What history tells us about hive design and ventilation

The original Langstroth hives had more features for hive ventilation than modern versions.

Hive designers in the past were extremely concerned with ventilation for bee health and productivity. As hives became mass produced, ventilation was largely ignored. It’s time we re-evaluated this vital concept.

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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  • I wonder if I’d read more bee books if I had a Kindle? I have friends who say they read twice as much now that they have Kindles, though most of them don’t have as demanding a work schedule as I do.

    Anyway, beekeepers in my part of the world don’t seem to use screened bottom boards or many ventilation aids. I have the materials to make some ventilation rims and even a slatted rack — as soon as I can find the time. I don’t want to experiment with my bees anymore, but I think a slatted rack should be a safe bet. Right?

    By the way, do you know if the spaces between the slats need to line up with the spaces between the frames? Or does it really matter? My initial thought was that the bees probably don’t care. But maybe they do.

    • Phillip,

      In Newfoundland, the direction of the slats won’t matter. Normally, the idea is that the slats should line up with the frames so that mites falling off the frames go straight down between the slats and then through the screen and fall out the bottom of the hive. If the slats went crosswise the mites would land on them and be able to re-enter the brood nest. But in your situation, no mites=no problem.

      Yeah, I read more since I got the Kindle. I didn’t think I would because I like the feel, look, smell, etc. of bound volumes. But, the Kindle is so small I just take it with me. If I have a few minutes–even waiting in lines–I can start reading. When I used to carry a book around, it often wasn’t the thing I actually felt like reading at the moment I opened it. With the Kindle, the world is your oyster. You can read anything you feel like, anytime. I’m hooked.

    • Phillip,

      Two more things I like about Kindles:

      1. They remember where you left off so you don’t have to mark the page.
      2. You can send .pdf files to Amazon and they send them back in Kindle format for free. So when I have a bunch of scientific journal articles that are going to take be a while to wade through, I have them converted. Then I carry those around too.

  • I absolutely agree about the ventilation issue. That is why I do not paint my hives. Latex paint is the same as a plastic coating. The natural wood breaths. My top-bar hives have a large roof so the elements never touch the hive body, making it easy to have untreated wood. I also have screened bottoms, which I put a board over when it is really cold, but leave off most of the time.

    When all my bee buddies lost half of their hives last winter it became very clear from the condition of the inside of the hives that it was ultimately moisture that caused the losses.

  • I couldn’t agree more with Rusty here. Ventilation is a must in most all areas of the world. I can take my sunglasses and put them over the inner cover slot and see the massive build-up of moisture and hot air flowing out of the colony at any time of year, especially during the flows and summer months, even in periods of dearth!!!

    I am a residential carpenter. I make gabled ventilated tops for all my colonies. I also have vented inner covers, or run none during summer, depending on the colony size. I have seen a reduction in internal hive temps during periods of high daytime temps. When I first moved to my home in Maryland, I had massive issues with the standard flat tops not allowing air to flow, even when propping them on one side. Winter was the worst!!! I had mold and mildew build up on the bottom of my inner cover, which in my opinion, IS REALLY REALLY BAD!!!

    The very next spring, I quickly decided to make ventilated gable tops. After making and installing these tops, I have not seen ANY moisture. In fact, my colonies seem to be more productive and have a place to corral SHB [small hive beetles] effectively out of the hive in the attic that has been created. In winter, I add a piece of foil insulation that is set on top of the inner cover loosely. This creates a dead space of air for moisture to accumulate outside the colony. This keeps the colony warmer and far drier than any other combination.

    • Would you mind sharing a picture of your ventilated gable tops? We too live in Maryland and were thinking about making gabled vent boxes to provide ventilation. We have vent boxes right now, but we don’t feel that there is enough protection from rain. They are 3/4 inch holes with a downward angle that’s fairly steep, and they we used window screen on the inside to prevent anything from getting in to the hive. Seeing a picture of your ventilated gable tops would be great!

      Thanks (in advance)!

      • I have one of Bill’s ventilated gabled tops here which I experimented with last winter. It is by far the best I’ve seen. I’m overdue writing about it but now that you reminded me I’ll get to it asap. With photos.

    • Hi Bill, I am in my 5th year of keeping bees here near the Susquehanna in Md. I too am a carpenter and recently have been thinkong about venitlation. If it is good practice to ventilate your own roof all year round, then why not the bee box. Is there anyway I could get the plans or a rough sketch or picture of your gabled roof for the hives? Thank you.

  • Rusty,

    I’m one of the folks who believe in ventilation being a good thing. I have a screened bottom board and during the summer months place a ventilated inner cover to assure good air flow (be careful that they don’t fill the screen totally with propolous). I also use the “hole in the brood box” to provide an upper entrance as well as more ventilation.

