A Beginners Guide to Essential BeeKeeping Equipment

This post has been previously published on Cookevillebeekeepers.com but contains seasonally relevant information.

Honey bees are cavity nesters, and they will make their home inside of all kinds of things – hollow trees, walls, empty oil drums, water meter boxes – almost any enclosed space that they can get into.  And through history (and even today) people have used all kinds of bee hives.

However, in TN – and most other states – beekeepers are required to use hives that allow full inspections of the colony. “All hive equipment should be of the modern Langstroth type with hanging, movable frames…”  However, Mike Studer the TN state Apiarist says “Top bar hives are legal in Tennessee as long as you can remove the frames to inspect for pests and diseases. Actually, Honey bees can be kept in any type of structure or configuration as long as the frames can be removed for inspection…”

But, this article is only about Langstroth style equipment – the recommended type for new beekeepers.

A typical Langstroth hive

A typical Langstroth hive – note that the top super shows a special comb honey “Ross Round” frame – which is not all that typical.

Langstroth type hives – named for L.L. Langstroth the American clergyman who invented the design – are the box shaped hives that we are all familiar with.  The basic principal behind the design is that bees will fill up large spaces with comb, and small spaces with propolis, but will mostly not fill spaces that are just large enough for them to crawl through – between 1/4 and 3/8 of an inch.  So to prevent the bees from gluing everything together into a solid mass of wax and propolis the Langstroth hive is designed to maintain that “bee space” between all of the parts.  Some “burr comb” will still be deposited in places, and they will use propolis to glue everything together somewhat, but in general none of that will be too much of a problem in a properly designed hive that doesn’t violate bee space.

Hive Bodies and Supers

The standard Langstroth hive body will hold 10 frames of comb.  Some bee keepers are using 8 frame equipment because it is 20 percent lighter than equivalent 10 frame equipment, but most professional beekeepers use 10 frame equipment.  An extremely small number of beekeepers use hives that hold more than 10 frames.  Whatever you do it is highly recommended that you plan to stick with one configuration for the foreseeable future so that your equipment will be interchangeable as your apiary develops.

There are basically 3 standard depths for hive bodies – deep, medium and shallow.  In the past most beekeepers used “deeps” to contain the brood nest – the area where the queen lays eggs and brood develops – usually the boxes at the bottom of the stack.  And when it came time for the bees to store honey “shallows” were used as honey “supers” – super just means that you put it on top of the hive instead of on the bottom.  Mediums – sometimes referred to as “Illinois” – when used at all could be used for either brood or honey.  Some beekeepers with really strong backs – or hired help – use deeps for everything.  But be aware that a deep hive body full of honey can weigh almost 100 pounds, and can be on top of a stack higher than your head – most hobbyists don’t want to deal with that.

The different depths have corresponding non-interchangeable frame and foundation sizes.  The frames, foundation, and hive bodies all have to match and because of minor manufacturing differences it is recommended that you get all of these from the same supplier.

Keeping it Simple – All Mediums

In recent years there has been a trend for non-commercial beekeepers to use all medium depth hive bodies – for several reasons:

  • Standardization – having one size for everything makes it much easier to grow your apiary because drawn comb can be used for any purpose that you want, and you only have the one size for spares.
  • Weight – a 10 frame medium full of honey weighs about 55 pounds whereas a deep weighs more like 95.

These reasons are so compelling that many beekeepers are actually going to the trouble and expense of converting their equipment to all mediums.

Hive Body/Super – What’s the difference?

Until recently most bee keepers used 1-2 deep boxes and frames on the bottom of the stack for brood – the queen was kept in these lower boxes with a queen excluder.  These boxes would often be called brood boxes.  Then they would used shallow boxes above the queen excluder for the bees to store honey – that way there was never any brood in the honey boxes – these boxes were called supers or honey supers.  Super actually just means on top.

Any size box that you use below a queen excluder is a brood box, any box that is above an excluder is a honey super.  But “old timers”  (no offense) often are referring specifically to deeps and shallows when they use those terms.

Any box is a hive body.

Queen Excluders

A queen excluder is a device which has holes or slots in it which are large enough for worker bees to go through, but too small for a queen to go through.  The main purpose of an excluder is to keep the queen from laying eggs in honey supers.

