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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Bee hives

The long relationship between humans and bees started with honey hunting. Over time people found it was possible to improve on their chances of collecting honey by attracting swarms of bees into specially made containers. This first step towards managing bees clearly established personal ownership of the colony.  Early hives were simple in design and constructed of local materials, grasses woven into baskets, hollow logs, bark or clay containers. These styles of bee hives are still used widely and productively today.

The bees do not mind where they live as long as it is safe and dry.  The bee hive is entirely for the convenience of the beekeeper. This means that beekeepers make choices about bee hives depending on their own circumstances. There are essentially three choices of bee hive for beekeepers in developing countries.

  • Fixed comb hives - very similar to a wild bees nest, the combs are fixed to the wall of the hive e.g. bark hives used in Zambia
  • Top-bar hives - the hive body is a simple box with a series of separate bars set side-by-side on the top, the bees build one comb on one top-bar e.g. Kenya top-bar hive
  • Frame hives - bees are encouraged to build their comb within a provided frame which can then be inserted into a centrifugal honey extractor for ease of extraction. The combs remain intact and are returned to the hives after extraction. e.g. Langstroth hive

There are advantages and disadvantages to each system.

90% of the honey produced in Africa is produced using fixed comb hives.  These successful and simple hives are often handed down through generations along with the special knowledge needed to manage them successfully.  This is a proven technology that has stood the test of time and should not be abandoned unless the alternatives are clearly understood.  It is perfectly possible to produce high quality, export standard honey from these hives and many people do. Because the whole honeycomb is cut out when the honey is harvested, spreading disease by returning extracted comb to a different hive is not an issue and the wax yield is an important additional crop for the beekeeper.

The use of moveable comb and frame hives opens up new opportunities for beekeeping management as beekeepers can improve colonisation rates by dividing hives.  Top-bar hives simplify harvesting compared to a fixed comb hive - because the combs are more accessible and more easily removed - and also compared to a frame hive, because there is no need for the complicated extracting equipment used in frame hive beekeeping.

Key points:

  • A beehive is for the convenience of the beekeeper, not the bees
  • Understanding the ideas underlying hive design will enable a person to choose the most suitable hive for their circumstances.
  • Any management technique that can be done with a frame hive can also be done with a top-bar hive.

One very robust argument for choosing simple hive styles is that beekeepers should be able to make their own from local materials that are easily and cheaply available. The simpler a hive is to make, the more people will be able to take part in beekeeping even if they have very little money. They can invest a small amount and then as skill and income grows, further investment can be made to acquire more and better hives.

Not all honey bees can be kept in beehives. The largest honey bees, Apis dorsata and Apis laboriosa and the tiny Apis florea build only a single comb and do not lend themselves to hive beekeeping.  However, in certain parts of South East Asia people have developed an intermediate bee management style for Apis dorsata, known as rafter beekeeping where bees are encouraged to build their combs on a specially prepared wooden branch.


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