    In the Chicago area we have very high heat and humidity and I believe the circulation helps reduce the moisture content and keep the girls happier. I am looking to experiment with your moisture quilt for the winter to see if it helps reduce moisture in the hive and help the bees survive. The challenge there will be making sure there is a way to supplement feeding if necessary.

    Been thinking of a Kindle or some kind of e-book, but am concerned about the cost of converting the library from bound to electronic.

    Have a great day.

    • Gary,

      I placed a 3-inch eke directly above the brood box and then I put the moisture quilt on top of that. When I needed to feed sugar cakes or pollen patties, I just lifted one end of the quilt and put the feed in the eke. This worked great for me last year and I intend to do it again this year.

  • We prepared to harvest honey in Virginia in the latter part of July, during a heat spell, drought, and with high humid temperatures. When opening the hive, we were surprised to find that most of the cells had honey, but they were not capped by the honey bees? We only had three frames that were capped out of five hives so we left the other frames in the hive. All five hives are full of honey bees and they appear to be working hard. We are so baffled by this situation and we would appreciate any suggestions anyone might have as to the problem. Thank you

    • Mac,

      The answer to your question is in your first sentence: high humidity. Honey bees “dry” the honey, which means they drive out most of the water by fanning their wings and creating air currents through the hive. Only when the water in the honey is reduced to about 18 percent, do they cap it. If they cap it too soon it can ferment and be ruined, so they must wait until it reaches the 18 percent moisture. But when your relative humidity is so high, no amount of fanning will dry the honey. This is because the air is so full of moisture it can’t easily hold more.

      About the only thing you can do is wait for the relative humidity to drop and then the bees will finish the job. You can make things easier for them by making sure they have good ventilation. Replace inner covers with screened covers or use a small piece of wood to prop open the cover so the humid air can easily escape out the top. You can read the following post for more information about summer ventilation and honey production:

  • In Chicago we have run across the same situation with full comb but not capped and attributed it to the high humidity levels as well. Hopefully in the near future we will get some drier weather and the girls will be able to cap off the stores they have right now.


    Thanks for the response about the eke that you are putting between the moisture quilt and the top of the hive. I assume an eke is a 3 inch spacer similar to what we use for the giving area to the baggie feeder when we feed in the spring?



    • Gary,

      Right. Some call them baggies feeders but since they are so versatile, I like to call them ekes. I use them for lots of things besides liquid food bags.

  • For overwintering, I put newspaper over the top bars, an empty shallow, and pour sugar on top of that. I leave about 3/4s of an inch in the front open, so the bees can get up and out the top entrance. By the end of winter, the sugar is hard rock candy from all the moisture it absorbs, and half to 3/4s is eaten. What moisture that doesn’t go out the entrance, is completely absorbed by the newspaper and sugar.

    I leave a small opening at the bottom for some air circulation. That’s it. Works the best…for me.

    I have a couple of the screened bottom boards, but I really don’t see any advantage for mites, or moisture. Just more stuff to buy, that really isn’t needed, as far as I’m concerned. I already have too many fiddly bits to fiddle with!

    The price of sugar is starting to scare me a little though, I must say.

  • We must balance two issues here: first, what wild bees do; second, realizing that we do keep them in unnatural setting – how much should we meddle.
    First is quite easy: bees naturally live in heavily insulated holes in the trees, typically with one, small entrance (actively walking off any other natural holesif they exist) which is typically located toward the bottom area of the natural hive. Bees, like many other social insects have ability to be their own air conditioner and (de)humidifiers. That fact seem to be forgotten and bees humanized and given technological solutions.
    Second is harder as beekeeping standards and practices vary wildly. Sticking to some generally accepted setups based on the Langstroth ideas we also must accept that we create some unnatural conditions and must help when conditions are beyond bee control. From several generations of beekeeping in the family, Central European climate, following proved most natural and helpful:
    -single, bottom entrance of standard size year round.
    -screened, imperfectly enclosed IPC bottom, year round.
    -warm weather half of the year additional screened (non-entry) ventilation above inner cover (natural hives are smaller and not as exposed to hot weather as ours). Empty drilled/screened body or purpose built smaller section/ventilator.
    -cold weather half of the year no ventilation of any kind on the top. Additional heavy insulation over the inner cover. Several inches worth of good insulator (again in adapted body or purpose built section) and hive wrapped in insulating material – mimicking natural hive. There is some condensation… where it should be – on the coldest part, screened bottom, draining away of bees and interior. (We must not forget the part of air circulation forced by the bees, it is not just passive system and they instinctively know how to do the right thing when top is closed and air enters from below)
    Under these condition we found that bees make the most of their own instincts and abilities to regulate micro-climate of the hive.

