The three styles of Beehives: Which one fits Your needs?

So there’s this guy who sells homemade top bar hives at the local downtown market (sans honey bees of course.) My wife and I sell our honey right next to him every Saturday. Occasionally someone will ask him about a top bar hive and he tells them all about it. But the one thing he emphasizes the most is that, “top bar hives are the best!” To which I reply, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Of course, I don’t say this out loud, but I think it every time, but it’s okay because we’re buddies.


Two, Langstroth style beehives tucked in for the winter.
Two, Langstroth style beehives tucked in for the winter.
Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

So what’s the difference in the different styles of beehives anyways? They all house honey bees but you want the style of bee hive that suits your needs. So the style you choose will depend upon what your intentions are.

Today I’m going to teach you about the three main styles of beehives available and the pros and cons of each. This will hopefully take the guesswork out of choosing. By the end, you will know what you want out of a bee hive and ‘bee’ able to choose with confidence. I’ll also let you in on what my preference is and why it works for me. Here we go!

Top bar hives Imagine a large, rectangular box with angled sides. I’m not talking about a coffin. The little insects inside this box are very much alive. This box holds individual bars of wood laid next to one another. The honey bees draw out comb from the underside of the wooden bars, down into the hollow cavity of the box. These top bars lay across the width of the entire length of the top. Go figure.

~One of the easiest, low maintenance ways to keep honey bees, top bar hives are generally for those who want to set up pollinators for their garden and to harvest a little honey too.~

They’re also great for those who want to observe honey bee behavior without getting intensely involved. Without any heavy lifting, you can still harvest honey from a top bar hive and do it without an expensive extractor too, although, honey harvesting from this style of bee hive is extremely inefficient, as each individual honeycomb must be completely destroyed in the harvesting process. This means more work for the honey bees in order to build that comb all over again. And for a beginner with little to no experience, this could set your honey bees up for certain doom. So here’s the Pros & Cons:

Pros:

  1. Of the three styles, Top Bar Hives are the least expensive and the least maintenance all around; time and materials.
  2. It’s the least labor intensive, as there is no heavy lifting,
  3. but you can still harvest small amounts of honey for personal use without an extractor,
  4. it’s the easiest way to have pollinators nearby,
  5. and probably the easiest to access. There’s only the main lid to remove and BUZZ! There’s your hive. And with hive stand legs, there’s no bending over and hurting your back.
  6. Plus, you can buy blue prints and build it to specs, buy one already made from the pros, or build your own to almost any specifications you want within certain limits. Get fancy with it!

Cons:

  1. The biggest strike against this style is the inefficiency of honey harvesting that was mentioned earlier.
  2. There is greater potential for your honey bees running out of room during a honey flow and swarming away. Though this issue is avoidable with certain designs. If you’re considering this method then I recommend looking into how to add something called a ‘super‘ to your top bar hive.
  3. The challenge today of keeping beehives happy and healthy requires a lot of experience and know how. If you choose this style to simply have bees for pollination and like the idea of not getting too involved with your honey bees, then you will most likely deal with the frustration of losing your hive to pests and disease more often than desired.

So if you like the idea of supporting pollinators or having them for your garden without getting too involved, then go with a Top Bar Hive. And don’t forget the added benefit of being able to harvest a little bit of honey from time to time. To keep them healthy, contact a local beekeeper that has successful experience. Reach out and ask them about their management practices.


Warre Style Hive In my opinion, this style is not nearly as popular as it should be. It comes the closest of all other styles to mimicking the ideal environment for honey bees and yet is still convenient for the Keeper. When I describe this style to my friends, I tell them that, “it’s beekeeping equipment made to the convenience of the honey bee first and the beekeeper second.” The Langstroth style we’ll talk about next is kind of the opposite: Beekeeping equipment made to the convenience of the beekeeper first, and not so much the honey bee.

~This is a great way to offer a more natural environment for your honey bees while offering a great way to observe them with minimal disturbance to the hive.~

This quilting box doubles as a top hive feeder.
My quilting box is full of cedar chips to maintain warmth, wick away moisture, and doubles as a top hive feeder. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

This style is a big step from Top Bar Hives but still has some similarities. You still allow your honey bees to draw out comb on the top bars but using a frame that allows for a little more control for having nice, straight frames of comb. Some of the hive bodies have viewing windows that reveal what’s actually going on inside the hive! These hive bodies are square boxes that stack on top of each other vertically.

The key thing I like the most about Warre hives are that they allow for natural ventilation and airflow. This keeps the colony cooler in summer and warmer in winter. In conjunction to this, Warre hives employ something called a quilt box. It sits on the top of the hive but under the lid. It allows moisture to wick out instead of building up and dripping back on the hive, which will kill them in winter. And it helps to keep the colony much warmer than they would be without the quilting box. So here’s the Pros & Cons:

Pros:

  1. Of the three styles, Top Bar Hives are the least expensive and the least maintenance all around; time and materials.
  2. It’s the least labor intensive, as there is no heavy lifting,
  3. but you can still harvest small amounts of honey for personal use without an extractor,
  4. it’s the easiest way to have pollinators nearby,
  5. and probably the easiest to access. There’s only the main lid to remove and BUZZ! There’s your hive. And with hive stand legs, there’s no bending over and hurting your back.
  6. Plus, you can buy blue prints and build it to specs, buy one already made from the pros, or build your own to almost any specifications you want within certain limits. Get fancy with it!

