hive stands and structures

A-Ž hives in a Slovenian-style apiary: awesome yet practical

A-Z hives are traditionally kept in a decorated bee house to protect the bees.

Everything about AZ hives is meant to make life easier for the bees and the beekeeper. Plus, they are beautiful!

Inside: Beauty and practicality define Slovenian-style A-Z hives and bee houses

A Slovenian-style apiary is a magical place where art, nature, beekeeping, and practicality coalesce into a pollinator haven. Overlooking Mount St. Helens in sleepy Onalaska, Washington, artist and entrepreneur Kay Crawford and her husband, Robbie, created an idyllic kingdom. Here, honey bees and dozens of native species commingle among acres of flowers and enjoy a reprieve from pesticides and other perils of civilization. For us humans, it provides a covert shrine of tranquility enhanced by the hypnotic hum of bees.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 162 No. 9, September 2022, pp 1019-1023.

In addition to the Slovenian hives, Kay has added top bar hives and a specially-designed fully screened “gabeebo.” Inside, visitors can experience an up-close but undisturbed view of honey bees doing their thing. Under wide blue skies and the snowy tufts of the mountain, viewers can sip their iced tea and watch nature at its finest.

Central to the Slovenian concept of bee-centric beekeeping is the A-Ž hive, an invention that makes beekeeping a more pleasant, less traumatic experience for both the bees and the keepers. Although the Slovenian beekeeping landscape remains dominated by these traditional hives, they are less common elsewhere. But seeing the hives in action could easily change your mind.

A-Ž hive in the bee house: This three-deep hive is opened into the interior of the bee house. Each of the doors is screened and can be kept closed while the beekeeper is working on a different box. The bees access the feeder from underneath, and the varroa board is under the bottom box. Before the beekeeper leaves, he replaces the screen doors and closes the large outer door over the bees. Photo by Kay Crawford.

The Slovenian A-Ž hive

A Slovenian industrialist with a passion for beekeeping designed the A-Ž hive. While skep hives were still popular in many parts of Europe, Anton Žnideršič (1874-1947) had seen the modern, newly developed Langstroth hives and admired their practicality. However, like many locals, he mourned the loss of the traditional bee house, a trademark of Slovenian rural culture.

Using his innate ingenuity, Žnideršič united features of both the Langstroth and the traditional bee house into another option for beekeepers. His first design followed the introduction of the Langstroth by just ten years. And in Slovenia, the A-Ž hive became an instant hit.

The A-Ž hive incorporates moveable frames, stacked boxes, and wired foundation, all things Žnideršič thought were worthy improvements to traditional hives. But he set out to correct what he perceived as shortcomings in the Langstroth, including the necessity of heaving heavy boxes. He also wanted to reduce propolis buildup on the frames, which often made moving frames unnecessarily difficult.

Bee house interior: Four complete hives sit on the tables. The small upper window opens at the top for bees to fly out. Kay prefers not to use smoke in the small room and steps through the sliding glass door into her darkened adjacent honey house until any overly aggressive guard bees fly out the exit window. Photo by Kay Crawford.

The Slovenian bee house

The bee house is the centerpiece of a Slovenian apiary, so a true A-Ž hive is never freestanding. All the individual hives fit permanently into the bee house, side-by-side, and are tended from inside the structure. The beekeeper accesses the hives from openings in the back of each bee box, never from the top.

This unique configuration means the beekeeper need not lift supers or brood boxes. Inspecting, treating, and harvesting can be done by sliding the frames horizontally in and out of the boxes, like taking a book from a shelf. Since each hive sits near the next, the beekeeper needs only to walk the length of the bee house to work many hives. The system is unparalleled in efficiency.

The original A-Ž hives had one brood box and one honey super. But as large colony sizes became popular, beekeepers began adding a second honey super to the stack, an alteration that soon became commonplace. In most American versions, the boxes and frames are all one size regardless of their purpose.

Chest freezer: Kay uses a large chest freezer with a corrugated plastic cover as a workspace. The back observation window (at right) opens into the barn providing cool airflow and allowing visitors to watch Kay work the bees without being disturbed by them. Photo by Kay Crawford.

