In praise of the Langstroth hive
When I was only knee-high to a goat, my grandfather took me for long rides each evening at dusk. He loaded me into in his Chevy just as the deer began to venture from the woods into the orchards for dinner. He loved to watch them, excitedly calling, “Look there! One, two, three…”
I loved those outings through the farmland, especially as mist settled into the lowlands between the hills, shrouding the fields in mystery. But as he counted deer, I hunted for something else entirely. Bee hives. With my window rolled down, I would climb halfway out, balancing on my belly and inhaling the aroma of fresh-cut hay and warm manure, intently searching for hives as the countryside slid by.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the objects of my fascination were Langstroths. Every last one of them. They stood at cockeyed angles, tilting one way and another, coated with heavy layers of lead paint that flaked off in chalky curls. Every farm had a few, usually perched on the edge of a field, curiously white through the descending mist. Although some were tall and others short, all bee hives had the same basic shape.
The Test of Time
The Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth registered the patent for his hive in October 1852. By his own admission, Langstroth borrowed freely from the work of his predecessors, including François Huber’s leaf hive. Although disagreement continues about who first defined bee space and who first cottoned onto moveable-frame hives, the fact remains that Langstroth incorporated these concepts into a hive design that was affordable, easy to use, and highly customizable.
Few inventions have stood the test of time as well as the Langstroth hive, and today—166 years later—variations of it are still used around the globe. In North America, it continues to be the hive of choice for large commercial operations and beginners alike.
Variations on a Theme
Langstroth’s vision of modular boxes containing moveable frames that honored bee space on all sides allowed beekeepers to inspect, harvest, and split colonies without destroying the bees or their living quarters. Although we may not realize it, many other modern hive designs—including the National, Warré, and Flow—are simply variations on the Langstroth.
The National, primarily used in the UK, has smaller boxes that are square, along with many minor tweaks. The Warré hive is sometimes called a vertical top-bar hive, but the idea of modular boxes that sit one atop another and respect bee space, comes straight from the Langstroth playbook. And the Flow Hive is a contemporary Langstroth hive topped with a self-extracting honey super.
The Beginning of an Industry
Just as the invention of the semiconductor precipitated a flood of innovation, so did the introduction of the Langstroth hive. Once the value of the hive became apparent, it was followed by the radial extractor, the queen excluder, and the hand-held smoker—all of which are still used today. Other related inventions included self-spacing frames, the foundation press, and the screened bottom board for controlling wax moth infestations. The synergistic development of tools to be used with the Langstroth cemented its place in beekeeping history. No other hive design offered anything close for practicality and ease of use. In fact, it is the Langstroth hive that led to the development of large-scale commercial beekeeping.
For the migratory beekeeper, Langstroth hives are perfect. They are stackable, palletable, and can be moved with a forklift. They can be transferred to any location and retrieved when the job is done. In addition, boxes can be exchanged between hives and frames between boxes. Like Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press, the Langstroth hive allows endless combinations. There is no limit to the number of changes and tweaks that a beekeeper can make.
Adventures with a Top-Bar Hive
My admiration for the Langstroth hive increased after managing a top-bar hive. My experience with a top-bar hive began ten years ago with a prototype design that we were planning to use at a state prison. I wanted to practice with it before leveling my inexperience on the inmates, so I pulled some plans off the Internet and asked my husband to build the thing.
The brand new hive was sitting empty at the edge of my driveway, tucked into the shade under some cedar trees. On July 3, 2008 as we prepared for holiday guests, a swarm moved into the empty structure. I remember hearing an urgent call, “Come quick! You’ve got to see this!”
Today, an entire ten years later, the colony is still there. Only now the shade is denser, the trees bigger, and the hive is rotting from all the moisture. In year seven, the bees sealed up the entrance and built a new one higher up, right where the sidewall meets the roof. Last year, they dug through the roof itself and added a skylight, so now it’s open to the Pacific Northwest rain. How they overwinter is anyone’s guess.
A Perplexing Design
In spite of what seems like a resounding success, I find the top-bar design irritating. Although I’m in awe of the bees’ ability to survive, I feel like the colony manages me instead of the other way around. I never found a way to keep the queen away from the honey stores, so forget comb honey. In fact, in the ten years this colony has entertained me, it has not given up a single teaspoon of honey.
Most years the entire thing is filled with bees—all 23 frames—at the height of the season. As the population begins to dwindle toward fall, they fill the space with honey. By spring of every year, everything is quiet and I’m sure they’re gone. If it weren’t for the bright red spot on my IR camera, I would give them up for dead.
