National Hives for the 21st Century

The more common Bee Hive designs in use to today are between 171 (Langstroth) and 74 (Warre) years old. Since they were designed and popularised, the environmental pressures faced by Honey Bees have increased significantly but in many cases the design of the Hive has not changed at all.

If we compare the ‘modern’ square framed Bee Hive to Hives or Nests found in the wild we can identify a number of significant differences:

Insulation

The ‘natural’ nest location for Honey Bees would be in a tree hollow or rock crevice. Filipe Salbany found 1000s of Bees thriving in the ancient woodland estate of Blenheim Palace where they live in old Oak trees.

The optimum core temperature of a Bee Hive is 35ºC (Beepods) and the harder the colony has to work to maintain this temperature in the Winter through ‘Heater Bees’ vibrating their abdomens to increase their body temp or fanning their wings in the Summer the more resources are consumed. The average annual minimum temperature in the South West UK during the period 1981-2010 was 6.3ºC

Therefore it is in our interest as Beekeepers to help maintain the optimum temperature and humidity in the hive. Increasingly research shows that hive that have high temperature fluctuations with low humidity are not ideal. Stable temperature and high(er) humidity gets closer to the natural preference of the honey bee.

A comparison of the heat loss between natural and man-made hives:

Step 1: We need to find the R value for the different materials and their thicknesses R-Value = Thickness / K-Value

Step 2: Given that the general heat loss equation is Q=U A ΔT where:

  • U: U-Value = 1/R-Value
  • A: Area of the surface. Approximation that a National Hive with brood and two supers has external surface area of 1.4m2
  • ΔT: Difference in internal and external temperature. In this case 28.7ºC = 35ºC – 6.3ºC
MaterialLamda Value
K-value or λ-value
Thickness
of outer wall
R-ValueU-ValueHeat Loss
Q (W/m2)
Cedar Hive0.11 W/mK3/4in 18mm (0.018m)0.1646.111246
Cedar Tree0.11 W/mK4in 100mm (0.1m)0.9091.10044
Cork Insulation0.039 W/mK1.57in 40mm (0.04m)1.0260.97539

Conclusion

The calculations above suggest that a standard Cedar Hive loses five times the heat of a natural tree hive.

Shape

Trees are round or thereabouts creating a shape that is sympathetic to the natural shape of a Bee Hive. The warming and cooling currents of air will circulate throughout the hive without leaving cold or hot spots.

However, round structures are more complex to build and store. Hexagons provide a compromise solution.

Entrances

The common entrance found on hives such as the National Bee hive is too large. Its is a sledge hammer approach taken by Beekeepers because they believe that Bees need big entrances to bring home more honey for them to harvest. This is not entirely untrue but there is a subtle difference between big entrances and high throughflow. High throughflow can be achieved by multiple entrances that bring other advantages.

Honey bees have evolved strategies to closely regulate the internal environment of their nest cavities through heating, cooling, and ventilation more often than not, through very small best openings.

Small entrances are easier to defend against Wasps, Rodents and Moths.

How to improve your hives.

The primary objectives or desired outcomes for someone keeping Bees for commercial purposes (hobby or otherwise) versus those observing and/or keeping Bees for enjoyment or in the pursuit of science and conservation are significantly different. It is not a binary decision as to which campfire a Beekeeper may choose to sit around and there will be nuance in the decision that anyone might make.

However, the question is :- How can we improve all artificial hives such that they provide the best environment for the Honey Bee without negatively impacting upon their purpose. The ideas that follow are not must-dos or dead-certs – they are a toolbox of modifications that are highly likely to improve the health of your colony and in turn make your life as a Beekeeper easier and more rewarding.

Entrances – Baffles and Portals

You can read all about using Portals on your hives on our Bee Portals page and you can buy them from the shop.

Roofs

Anything from 25-45% of heat within the hive can be lost through the roof. By insulating the roof of modern beehive though the cold months we can dramatically reduce how much work the Bees need to do to maintain the optimum cluster temperature.

If we leave the insulation in place all year round we can stabilise the temperature fluctuations of the hive and reduce heat stress in peak summer days,

Its an easy retro-fit with a few pieces of batten fixed around the outside, some suitable insulation in the centre and fabric fitted over the top. Read our Insulated Roofs – Step by Step Guide.

Floors

Air is a great insulator but draughts can cause up to 25% of heat loss in a typical house so why would a Bee Hive be any different. Bees will (if they have the resources and conditions) propolis up gaps between boxes but sealing a floor specifically if its vented is a huge undertaking.

However, making an insulated stand for your Bee Hive is quite straight forward with a few tools and a little time. Read our Insulated Floors – Step by Step Guide.

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