brood box is where the queen lays her eggs, the grubs are raised and young bees hatch, while the supers are where the honey is stored. As the summer progresses and more and more honey is collected, the beekeeper will add more supers to the hive to give the bees more storage space. At the end of the season, a beehive may be 1.5 metres high, weigh around 40kg and contain about 25kg of honey.
In recent years, ecologically minded individuals and groups who are less concerned about honey production have started to use hives of a different design. Such hives are the horizontal top-bar hive, the Warré hive and the log hive.
The horizontal top-bar hive resembles a coffin! The tapered cross-section reflects the parabolic shape of combs built naturally by bees.
The Warré hive is similar to the traditional square hive, but the boxes are smaller and the hives tend to be taller than traditional hives. They use bars instead of complete frames to encourage the bees build their comb in a more natural way.
The log hive is simply a large hollowed-out log, fitted with a top and bottom, and with a few holes drilled through the log to allow bees to access the space inside. A log hive is the nearest thing to a natural hive. The Steeple Woodlands reserve has a log hive, made by one of the members. The volunteers installed it in a tree in the summer of 2019, and within a few weeks, a swarm of bees had occupied it.
Removing honey from these hives is more difficult than from a traditional hive. The traditional method is the put the frames into a centrifuge, either hand-operated or electric. Centrifugal action throws the honey out of the cells and it collects in the bottom of the extractor. Returning the empty comb to the hive allows the bees to clean it up and re-use it. These eco-friendly hives do not support the honeycomb to the same degree as traditional frames, and centrifuging them would just break the comb apart. Crushing the comb is the only way to extract the honey, which means that the beekeeper cannot return the comb to the hive and the bees have to make fresh comb.
We do not intend to take honey from the log hive, and will leave the bees to their own devices.
Looking after honeybees
The beekeeper must replenish the hive with sugar syrup after he has removed the honey otherwise the bees will starve during the winter. A thick syrup is made with white sugar dissolved in hot water in the ratio two parts sugar to one part water, and allowed to cool. It must be white sugar; brown sugar gives the bees dysentery. The beekeeper uses a special feeder tray to feed the syrup to the bees. It only allows the bees a very restricted access to the syrup and prevents thousands of them falling in and coming to a very sticky end.
During the winter months, the bees spend most of their time inside the hive. There is very little in flower so they cannot gather nectar, the weather is often cold and wet, and the queen has stopped laying eggs. The bees form a cluster on the honeycomb, and the cluster slowly moves across the combs, with the bees on the outside slowly changing places with those on the inside. The colder the weather, the tighter they cluster. They gradually consume the honey and pollen they stored over the summer. On warm sunny days, they will fly out to excrete the pollen residues that accumulate in their gut. People should not hang out their washing near beehives in the winter!