Bee houses on wheels

Originally, all bee houses were stationary structures and many remain so. But today, A-Ž hives are often built into a rolling bee house, such as a truck, van, or bus that can be driven to new locations as crops go in and out of bloom. A rolling bee house eliminates the need for pallets, tie-downs, forklifts, and heavy lifting. The beekeeper merely locks up the bees in the evening, attaches his tow bar, and drives away the next morning.

Since the beekeeper tends his colonies within the structure, both the keeper and the bees are protected from rain, snow, wind, and extreme temperatures. If the interior is well-designed, even the need for a bee suit is minimal. Any bees that wander out of the hive fly out of the building through an open window toward the sunlight and re-enter the hive from the front.

Honey house: The honey house, which can be heated for honey processing, is closed off from the bees but is easily accessed through the sliding door. The door at the far end of the bee house leads outside. Photo by Kay Crawford.

Other bee house advantages

Maintaining a compact set of A-Ž hives is easier than maintaining an equal number of freestanding hives. For example, only one side of each hive needs to be painted because the other five sides are protected by the bee house. And because the bee house protects the hives from the elements, damage from rain, freezing temperatures, wind, sun exposure, insects, and birds is minimal.

Bee houses also discourage bear rampages because bears cannot topple the hives to break them apart. Although bears can still inflict damage, a bear is less likely to trash everything as it would in a standard apiary. Smaller mammals, such as skunks, raccoons, and opossums, also have trouble accessing the elevated, smooth-faced bank of hives.

Inside features

Inside the bee house, the side-by-side colonies share heat in the winter. Outside, the closely stacked hives can be intimidating. The sheer number of bees attending the hive fronts can be off-putting to intruders of any sort, from insects to mammals.

Because the beekeeper tends the hives from the back in a relatively dark space, the disturbance to the colony is minimal. Unlike cracking open a hive from the top and admitting a cascade of sunlight, opening the back in a quiet, shaded space is less intrusive. The bees go about their business without the violation and fear of a suddenly missing roof.

Kay and Robbie fully enclosed and insulated their bee house, then installed half-inch PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) flexible tubing through the front wall for bee access. Kay explained that, due to their small size, the tubes have prevented mice, yellowjackets, and robbing honey bees from entering the hives. The small openings will also deter Washington’s “murder hornets,” should they become a problem. To keep the tubes clear in winter, Kay reams them with a small bottle brush attached to a metal rod. As temperatures drop in late fall, she stops some of the tubes with half-inch corks.

Top bar hives: Three top bar hives round out Kay’s apiary. In the background, a Langstroth box with modified A-Ž frames is ready for housing swarms. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Anything possible, nothing stuck together

Each of the features within an A-Ž hive makes beekeeping from the back of the hive a viable alternative to the Langstroth. I sometimes hear beekeepers complain about all the “fiddly little parts” of an A-Ž hive, but each piece has a specific function. Taken together, they allow the beekeeper freedom from lifting, carrying, prying, and working in direct sun.

The frames in an A-Ž hive are rectangular with no “ears” for hanging. Instead, the frames slide in and out of the bee boxes guided by metal spacers at the front and back of each box. The weight of the frames rests on parallel metal rods that run the width of each box.

The cut and construction of the frames allow them to work seamlessly with the metal spacers and support rods. Both the top and bottom bars of each frame have a channel running along the length. Viewed from either end, the channel is U-shaped, meaning only narrow ridges of wood rest on the metal rods. The sidebars are cut to match the top and bottom channels, allowing the U-shaped channel to run the entire length of each frame.

Minimum propolis buildup

Since the area where the frame ridges meet the metal support rods is quite small, propolis accumulation is minimal. And since the frames lack ears and are optimally spaced, propolis does not glue the frames to the box or to each other. With only minor amounts of bee glue, the beekeeper doesn’t have to crack the frames apart with a hive tool and brute force. They release with just a small tug.

