Hive Design and the Honey Bee

The bee is more honoured than other animals, not because she labours,
but because she labours for others.
St John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, d.407

What is in a design? Why do hives differ so much? Which hive is best?

Choosing the best hive for your bees doesn’t need to be complicated. Once people began to keep bees, diverging from gathering the honey of feral hives, their homes have varied from hollowed logs, straw baskets, ceramic pots to wooden boxes of various size, shape and colour, and even plastic.

“Bees don’t give a stuff!” Dr. Doug Somerville, technical specialist for honey bees NSW DPI, said when discussing variations in hive design, “it’s not about the bees any more, but the beekeeper.”

Hive designs have morphed and developed over time allowing for variations in climate, cultural interpretations and personal preferences. At the very least, hives need to provide a place of comfort and warmth, protect bees from the elements through the changing seasons, allow easy access, and provide a way for the beekeeper to enter and inspect them periodically, as required by law. The rest, really, is aesthetics.

There are a number of diverging opinions. People can discuss and argue over preferences, it is not my intention to create strife or division, but add to the discourse. I don’t think we, as a diverse community of beekeepers, can hold that one type of hive is an end-all solution for us, or the bees.

Even Abbé Émile Warré discusses in his manual, Beekeeping For All, that life is very short and it will be very difficult to reach a conclusion as to which hive is the best system. Furthermore, every hive has its enthusiasts, so objectivity itself has its own problems. It is true, by experience, we can all learn about systems that are easier to work and systems that are more productive. This applies to management strategies as well. Some are more efficient for production and some are better for building resilient bees as evidenced by scientific research.

I think as people of permaculture principles, we have to look at how feral hives are in nature, but still be able to fulfil the requirements of the law and uphold the responsibility of the beekeeper. Additionally, the beekeeper needs to be able to interact with the hive comfortably. In other words, things have to be put in perspective and it’s not only the bees involved. If one type of hive facilitates better, more responsible beekeeping for bees and the beekeeper, then that should be the preferred option.

Hive design should enable one to manage bees efficiently and facilitate enjoyment of the beekeeper and the bees. One of the most elegant, simple, practical and easily manageable hives that I have seen available is the People’s Hive of Émile Warré. Because I have mentioned some of the variations earlier here, such as horizontal top-bar hives, it is only befitting to acknowledge other popular systems. The People’s Hive being a vertical top-bar hive system, requires some periodic lifting, but is great because of its ability to expand its capacity. The boxes are small enough to still be manageable when full of capped honeycomb and large enough to give the bees time to fill the space. Also, the simple construction is a basic rebated box and shouldn’t deter the home hobbyist from attempting its assembly. This particular system has grown in popularity around the world, especially in Natural Beekeeping circles.

Design is not the only factor for healthy, productive, energetic bees. There needs to be sufficient diversity in nectar and pollen sources to maintain the colony throughout the year as well as access to clean water, what Dr. Somerville calls the “Golden Rules.” Along with this is the safety of those in close proximity and keeping the hive free of pest and disease, all being the onus of the beekeeper.

One point that I would like to make, is that natural beekeeping is more related to the management of the beekeeper than a hive design. Although the design can be relevant to how the bees get along inside it, and facilitate management for the beekeeper, it is again, subject to interpretation. The beekeeper can decide whether to use chemical treatments, if any, how often to check the inside of the hive, to let the bees build in frames or top-bars, what to feed the bees and when, whether to requeen and from where, again, all being variables of a beekeeper’s personal management style, independent of the type of hive. If someone uses a hive design and management system that better facilitates their enjoyment with the bees, chances are the bees will too, have more enjoyment. Ultimately, the choice is yours.

Natural systems are phenomena of tangible examples unfolding around us, overlapping, interdependent and interwoven with our own existence. For us, as practitioners of natural or ethical systems, we must have an eye for observation and a mind for comprehension of the intricate relationships interacting before us. The hope is to be able to create benefit for these systems and all the intricate parts that they are connected to. Whether it is the soil, the plants, the insects or humankind.

For further discussion about hive building or ethical beekeeping check out the upcoming Permaculture Sydney Institute course here.

Find us:
HoneyCulture on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



8 thoughts on “Hive Design and the Honey Bee

  1. Interesting article. Even in the cool south eastern corner of Australia, the bees will forage on warm sunny winter days. If the sun is shining strongly enough they will appear in considerable numbers. It is really important to have flowering plants for the bees all year around and even now in the middle of winter there is plenty of pollen for them to forage here. Like everything else though, a diversity of plants is the key and European honeybees may actually run their stores down low and/or starve if they don’t have that diversity of plant life. Regards. Chris

  2. I think you are right Danielle. I’ve gone the Western version of the Kenya Top bar hive. If managed correctly, the bees will build free comb onto the top bars, thus making them removable, if you need to. The design makes it very unobtrusive to the hive body as you aren’t separating large sections of the hive if you need to open up. This is the only type of hive I’ve had experience with in my 3 years of having a hive. Here are some pictures from over the years using a Kenya Top Bar hive if you are interested.

  3. It’s less about the box than what you put in the box. Basically, if Nature doesn’t put it in the box, neither should you. Not only does that mean no chemicals but also no essential oils, no sugar water, no foundation. Let the bees do what the bees do naturally.

    BTW, periodic lifting doesn’t really describe what is involved. Box 1 and 2 when full of honey will weigh more that 60 lbs each. A horizontal top bar such as a Kenyan or Tanzanian involves no lifting. If you look at the spaces that feral bees occupy, it seems clear that they have no preference for vertical or horizontal – just dry.

  4. You’re correct, Danielle, we have something called the Apiaries Act of NSW ( which states that all beekeepers must be registered with the state and that hives must have removable frames. This can be a problem in natural comb systems, but through adaptations of the system, e.g. frames with side bars or dowels, the comb can be removed easier.
    Thanks Chris, the excessive sunshine can be deceiving, but good thing, in most urban areas of Sydney, we have a steady if not strong nectar flow.
    And DeepGreenGrennie, I’m not sure what you mean by “neither should you,” it sounds like a Perone management idea, or only catching prime swarms, against buying nucs or transferring bees into an empty box. I don’t think we are in a situation, with the global loss of honey bee diversity and depletion of feral as well as managed colonies en masse, that affords us the comfort of leaving bees alone until they “show up” in one of my boxes. But then again, I have my own opinion and ideas. As for the “periodic lifting,” I meant once (according to Emile Warre in French climate conditions) possibly twice in a year. Yes, it’s true, the boxes can be over 60lbs and horizontal top-bar hives are free of this. Which is why not every system is for everyone. But thank you for your comment.

    [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *