beekeeping equipment

Cold way or warm way: how do your frames run?

“Cold way” and “warm way” are terms I don’t hear much in the states, but they crop up constantly in places where Warré and National hives are popular.

Frames that run cold way are perpendicular to the hive opening. If you have a standard Langstroth box on a standard Langstroth bottom board, your frames are perpendicular to the opening, so they are cold way. The arrangement is thought to be cold because air coming though the hive opening can slice straight through the hive, traveling unimpeded between the frames.

Frames that run warm way are parallel to the hive opening. It is believed that the first frame of comb blocks the wind and keeps it from rushing through the hive, so this arrangement is thought to be warmer—or at least less drafty. However, bees have to travel further to get where they are going because there is no convenient corridor at the hive entrance—the bees have to go over, under, or around that first comb-filled frame.

The cold way vs warm way debate

Since Langstroth hives are rectangular, you cannot accidentally or easily change the orientation. But both Warré and Nationals are square, so you can place the frames in either direction by simply rotating the box a quarter turn.

If you check out some of the bee forums, especially those in Europe, you can read countless disagreements about which system is better for the bees. As with most things in beekeeping, no one agrees, and the arguments rage on and on while the bees don’t seem to care much one way or the other.

Those who keep bees in a Langstroth and want their frames to run warm way simply build a bottom board with the hive opening on the long side instead of the short side. Some beekeepers really like this arrangement because they can stand behind the hive and lift each frame straight up for inspection.

Warm way is easier for beekeepers

Normally, working a Langstroth from behind is awkward because you have to pick up the frames with one hand close and one arm stretched across the length of the hive. Bees object to this human arm from time to time as nearly every beekeeper has noticed. And even after you grasp the frame, you have to twist it around before you can see it properly, and then you have to untwist it to set it back in the hive.

The answer to this problem is to either work hives from the side or change to a warm way arrangement. Not only does this prevent reaching over the top of the hive, but the frames are closer to you.

Nowadays, with the popularity of screened bottom boards, I think the argument about the draftiness of cold way hives is losing traction. If you have a screened bottom, the airflow is coming up from beneath the hive during most of the year, so the amount of draftiness will be less influenced by the orientation of the frames. In the winter, if screened bottoms are closed, the warm way may be slightly warmer, but you can counter this by switching to an upper entrance during winter cluster.


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    • Daniel,

      Thanks for asking but no, they are correct. I just checked again to be sure. Cold way is perpendicular to opening, warm way is parallel.

      • I was a bit confused as well by the parallel vs perpendicular description. At first I interpreted it to mean parallel or perpendicular with the path of the hive entrance. I see now the terms actually refer to the relationship of the frames to the wall with the opening.

  • The 12 frame Langstroth or Dadant as used at Buckfast Abbey, Devon, UK from the time of Brother Adam to the present day also have a square footprint so can be worked cold way or warm way.

    Brother Adam used 12 frame Dadant double brood box colonies which are also sometimes known as Langstroth jumbo boxes, and with mediums as supers. Which would make for very heavy lifting or the use of lifting machinery, His books or a biography on him may say more but I suspect individual frames were harvested or full supers harvested immediately once fully capped.

    These were usually set up 4 hives to a pallet so the beekeeper can work all 4 hives standing in the middle, They were not close packed as they would be for long distance trucking.

    He did breed a very prolific hybrid queen after Isle of Wight disease (a virulent strain of nosema) almost completely wiped out the native British black bee. He did pronounse that the British Black was extinct, but he was wrong. Small pockets of pure bred British black bees have been discovered and populations of these British blacks are being built up often from island locations where there is much less migration and natural interbreeding because of the travel distances over water.

    In Britain importation of bee packages and colonies is prohibited from the rest of Europe. So one can only import queens with a handful of attendants. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish movement of colonies is permitted as the Northern Ireland (Ulster) to Scotland migration of a swarm on the prevailing wind is just about technically possible and England/Scotland, England/Wales and Eire/Northern Ireland are land borders.

