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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Movable frame hives

In many countries frame hives are used for beekeeping.  The Langstroth hive is the most commonly used worldwide and its dimensions are reputedly based on nothing more scientific than the dimensions of a champagne crate that the Rev Langstroth found conveniently to hand when developing his ideas about frame hives.

For beekeepers in poor countries there are some serious disadvantages of frame hives. Most significantly they are far more expensive than either fixed comb or top-bar hives. They are also more complicated to make so a beekeeper is less likely to be able to make their own hives; this will reduce their ability to expand the scale of their beekeeping business. Frame hives are also more complicated to manage. They need many different parts (supers, frames, queen excluders etc). They are also more difficult to protect, especially from ants and honey badgers. The response is usually to place them on a sort of special swinging stand - but this adds an extra burden of cost. The key principle of the frame concept is that it allows a beekeeper to extract the honey from the comb without damaging the comb. The comb can then be re-placed in the hive and used again and this reduces the time and energy that bees spend making wax. However, this is quite difficult to do in a tropical climate where the wax moth can quickly reduce combs that are being stored to an unappealing mess that will repel the bees. Strictly speaking, this idea is designed for bees in temperate climates where the cooler weather makes wax building more expensive in energy than in the tropics. In the tropics keeping the bees busy with wax building can help to reduce swarming and absconding.

Preserving the comb between harvests requires both the use of foundation (an embossed wax sheet with strengthening wires embedded into it) and a centrifugal extractor to spin out the honey while not breaking the combs. If the comb is not wired then it can be cut from the frame and the honey harvested using the simpler 'run' honey technique. However, this then looses the purpose of the frame which is mostly to preserve the wax from season to season. This is not so important in tropical climates where there is plenty of food over  a longer period and smaller honey stores. Outgrower schemes which involve a central business which removes supers, extracts the honey and then returns them to the beekeeper ultimately disempower people because they lose control of their business; they cannot truly know how much honey was extracted and they are not enabled to manage all the processes for themselves. African Apis mellifera bees are much smaller than their temperate counterparts and imported foundation is likely not have the correct number of cells embossed onto the wax; this will cause the bees problems when they draw out the honey comb.

There are some advantages of frame hives. The frames make combs very strong which enables easy transporting of the hives - perhaps for commercial pollination work. Hives can be increased and decreased in size according to the honey flow and the use of a queen excluder separates the brood from the honey making the combs for harvesting very clear. However, some of the materials used for queen excluders in the tropics are very harsh on the bees' bodies, scraping collected pollen loads from their legs and hairs from their backs and possibly shortening their productive lives. The loss of pollen to a colony is very serious. Pollen is central to the rearing of young brood and prolonged loss of pollen will have serious consequences for the colony over the medium term. The design of top-bar and fixed comb hives means the bees make a circular nest of brood close to the entrance so the honey and brood is naturally separated without the use of a queen excluder. Even in frame hives this is not an essential piece of equipment.


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