Worker Bees don’t seem to like to go through an excluder unless they Really have to.  As long as there is any room at all left for them to work below the excluder they probably won’t go through one – especially if there is not any drawn comb on the other side.  In other words it’s hard to get them to build comb on the other side of a queen excluder – very hard if there isn’t ANY drawn comb already above the excluder.

Some people don’t use excluders, but just about all professional bee keepers do.  If it’s your first year keeping bees you probably don’t need to use an excluder because you won’t be making a lot of honey anyway. So for your first year a queen excluder is not essential.

Bottom Boards

The hive bodies sit directly on the bottom board which acts as the entrance for the bees. In the past solid bottom boards were standard equipment, but in recent years screened bottom boards have become very popular, because they improve ventilation and they allow varroa mites to fall through to the ground instead of staying in the hive to crawl back onto your bees.   If you use a screened bottom board you should get one which can be closed if needed – most can.

You will also need an entrance reducer/mouse guard to go with your bottom board.

Hive Covers

telescoping bee hive cover

Telescoping Cover

 

migratory bee hive cover

There are 2 popular styles of hive covers – “migratory” and “telescoping”.  Telescoping covers extend past and down onto the hive bodies on all four sides while migratory covers only overhang the hives on the front and back and are flush on the sides.  Telescoping covers are more secure from wind and rain, but migratory covers allow hives to be stacked tight together on the sides – a big plus if you are putting them on a truck to migrate to a pollination job.   Telescoping covers should used in conjunction with an inner cover or the bees will glue it on with propolis, and because there is no access for a hive tool it will be hard to pry off.  An inner cover is not really required if you use migratory covers.

Frames and Foundation

Remember that your frames and foundation must be the same size as the hive bodies that they are to go into.  There are basically 2 types of frames – wooden frames which have separate foundation, and one piece plastic all in one frame and foundation combo.  Some people love plastic frames and some people hate them.

If you use wooden frames you have 3 main choices in foundation – plastic, wax, and foundationless:

Plastic foundation is probably the easiest for the beekeeper to work with, but the least favorite of the bees.

Advantages of Plastic Foundation

  • It is easy to install and not at all fragile.
  • It is pretty much trouble free to extract.

Disadvantages of Plastic Foundation

  • It is the most expensive of all options, and while it doesn’t seem like all that much it adds up when you are growing your apiary and perhaps need to buy hundreds of pieces at a time.
  • Bees like it the least – nonetheless a strong hive with a good flow on will draw comb on it.
  • It is difficult to remove a queen cell from plastic without damaging it.

Advantages of Wax Foundation

  • It’s economical
  • It’s more readily accepted by the bees than plastic foundation.

Disadvantages of Wax Foundation

  • It can be relatively fragile when it is cold or until it is fully drawn into comb and attached by the bees.
  • The wax it is made of may contain trace amounts of agricultural chemicals or hive medications – The wax may have been produced in another country that allows the use of chemicals that are banned in the U.S.  This may have implications for bee health, or for the use of wax foundation in the production of comb honey.
  • It may need to be wired into frames – especially deep frames – for extra strength.
  • If wires are used they may interfere with removal (for use) of queen cells.
foundationless frame of honey bee brood

A medium frame of foundationless comb – click on the image (and use ctrl +) for a much more detailed view – the lower left area is capped brood, the white cells are open brood ready to be capped – the band of cells adjoining the brood are filled with pollen, and the upper right corner contains uncapped honey and a small patch of capped honey – notice that the comb is only minimally attached to the frame along the sides and bottom.

Foundationless is a more hands on option and not at all fool proof.  It is good for comb honey but may be tricky (at best) to extract – nonetheless when Langstroth designed his hive in 1852 there was no such thing as manufactured foundation, so for about 25 years it was the only way to go even for commercial beekeepers.

Advantages of Foundationless

  • Bees will build a natural comb size and will build drone comb as they need them. BTW drone brood comb is much bigger than worker brood comb, but both can also be used to store honey.
  • Because there are no wires it is very easy to cut out queen cells or to produce cut comb honey.
  • You know exactly where your wax came from.
  • Bees will very readily build foundationless comb because it is the natural way that they build.
  • You don’t have to buy or install foundation.
  • Any style of wooden frame can be used for foundationless with the simple addition of a comb guide to the top bar – a Popsicle stick for example.

