The Beehive

A beehive is an enclosed, man-made structure in which some honey bee species of the subgenus Apis live and raise their young. Though the word beehive is commonly used to describe the nest of any bee colony, scientific and professional literature distinguishes nest from hive. Nest is used to discuss colonies which house themselves in natural or artificial cavities or are hanging and exposed. Hive is used to describe an artificial, man-made structure to house a honey bee nest. Several species of Apis live in colonies, but for honey production the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the eastern honey bee (Apis cerana) are the main species kept in hives.

The nest’s internal structure is a densely packed group of hexagonal prismatic cells made of beeswax, called a honeycomb. The bees use the cells to store food (honey and pollen) and to house the brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae).

Beehives serve several purposes: production of honey, pollination of nearby crops, housing supply bees for apitherapy treatment, and to try to mitigate the effects of colony collapse disorder. In America, hives are commonly transported so that bees can pollinate crops in other areas. A number of patents have been issued for beehive designs.

Honey bee nests

Honey bees use caves, rock cavities and hollow trees as natural nesting sites. In warmer climates they may occasionally build exposed hanging nests. Members of other subgenera have exposed aerial combs. The nest is composed of multiple honeycombs, parallel to each other, with a relatively uniform bee space. It usually has a single entrance. Western honey bees prefer nest cavities approximately 45 litres in volume and avoid those smaller than 10 or larger than 100 litres. Western honey bees show several nest-site preferences: the height above ground is usually between 1 metre (3.3 ft) and 5 metres (16 ft), entrance positions tend to face downward, Equatorial-facing entrances are favored, and nest sites over 300 metres (980 ft) from the parent colony are preferred. Bees usually occupy nests for several years.The bees often smooth the bark surrounding the nest entrance, and coat the cavity walls with a thin layer of hardened plant resin called propolis. Honeycombs are attached to the walls along the cavity tops and sides, but small passageways are left along the comb edges. The basic nest architecture for all honeybees is similar: honey is stored in the upper part of the comb; beneath it are rows of pollen-storage cells, worker-brood cells, and drone-brood cells, in that order. The peanut-shaped queen cells are normally built at the lower edge of the comb.

Ancient hives

Bees were kept in man-made hives in Egypt in antiquity. The walls of the Egyptian sun temple of Nyuserre Ini from the 5th Dynasty, dated earlier than 2422 BC, depict workers blowing smoke into hives as they remove honeycombs. Inscriptions detailing the production of honey are found on the tomb of Pabasa from the 26th Dynasty (c. 650 BC), and describe honey stored in jars, and cylindrical hives.

“The Beehive teaches us that as we are born into the world rational and intelligent beings, so ought we also to be industrious ones, and not stand idly by or gaze with listless indifference on even the meanest of our fellow creatures in a state of distress if it is in our power to help them without detriment to ourselves or our connections; the constant practice, – of this virtue is enjoined on all created beings, from the highest seraph in heaven to the meanest reptile that crawls in the dust.”

The archaeologist Amihai Mazar cites 30 intact hives that were discovered in the ruins of the city of Rehov (2,000 residents in 900 BC, Israelites and Canaanites). This is evidence that an advanced honey industry existed in Palestine, approximately 4,000 years ago. The beehives, made of straw and unbaked clay, were found in orderly rows, with a total of 150 hives, many broken. Ezra Marcus from the University of Haifa said the discovery provided a glimpse of ancient beekeeping seen in texts and ancient art from the Near East. An altar decorated with fertility figurines was found alongside the hives and may indicate religious practices associated with beekeeping. While beekeeping predates these ruins, this is the oldest apiary yet discovered.

Traditional hives

Traditional beehives simply provided an enclosure for the bee colony. Because no internal structures were provided for the bees, the bees created their own honeycomb within the hives. The comb is often cross-attached and cannot be moved without destroying it. This is sometimes called a fixed-frame hive to differentiate it from the modern movable-frame hives. Harvest generally destroyed the hives, though there were some adaptations using extra top baskets which could be removed when the bees filled them with honey. These were gradually supplanted with box hives of varying dimensions, with or without frames, and finally replaced by newer modern equipment.

Honey from traditional hives was typically extracted by pressing – crushing the wax honeycomb to squeeze out the honey. Due to this harvesting, traditional beehives typically provided more beeswax, but far less honey, than a modern hive.

Four styles of traditional beehives include; mud hives, clay/tile hives, skeps and bee gums.

Skeps

Skeps, baskets placed open-end-down, have been used to house bees for some 2000 years. Initially they were made from wicker plastered with mud and dung but from the Middle Ages they were made of straw. In northern and western Europe, skeps were made of coils of grass or straw. In its simplest form, there is a single entrance at the bottom of the skep. Again, there is no internal structure provided for the bees and the colony must produce its own honeycomb, which is attached to the inside of the skep. Skeps have two disadvantages; beekeepers cannot inspect the comb for diseases and pests, and honey removal is difficult and often results in the destruction of the entire colony. To get the honey beekeepers either drove the bees out of the skep or, by the use of a bottom extension called an eke or a top extension called a cap, sought to create comb with just honey in it. Quite often the bees were just killed, sometimes using lighted sulfur, to allow the honeycomb to be removed. Skeps could also be squeezed in a vise to extract the honey. As of 1998, most US states prohibited the use of skeps because they cannot be inspected for disease and parasites.

Later skep designs included a smaller woven basket (cap) on top over a small hole in the main skep. This cap acted as a crude super, allowing the harvesting of some honey with less destruction of brood and bees. In England such an extension piece consisting of a ring of about 4 or 5 coils of straw placed below a straw beehive to give extra room for brood rearing was called an eke, imp or nadir. An eke was used to give just a bit of extra room, or to “eke” some more space, a nadir is a larger extension used when a full story was needed beneath.

A person who made such woven beehives was called a “skepper”, a surname that still exists in western countries. In England the thickness of the coil of straw was controlled using a ring of leather or piece of cows horn called a “girth” and the coils of straw could be sewn together using strips of briar. Likenesses of skeps can be found in paintings, carvings and old manuscripts. The skep is often used on signs as an indication of industry (“the busy bee”).

In the late 18th century, more complex skeps appeared with wooden tops with holes in them over which glass jars were placed. The comb was built in the glass jars, making the designs commercially attractive.

If you would like to read more and view useful links and photos about beehives click on Wikipedia. All information above plus more can be found on the Wikipedia Beehive page.

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