UACES Facebook Quick Guide of Beekeeping Woodenware
skip to main content

Quick Guide to Beekeeping Woodenware

by Jon Zawislak - March 14, 2017

The term woodenware refers to the individual components of a bee hive.  While these have traditionally been made from wood, today a variety of bee hives are available made from plastic and even polystyrene foam.  Treated lumber should never be used to make bee hives.  Always paint your hives with an exterior grade paint to protect your equipment from the elements, unless hives are constructed from cypress, cedar or some other weather-resistant material.

A bee hive is the structure that houses the honey bee colony.  It could be a hollow tree or other cavity, or one or more stacked wooden boxes provided by a beekeeper, with a lid and bottom board.  A hive body is an individual box that makes up a part of a bee hive.  A colony refers of the group of living bees that occupy a bee hive.  A colony is composed of many thousands of worker bees, a few hundred drone bees, and a single queen bee.

Each hive body contains wooden frames to hold the wax honeycombs.  These frames make it easy for beekeepers to remove, handles, and rearrange the honeycombs within the bee hive with a minimum of disturbance to the bees.  In the old days, beekeepers had to destroy the bees' hive in order to harvest the honey -- often resulting in the death of the bees.  It is now against the law to keep honey bees in any type of hive that does not have removable combs.

Each frame is usually fitted with a sheet of foundation in its center.  Foundation was traditionally made from beeswax, and imprinted with a perfect hexagonal pattern, to help the bees establish straight, even combs.  Wax-coated plastic foundation can also be used to give the bees a starting place.  The bees add their own wax, in a process known as drawing out the comb on each side.  Eventually, the foundation becomes the center of the comb, with deep cells on each side for the bees to store food or rear brood.  

Frames and foundation come in several sizes, and beekeepers must match the frames with appropriate hive bodies.  Until fairly recently, most beekeepers kept their bees in standardized stacked hives with deep frames (9 5/8” tall) for both brood and honey.  The deep frames provide a large, uninterrupted area for the queen to produce her brood nest.  However, because a deep honey super can weigh more than 80 pounds, many beekeepers have begun to use shorter boxes for harvesting surplus honey.

A full medium frame (6 5/8” tall) honey super weighs about two-thirds of a comparable deep super.  Using all medium hive bodies is increasing popular with hobbyist beekeepers.  One advantage of using all medium frames is that the beekeeper only needs to have a single size frame and box on hand, rather than a combination of deeps and mediums.   Beekeepers can use 3 medium boxes for the brood chamber, roughly equaling the volume of two deep boxes.   However, when using all mediums, a beekeeper must handle more frames to do a complete inspection. Also, most nucleus colonies are sold with deep frames, making the establishment of nucs more difficult.  When starting new colonies with all medium frames, a beekeeper should consider beginning with package bees, or seek nucs that were made with medium frames.  Shallow frames (5 3/8" tall) may also bee used.  These are lighter, and may be a good choice for making comb honey, as the bees will draw out and fill a shallow super more quickly than a larger one.

The 10-frame “Langstroth” bee hive has been the industry standard for nearly 150 years, and is still the most commonly used hive in the US.  Because they are the most common, it is often easier to resell equipment to another beekeeper, or to find additional equipment for yourself.  Another advantage in large hives is that each 10-frame box has more space for bees, honey and brood. A comparable 8 frame hive will be taller and use more boxes than a 10 frame hive.

8-frame 10-frame and 9-frame bee hives Some beekeepers are now using 8-frame bee hives.  An 8-frame hive is lighter by approximately 20 percent. When full of honey, a full 8 frame medium super will weigh 40 to 48 pounds while a full 10 frame medium may weigh 50 to 60 pounds. There is some thought that the smaller size and cross-section of an 8 frame hive is closer to the typical hollow tree cavity seen in nature.  Some feel that bees can overwinter more successfully in taller 8 frame hives than in a comparable set of 10 frame boxes with the same amount of stored honey.  This is because the cluster can move up more readily in a narrower 8 frame hive as stores are consumed, rather than laterally through a wider 10-frame box.

Some beekeepers evenly space 9 frames in a 10-frame honey super.  If done correctly, the bees will draw out the cells of these combs deeper, leaving the standard “bee space” between all finished combs.  Thicker combs are easier to harvest, because the surface of the honeycomb that is removed when uncapping is not blocked by the edge of the wooden frame.  Also, because there would be one fewer empty “bee spaces” between combs, there should be slightly more honey stored in a 9-frame setup.  Do not use 9 frames in a 10 frame brood box, however, as this will only result in fewer cells in which the queen can lay eggs.  When giving the bees new foundation to draw in any hive body, place all 10 frames (not 9), pressed tightly together, in the middle of the hive body.  Once the combs have been drawn, a beekeeper can remove one frame and then evenly re-space the remaining combs.  Starting bees with 9 frames of foundation to draw will often results in poor quality combs, because the bee space between foundations is too large, and comb may be built parallel to the foundation, or even perpendicular to it.

Because of concerns about honey bee health, all managed colonies must be kept in hives with movable combs that allow the brood nest to be inspected.  The Langstroth style bee hive is the most common movable frame style of hive, and is therefore the easiest to find for sale.  It will also be easier to find advice and information on colony management when using these hives.  However, there are other types of bee hives in use, including Warré hives and Kenyan or Tanzanian Top Bar hives.

It is not advisable for a new beekeeper purchase used equipment.  The spore of some highly contagious honey bee diseases could be present, but not be obvious, in old equipment.  If the history of the equipment is unknown, it should be avoided.  Stay safe and start with healthy bees in nice brand new equipment.