English for beekeepers

Hive or colony: What is the difference?

Hive or colony? It’s simple. A hive is a house, a place where bees live. It is a structure, usually man-made, that a colony calls home. The colony is the family unit consisting of a queen, workers, and—for a few months of the year—drones. In other words, a colony lives in a hive.

Unfortunately, people frequently use the word “hive” when what they mean is “colony,” although they seldom switch them the other way around. For experienced beekeepers who know what they—and other beekeepers—are talking about, there is little confusion. But the words can be perplexing for a newbee.

I am probably one of the worst offenders. After I write a post, I always have to go back and find the word “hive” and see if that is what I really meant. More than half the time, I change it to colony. My goal in writing is to lessen confusion—not increase it—and these two words confound me no end. And even with all the checking I do, incorrect usage slips through.

Sometimes either works

Most of the time, it doesn’t make much difference. If a beekeeper says he has six hives, he usually means he has six colonies and he is not counting the additional 27 empty hives in his barn. Usually. Recently I talked to a beekeeper who told me she had five hives. A minute or so later, when I asked if she had them ready for winter, she said, “Oh, I don’t have any bees right now.” Okay, I have to admit I was completely floored even though I should know better.

Of course, we’ve all heard folks say their hive has swarmed—something I’m hoping to see in my lifetime. I imagine it looks a little like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz, circling round and round in a funnel-shaped cloud and landing all of a piece on the Wicked Witch of the East—although I would settle for it flattening some of my neighbors.

Amazing things a box can do

Apparently, hives also die, abscond, starve, and become aggressive—all interesting images, if not very accurate. On the other hand, you can actually split a hive which may also split the colony. You can move a hive which also moves the colony. A hurricane, bear, or vandal can destroy a hive which may also destroy the colony. So sometimes the words really are interchangeable and that is where the confusion begins. Sometimes I can’t figure out which of the two words is best in a particular sentence.

I think it is important to understand the difference between the two, even if we don’t always use them correctly. Then, when a newbee gives you that cross-eyed look, you know how to correct what you said so that even he can understand.



  • Oh I know this feeling very well. I work in an industry that uses very specific terms… that the general public uses the incorrect words for all the time. It’s like fingernails on chalkboards.

  • I’m the worst offender. I say hive when I should say colony 90% of the time. It’s The Law of Verbal Laziness at play. Hive is one syllable. Colony is three.

    That doesn’t explain the frame/comb exchange though. I don’t get them confused in my head, but every time I look at some comb, I’m also looking at a frame and holding the frame in my hands. When someone says, “That’s a beautiful frame of honey,” are they wrong? Or is beautiful comb of honey? In general conversation, it probably doesn’t matter.

  • I just read a post in another forum where a person “captured a hive”. Thanks to your article it brought up strange images in my mind. (Think “FAR SIDE” cartoon.)

    Your website is great. Keep up the good work.

    David Williams

  • Well, how about offices that are a “beehive of activity”? Or countries or regions that are a “hive of dissent” ? Seems to me our general language bears part of the blame.

    But I am guilty too, when I mention my neighbor has “a wild hive about 15 feet off the ground in a catalpa tree.”

    • Nancy,

      Makes it hard to do an inspection . . .

      Beekeepers are inconsistent, even among themselves. A beekeeper will “hive a swarm” but I’ve never heard one “hive a hive.”

  • I just read this on a forum. “My entire hive left and landed on my neighbors porch.” Funny to think about!

    • Paul,

      I disagree. If I say, “I have ten farm hands” that would mean I have ten farm workers. If I say I have 12 hives, that could be true even if I don’t have a single bee in them. If I buy hives, I’m buying empty equipment.

      If I want bees, I can buy a package with no hive included. I can’t assume that I get both if I say either “hive” or “bees” the way I can assume I’m getting a whole farm worker with (most probably) two hands when I hire just a “hand.”

      Furthermore, wild colonies do not live in hives. Hive are man-made devices that honey bees are happy to do without.

  • Thanks so much for the article in the American Bee Journal on English in beekeeping. I work in a technical field so I appreciate the precise use of words. It does help communication when we’re all using the terms the same way. Kudos to you for a great explanation.

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