Fixed Comb Hives
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most bee hives in North America and Europe were simple shelters for the bees. Skeps, log gums and box hives were common types of hives.
Bees attached their wax combs to the hive’s roof and walls, just like they do in wild hives. These types of hives are called fixed-comb hives.
Box hives were simple shelters to house a swarm of bees.
Skeps were made from grass straw, and often had sticks inside to provide support for the honey combs. Beekeepers inspected skep hives from the bottom.
Log gums were made from hollow logs, fitted with a roof.
Sometimes a box or container was added on top of a log gum or box hive for the bees to store honey.
It was hard to get honey from these hives without damaging or destroying the bee colony. Usually, after harvesting, the beekeeper simply started all over again with a new hive.
During the Industrial Revolution, beekeepers came up with clever designs that discouraged queens from laying eggs in some parts of the hive, so honey could be harvested without damaging the colony. These beekeepers knew that queens tended not to lay eggs in more than one area in the hive, so they made side and top compartments with passageways for the bees.
The hives shown here have a place for the brood nest in the center, and places for honey storage on the sides. This is a kind of queen excluder that relied on the behavior of bees instead of a physical barrier. Today, we know that pheromones influence organization within a bee hive
Some skeps and box hives from the 1800’s also had a second container, or “super” for the bees to store honey such as the one on the left.
The “Nutt Collateral Hive” at right is a particularly fancy hive that used the concept of a pheromone-based queen excluder. The use of supers and separate honey compartments allowed the beekeeper to remove honey without destroying the colony.
In these hives, it was hard to know when the bees had a problem with disease, or when they became queenless or were starving. The beekeeper could not inspect each comb to see what was wrong.
Fixed-comb hives like the ones above were popular until the 1850’s, and yielded 10-15 pounds per colony each year, according to Root’s ABC book from 1895. Of course, many things have helped increase honey yields since then, including the Italian bee.
Movable Comb Hives
It was long known that bees liked to build their honey combs about 1 and 3/8 inches apart. Honey comb is about one inch wide, so this left a 3/8 inch passageway between the combs.
Some beekeepers built hives that forced the bees to build combs along “top bars” that were spaced about 1 and 3/8 inches apart. Top bars allowed the beekeeper to carefully remove combs for inspection without damaging them. These are called movable comb hives. This hive from Greece in the 1600’s (right) uses this concept.
Movable comb hives allow beekeepers to start new colonies easily by dividing a hive. They also allow beekeepers to inspect the health of colonies, find the queen, and even cut honey comb without destroying the brood nest.
Many movable comb hive inventions used “frames” for the bees to build their combs inside.
The Leaf Hive, invented in Switzerland in 1789 by Francis Huber, was a fully movable frame hive. The combs in this hive were examined like pages in a book. A.I. Root and E.R. Root credit Huber with inventing the first moJvable frame hive.
Huber’s contribution was also acknowledged by Lorenzo Langstroth, inventor of the hive style that is most commonly used today:
“The use of the Huber hive had satisfied me, that with proper precautions the combs might be removed without enraging the bees, and that these insects were capable of being tamed to a surprising degree. Without knowledge of these facts, I should have regarded a hive permitting the removal of the combs, as quite too dangerous for practical use.”
– L.L. Langstroth in Langstroth on the Honey-Bee, 1860.