HIVE: What is a “Langstroth Hive”?

12 June 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

Honey bees build their own hives in the wild, but “beekeepers” keep their bees in specially constructed “hives” designed for that purpose.  The most popular artificial beehive in world is the Langstroth bee hive, which was patented, in 1852, by Lorenzo Langstroth.

What’s so special about the Langstroth hive?  Well, it’s easiest to just tell the story.  Recently, honey bees have come to be valued for their work as pollinators — producing the next generation of seed for the next year’s crop.  But through most of history, the beekeeping industry was all about the production of honey.

If beekeeper allowed honeybees to build their own hives, harvesting honey would be impractical because the only way the beekeeper could get the honey would be to destroy the bee colony’s hive.  And with the hive, the beekeeper might also destroy the productive colony.

So, boxes came to be used as artificial hives.  But bees would build honeycombs wherever they pleased in the box — often attaching the comb to the walls of the hive box.  So, the beekeeper, still, had to tear the honeycomb out of the box hive — substantially damaging the hive’s internal structure, which was built by the bees.

In 1789, François (fran-swa) Huber designed a box hive that was movable and had slide-in frames.  The frames were designed so that bees would use them build honeycombs.  It was hoped that the beekeeper would be able to just slide out the frame in which the bees had built the honeycomb, harvest the honey, and replace the frame.  The bees would, then, rebuild the honeycomb and restock it with honey, which would be harvested, again, later.

Unfortunately, the bees tended to use “propolis,” the honey bee version of caulk and duct tape, to seal the edges of the drawers to the hive wall.  Or the bees would over-build their honeycombs attaching a single comb to the both the frame/drawer and the wall of the hive.  So, the beekeeper, often, still had to tear the honeycomb out of the hive box.  These frame hives allowed harvesting with less damage, but still the hives were badly disrupted by the harvest.

In the late 1840’s, Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania made an amazing discovery – though, at first, he didn’t realize the importance of what he discovered – “bee space.”

What makes “bee space” so important is what bees won’t do with it.  If a honey bee has 3/8 of an inch or less in which to move around, it will not seal the space with “propolis.”  Neither will the bees build a comb of any kind in a space that small.

Again, it took Langstroth a short while to realize that he could make a big difference by using “bee space” in the construction of what was then the standard box hive with slide out frames.  What he did was to build a standard hive box with frames that slid in and out like drawers, but made the distance between the frame edges and the walls of the hive 3/8 of an inch or less.  As expected, the bees would do nothing in that small a space.

So, the bees stopped binding the sliding frames to the walls of the hive and, also, stopped building honeycombs between the sliding frames and walls.  So, for the first time, beekeeper could, reliably, just slide out the frames containing the honeycombs without tearing or damaging any part of the inside of the hive.  The honey could be harvested and the frame replaced for reuse by the honeybees.

Langstroth patented his bee hive in 1852, and it remains the most popular hive among beekeepers throughout the world.   Although the basic Langstroth bee hive is still the standard, there are many, many variations in the use of the sliding partitions, which allow beekeepers to manipulate where and what type of combs the bees build in particular frames.


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