The Buzz on Observation Hives

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Since the earliest experiences between humans and bees, we have been curious about happenings inside the beehive. One way to learn more about bee life is to have an observation hive. These hives are valuable educational tools for beekeepers and researchers. They are designed to provide a window into the inner workings of a honey bee colony. Observation hives come in many different sizes and designs. This article explores the basics of choosing and using an observation hive.

Honey bees behind glass wall of observation hive.

Whether you are a beekeeper or just a bee lover, the idea of having an observation hive has some appeal. They allow observation of everyday bee activities in a way not available in standard beehive designs.

Main Kinds of Observation Hives

The standard types of observation hives are:

  • permanent
  • temporary

Permanent Installations

Permanent observation hives are generally large, elaborate designs. You might see this type of set up in a classroom or public educational sites. 

The inside box holds several frames of honey comb for the bees. And, the foragers come and go through a special pipe (or outlet) to the outside world.

This style of hive can be installed outdoors too, but the keeper must provide more glass covers to give the bees privacy.  Also, extra insulation may be required during Winter depending on your climate.

The goal of a permanent observation hive is to have a bee family living in it year-round.  This means it must be large enough for the colony population to expand and contract throughout the season.

Temporary or Portable

Temporary observation hives are the ones most popular with beekeepers.  These are small portable units that are used for education events (farmers markets, street fairs, education booths etc). They do vary in size from a small unit that holds one or two frames to a larger nuc size hive unit.

In a temporary set up, the bees are confined to the observation hive. It is usually used for only 1 day and the bees are returned to the main colony box at the end of the day.

Components of Observation Hives

The exact parts of your observation hive will depend on the type and size of your set up. But, each one requires some of the same elements.

  • Base – sturdiness
  • Frame – outer structure that holds the glass and frames of comb
  • Cover – top cover that seals the unit
  • Glass walls
  • Feeder

A sturdy base, keeps the unit from turning over – that’s important! The outer edge (normally called the frame) may be plastic or wood. It holds everything in place.

The cover or top of the unit has a handle to make transportation easier (if a portable unit). It also has screened ventilation holes to provide air flow. 

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Ventilation is very important to bee health. Good air flow is typically achieved through small holes or screens in the hive’s cover. This prevents moisture buildup. In fact, ventilation is important for any beehive.

Either one of the sides or the top cover is removable. You have to have a way to get the frames of comb and bees in and out of the box!

The glass is the most important part of the observation hive as it provides a viewing area into the colony. It allows observers to watch the bees at work and see the hive’s internal structure.

A feeder is an optional feature of a temporary observation hives. If you make sure the chosen comb has some honey in the cells – they could be okay for a short time without one.

For a larger or permanent hive, a feeder is typically located on the side of the hive and can be filled with sugar syrup for feeding bees.

Numerous bees on frame of comb.

Choosing the Right Observation Hive

It is very important to understand that observation hives generally require more work and maintenance than regular beehives. 

Why? Well, this is not a natural environment for a honey bee colony. They do not normally live in a box with this structure.

This is one of the main reasons that I prefer the temporary observation hive for educational purposes. In this case, the bees are only out of normal hive conditions for a few hours.

Factors to consider:

  • Number of bees
  • Location
  • Cost
  • Maintenance

Balancing the bee population with the amount of space inside the observation hive is one of the most challenging aspects. The number of frames inside will determine the number of bees you can have.

Normally, deep frames are used but the hive can be designed for other sizes too (medium frames or shallow). Full-size hives will require several frames of comb.

Location is a consideration if you are placing a permanent hive. If you plan to keep the hive indoors, you will need a hive that can fit into a specific space and provide adequate ventilation. They will also need an exit pipe allowing them to come and go without disturbance.

The cost of an observation hive can vary significantly, depending on the type and size of the hive.

You may decide to build your own observation bee hive – which is a great idea as long as you follow a good plan and keep bee space in mind – the same as building any beehive.

Beekeepers new to the experience, often fail to understand the amount of maintenance that an observation hive requires.

A temporary (show and tell) event is no problem and does not usually put much stress on the bees involved. However, a permanently installed unit requires more work.

Consider how much time and effort you are willing to put into maintaining the hive and choose a hive that meets your needs.

Benefits of Observation Bee Hives

Observation hives provide several benefits to beekeepers, researchers, and enthusiasts. They provide a window into the fascinating world of honeybees.

Also, they can be used to teach students and researchers about bee biology, the bees’ behavior, and ecology. In some cases, there are used to conduct research on bee health, productivity, and disease.

Observation hives can be a source of entertainment and aesthetic appeal, providing a unique and captivating experience for visitors to homes, offices, and public spaces.