Disadvantages of Foundationless

  • Comb will often be built crooked or not even in the frames especially if there isn’t any existing comb to guide the bees.  In most cases it is quite easy for the beekeeper to straighten out anything like this, but in other cases you might have to cut out badly built comb and tie it in to your frames.  Either way the bees will quickly fix up any damage caused by straightening.   It is rare for bees to  build between frames when foundation is used.
  • Foundationless comb might be tricky or difficult to extract honey from – it can be done, but some “blown out” comb is likely to happen.  This is not a problem for comb that will be used in the brood nest.
  • Bees will build drone comb where they want instead of where you want.

Recommendations

So, there are a lot of options to consider but after discussing this with the other association officers we are going to recommend that if you are just starting out you seriously consider using the following:

  • 10 frame medium depth equipment – 10 frame because it is the industry standard, medium depth because of the flexibility you get from using one size frame for all purposes.  If you planning to start with package bees you will (hopefully) need 3 or 4 medium depth hive bodies full of frames and foundation for each hive for your first year.
  • Wooden frames, and pre-wired wax foundation.
  • Wooden framed Screened Bottom Board with an option to easily close it off for cold weather or mite counts.
  • Wooden Telescoping outer cover and a wooden inner cover.

In other words something like this beginner kit  except with a wooden outer cover.

honey be hive kit

These are just our suggestions – by all means feel free to exercise your own judgment and get whatever you want, but this will serve you well for your first year of beekeeping.

In addition to woodenware you will also need at least a veil, gloves, a smoker and something to use as a hive tool – I like an old slot screwdriver with a bit of a hook bent in the end.  A full bee suit would be nice but in my opinion it’s not really necessary, however it will give you more confidence.

There’s all kinds of other paraphernalia that you will probably eventually try out or at least consider – feeders, slatted racks, queen excluders,  landing board/hive stands, pollen traps, nucleus hives, beetle traps, robber screens, swarm traps, queen rearing and marking equipment, honey extraction and packaging equipment – but trust me you won’t have to have any of that during your first year.

Resources

Hive Kits from Kelley Bees in Kentucky

Hive Kits from Mann Lake – Mann lake always has free shipping for orders over $100

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11 Responses to A Beginners Guide to Essential BeeKeeping Equipment

  1. Thomas Lakia says:

    I have gone to all plastic frames [like Pierco] and have never looked back.
    Durable in the extractor, and if the bees have no choice, they accept it readily.

  2. Pingback: Beginners Short Course | Cookeville BeeKeepers

  3. Linda Palmer says:

    I am trying to find an old type of frame that’s plastic and has two sides that snap together. If anyone can help me find a supplies i would love to order some. Thanks for your help.

  4. Pingback: Beginners Beekeeping » Blog Archive » A Beginners Guide to Essential BeeKeeping Equipment | Cookeville …

  5. Peggy Lynn Kilgore says:

    I used compressed cotton fiber smoker fuel from Brushy Mt. I could never get it lit, but once I did by the time I had finished working my bees the fuel was burning really well. The fuel that came with my English Garden Hive beginners kit was very easy to light, but later when I ordered the same fuel it was hard as a rock. I don’t plan to use it again. Thanks for the tip on the pine needles.
    Peggy Lynn

    • David LaFerney says:

      Maybe we can have a demo at a meeting on lighting a smoker so that it will make smoke and stay lit. My first summer it would either go out, or I couldn’t get very much smoke out of it until I was finished, then it would sit there and smoke away for a couple of hours before it went out.

      I use pine needles, and pages from an old phone book to get it going.

  6. Peggy Lynn Kilgore says:

    Foundation: plastic vs. wax. I need to buy foundation and would like some feedback on members’ experience using plastic or wax. I have bought both, but I installed the plastic too late in the season to see any results. The crimp wire foundation worked fine. The cut comb melted because I didn’t wire them. I really don’t want to wire the frames, so I think cut comb is out for me. Any ideas?
    Thanks,
    Peggy Lynn

  7. Peggy Lynn Kilgore says:

    I have a question about smoker fuel. I would like to try pine needles, but I have no experience using them. There is an available source near my house, so I can gather up as many as I need. But how do I use them, and how do I dry them out or do I need to. Any help would be appreciated.
    Thanks,
    Peggy Lynn

    • David LaFerney says:

      Gather them soon on a dry day, and store them in a dry place and by the time you need them they will be perfect. What did you use last year?

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