When it comes to observation hives, as with most of beekeeping, there is no one correct or serve-all-purposes-hive for observation, just as there is no one 'right' way to manage a beehive – or even one correct beehive either. You can purchase good observation hives and stock them quickly. Some are expensive, others more portable. Some observation hives assemble and manage easily while others can cause more problems than the inexperienced beekeeping might care to handle, especially in stocking with bees.
An observation hive should be only a single comb wide to insure observability. It might be one to several combs high. If you desire a hive with parallel combs as bees construct their comb, you will be using an observational hive which still might serve your purposes. If you decide to build your hive, there are design plans that are available. The one feature in your construction you must not vary is bee space. The bees will 'convert' interiors lacking bee space making it less observable and more difficult to properly manage.
As a functional hive, observation hives should have a queen, a brood rearing area during the appropriate season, area for storage of some reserves if flower resources are available and it should be carrying on normal hive activities. An observational hive, in contrast, might not have all of these. Purpose and management capabilities, along with best location, will dictate the best size and specific location for an observation beehive. Generally larger hives make more of an impact but small or large, observation hives take beekeeper skill in proper management.
Common observation hive uses are as a curiosity in home or office, for teaching/display purposes in schools, nature centers or other appropriate public sites, for promotion/sales display outlets where bee and/or natural products are featured, for student research/observation projects and even for a small bit of honey. Some observation hives, especially smaller units (i.e. fewer combs), might be established for a short time period; others can be left season-long. Since smaller units often do not survive Winter cold or Summer heat, they will need to be reestablished or dismantled during such periods and are best maintained only for part of the time.
Common problems with observation hives are site and size related. We sometimes need an observation hive at a public site which is not the most ideal bee site. Cold-side of buildings, out-of-the-way places, sitting over heat registers or with sun streaming on them for part of the day/season are all more problematic and require more beekeeper attention. Small hives are always more difficult to manage simply because they are small. They frequently lack enough resources for the season, overcrowd their interior, and have greater difficulty in thermoregulation of the brood area to rear brood.
Any permanent observation hive should have a standard hive as backup for management purposes. Ideally the observation hive itself can be quickly closed, both confined itself and the entry/exit area closed, to permit removal. It is usually best to plan to remove the observation hive from its permanent position for manipulations to correct problems. If the area in front of the entry/exit area is available for manipulations you can do them at the permanent site; otherwise plan to move the unit to your apiary where you can do your manipulations and then return the hive once you have corrected the problem and bees are resettled.
introduction to observation beehives
Below we give an overview of different observation beehives (and the plans) suitable for a DIY-workshop.
At the end of this page some ideas from history, to feed your imagination…
In his life-work Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder describes the first observations on bees. He mentions beehives enhanced with parts of mica in the cork hives, in order to observe the working of the bees.
The Natural History (Naturalis Historia) is an encyclopedia published circa AD 77–79 by Pliny the Elder. It is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day and purports to cover the entire field of ancient knowledge, based on the best authorities available to Pliny. He claims to be the only Roman ever to have undertaken such a work. The work became a model for all later encyclopedias in terms of the breadth of subject matter examined, the need to reference original authors, and a comprehensive index list of the contents. It is the only work by Pliny to have survived and the last that he published, lacking a final revision at his sudden and unexpected death in the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius.
Around 1655, the famous english landscape architect John Evelyn describes in his Elysium Britannicum one of the first flat-glass observation beehives. The octagonal structure is made of wood and glass, has doors and windows that can be opened by hinges and locked with a key.
1772 Honey bees. Encyclopedie ou Dictionaire Raisonné Des Sciences (Denis Diderot).
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (English: Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts) was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. As of 1750, the full title was Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, mis en ordre par M. Diderot de l'Académie des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse, et quant à la partie mathématique, par M. d'Alembert de l'Académie royale des Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse et de la Société royale de Londres. The title page was amended as D'Alembert acquired more titles.
The Encyclopédie was an innovative encyclopedia in several respects. Among other things, it was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named contributors, and it was the first general encyclopedia to lavish attention on the mechanical arts. Still, the Encyclopédie is famous above all for representing the thought of the Enlightenment. According to Denis Diderot in the article “Encyclopédie”, the Encyclopédie's aim was “to change the way people think.” He wanted to incorporate all of the world's knowledge into the Encyclopédie and hoped that the text can disseminate all this information to the public and to future generations.
1641 Frontispiece woodcut from John Day's PARLIAMENT OF BEES.
The Parliament of Bees is a series of dialogues on the subject of “the doings, the births, the wars, the wooings” of bees. The bees hold a parliament under Prorex, the Master Bee, and various complaints are preferred against the humble-bee, the wasp, the drone and other offenders. This satirical allegory of affairs ends with a Royal Progress by Oberon, who distributes justice to all. The Parliament of Bees is the best-known of the works of the Elizabethan dramatist, John Day. It was probably written sometime between 1608 and 1616, but not published till 1641.
The Leaf Hive, invented in Switzerland in 1789 by Francis Huber, was a fully movable frame hive. The combs in this hive were examined like pages in a book. A.I. Root and E.R. Root credit Huber with inventing the first movable frame hive.