  • Interesting article! I agree with you that the bees more than likely don’t care. I have used both top and bottom entrances and a combination of both. As far as they’re concerned they simply adapt. Maybe it’s the same thing with “cold way, warm way”.

    • In very tall hives bees will make use of any slight accidental gap higher up between boxes and with polystyrene hives will even chew their way through the polystyrene to create an extra entrance when the distance to the supers is excessive.

      Clearly they will not consume the polystyrene but eject it from the hive very much like you find newspaper chewed up and ejected when you do a combine of 2 colonies to improve the survival chances of weak colonies over winter but we probably have less chance of noticing this as the polystyrene is much lighter, (less dense) than paper and would blow away on the wind quicker.

  • Rusty,
    Just seems to me with climate change a fact of life (whatever its cause) that we have to cope with, ventilation is going to be a bigger issue than warmth.
    With an entrance reducer, which we need in Winter anyway to keep mice out, how much airflow is there anyway?
    Since bees generate their own heat anyway if well-fed, and there are many options to shelter them and keep the heat in, I’m not going to worry about orientation.
    Very interesting history, David. And we can applaud the British Isles for keeping out imported packages. Globalization has done enough harm, (says the farmer with 50 acres of woods scattered with dead Ash trees).
    Northern Kentucky.

  • The whole issue of keeping a *hive* warm is confusing to me. The research I’ve read states that the *cluster* is kept warm by the bees (to about 93 degrees F), but the air around the cluster (inside the hive) is about as cold as the air outside the hive. And as I’ve also read, it’s not cold that kills bees, it’s moisture dripping down on them. So why are people “wrapping” hives against the cold, or otherwise insulating them? Would like to hear your thoughts, Rusty, and anyone else’s. Thanks.

    • Mary,

      You are correct that the bees only attempt to keep the cluster warm; no attempt is made to keep the hive warm. However, there is some amount of insulation provided by the hive, such that the interior of the hive is warmer than the outside air. It is warmest just above the cluster (warm air rises) and just outside the cluster, getting colder as you move further away. A nice graph showing this can be found here: How do honey bees keep their hive warm?

      Honey bees expend a tremendous amount of energy keeping themselves warm, and to do this this must eat enormous amounts of honey. Honey bees generally do not die of cold as long as they can keep their population high enough, and as long as they have plenty to eat. If you can help them along by keeping the hive a little warmer, they don’t need quite so many bees to do the job, and those bees will each require less honey.

      If you had an infinite supply of bees and an infinite supply of honey, this wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s completely possible that a cluster keeps itself warm as long as the honey supply holds up, then suddenly freezes to death for lack of fuel. No food equals no heat. In other words, bees won’t freeze to death as long as they have plenty of food, but they will freeze to death if they are starving.

      So if your bees are in a cold climate, you can increase the odds of them surviving by upping the temperature inside the hive by a few degrees. A few degrees warmer means they require less food so they are less likely to run out. It’s actually just a simple matter of energy in and energy out. If you make them do all the warming themselves, you have to provide greater amounts of fuel at all times. If you can add some heat (or prevent it from leaving) through the use of insulation or solar collection, you can greatly increase the odds of the colony surviving till spring.

  • There must be a higher potential for dysentery in an uninsulated hive as well? Given the constant that bees won’t make cleansing flights at a temperature below flight capability, the by-products of additional fuel being burnt in each individual bee would accumulate more rapidly. Like drinking too much mead before bedtime and locking the bathroom door.

    I have a lot of learning ahead of me of the ideal ventilation/insulation ratio in a cold climate, such as where I live. I’m experiencing considerable bee attrition each winter. I wish there was some rule on that. I imagine it is case specific with sun exposure, relative humidity, air temperature, colony size, warm or cold way, etc

    • Paul,

      I never thought about it. But yes, anytime they eat more, they will collect more solids in their gut. More solids requires more frequent cleansing to prevent dysentery. In a cold climate this could be a problem. Remember though, that even healthy colonies have a good bit of bee mortality during winter; it’s the way the system works.

  • Thank you good people. I’m starting up beekeeping both for educational purposes (I am a high school teacher, in agriculture) as well as for personal purposes. The information is much help full.