What's Inside a Beehive?
When we look inside a beehive we hope to find a whole colony of healthy bees and lots of delicious honey! But aside from the obvious have you ever wondered what exactly makes up a beehive and how it functions? From the outside they may just look like a big wooden box, but there may be more going on inside than you might imagine. Honeybees do a need safe and dry place to live, but a beehive isn't just a home for bees to live in. Beehives were developed to provide protection for a colony but also to make honey collecting much easier and enable beekeepers to successfully manage their colony of bees.
In some places around the world the elements of a hive might have slightly different names but the vast majority of beehives all still work in the same way and have the same basic boxes and frames that are, in most cases, simply stacked on top of each other. The boxes being what you see from the outside and the frames are what hang inside and are what the bees build the wax in to store honey and for the queen to lay her eggs in.
The Bottom of the Hive
Starting at the bottom we have the hive stand and the bottom board, the stand is exactly what it sounds like and can be quite high or short depending on where the hives are placed, think of it as a table to put your hive on. Its purpose is to raise the hive to a good working height and away from the ground. Think of it as the hives sturdy legs.
The bottom board is what we'll consider the first part of the actual hive. The bottom or floor of the hive can be solid or what's called a screened floor. A screened bottom may have a sticky insert that can be useful for Varroa mite pest control and also help with ventilation. Depending on the time of year, area, or conditions either can be used.
Another part of the bottom board is the main entrance and exit for the hive. A key part of the entrance design is that it must be small enough for the bees to defend easily, a big gaping hole that could allow predators in would be no good at all. It should also offer protection from the weather, especially strong winds and heavy rain. Sometimes beekeepers will use wooden entrance reducers internally to help stop unwanted guests and even metal 'mouse guards' if rodents are a particular problem. The bottom board will often have an extension or ramp to give the bees a handy a place to land and take off. The entrance of the hive is a small but very important element, bees need to be able to easily and safely return with their collected nectar and pollen or you won't be getting any honey at all!
The Middle of the Hive
The size and shape of the entrance to the hive is fully formed when the next part of the hive, the brood box is placed on top of the bottom board. Inside the box you will find several brood frames, this is where the queen bee will lay her eggs which will develop into new bee larvae. Many consider this to be the heart of the beehive. These frames are also where the nurse bees care for the developing bees and the worker bees store the pollen and honey that will feed the developing larvae. Some bee keepers will simply refer to this as a deep box, either way it has the large frames that house the colony and will contain the provisions of honey that they need to survive. A beekeeper will never remove honey from this area of the beehive. Depending on the size of the colony, there might be two or more of these larger sections placed on top of each other.
On top of the brood box beekeepers will usually use a thin metal (or sometimes plastic) mesh sheet called a queen excluder, the holes in the excluder are large enough for all the worker bees to pass through but not the queen bee. This is to stop the queen from laying eggs in the areas above where beekeepers will collect the honey from, it also means the honey can be collected from above without ever disturbing the queen bee.
The Top of the Hive
On top of the queen excluder sheet are the honey supers (short for superstructure). Any box that is an addition to the main brood box is considered an 'extra' to the hive, thus by adding them we are creating a superstructure on top of the main hive structure. The frames inside the honey supers hold the wax foundation that the bees will build the honeycomb on and it's these frames where the bees will store their extra honey that we can collect without disturbing the brood box. A honey super can come in different sizes but they are almost always quite a bit shallower than the brood boxes. It's possible to stack as many honey supers on top of each other as needed. If you have a large colony of bees producing a lot of honey then 2, 3 or even 4 may be used on a single hive. There will usually be around ten frames hanging in each honey super.
The inner cover goes on top of the honey supers and creates a ceiling for the beehive. The inner cover usually has a hole or notch in the top which offers air circulation and an additional place for the bees to exit and enter the hive if they please.
The outer cover or outer lid goes on top of the inner cover and is essentially the roof of the beehive, like a roof on our homes it protects the hive from the wind and rain and helps insulate the beehive. A very common type of outer cover is called a telescopic cover and is made of metal which is usually galvanized zinc or aluminium. It has sides that hang over the top of the honey super to help protect it.
Beekeeping is a very rewarding and educational experience and we would encourage anyone with enough outdoor space to consider keeping a bee hive as a hobby. Most areas will have local beekeepers and beekeeping clubs who would be only too happy to help you through the process. If you don't have the space then consider creating a bee hotel or just a bee friendly stop off point in your garden, patio or window box using our free bee saving seeds!