  • My understanding of it all it that RH is a bi-product of CO2. Therefore RH is due to a lack of ventilation in the design of the hive. We have the same issues as we work on our fiberglass hives. Moisture droplets gather on the polystyrene insulation. It is getting better.

    • Greg,

      I don’t understand what you mean by “RH is a bi-product of CO2.” Both water vapor and CO2 are produced by respiration of the bees, true. But how is relative humidity a “by-product” of CO2?

  • Thanks to you, I made my own ventilated top covers and eke combo for less than $20. I made one for summer and one that’s deeper to hold more bedding in winter. I feel like that’s definitely one thing I have done right for my bees even if I have made a few rookie mistakes I am hopeful for this winter and next year I want to add a double nuc box and keep two nucs for overwinter insurance and if successful I can help new beekeepers populate hives with northern queens instead of southern packages.

  • Rusty,

    You hadn’t finished reading “The Quest for the Perfect Hive” at the time you wrote this post. I assume you’ve finished by now. How was it?

  • Excellent article !! Finally, someone else speaks the truth about the Langstroth hive ! We use the modified lang hive today,correctly spoken. Also, look into the Buckeye hive and their published results from testimonies of beekeepers as relating to insulation and ventilation.

    All we have to do is look at what the Lord made for bees to live in, their preferred nesting cavity, the tree. Inside we find lots of fresh air, insulation, and more. Langstroth spoke greatly on fresh air, warmth, and dryness in his writings. Likening copious amounts of fresh air to health of people.

    So, yes we keep bees in extremely hot and cold and wet boxes. I believe this adds greatly to the stresses of the bees, and makes them much less able to fight off things due to ill health, at the least. I have been using insulated and ventilated hives for three years now, and am perfecting others. I have had 75% overwinter success in mid- michigan so far, and that is without medicines. And, i am not even that good of a beekeeper really, only ten years along.Look at the fellow up in Ontario, Canada, whom developed and sells the (d.e. hive?) or something like that, i think it is called? For his name, david eirie or the like.

    I will look the name up, i forgot it now, but the testimony he publishes is SO good as to almost be unbelievable. Look for yourselves.

    He is the one who sells the ventilation kit you can use with regular modified lang stuff. (He and i disagree however on insulation, i believe he says it not being as important or the like, check for yourselves, i can not quote him correctly or speak for him) But he publishes incredible testimony about his system of ventilation and the results. There may be other things too, check for yourselves , but ventilation the main point here.

    Anyways, this is truth. And Langstroth himself said others would quickly pervert his design, (which they did) to save money.

    He too, felt keeping bees in anything less than his design would be terrible to the creatures, and wrote at great length and description concerning these matters. Thank you for publishing this article. And finally, let us put truth to that foolish and harmful saying beekeepers keep passing on as gospel,( which is harmfully , partially true) just because someone told them it.

    The one which says ” bees only heat up the cluster, not the box”

    Well of course they do. But why???

    Because they have to, they have no other choice!

    Because if you put ten people in an unheated uninsulated small wood house, out in the cold, they would cling together and shake just like a cluster of bees do in these bare thin boxes. And the
    heat from their bodies would never heat that up either. And yes, they would take turns rotating in and out of the pile of bodies, so they would not die also.

    And, in the heat, people would be hanging out on the porch, bearding up just like they do also. So yes, they do, because they have to!!!

    Another destructive thought people pass along is that people pass along is how bees never break cluster. Well, that may be true in the boxes we use, but check the studies of insulated boxes, and you find that bees do break cluster if they can, and they do ! It has been proven sufficiently and published as well.We force them not to because the inside of our hives is just about the same temp. as the outside temp, because thier animal heat can not heat the inside ! A tree on the other hand is around 40 degrees i believe ( can not prove that, but in a living tree it must be at least above freezing because water flows in the bark even in winter. And, that is in the outer layer of the tree, not even the inside where there are bees living, heating the thing up around them!)
    ~ and, the bees can move around in that temperature quite well as has been proven and published also.
    So, there you go. People need to come to truth on thier own.

    They can build better homes for bees. Especially backyard and small beekeepers. And this will give them a much better chance to be successful, by eliminating the problems associated with cold, wet, hot living quarters with inadequate supplies of healthy fresh air. Just the way we need to live to be healthy!

    But for me, i continue in this direction. My hives cost a lot to build, and are time consuming. But they will last for a generation or more, and the bees will be able to live happily and healthy as they can hopefully. Not saying i have the perfect design, but mine is around 7 times the r factor of a bare box, and provides lots of fresh air exchange. Time will tell.

    And for equipment asting? Did you know one of the better old time beekeepers in our land used his combs for over fifty years alone?