Instead of harvesting honey I use the hive like a general store. Whenever I need a queen cell, a few eggs, a split, or a shake of workers, I head straight for the top-bar hive. Since the bars won’t fit in a Langstroth, I do a lot of cutting and tying, but we have a working truce: I don’t touch the honey, and they restock everything else the moment I leave. So we’re good.
The Beauty of Options
I concede that all beekeepers are different and all beekeeping is affected by local conditions. As such, there are times when a top-bar hive or a long hive might be the perfect answer. But for anyone just starting out, or for anyone who loves to learn through experiment, I think there’s nothing like a Langstroth hive.
Because the design of the Langstroth is so extendable, an enormous number of optional extras exist for just about any contingency you can think of. Most of these equipment choices are not necessary, a fact that is obvious when you look at most commercial operations. For them, beekeeping is a business where the bottom line needs to be black. As such, they streamline their operations to minimize expense.
The Legos of Beekeeping
Open any contemporary beekeeping catalog and you will see a stunning array of beekeeping equipment designed to be used with a Langstroth hive. It’s often been said that you can sell anything to a beekeeper, and I suppose there is much truth in that. But still, I always sift through the new catalogs to see what’s new and clever.
If you are a hobbyist or a tinkerer, I encourage you to experiment whenever you get the chance. I look at each new piece of Langstroth equipment as an opportunity. What does this thing do? How does it work? When would I use it? Why would I use it? What aspect of bee biology or behavior makes it possible? If I learn something about honey bees in the process, it’s a win regardless of the outcome.
If you learn why a Cloake board works or how to use a Snelgrove board, you’ve learned more about the biology and behavior of honey bees. And each time you deepen your understanding of the bees themselves you become a better beekeeper. Langstroths are the Legos of beekeeping. Each new piece invites experimentation and creativity.
Take It or Leave It
Most times, I try something once and move on. But at other times, I’m in. If the equipment answered a question or solved a problem for me, I outfit the rest of my apiary with the new thing. For example, in my damp and rainy climate I like slatted racks, moisture quilts, and candy boards. They work for me and have allowed me to overwinter successfully year after year. But are they completely necessary? No. Are they for everyone? No. That’s the beauty of the Langstroth system. Every beekeeper can find the configuration that works in his climate with his beekeeping style.
As a producer of comb honey, I love the wide variety of Langstroth comb honey supers that I can choose from. I’ve tried them all—from Kelley squares, to Ross Rounds, to Eco Bee Box mini frames. When I found problems with each, I had a super designed and built by a friend. Pretty good. But still unsatisfied, I’ve drawn plans for yet another. The basic design of the Langstroth hive makes experimentation easy and fluid.
The Pros and the Cons
If I were asked to list the good and bad of the Langstroth system, here is what I would say.
- The price is reasonable
- There is standardization among manufacturers
- The parts are interchangeable between hives and between apiaries
- It’s easy to increase or decrease space in a hive, depending on colony strength
- You can set up a colony to pollinate or to collect honey, pollen, or propolis, tweaking the configuration as the season progresses
- The hive is familiar to many, making it easy to find answers to common questions
- The boxes can be heavy and hard to handle, even mediums
- Inspection can be cumbersome because it requires removal of the upper boxes
- The Langstroth can be difficult to manage in extreme temperatures
- Without a stand, the entrances are close to the ground
- Beekeepers do not have the option of warm way setups without customization
- A rectangular stack of boxes lacks eye appeal
Some of the negative aspects have been addressed by alterations to the system. For example, the eight-frame Langstroth was a response to the weight problem, even though the smaller box has less mass and a lower heat capacity. In cold climates, beekeepers have devised wraps as well as internal insulation methods. In hot climates, beekeepers can increase ventilation with screens and optional entrances. Those wanting warm-way frames can put the entrance on the side. As you can see, the Langstroth hive is a tinkerer’s delight.
I often wonder if the original Langstroths weren’t more cold resistant than the modern ones. Back in Langstroth’s day, the size of dimensional lumber was actually as stated. But today, for example, a 1-by-4 board is actually ¾-inch thick and 3½-inches wide. It seems that such a large difference in thickness would affect the insulation value of the wood. On the other hand, most of the changes that occurred since the original design were for the best and kept the design relevant through the decades.
Try It and Learn
I’m nothing if not curious, so I’m always up for a new invention or an ingenious way to tweak an old one. I’m happy to have experience with top-bar hives, and this year, thanks to the generosity of other beekeepers, I’m experimenting with a long hive and a poly hive as well. The more I try, the more I learn.
The variety, the adaptability, and the ingenuity of beekeeping equipment is one of my favorite aspects of this strange hobby. And because beekeeping is wonderfully influenced by local conditions and individual convictions, the Langstroth hive with its enduring but ever-evolving nature, makes an excellent starting point.
Honey Bee Suite