Modern beehive technology has been based on three pieces of equipment: the Langstroth hive body, the corresponding frame, and wax foundation. The hive body is a squarish wooden box without top or bottom that holds wooden frames much like hanging folders in a file cabinet only more evenly spaced. These bodies are stacked vertically between a top cover and bottom to make up the hive. As the bees run out of empty frames, having filled them with honey, another box of them is added to the top of the stack under the cover.
The frames are just wooden rectangles as the name implies. The top of a frame extends past the sides making tabs to sit securely in a rabbet at the top part of the hive body. The space between each side of the frame and the side of the hive body is just big enough for a bee passage. Likewise the bottom. Similarly the tabs of the top are of a width to cause the frames to be spaced such that two bees can work back to back on the comb in successive frames. The rest of the top is narrower to allow bees to freely move vertically to the adjacent hive bodies.
The last item, foundation, is a sheet of wax stamped with uniform hexagons which is inserted into a new frame. It gives the bees a start on the production of comb and encourages straight, parallel sheets of comb. It is also often wire-reinforced so that honey may be extracted in a centrifuge and the frame with emptied comb returned to the hive to be refilled, saving the bees the effort of producing fresh wax.
So why did we reject this widely adopted system used with success for over one hundred and fifty years in favor of a horizontal top-bar hive, which is older, more primitive technology? Let us start with the stacking boxes. They are heavy. One of the shallowest standard size when full of honey may weigh about 50 lbs. If one is fortunate enough to have a colony so productive that the stack of hive bodies gets quite tall then the beek will have to be lifting heavy boxes at awkward heights or from a ladder. An alternative is to have a single box long enough to hold a large number of frames. The beek then never has to lift more than one frame at a time. Put the hive on legs to raise it to about waist height and manipulation becomes about as ergonomic as possible.
Because a horizontal hive (all practical designs to date) has its length fixed a beek can not extend it when full in a way analogous to adding another hive body to a vertical hive and therefore it may require more frequent attention than a conventional vertical hive. In our case the hive is conveniently just out in the backyard so we opted to make things easy on our aging backs.
Hypothetically we could continue to use frames and foundation in a horizontal hive. We will discuss why we chose not to in a future post.
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