How Does A Beehive Work?
Beehives and the bees themselves have a lot in common, we pretty much know how bees work but how does a beehive work? As each bee type has a single purpose and goal, so does a beehive. The social structure of a colony is layered with the intention of producing honey, as is a beehive. The hive itself and its bee community will change and evolve with the season. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Here we’ll look inside a beehive to see how it works and explain the exact function and role each layer of the hive has.
We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up the hive.
We’ll deal exclusively with a Langstroth style hive and assume the hive is in its complete state – in peak honey season. Some parts will need to be removed for the winter, check out our guide to winterizing bees here.
How does a beehive work with a hive stand?
Generally an afterthought, a hive stand of some sort is a necessity. Bees don’t live on the ground in nature, they’ll find an elevated place. Hive stands raise the hive from the wet ground and is conducive to a happy hive for a multitude of reasons:
- Discourages the development of mold and fungus. This is especially important to reduce the likelihood of ground-based parasites such as nosema apis.
- Predator resistance. Get clued up on the predators in your region before deciding on a stand type.
- Ventilation and humidity control within the hive.
- Longevity of your hive.
- Ease of human and bee access to the hive. Good for us because those full boxes can be pretty hefty. Good for the bees as they definitely do not want their access point to be obstructed by grass or vegetation.
Bee hive stands need to be tough. Complete and full, hives can weigh upwards of 200 pounds. Also, make sure you don’t jack it up so high you need a ladder to inspect your hive. In addition to this, make sure your hive is slightly tilted forwards to assist drainage of rainwater. Cinderblocks and bricks are popular with the backyard keeper though be sure your hive is stable and that you can strap it down if need be. Some high quality commercially made stands are available. These will last many a season and give you some peace of mind that they are built for purpose.
How does the bottom board work inside a beehive?
Bottom boards come in three types: solid, ventilated and a combination of the two. A bottom board is an unheralded hero of the hive. Its primary functions are to provide an entrance and to assist with hive temperature control and ventilation. Bottom boards are key to understanding how does a beehive work. Go with a solid bottom board if you live in cooler climates where hive temperature management is a priority with your colony. Solid bottom boards have the advantage of keeping your hive warmer during early spring which may lead to earlier rearing of the brood. The jury is out as to whether the added darkness of a solid bottom board causes the queen to reproduce lower in the hive body.
Solid bottom boards aren’t without their drawbacks. The gathering of hive waste such as beeswax, pollen and propolis on the board can lead to complications with wax moths or small hive beetles. If you need to do a varroa mite check then the additional purchase of a sticky board with a screen like this from Mann Lake is required:
What Is A Slatted Rack And Do I Need One?
A slatted rack is installed between the lowest brood box and the bottom board. Generally, it is about two inches high with slats that run parallel to your brood box frames. Its purpose is to provide space in the climate controlled hive that is not required for brood or food. Sort of like a chill out room. This air space below the brood chamber can be effective in regulating hive temperature in both winter and summer. If you live in an area that gets stupid hot or stupid cold then your bees can gain some benefit from a slatted rack. If your hives are frequently bearded up with bees that are trying to cool off, then yes, this can work for you.
What is a Lower Deep?
This is the lower box which is the building block of the beehive. Here workers, drones, and new queens are raised in cells that are located on the brood frames. This is where the real action happens and this is how a beehive works. Inside the brood chamber, the queen will lay eggs in the hexagonal cells, and the worker bees will feed and attend these eggs until their emergence. The worker bees will feed the newly hatched eggs with royal jelly from the beehive for three days, then nectar or diluted honey. The bee larvae then eat their way through the royal jelly until its cell becomes crowned.
You may wish to add a brood box and run two, especially with the approaching winter. This is beneficial to colonies in cold climates. Do this when your initial brood box is becoming overpopulated. These two from Langsthroth and BeeCastle box are ready to go:
How does a beehive work with beehive frames?
Frames are used by bees to rear their brood and store their food. They are placed in the brood chamber and the supers. Frames are usually constructed from pine though plastic frames are gaining in popularity due to their longevity. Frames come in two main types – foundation frames or foundationless frames.
Frames with manmade foundation are the way to go for beginners. The foundation is pre-made and generally coated with a wax to get the ball rolling quicker. You do have the option of coating your foundation yourself with wax, some beekeepers have issues with the materials used to wax the cells. These Mann Lake frames are a winner:
Once you are completely familiar with how a beehive works you can consider going foundationless. This allows the bees to build their brood or food in their own way. This is the way nature intended. Your bees will only produce as much comb as they need – this can be beneficial for pest control as there’s no unused cells to tend. You do have the possibility of ‘cross comb’ where the bees don’t build their cells straight, another management issue. Also, your combs are at risk of detaching during harvest, disaster!
How does a beehive work with a Queen Excluder?
A queen excluder is a plastic or metal barrier placed above the brood chamber and below the upper supers. It is a mesh type product that allows passage between the lower and upper supers for workers and drones but denies access to the queen. She is simply too large to fit through the mesh.
Debate rages as to the effectiveness of excluders. Defenders claim that their hive is easier to manage, the queen is easier to identify, population control and possible varroa mite management advantages. Conversely, haters claim that queen excluders are not natural, drone access may be limited, wing damage and the possibility of a honeybound brood are reasons to stay away. If you decide that a queen excluder is for you, this Mann Lake product is the best:
How does a honey super work in a Beehive?
The upper supers with full frames of honey and are extra food storage boxes. These are added and taken away as the honey comes and goes. This is where the gold is stored! This is your honey; this is your harvest. The dimensions of the upper supers are identical to the lower sections. The size in terms of their depth is the only variable. Some beekeepers prefer shallow supers (5 ¾ inches) because they are lighter and easy to manage in the harvesting process. Other beekeepers go for a medium super (6 inches) because they hold more honey and they can manage the extra weight.
How does the inner cover on a beehive work?
The inner cover is placed on top of the upper super and below the outer cover. It is a shallow tray with a ventilation hole cut in the centre. Its job is to provide some sort of seal over the colony. Depending on your situation you may wish to cut more insulation holes in the inner cover to improve ventilation. Screened inner covers are popular and provide (sometimes too much) excellent ventilation. Remove the inner cover if you are using a hive-top feeder.
What does the outer cover of a beehive do and how does it work in a beehive?
The outer cover is the primary defense your hive has against rain. Wet hives are no good, ensure your outer cover does its job of being waterproof. Outer covers are generally constructed of wood with a steel or aluminum sheath to protect against the elements.
That’s a wrap!
There’s a whole more to know to answer the question “How does a beehive work” but this is a pretty good start. Get yourself into beekeeping, kick off your journey with a good quality budget hive. Check our reviews here of the best of the beeehives under $200 – great for a beginner.