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Horizontal Beehives: A Useful Guide

The man-made home of a honey bee colony is called a beehive. Inside this structure each colony carries on daily life and prepares for the cold Winter months ahead.  Bees are born, bees die and hopefully the colony prospers.  In the United States, square boxes stacked vertically are the most common hive style.  However, horizontal beehives are also favored by some beekeepers.  Why do some beekeepers feel that these are the best choice for their colonies?

Honey Bees in Vertical or Horizontal Hives

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

Bees do the same thing regardless of the orientation of their nest. To understand the needs of bees, we must consider their lifestyle.  Wild colonies live in hollow trees and other cavities – though some people still consider this to be a beehive.  The bees are just doing their own thing without any human intervention.

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The comb sheets found inside a honey bee colony contain thousand of hexagonal beeswax cells. This makes up the structure of the bees’ nest and is necessary to store all the resources needed by the colony.

Bees are hard workers and do a great job of making honey from plant nectar.  In most cases, beekeepers are able to harvest the excess honey without harming the colony’s chance of survival.

A colony can make a home inside any cavity of the right size.  If they are not happy with the arrangement, they will leave the hive and look for better accommodations.

Standard vertical Lansgroth beehive in grassy field.

Standard Langstroth Hive

The most commonly used type of beehive in the United States is the Langstroth Hive.  Developed by Rev L Langstroth in the mid 1800’s, it is comprised of several square boxes of varying heights.

Beekeepers add more boxes as the colony grows and needs more space.  A Langstroth hive can get quite heavy and tall by the end of the season.

Inside each of the boxes, wooden frames hold sheets of beeswax foundation.  These serve as a guide to encourage the bees to build out comb inside the frames.  When done properly, the beekeeper is able to remove the frames and inspect the colony for disease or other problems.

These hives are able to hold large colonies and are easy to stack and transport.  This makes them a favorite of honey producers and migratory beekeepers.

Types of Horizontal Beehives

In some parts of the world, other hive styles are common.  One example is the use of horizontal hives.  Unlike the vertical Langstroth, a horizontal hive is designed to allow the colony to expand horizontally instead of up.

There are several different types of horizontal hives in use today. These three are the most common.

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

Top Bar

Also, known as the KenyanTop Bar hive, they have been used for centuries in undeveloped countries.  They are still used today. In a location where precision carpentry tools and skill may be lacking, they are an easy hive to build. The top bar hive can be put together using materials locally available.

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.

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.  

One of the best features of the long Langstroth hive is that it uses regulation deep hive frames.  They will also fit into standard hive boxes.

This is great because it allows easy manipulation of the brood nest during hive inspections.  It is also easy to share frames between other hives because 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. He approaches beekeeping from a sustainable ideal that focuses on using local bees and a certain hive style. His hive holds 20 large layens frames (13″ x 16″). 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.

Layens style horizontal hives in snow in Europe.

Advantages

It is easy to see that there are some definite advantages to using horizontal beehives in your apiary.  Some beekeepers feel this is a more natural approach to honey bee management.  Other advantages include:

  • No heavy boxes to lift
  • Foundation is optional
  • Less equipment to store

Boxes (also called “supers”) of honey can get very heavy. A full box can easily weigh between 50 – 100 pounds. This heavy lifting is hard for some beekeepers. Not having to move heavy boxes for hive inspections is a big plus.

Some hives of this type allow the bees to build comb from supporting top bars. No foundation is installed to serve as a guide. This saves the beekeeper time and money.

With a standard beehive, the extra boxes (honey supers) are removed from the hive at harvest. These need to be stored somewhere until the next season. A long hive does not normally have honey supers.

Disadvantages

No modern hive is perfect and even long hives 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

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 to move sideways past large frames of honey. Beekeepers with horizontal hives help the bees by monitoring for crowded conditions.

In many apiaries, honey is harvested in small frames. They weigh less and are easy to handle. After honey extraction, the empty wax comb is often saved for the colony to use again.

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. No queen excluder is used which might be a good thing but this means you may have more bee brood in your honey.

Everyday tasks in the bee yard are easier for the horizontal hive beekeeper. No moving heavy boxes to look inside the one below. However, if you have to move the whole hive – it can not be broken apart into several pieces. The hive as a whole is heavy!

Horizontal Vs. Vertical Beehives

Everyone 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 strong advantages to this method of beekeeping. If the beekeeper is up to the challenge of more hands-on management.

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

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