    Check it out yourselves. His name was C. P Dadant. He had some success with bees. 🙂 study his work and see.There is a lot we can learn from the old time beekeepers and others in foriegn lands. Even Kirk Webster tells us he ” lifted” most of the stuff he uses from the old bee people. And he has been very successful id say. So, i say keep experimenting. Use wisdom and reason in your approach, and look to others whom have had success over time. Us beekeepers love that trying new things, ot is one of the great joys of this occupation for us all. And search for truth, because so much that gets spoken of and passed along as truth is actually flawed, or not really fully true at all. Keep up the good work Rusty.

    I hope what i wrote here may edify others, and not to be seen as harmful in any way to any other specific others as well. Thank you,

    from Michigan

  • I wish to write sometime about what i consider the other most destructive problem honey bees face, in my opinion, which is quality forage. Because once we get the living quarters going good, then we need to look to the food and nutrition. And these are things we as beekeepers can do something about ! And that gives me hope ! We all need some of that.

    Quality living quarters and food and water. Kind of like what we need!

    Thank you Rusty for a place like this and for this forum you have.


    from Michigan

  • Rusty,

    After re-reading your article, I must say again I could not agree more with what you wrote. It provoked strong emotion in myself. While i have not read the book you speak about, my own research over the last several years into ventilated hives (and insulated ones, not incidentally) certainly backs up all you are saying. I too feel these boxes are most inadequate and harmful. We force these creatures to live in them basically.

    I believe also that these thoughts on ventilation (fresh air supply and exchanges) being re-“discovered” and published today are gaining great interest ~ and will continue to show that the current most common hives in use today (the modified Langstroths) at the least, are not the best way in which to house honey bees in optimum health. Being practiced mostly for now in the small beekeeping operations.

    Again i am thrilled to see in print the fact that the current hives most in use today are not even close to Reverend Langstroth’s original designs and intentions, and that he will be given the proper credit due. More so that a some 150 year deviation from such a wonderful hive design can now be rectified, and more fully considered worthy and accepted and again brought forth in differing forms which others will certainly make. To be truthful, he credited not himself, but God whom brought certain revelations to him while walking; as he wrote in his own words; and many others also before him as well.

    Hopefully, as folks continue to experiment with these ideas, i believe it will follow, that insulated hive designs will be re- “discovered” as well, and married into the new designs, just as the good Reverend Langstroth made his ~ (both insulated and ventilated. ), the results being found much superior.

    And that the original hive from the beginning, the natural choice of home for the honey bee, would be the inspiration of many; to the benefit of these mysterious and wondrous little creatures, and to us all, both the people whom love and “keep” them, and all mankind whom benefit from their existence and important place in the creation.

    We shall see.

    from Michigan

    • Brian,

      If you want notification of new posts, there is a sign-up link in the top right of most all pages. If you want notification of follow-up comments, you need to make a comment that includes your email address, and then check the appropriate box on the bottom left of the comment box.

  • Rusty,
    Thank you!
    I wondered if you read my comments above. And if so, what are your thoughts of what i wrote? Or, anyone else’s for that matter.
    Also, have you read up on the Buckeye Hive?

  • On my Kindle, I have Langstroth’s The Hive and Honey Bee, and Root’s The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, both costing a mere $0.99 each. Thousands of pages. Trouble is, it’s hard to use anything on Kindle for reference. Often I will purchase the Kindle as an inexpensive way to know if I want to buy the bound book.

  • Very interesting article.

    In regards to the comments of Brian and Dusanmal, I too, have been working on providing more insulation for my bees. I don’t know that it will address all the problems bees experience, but it should help with wintering. I suspect it will also help during spring and summer. I’ve moved from 3/4″ boxes to 1 1/2″ boxes. Now I am trying polystyrene hives. I’ll be wintering 3/7 hives in poly boxes this winter.

    I’m also not convinced that a lot of ventilation is necessary in the winter. To that end, the last two winters I’ve experimented with plexiglass inner covers with the notched side up. In other words, no top ventilation whatsoever. The bees have done fine. They lick up the condensation that forms on the glass. I’ve only seen this in early fall, and late spring. (I live just west of Richmond, VA) I am interested to see if the bees will be able to move outside of the cluster when temps hit 10-20 degrees F in the poly boxes.

    Thank you, Rusty for this wonderful website.

  • Just wondering how bees handle being inside tree trunks, which often have only one ‘entrance’, and thus no cross-ventilation. Does the non-living lignaceous wood absorb the moisture? Thoughts?

  • In my opinion, and I live where there are bugs all over the place (tho not in my house, well maybe a few, sometimes), is that you don’t need an annual Pest Control Delta and Pest Control Surrey (Exterminator surrey) contract; it is just a rip-off.

    If you start to have more pests over time, you can call and they can treat the problem once, at that time. You can also spray the entire perimeter of your house if that happens and the bugs go away. That is what we do, and on occasion have had to have professional work done, but not every year.

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