Huber's contribution was also acknowledged by Lorenzo Langstroth, inventor of the hive style that is most commonly used today:
“The use of the Huber hive had satisfied me, that with proper precautions the combs might be removed without enraging the bees, and that these insects were capable of being tamed to a surprising degree. Without knowledge of these facts, I should have regarded a hive permitting the removal of the combs, as quite too dangerous for practical use.” - L.L. Langstroth in Langstroth on the Honey-Bee, 1860.
The frame sides were 1 and 3/8 inch wide. The hive was secured with a cord.The closed-end frame hive had many good features of a movable-frame hive. The side bars of the frame (at right) also formed the walls of the hive. Some successful beekeepers were using this hive as late as the 1890's.
A book hive, consisting of twelve frames, all numbered, is represented fig. 2. Between 6 and 7 are two cases with lids, that divide the hive into two equal parts, and should only be used to separate the bees for forming an artificial swarm; a, two frames which shut up the two sides of the hive, have sliders, b. b.
The entrance appears at the bottom of each frame. All should be close but 1 and 12. However it is necessary that they should open at pleasure.
The hive is partly open, fig. 3. and shows how the component parts may be united by hinges, and open as the leaves of a book. The two covers closing up the sides, a. a
Fig. 4. is another view of fig. 1. a a. a piece of comb to guide the bees; b b. pegs disposed so as to retain the comb properly in the frame; c c. parts A. of two shelves; the one above is fixed, and keeps the comb in a vertical position; the under one, which is movable, supports it below.)
The leaf or book hive consists of twelve vertical frames or boxes, parallel to each other, and joined together. Fig. 1. the sides, f f. f g. should be twelve inches long (30 cm), and the cross spars, nine or ten (approximately 23 to 25 cm) the thickness of these spars an inch (2.5 cm), and their breadth fifteen lines (1 line=1/12th in. 15 lines=1 1/4 in.=32mm). It is necessary that this last measure should be accurate; a piece of comb which guides the bees in their work; d. a movable slider supporting the lower part; b b. pegs to keep the comb properly in the frame or box; four are in the opposite side; e e. pegs in the sides under the movable slider to support it.
Here is another one, found this hive on display in the historical collection of hives in Pau, La Cité des Abeilles, Saint-Faust
The bees enter and exit the hive though a clear 1” ID tube through the wall. While bees will travel though tubes many feet long, shorter is better. The tube on this hive is about 1 foot long and exits on the side of the house not frequented by people
Also visible in the above picture is the hinge by which the hive is attached to the wall. I used large hinges intended for use on heavy fence gates which allows the hive to fold back against the wall if needed and makes the hive relatively easy to move out of the house for maintenance. I also built a stand which allows the hive to be free standing so it can be shown at fairs or other venues.
The feeder is a simple design that allows sugar water to be changed without opening the hive and makes the jar secure so it can't be spilled. It is a slightly larger version of the one I used on a small single frame demonstration hive I use for demonstrations at schools. It is similar to the entrance feeder but doesn't have many of the problems the normal entrance feeder. (It is far from the true entrance so robbing isn't a problem and poor weather access is also not a problem.)
The hive is kept indoors all year long and the bees seem to do quite well in it. Surprisingly the warmth in the house doesn't confuse them and cause them to fly in weather too cold, or raise large amounts of brood during the winter.
and these are the plans to make the 8-frames observation hives yourself:
8-frames observation beehive
and these are the plans to make this flat observation hive yourself:
flat observation beehive
A top-bar hive has bars from which the honey bees attach and hang wax comb, an array of hexagonal (six sided) cells. Unlike the full four-sided frames used in a Langstroth hive, the comb on bars cannot be centrifuged to extract honey and then reused. This characteristic might lead to a lower production of honey, but the honey from clear yellow comb (comb that has not been used for brood) is of the highest quality and can be used as in-comb honey product, highly prized by some users in preference to liquid honey.
A beekeeper can make top bars from any plain wood. The top bars are usually 1¼ inches to 1⅜ inches (32–35 mm) wide, depending on local conditions and the type of bee to be housed. Combs can be handled individually. The depth of the bar and the length of the bar can be whatever the beekeeper wants, but usually between 17” and 20”. The hive body can be a long box, covered by a series of top bars.
design for topbars - waxpiece is set in the slit, bees are building the comb in a free way
It is important to give the bees a clear starting point to build comb on each top bar. Some TBH beekeepers fashion their top bars with a V-shaped bottom to guide the comb building.
Check here for the plans for building an Warré hive How to build a Warré Hive - further info: http://warre.biobees.com/plans.htm (The site is a sort of manual if you want to keep bees with the Warré method, it provides a lot of information on specific tools, plans for hives and even a life, and techniques for using the Warré hives. Also there you can download the e-book: Beekeeping for All by Abbé Émile Warré, written in 1948).
Here are a series of older hives, from the open air exhibition in Pau, La Cité des Abeilles, Saint-Faust (what is in a name…).
May it trigger your imagination…