The frames, which are all the same size, can be wired for wax foundation just as in a Langstroth. Because they are larger than standard deeps, the frames require an extra piece of foundation to fully cover the space. But many of the more recent designs are sized to match a Langstroth deep. This convenient modification also allows the use of a standard extractor.

All types of equipment can be made to work inside an A-Ž hive. Additions such as queen excluders, feeders, mite treatments, and observation windows can be added according to beekeeper preference. Special frames can be built for the mite treatment of your choice. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Frame ends: The sidebars of each frame match the U-shaped channels of the top and bottom bars. This makes sliding the frames in and out of the boxes easier and lessens propolis accumulation. Photo by Kay Crawford.

Special beekeeping tools

Although A-Ž beekeeping requires few tools other than a hive tool and perhaps a smoker, a few specialty items make the job easier. In his book on Slovenian beekeeping, Janko Božič recommends a comb stand to hold frames during inspections or harvesting.1 Specially designed for frames without ears, the frames rest on three points between comb guides.

A hive table is a platform that can be attached to the back of the hive during inspections. Any bees that fall from a frame land on the table and stroll back into the hive.

In addition, the hive cleaner is something we all could use. It is a narrow piece of metal attached at a ninety-degree angle to a long handle. It allows the beekeeper to scrape debris, errant pollen balls, and dead bees from the bottom board.

Gazebo: The screened gabeebo keeps out insects of all sorts; a perfect place for sipping iced tea on a hot day. Photo by Kay Crawford.

Traditional artwork

Stunning, colorful artwork is the hallmark of traditional Slovenian hives. The bright colors and bold designs serve not only to adorn the building but to provide navigational cues to the residents. Because the colonies live close to each other, recognizable patterns help the bees navigate to the proper address.

According to Vida Koželj at the Museum of Slovenian Folk Art, eighteenth-century itinerant artists created some of the first painted panels.2,3 They were often young men who traveled the countryside, offering their services in return for a bed and a meal. Each wooden panel could depict a single scene or it might connect with adjacent panels to form a mural.

Since many of the rural denizens could not read or write, the painted boards told visual stories. The art often depicted tales from the bible, rural life, animal husbandry, domestic chores, family strife, hunting, cartoon characters, or cultural traditions.

One panel at the museum portrays a disabled man walking with a sturdy cane. In his bent posture, the man collides with a bee colony hanging from a tree. The combs cascade to the ground, enveloping the man in angry bees and causing him to lose his cane. In the third scene, the man struggles to flee as the bees attack. In the fourth scene, the man, having absorbed a large dose of venom, is upright and running normally, cured by accidental apitherapy.

Outside of the bee house: Outside, the bees come and go through narrow tubes above small landing boards. Kay designed and painted the mural herself. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Endless variations are possible

I was impressed by Kay and Robbie’s apiary. Their bee house built into the side of a barn and adjacent to their honey house is a clean, efficient, well-planned operation. When Kay opened the hives from the back, I could see the bees through the removable screen doors, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. Outside, bees bustled into a vista of bee-friendly plantings in the lovingly tended Bee Inspired Garden.4

Like most beekeepers, Kay has a list of things she might have done differently. But each A-Ž apiary is as different as the beekeepers who manage them, and that is part of the fun. To me, Kay’s apiary seemed just about perfect.

Notes and References

  1. Božič, J. 2017. A-Ž Beekeeping with the Slovenian Hive. 2017. Kranj, Slovenia. Published by Založba Mija.
  2. Pier, M. 2018. Painted Beehives: A Slovenian Tradition that Tells of Cultural Landscape. Accessed June 27, 2022.
  3. The Museum of Slovenian Folk Art resides in Smarje Sap, a town in central Slovenia.
  4. See Kay’s Bee Inspired Garden at
A-Z hives are traditionally kept in a decorated bee house to protect the bees.
Bee house & gabeebo: Robbie tucked the bee house and honey house beneath the barn roof. From the gabeebo visitors can watch the bees in safety. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Honey Bee Suite


