Recently I began reading The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture by entomologist Gene Kritsky (2010). The book is a history of hive design from ancient times to the present. It includes drawings, photos, and descriptions of what worked and what didn’t. And it also examines why some hives were more popular than others, regardless of how well they worked.
I’m only about halfway through the book—57% if you believe my Kindle—but one recurring theme kept me awake last night: hive ventilation.
The perfect hive and airflow
In hive after hive, Kritsky details the various ventilation provisions designed for both temperature control and moisture removal. Pottery hives dating back to 500 BCE had lids with vent holes. Skep hives in the 1800s had lids with adjustable zinc ventilators. Some hives in the late 1800s had multiple ventilators with internal thermometers that beekeepers could read through sliding doors. And a similar hive featured a perforated floor where airflow could be adjusted with a metal slide. Hive after hive had features that could help the bees stay comfortable.
The original Langstroth hive was a warren of creature amenities that included double-paned glass sides for insulation and moisture control. A sloping bottom allowed drainage of rainwater and a screened ventilation port at the bottom with an adjustable panel provided good airflow. As Langstroth’s hive evolved, beekeepers discarded feature after feature. Except for bee space and movable frames, what we now call a Langstroth bears little resemblance to the original.
Although many beekeepers view ventilation as a non-essential luxury, many others believe ventilation is key to long-term honey bee health and high productivity. Too much heat causes bees to congregate on the outside of the hive; too much cold can kill a colony. Excess moisture in the summer makes drying honey energy-expensive and time-consuming; too much moisture in winter can chill the bees and promote disease.
Hive design and bee health
As I said, I’ve not finished reading the book. But I assume our indifference to proper ventilation stems from a desire for easy-to-use and inexpensive hives—hives that will quickly give us a return on investment. Have we chosen high honey production and efficient pollination service over long-term honey bee health?
A vast number of new beekeepers fail after the first or second winter. A lot of those beekeepers plunked down good money for a “complete hive kit” or some variation that has no provision for hive ventilation. (Although, since the advent of Varroa mites, you sometimes get a screened bottom board with a beginner kit.) So the nascent beekeeper—already at a disadvantage because of lack of experience—is further handicapped by a deficient hive. This hardly seems fair.
It’s time to review our beekeeping history
I think it’s time we review a few thousand years of beekeeping history and embrace what those before us knew: ventilation is vital. We cannot raise healthy, productive bees in a stuffy, damp, overheated, and pathogen-laden environment. Beyond the economic cost, it borders on cruelty.
Honey Bee Suite
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