We take a glimpse inside the JBA bee hives

Have you ever wondered what goes on inside a bee hive? As our two new bee colonies continue to grow and thrive, we’ve been finding out a bit more about how bee hives work and how the design of a hive is vital to the health and well-being of a bee colony.

In this week’s blog our colleague and experienced beekeeper Andy Evans has been telling us about the history of the bee hive – and the fascinating and intricate daily workings of an active and healthy bee colony.

Our bees appear to be settling into their hives near our Broughton Park offices very nicely, which isn’t entirely surprising – hives are little marvels of animal husbandry, designed to be perfect spaces that balance the needs of bees and their human helpers. Bees generally do seem to like them!

A brief history of the bee hive

The National Hive design
A ‘National’ hive design

In nature, bees like ours will look for hollows in which to build their comb: the hanging wax curtains on which they live. For centuries humans encouraged them into ‘skeps’: the classic upturned straw basket hive you see on honey pots. The problem with these is that it was quite tricky to take out the comb with the honey on it, and generally the end result was a mix of honey, deceased bees and young bee grubs. Eventually, in the late 1700s to early 1800s, people started to think about how the process could be improved for both bees and humans. And in the 1850s Lorenzo Langstroth solidified all this research into what we know as the Langstroth hive, which is the basis of most of the hives beekeepers now use.

For our new colonies, we use the easy-to-deal-with ‘National’ hive design, rather than white ‘WBC’ hives with overlapping boards – which are probably what you think of when you think of beehives – but both are based on this early design.

How do they work?

If you’ve never seen inside a hive, you might imagine they’re just a simple box, but nothing could be further from the truth – a lot of thought and experiment went into designing them. From bottom to top, they’re made up of:

  • A floor: our floors include easily removable trays, which are useful for checking if the bees have any diseases – stuff tends to drop out of the hive onto the tray where you can spot it. The floor also has an entrance gap for the bees to come in and out of and which you can resize with a wooden block, for example, to keep out predators. 
  • A brood box: this is where the queen bee lives and lays her eggs. This contains hanging wooden ‘frames’ supporting sheets of wax imprinted with hexagons to help the bees get started in making their comb. The frames are separated by an optimal ‘bee space’ which experimentation has shown gives enough space for the bees to move around and optimises ventilation in the summer and insulation in the winter.
  • A queen excluder: this is a grill that stops the queen from moving up into the higher levels of the hive. Fortunately, the queen is bigger than the other bees, so the grill is made just the right size to allow them through but to keep the queen in the brood box.

    Photos showing different sections of a bee hive
    Inside the JBA bee hives – from left to right: Floor, brood box frames and queen excluder
  • One or more ‘supers’: these are boxes in which the bees should store their honey. Again, these contain frames of wax to help, but as we need some flexibility as to how much honey we want to take or leave the bees over winter, the frames are shallower and we put more or less supers on top of the hive, depending on how the bees are doing. In a good season, for example, we might put three supers on a hive and leave one for the bees over winter. We want to leave enough for them to be healthy, and take the excess stores which they generally produce. The queen excluder is the real genius here – it stops the queen from laying eggs in the honey stores, which means we don’t have to disrupt the colony to take the honey and we don’t have to eat a mix of honey and bee grubs! This solves all the problems we had with traditional skeps.
  • Finally, there’s a wooden crown board and a metal lid/cap: the crown board has various uses but mainly encourages the bees to stay out of the top of the hive, and the lid keeps the rain out, and usually has some ventilation holes in it to allow fresh air to flow through the hive and keep it dry.

    Photo showing supers, crown board and lid
    From left to right: Supers, crown board and lid

Want to know more?

Follow our journey with the #JBABeeHives on JBA’s Twitter and Linkedin channels to keep up to date with how they’re doing as the weeks progress. If you’d like to know more about the bee hives, do get in touch! Contact Andy Evans.

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