Horizontal Beehives

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Beekeepers of today have a few choices when it comes to hive design. One interesting approach is the use of horizontal beehives. These differ from the common traditional stacked boxes we often see. Let’s explore some of the fundamental aspects of horizontal hives, as well as, the pros and cons of using them for your bees.

Long horizontal hive of bees with top opened and smoker sitting on it.

The way a beekeeper manages their bee colonies is affected by the type of beehive chosen. Every style can be successful and has advantages and challenges.

Understanding Horizontal Hives

Traditional hives consist of boxes that are stacked vertically. This includes the common Langstroth Hive (the dimensions of the Langstroth Hive – developed by Lorenzo Langstroth)- and the Warre Hive.

However, a horizontal beehive does not use stacked boxes – instead it features a long rectangle or horizontal shape. The beekeeper manages the colony from the side – rather than removing boxes to examine frames inside.

Types of Horizontal Beehives

There are several different types of hives that use the horizonal design. Due to the confusion that sometimes surrounds beekeeping terms – make sure to understand which hive someone is referring to when speaking about them.

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3 Most Common

  • Top Bar
  • Long Langstroth
  • Layens
Top bar hive, open hive and frame of bees building wax.

Top Bar

Also, known as the Kenyan Top Bar hive, these hives have been used for centuries in undeveloped countries. In locations lacking precision carpentry tools and skill -they are an easy beehive to build.

Instead of rectangular wood frames, this hive uses top bars only. The honey bees build comb from the top bar down. 

A beekeeper can still remove the frames for inspection but the comb is not as sturdy. Care must be taken to avoid breaking the honeycomb.

Layens style horizontal hives in snow in Europe.

Horizontal (Long) Langstroth Hives

The “Long Langs” give a beekeeper a bit of the best of both worlds. Instead of square boxes in a stack, one long box holds the colony.  However, the long Langstroth hive uses regulation deep hive frames. 

This is great because it is easy to share frames between other hives-everything is a uniform size. Also, if you need to combine colonies from different hives – the job is easier.

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Layens Hive

Georges de Layens is a leading authority on beekeeping in Europe and developer of the Layens Hive. His hive holds 20 large layens hive frames (13″ x 16″).

These are extra deep frames compared to other hive types. His method is outlined in his book – Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives.

It features a minimalist approach to hive management and is very interesting. However, it is important to note – he is using local survivor bee stock – not bees that are purchased in bulk from suppliers.

Beehive inspections in a horizontal hive vs a standard bee hive.

Pros

There are some notable advantages to using horizontal beehives in your apiary. This is especially true for beekeepers seeking a more natural approach to beekeeping.

  • easy accessibility
  • natural bee behavior
  • easier swarm control
  • less equipment to store

Accessibility

In general, beekeeping involves some hard work – the heavy lifting is hard for some beekeepers. When using a horizontal beehive – not having to move heavy boxes for hive inspections is a big plus.

Natural Bee Behavior

Advocates for horizontal beekeeping feel that the long horizontal hive cavity allows for more natural behavior by the bees.

Some hives of this type (Top Bar and Warre) allow the bees to build comb from supporting top bars. The beekeeper does not install wax foundation to serve as a guide. This saves the beekeeper time and money and allows the colony to use foundationless frames for natural comb..

Swarm Control

Honey bee swarming is a natural activity. But, it is not always something that a beekeeper wants to happen.

With a horizontal hive, it is not necessary to unstack a lot of hive boxes and disrupt the whole colony. This allows the beekeeper to use swarm prevention techniques faster and easier.

Less Storage Required

With standard hives, the added boxes (honey supers) are removed from the hive at harvest. All of these honey supers must be stored until the next season. A long hive does not normally have honey supers or added boxes to remove.

Frames inside horizontal hives during beekeeper inspection.

Cons

No modern hive is perfect and even horizontal beehives have some drawbacks and disadvantages.

  • increased frequency of inspections
  • harvesting honey is not as easy
  • no queen excluder needed
  • more difficult to move the whole hive – heavy

Frequent Inspections

Because of the layout of the brood nest, horizontal hives typically require more frequent inspections. This is mainly to ensure that the queen has room to lay and discourage the swarming impulse.

If the colony is feeling crowded, it is more difficult for them to move sideways past large frames of honey. Beekeepers with horizontal hives help the bees expand the brood nest by monitoring for crowded conditions.

Harvesting Challenges

With standard beehives, honey is usually harvested in small frames that are easy to handle. After honey extraction, the empty wax comb is often saved for the colony to use again. Of course, you don’t have to use a honey extractor but that is a big plus.

In horizontal hives that only use top bars, extraction is not possible. The beekeeper must use the cut and strain method and the colony must rebuild all of the honeycomb each season. This normally results in less honey production for a hive.

No Excluder

In most cases, no queen excluder is used in horizontal hives. This might be a good thing as it allows the bees plenty of room for expansion. But, it also means the beekeeper may have bee brood in the honey frames.

Hive Relocation

The need to move a beehive – any beehive-is something beekeepers strive to avoid. However, with standard hives – you can unstack the boxes if you must.

However, to relocate a horizontal hive – you must move it in one piece. And, the hive as a whole is heavy!

Standard vertical Lansgroth beehive in grassy field.

Horizontal Vs. Vertical Beehives

Every beekeeper wants only the best hives for their bees. In the argument for horizontal vs vertical beehives, which one is best?

As with most things related to keeping honey bees, I don’t think there is a clear answer. To a degree, it depends on your beekeeping goals. 

If your main purpose of keeping bees is to produce honey, stay with the traditional Langstroth hives. Honey production is much easier to control in the standard set up.

For those interested in having bees for fun or garden pollination, either type of hive works well. There are beekeepers who strongly feel that the horizontal hive is more natural.

I’m not sure I completely agree due to the fact that bees in trees build up and down – not out and back. 

However, I can see some advantages to this method of beekeeping. If the beekeeper is up to the challenge of more hands-on management – it might be a good idea.

FAQs

Why should I consider using a horizontal beehive instead of a traditional vertical one?

Horizontal beehives are a good option for beekeepers that struggle with the heavier lifting required by standard vertical hives.

Are there specific challenges to managing horizontal hives?

Horiontal hive managment includes the possibility of heat and moisture problems as the bees may not be able to properly ventilate the hive cavity. The beekeeper also has to adapt to new inspection techniques that are a bit different than a Langstroth hive.

Do horizontal hives require different equipment compared to traditional hives?

Unless the beekeeper is using a “Long Lang Hive” that uses standard frames-the equipment (top bars etc) for horizontal hives is a bit different and not interchangeable.

Can I use horizontal hives in all climates?

While horizontal beehives can thrive in most climates, beekeepers in extreme climates will face special challenges due to excessive heat or cold.

Is it difficult for beekeepers to switch from vertical to horizontal hives?

Switching from vertical to horizontal hives is certainly possible but it can be challenging. If you consider this, be sure to connect with local beekeepers using the same type of hive for advice.

A Final Word

Should you give a horizontal hive a try? For new beekeepers, I recommended staying with the industry standard Langstroth beehive for a couple of seasons. Then, you may decide to experiment with other types of hives. Unless you have a local hands on mentor (familiar with long hives), it is a harder journey to go alone -especially for newbies.