  • Robbie and Kay’s Slovenian hives are absolutely beautiful and a work of art. Recently I built 4 Slovenian hives and housed them in a simple cedar shelter. They were simple to build and they function just fine. I enjoy the ease of inspections and only lifting one frame at a time. I’d suggest as a starting point, picking your frame first, then all the other measurements will follow. For me, I like using the deep Lang frames without cutting off the ears. That gives me the option and flexibility of moving frames between hives (Langstoth, Slovenian, and even my horizontal hive), as needed. For interior volume, I chose 10 frames wide and 3 chambers high, which so far has proven large enough. The 2 spaces between each of the 3 chambers need to be filled using a simple removable grate, similar to a slatted rake, or the bees will fill it up with burr comb. Overall I’m really enjoying this very old method of keeping bees and my senior back loves it too!!

    • Did you design it yourself or did you have a plan? Need these so badly… arthritis and age has made it so difficult to lift the boxes and pry the frames out… and in south Florida the heat is so oppressive. Just discovered this style… amazing …Love to hear from you:

      • Hi Donna. The only plans I used were sketches I made based on all the dimensions centered around 10 standard deep Langstroth frames. (Plus 3 chambers high) I’ll email you more information that will explain the build in more detail.

      • Hi Donna, I just made sketches for my plans as I based everything from the measurements of 10 deep Langstroth frames and 3 chambers high. I’ll send you more information regarding the hives. Good luck with your build.

  • I kept a few colonies inside a building that was originally purposed to raise rabbits when my daughter was in 4H. After she moved on to college and real life, I kept several colonies of bees in the space. We had a lot of problems with both Africanized bees and small hive beetles. We do live in North Texas…both of these are problems that others do not face. While the roofed building gave the beekeepers good shade, the bees did not mind it except that they got overrun with hive beetles. I don’t think the Africanized part was related to the shade, but when I re-queened with good stock, the beetles went crazy. I think that in our area, at least, the covered shed style of beekeeping might not be a good idea.

  • I have been around long enough to be a little cynical.

    1. The bees just fly out the window?? In a minute? an hour? a day?
    2. wait till you have an Africanized swarm!!!! And you HAVE to find the Q hiding in the far side!!!
    3. Does sound ideal for transport for small quantities, but to ship 1,700,000 hives to CA for almonds??
    4. Being so close, surely increases drifting?

    • Derek,

      If you’ve been around that long, you can probably answer these questions on your own.

      1. Remember, the backs of the hives are in a dark barn. Once, you turn off the light, honey bees will make a “beeline” for the sunlight in the window. I have a similar situation in my shed, and it usually only takes a couple of minutes for the bees to accumulate in the skylight. Once I open it, they are gone.

      2. I don’t understand what you are saying/asking here, but I don’t know why someone would hive an Africanized swarm in this type of hive. Africanized bees can be a problem no matter where you put them.

      3. No one suggested using this type of setup for shipping commercial hives into California almonds. Obviously, it’s not the right tool for the job.

      4. Drifting is a fact of bee life, but these hives are no closer together than those stacked on pallets.

  • Hi Rusty,

    1 That’s only happens once you are finished. So while you are working and the lights on they are just normal buzzing bees in your face?

    2. My first 25 years were in SA. Nobody in US deliberately has AHB, but if they re-queen in there then what???? Pretty terrible in an open hive but in there a nightmare??? Unless fairly easy to move outdoors.

    • Derek,

      The entire hive is never open at once. Each box has a separate screen in the back so that the beekeeper can inspect one box at a time. Nurse bees generally don’t fly off the frames; it’s the foragers that fly out. What I saw was peaceful and non-threatening. Also, you can use red lights inside the building or vehicle, a color that doesn’t attract bees.

      This type of setup is not new; it’s been used successfully in Europe for generations. If it was the horror show you imagine, I suspect people wouldn’t still be doing it.

      One of my main purposes in writing this site for nearly 14 years now is to demonstrate alternatives. Each beekeeper is different, lives in different environmental conditions, and has different concerns. As Joe pointed out in his comment, those living in areas high in small hive beetles might not be a candidate for a Slovenian hive just as those dealing with Africanized bees might not either.