Cons:

  1. The biggest strike against this style is the inefficiency of honey harvesting that was mentioned earlier.
  2. There is greater potential for your honey bees running out of room during a honey flow and swarming away. Though this issue is avoidable with certain designs. If you’re considering this method then I recommend looking into how to add something called a ‘super‘ to your top bar hive.
  3. The challenge today of keeping beehives happy and healthy requires a lot of experience and know how. If you choose this style to simply have bees for pollination and like the idea of not getting too involved with your honey bees, then you will most likely deal with the frustration of losing your hive to pests and disease more often than desired.

In essence, if you like the idea of providing an ideal environment with natural heating and cooling, something I really like the thought of, this is the one for you. You will still have garden pollinators and a honey harvest too!


Langstroth Style Hive What’s a ‘Langstroth’? That’s just the name of the bee-dude who came up with this design back in the 1800’s. But that’s all the history lesson you’re getting today.

~This style is for those who want to run a large number of beehives from which to harvest lots of honey~

A Langstroth style bee hive with a lid full of wild honeycomb.
This Langstroth style hive built honeycomb right up into the hive cover. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

The Langstroth style is easily the most widely used, popular, and universal one available. Most commercial and hobby beekeepers use this style. I myself learned the trade using the Langstroth design. So what is it? It consists mostly of a rectangular box that holds 8-10 full frames. In addition to this there’s a whole slew of equipment available that varies from beekeeper to beekeeper. But all of them have some kind of bottom board plus the hive body with frames, and a lid on top.

Very similar to the Warre style, these hive bodies stack on top of one another but are rectangular instead of square and hold 8-10 frames. Let’s go ahead and cover the Pros & Cons of the Langstroth.

Pros:

  1. Honey harvesting is much more efficient. Frames full of honey are extracted in an extractor and then placed right back in the hive for immediate use. But you don’t need a super-expensive extractor for this. Personally, I use a two-frame extractor. It easily paid for itself selling honey at the local market.
  2. Having an 8-frame super option makes for a easier lift which is easier on your back.

Cons:

  1. You must have an extractor to harvest your honey.
  2. In my opinion, this style needs several modifications to make it bee-friendly like the Warre hive. But it is possible. Read my recommendation afterwards and I’ll tell you what you can do about that.
  3. During a honey flow, a box of honey can weigh anywhere from 40-80 lbs.
  4. To manage a hive of this style requires disturbing the entire colony, but don’t worry, they’ll recover just fine. Although you may have a few more stings.
  5. In general, this style lacks in proper ventilation, especially when compared to the Warre hive.

So if you’re looking for a way to make more honey in a more sustainable way and you want to keep more than a few hives, this style is for you. Don’t let the thought of needing an extractor deter you from going this route. A two-frame extractor is well worth it and it takes up very little space.

Thanks for sticking with me (pun intended). Now let’s get to what I promised earlier. I want to share with you what style I use.

I really like the concept of the Warre style but I was taught and apprenticed from a commercial beekeeper, so I use the Langstroth style hive. But now, I use it with a Warre twist. Let’s take a closer look. From the bottom up: I start with a bottom board. I make mine deeper than commercial bottom boards for greater ventilation.

Next, sitting on the bottom of the bottom board I use something called a Slatted Rack. A slatted rack allows for ventilation but buffers the force of the wind coming in. Sitting on top of my bottom board I have one, two or three Langstroth style Deep Hive Bodies, depending on the hive and the season. On that, I place an upper hive entrance very similar to something called an Imirie Shim.

Next is where it become obviously Warre influenced. I have my quilting box on the top hive body. This quilting box has #8 mesh wire across it bottom to hold the cedar wood chips in place during the cold season. This layer of chips allows moisture to escape and traps in essential heat for the colony. In the warm season, I dump the cedar chips out and use the quilting box as an in-hive, top hive feeder. That’s right, I place jars of sugar syrup on the wire mesh to feed my beehives. And I thought of it all by myself! And last, my hive cover goes on top to seal out the elements.

A Langstroth/Warre hybrid bee hive with a quilting box above an upper hive entrance.
This is a Langstroth style bee hive with a quilting box positioned directly above an Imirie Shim. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

I certainly haven’t covered all the benefits of the three styles of beehives here. My hope though is that you have a better idea of what you want out of your beekeeping experience. Like my buddy from the market, he’s not in it for making a lot of honey with his top bar hives. However, beekeeping is how I make my living. Enjoy the wonderful experience and whatever style you choose is the right one for you.

If you’re a beekeeper or thinking about getting into the trade, let me know in the comments. I would love to know which style of bee hive interests you the most and why. If you have any questions or comments about the links shared in this blog please contact me. Thank you.

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee.~

Jonathan Hargus/The Beekeeping Mentor

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