A Beginners Guide to Essential BeeKeeping Equipment

When it comes to housing your honey bees there are a bewildering variety of choices to make…

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

How to Make a Simple Robber Screen

 

This article has been previously published but contains seasonally relevant information.

As the nectar flows taper off at this time of year robbing sets in.   If you only have one hive and you know that there are no others nearby then you don’t need to worry about robbing – but the rest of us do.  Robbing is especially a problem when you have strong hives near small, weak or queenless hives – such as splits or mating nucs.  Especially if you are feeding those weaker hives.  There are lots of ways to manage robbing, but in my opinion, except for robber screens they all just nibble around the edges of the problem.  Robber screens work when nothing else will.  Even so, robber screens work much better if deployed before robbing sets in, so don’t wait.  BTW, if you want to you can leave robber screens on all year long – they won’t hinder a strong hive from making a honey crop, and they make excellent mouse guards in winter.

You may not realize that when nectar forage gets scarce robbing goes on all the time – it is stealthy and at a low level most of the time.  It only turns into the classic robbing frenzy under certain conditions – but even the stealth robbing that is much harder to spot can starve a nuc to death and add unnecessary stress to any hive.  I am convinced that it is a much bigger issue than most people think it is – and often why one hive does so well (expert thieves) and another fails to thrive (docile victims) – and is almost inevitable if you have Italian bees (notorious for robbing) in the same yard as Carniolians (famously docile.)

Robber screens work by separating the entrance to the hive from the smell which comes out of it – and since robbers find the entrance by homing in on the smell they go to the wrong place and are kept out by the screen, even though they can smell it.  The home bees will always be confused when you first add a robber screen (unless you do it when you first establish a hive in a new location) but they will figure it out if you give them about a week.  For a few days they will look pretty pathetic, so just try not to look.

Get Started Building a Robber Screen

As woodworking projects go they don’t get much easier than this – almost anyone should be able to build a robber screen like this with a bare minimum of tools.  A hammer and nails, any kind of saw, and a stapler are really all you need.

You can use pretty much any kind of scrap lumber for robber screens, but if you only have hand tools 1×2 furring strips ($3.14 / 8′)  from Lowe’s are really easy to work with.

A robber screen only has 2 critical dimensions – the width…

A robber screen needs to fit fairly tight between the sides of the bottom board – in this example that is about 12 5/16″ but yours will almost certainly differ.

and the height…

A robber screen needs to be lower than the bottom edge of the lid on a single box hive – or the hand hold cleat on a homemade hive body. In this example 5 -5 1/4″ would be about right.
Robber screens can be fitted to any size hive. In this picture the actual entrance is a round hole, and the home bees go in and out over the top of the screen. The bees on the outside of the screen near the entrance hole are robbers.

You don’t even need a tape measure you can just hold your material up to a hive and mark it…

These dimensions will vary depending on what size equipment you have.  Cut two sticks to your width, and 2 sticks the height that you want your screen to be.  You want to be able to use your screen on a single hive body – and don’t forget to take into account cleats that may be on home made hive bodies – your bees will go in and out over the top of the screen so give them enough room for that.  In other words, make them at least 1/2″ short of the lid or cleats when used with a single hive body.

Now that you have your sticks cut to length you will need a piece of screen – I am using aluminum screen wire for this example because it is easy to get and easy to cut with plain old scissors.  Hardware cloth or any kind of mesh will work as long as bees can’t go through it.  Cut your screen a little bit smaller than the finished size of your robber screen.

Staple the screen to one of the long sticks…

Use the side sticks to get the other long stick in position and staple the screen to it.  Now attach the sides.  A dab of exterior grade wood glue will make it more durable, but is not at all required…

Drive only one nail in each corner, and then check the frame for square…

Then finish nailing the corners and stapling the screen.  I suggest that you go ahead and drill two holes (if you have a drill) in the sides so that you can attach your screen with screws if needed…

And that is all there is to it.  Now you can get all the way through until winter without worrying about robbing.

 

Be Careful with your Queen Excluder

Almost every beginning beekeeper has a queen excluder that came with a kit – and almost everyone is anxious to deploy it so that they can get a super or two of nice pristine honey without any brood to worry about. To everything there is a season, and your first year with bees is not the time to use your excluder – at least not like that.

Every year I get a question or run across someone who is wondering why their bees won’t go through their queen excluder – to get to the super of bare foundation sitting on top. Well the short answer is that they probably never will.

Almost every beginning beekeeper has a queen excluder that came with a kit – and almost everyone is anxious to deploy it so that they can get a super or two of nice pristine honey without any brood to worry about.  To everything there is a season, and your first year with bees is not the time to use your excluder – at least not like that.

Every year I get a question or run across someone who is wondering why their bees won’t go through their queen excluder – to get to the super of bare foundation sitting on top.   Well the short answer is that they probably never will.   Bees don’t really like to go through a queen excluder anyway, but if there isn’t anything above it that they want (bare foundation) then they almost surely won’t – unless the hive is absolutely cram packed with bees, in which case they are more likely to swarm than to go through an excluder to get to foundation.

As a general rule don’t use a queen excluder until after you have enough comb drawn out to fill your brood boxes and at least 1 honey super.  Then you can put the excluder between the brood chamber and the honey supers – with drawn comb in them – and the bees are much more likely to co-operate.   Although even then they make the hive more likely to swarm.

If you do want to use them so that you don’t have brood in your honey supers you can wait until most of the honey flow is over to add the excluder – say around May 20 or so, after the poplar and locust bloom are about over. Then any brood above it will emerge and the comb will get back filled with honey. As long as you get the queen below it that is.

If you use a queen excluder during the honey flow it will be more work to keep your bees from swarming. But it will also make it so that you have fewer boxes to inspect for queen cells.

It seems that a lot of hobby bee keepers don’t use them anymore – but commercial honey producers mostly do – I think.  If you use an excluder it won’t really make your bees produce less honey – not so you would notice anyway – but they may store more of it below the excluder therefore you won’t have to feed them as much.

As long as they are not out of room below they will be very reluctant to go through an excluder – which is kind of alright, because they will get the brood boxes fully stocked with honey before they go up into the supers.   Which is actually a good thing about the old tried and true method of using deep brood and shallow honey supers with an excluder always between them – if there is any honey in the supers that is yours, all honey below the excluder stays with the hive. It made it an easy call for new bee keepers and also results in pretty white honey combs that don’t have brood cocoons in them – for what that’s worth.

Queen excluders are just a tool, and like any tool can be useful if used correctly, but can be counterproductive if misused.   Because of this many people call them honey excluders, but research indicates that is not really the case.