      I don’t expect every hive style to be right for every person; far from it. Obviously, you don’t like the Slovenian hive. That’s fine. But some people will find it beneficial. I’ve known many beekeepers who keep AZ hives and are thrilled with the results, but I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m only illustrating alternatives.

    • By the way, I keep mainly Langstroths but I have a long hive and a top-bar hive. Someday, I’d like to try a Warre. I’ve also observed beekeepers working many hive types, including skeps, gums, A-Zs, Flows, and plain wooden boxes with dowels. Each hive type has taught me something else about honey bees, often something that turned out to be useful elsewhere. I try to be open-minded about hive types and base most of my recommendations on the bee’s biology, not its housing. The biology of bees doesn’t change depending on where it lives, so it’s a better foundation.

    • > “Nobody in US deliberately has AHB, but…”

      Not nowadays, but some were imported to the NE US in ~ 1800-1850, for experimentation. ALL I know. Assume they died out from the cold.

  • Rusty it’s not that I dislike at all I just looking at the possible negatives. Moving hives is very difficult alone but with one of these easy.

  • I would like to know more about winterizing hives indoors. It seems logical but I am sure there are complications.

  • This is amazing! Thanks for sharing. Just goes to show how much we have to learn from each other. Love that the artwork is both aesthetic and functional.

  • I’ve tested the water on this concept, and it’s one I will definitely implement if I ever have the money. For several winters I brought my hives into my unheated shop and found that the protection from severe, rapid temperature changes really seemed to help keep the colonies going. I drilled holes in the boxes and ran clear tubing through holes I drill in my shop wall. I attached small pieces of 1×2 on the outside of the shop to give them a little acclimation area/landing pad.

    The hives were on a counter so they were too tall to be worked, and of course, there are too many windows in a very large space, so I would not be able to evacuate the bees if I did try to work them.

    For anyone interested, there’s a Facebook group called AŽ Hivers at

    As always, I’m glad to re-read your article from the ABJ. Thanks!

  • Perhaps you could post Greg’s aids here as an addendum or something. I’d like to see them also, and I don’t do Facebook; antisocial I guess!

    Gary Thomas

  • Thank you for highlighting Slovenian type of hives!

    I converted half of my apiary to AZ-Langstroth hybrid hives (3 compartments of 10 frames, frames can use Langstroth foundation) in fall of 2021, when i was desperately searching for alternatives of not lifting heavy boxes… At that time, I didn’t know about that beekeeping style, and even today is hard to find information about the management details…

      • I converted only brood frames and let the super frames be built by bees on A-Z frames. The hives I have use hybrid frames which are the same size as Langstroth.

        If you are using plastic foundation- cut the wax around the wooden edges of the Lang frame and push out the foundation with the comb. Unfortunately, there will be some brood casualties. Next insert the foundation/comb into A-Z frames—the grooves are the same as in Langstroth frames.

        Similar process with wired frames, but you will need to cut the wires, and then I used nails or pins to support the comb. Some frames needed extra support with elastic bands until bees cemented the comb to the frame.

        Tedious job but doable—I converted 8 10-frame brood boxes with success.

        Much easier is to start with A-Z hives…

  • That would be great! Thanks! Was wondering about propolis buildup and how would you pry them out horizontally? Is this an issue and if not why not?

    • Donna,

      Read the section called “Anything possible, nothing stuck together” and the one labeled, “Minimum propolis buildup”:

      “Since the area where the frame ridges meet the metal support rods is quite small, propolis accumulation is minimal. And since the frames lack ears and are optimally spaced, propolis does not glue the frames to the box or to each other. With only minor amounts of bee glue, the beekeeper doesn’t have to crack the frames apart with a hive tool and brute force. They release with just a small tug.”

    • Donna, I found that each of my colonies has their own idea of where and how much propolis to use. In one of my Slovenian hives it was definitely on the heavy side, but with the same tools I use on my deep Langstroth hives, it was workable. A headlamp is definitely helpful to see into those far corners.

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