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Which Honey Bee Boxes do You Need?

Keeping honey bees is a favorite pastime for so many people.  Along with learning how to take care of the bees, you also have to understand the names and functions of many pieces of beekeeping equipment.  The most popular type of beehive is made up of boxes that stack on top of one another.  These honey bee boxes are called by different names and come in a variety of sizes.  Let’s try to clear up some of the confusion.

Understanding Langstroth Hive Boxes

Many different sizes of honey bee boxes stacked together for beehives.

The most common beehive in use in the United States is the Langstroth hive.  It was developed in the mid 1800’s by a Methodist minister – Rev Lorenzo Langstroth.  This hive design features removable frames.  This makes inspecting the hive possible without destroying all the comb.

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Another important feature of a “Lang” hive is the component structure.  In addition to basic parts of a beehive (a bottom board, top and inner cover), -it is made up of a number of boxes.  As the colony grows, more bee boxes are stacked on top.

Green hive box with frames.

10 Frames vs 8 Frames

Until recent years, Langstroth hives were designed for the use of 10 frames.  These wooden frames hold beeswax foundation (or plastic foundations). This gives the bee a guide that hopefully encourages them to build comb inside the wooden frame. A standard Lang box has outside measurements of 16” wide and 19 7/8” in length.

Today, some beekeepers choose to use a smaller beehive.  These 8-frame hives are a bit narrower than the standard hive. This is due to using 2 fewer frames in each one.  Otherwise, the length remains the same.

Eight frame hives are nice because they are lighter in weight. However, this also means less space inside for the colony. Swarm prevention may be a bit more difficult in the smaller hive.

Small apiary with hives using different sized boxes.

Types of Honey Bee Boxes

In the active world of beekeeping a variety of boxes are used for colony management.  There is no “written in stone” rule that defines the use of each box size.  Still, beekeepers tend to favor special sizes for certain uses.

  • Deep or Hive Body
  • Medium
  • Shallow

Deep Hive Body

A deep box is often used for the brood chamber of the colony.  It measures 9 5/8” in height. You will hear this called: a deep, deep super, brood nest or hive body.  Some beekeepers use 2 deeps to give the bees room to raise young and store food for Winter

This size is not normally used as a honey harvest option for the beekeeper.  It becomes very heavy when filled with honey and is more weight than most beekeepers want to bother with.  They prefer smaller boxes for honey collection.

Medium Supers

Mediums are the same width and length as the other boxes but their height is only 6 5/8”.  They are sometimes used as a second food storage box for the hive. This is a good option if the beekeeper does not want to use 2 deeps as their standard hive configuration.

These medium honey bee boxes can hold 8 or 10 frames depending on the preference of the beekeeper.  In fact, some apiarists choose to use medium supers for all the boxes of the hive.  In this case, 3 are used together to give the bees a home.  This takes the place of 2 deeps or a deep and one medium or shallow.

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Shallow Super Hive Boxes

The shallow super measures 5 7/8” tall. This is the favorite size to use for honey collection. Their smaller size and weight makes them easier to handle and move as honey supers. 

Sometimes, beekeepers add special “frame spacers” that allow the frames to be spaced a bit farther apart evenly.  This allows the comb to be built our farther and makes honey extraction easier.

Stack of shallow bee boxes.

Number of Boxes Needed for Each Hive

The ideal number of honey bee boxes for each hive begins with 1.  The population of the colony determines the number of boxes that should be in use at any time. 

Giving the bees too much space is a bad idea.  If they can not patrol and depend the hive interior, pests such as wax moths or Small Hive Beetles can take over.

A new bee package begins with 1 box – usually a deep (unless you plan to use only mediums).  Once 3-4 weeks of colony growth passes, it may be time to add a second box

These two boxes may be 2 deeps, 1 deep and 1 medium, 1 deep and 1 shallow or 2 mediums.  It is up to the beekeeper to decide. Beginner beekeepers should not rush adding too many boxes to the colony.

Unless you live in a very warm area, your colony needs at least 2 boxes for their own needs.  One box is not enough to raise their brood and store food for the cold months.  Not giving your bees enough space increases their chance of starvation and ups the odds that they may swarm.

In general, plan on having 2 boxes for each beehive to form the basic home for your colony.  Then, at least 2 shallow (or medium) supers should be kept available for the honey flow season.  Be sure to have the frames and foundation necessary to complete your hive.

Extra boxes are nice to have on hand because they can be used temporarily to give hives added ventilation. They also function well to help enclose some types of internal bee feeders.

Variations in Dimensions of Hive Components

It is important to remember that there are “slight” variations in measurements of beehive parts. Each manufacturer can vary the width, length or height slightly. 

The truth is that most beekeeping equipment is not cut to precise measurement – though I sure wish it was!

If the “bee space” is off, you may have problems with the bees building excess burr comb. When possible, try to buy honey bee boxes and frames from the same source or manufacturer. The gives you the best chance for a good fit.

However, don’t fret too much if this doesn’t work out. At least in theory, you should be able to order beekeeping supplies from any manufacturer and have them fit well enough for use.

You may decide to try another type of beehive. Top Bar Hives and Warre hives are favored by some beekeepers.

Each one has a slightly different management technique. Be sure to educate yourself on colony management for any type of hive. And once the season is over, you have to decide how to store your unused bee equipment over Winter.