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By Dewey M Caron, University of Delaware, USA
Observation hives are a useful educational mechanism for helping the public understand the workings of a colony and provide a great crowd attraction and display at exhibitions.
Observation hives comprise a small colony of bees maintained in a structure with clear glass or plastic walls. They may be smaller than normal, permanent hives solidly fixed to a site for exposition or they may be a temporary (queenright or queenless) representation of a hive. Ideally an observation hive should be one to three frames high and only one frame wide but can be in larger units and even two or three frames wide although considerably fewer observations of bee colony life will be possible with such an arrangement.
The most important concept in an observation hive is bee space. Bee space is the room the bees leave as they move from one parallel comb to the other. For a truly observational hive only bee spacing should be permitted around the top, sides, and bottom of the frame (or frames) you enclose and the glass viewing walls. Permanent observation hives will last an entire season (and sometimes well into a non-productive bee time). A temporary unit can be made within a short time of need and disassembled immediately after use which should be only for a few hours to a couple of days in length.
Above all permanent observation hives should be secure. Hives also need to be serviceable. Since an observation colony is a smaller version of an ordinary colony this may cause difficulties: the colony can get too large or too low in worker population; they can lose their queen or begin swarming preparations; they are prone to become honey or pollen bound; they might contract disease, and they frequently need feeding. A permanent observation hive generally benefits from any other management you might undertake with regular colonies. Where there is a substantial non-resource season or where bees migrate, observation hives should be made up at the beginning of the productive season and dismantled at the end.
Nature parks, schools, museums, bee product/supply dealer outlets and other attractions are ideal locations for an observation hive. Installation and maintenance can be the responsibility of an individual or a local beekeepers association. Educational opportunities when the location expects larger crowds are opportune, teachable moments.
Maintenance should only be done when the attraction is closed, or few visitors are around. Ideally the observation hive should be sited so it can be removed intact from its secure site (closing its entrance both from outside and inside) and then transported to a position outside the site for dismantling or for maintenance as necessary. An observation hive should only infrequently require such activity. Observation hives have a great deal of activity at the entrance so a clear entry of round tubing or a glass/plastic channel is sure to be attractive. Visitors can watch bees come and go, see pollen collectors, removal of dead workers, guarding and the general movement of bees into and exiting their colony.
A small hole at the top or in the entry/exit channel should be included so a feeder of sugar water can be utilised for the bees. All other manipulations should be done with the unit outside the display area. Glass/plastic walls might need cleaning every month - this is especially necessary if too much space is allowed for bee spacing. The glass/plastic walls may need replacing annually.
If at all possible the queen should be marked so visitors can spot her. General information on the brood-food pattern of a bee colony as well as worker-queen-drone identification and adult activities available for visitors to see and read enhances the benefit of the unit. If the hive is on display and unattended it needs some easy to understand information close by to explain bee colony basics. During attendance by beekeepers, far more detail can be imparted such as information on beekeeping, bee dancing, bee biology, the reign of the queen, and honey/pollen/beeswax/propolis and their uses.
History of observation hives
Early hive makers began to use glass to enclose their bees from the 1600s when its use became affordable. The Reverend Langstroth used glass in his inner hive dimensions for his first movable-comb hive. Karl von Frisch used observation hives for his Nobel Prize winning discoveries on bee dance language and many other bee biology discoveries have been aided by studying bees in observation hives.
Making a temporary observation hive
The important concept is to adhere to bee space for proper viewing. Temporary observation hives should be small so they are easily transported. Depending upon the situation a hive might consist of only a single frame and lack a queen: basically consisting of a single frame/piece of comb removed from a colony, put between glass/plastic walls held apart by a wooden frame of the correct dimensions to hold the frame (standard frame or top-bar frame or piece of comb cut from a non-frame hive). The temporary observation hive should be assembled before the event, but no sooner than the day before, and then dismantled and put back into the colony it was taken from after use.
Temporary observation hives should not be unattended by the beekeeper. They can be used for an event, a show, to sell bee products, as they are a great crowd-pleaser. If bee basics are to be emphasised a frame with all life stages and the queen and workers might be assembled and displayed. A honey-filled comb can be used for a sale event and even sold or auctioned to the highest bidder. These hives should not be exposed to high temperatures and with fewer bees might be more susceptible to meltdown if exhibited in the sun. If the worker bees are running wildly about try giving them water (a small hole in the top can be included to feed dilute sugar water or water) to calm them down.
Many bee supply companies sell observation hives especially for Langstroth size frames. It may be just as convenient to construct an observation hive using information given in the references.
MANGUM, W (2001) Top-bar hives in the USA. Beekeeping & Development 58. The author describes a top-bar observation hive.
SHOWLER,K (1985) The observation hive. Bee Books New and Old, Charlestown, UK.
WEBSTER, T; CARON, D (1999) Observation Hives - how to set up, maintain and use a window to the world of honey bees. A I Root Co, Medina, USA. Available from Bees for Development price.
[Bees for Development Journal #62]