They can also be used in museums and other educational settings for public outreach. They do engage visitors and raise awareness about the importance of bees.

Installing Bees in the Hive

When installing bees into an observation hive, the procedure varies depending on whether you are installing into a permanent fixture or a portable one.

Permanent Indoor

For a permanent indoor hive, one method is to sit the colony or nuc box of bees near the outside entrance pipe for a couple of days. Let them get used to coming to that area as “home”. 

Then, take your internal box unit outside to this location and remove the frames of comb (with bees) from the hive and place them inside the glass box. 

When you take the glass box back inside, and connect it to the outside pipe – some bees will start to exit to the outside. They will fan and release pheromones to help guide their outside sisters to the hive. 

Remove the transportation hive you had sitting outside and, in a few days, – they will work things out.

My single frame observation hive that holds one deep frame.

Temporary Portable Hives

For a temporary portable observation hive, the process is even easier.  These are often single-frame hives. Take it to the apiary to the hive you plan to use as a resource. 

Gently use your smoker to calm the colony and proceed as you would with a regular hive inspection. Find the frame with the queen and hopefully lots of nurse bees

The frame should also have a bit of capped honey. Gently place it in your observation hive and close it up.  Later in the day, you can put it back in the main colony or production hive.

Regardless of the size of your observation hive, it is important to have a privacy curtain. (Even a piece of old towel.) Something to throw over the class wall and give the bees a secure feeling when you are not doing demos of the observation hive.

Always keep the glass bee hive out of direct sunlight. They are not able to control the internal temperature as they would in a normal hive.

Single frame observation hive images showing the groove that holds a frame, the screws to close the unit and ventilation holes.

This is my single deep frame observation hive. It is great to take to educational booths and events. It has a groove to hold the frame and screws lock the front panel to prevent accidental opening.

The unit has ventilation holes in the top and bottom of the frame and enlarged one to allow for the use of a plastic drink bottle as a feeder.

Importance of Maintenance

Maintaining an observation hive is essential to keep the colony healthy and productive. Here are some general maintenance tips to keep in mind:

Routine Inspections: Even a small colony requires regular inspections to ensure that the bees are healthy and productive.

Look for signs of disease, pests (small hive beetles, wax moths), parasites (varroa mites) and queen health. Also, check the feeder and ensure that the bees have enough food and water.

Cleaning Your Hive: A couple of times a year, the hive should be cleaned to prevent the buildup of debris and dirt that can harbor pests and diseases.

Temporarily remove the bees and frames of comb. Use a soft brush to clean the glass and other parts of the hive, and avoid using harsh chemicals that can harm the bees.

Check Ventilation: Ensure that the hive has adequate ventilation to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to mold and other issues.

Check the hive’s ventilation holes and screens regularly and remove any debris that may block them.

Population Control: Any experienced beekeeper knows that the population of a honey bee colony can grow rapidly.

Maintaining a permanent observation colony can be challenging.  As the population grows, you can not simply add more frames – the unit is a set size.

Therefore, in most cases, those with a permanent unit have a regular hive that serves as a buffer. 

The beekeeper moves some frames of brood from the OB hive to the regular hive and replaces them with empty frames when the OB hive becomes too congested.

It is truly a balancing act that requires a lot of work to keep the colony healthy and productive. Too few bees leads to pest problems and too many leads to swarming.

Swarming: Observation hives can be prone to swarming, and it’s essential to manage this behavior to prevent the loss of bees.

Monitor the hive closely during the spring and summer months and take steps to prevent swarming, such as adding more space (switching out frames) or re-queening the colony.


What is an observation hive?

An observation hive is a specially designed beehive that has glass panels as sides. This allows beekeepers and others to view the internal workings of a honey bee colony.

What are the benefits of using an observation hive?

Observation hives provide several benefits. They give non-beekeepers a chance to get an up-close look at the inside of a beehive.

This helps promote public appreciation and education about bees. Researchers also use it as a tool to monitor certain aspects of bee behavior.

How do I choose the right observation hive?

Consider your primary purpose for wanting an observation hive. Do you have a good location, the cost and the time you have to perform needed maintenance?

How do I maintain an observation hive

Regularly inspect the hive, clean it, ensure adequate ventilation, manage swarming behavior, and winterize it if necessary.

Is it safe to keep an observation hive?

Yes, observation hives can be safe when properly maintained and used in appropriate settings. However, it’s important to take precautions to prevent stings and avoid disturbing the bees unnecessarily.

A Final Word

In summary, observation hives provide a unique and valuable tool for beekeepers, researchers, and enthusiasts, allowing them to learn about and appreciate the fascinating world of honeybees. But, they do require more maintenance than a standard hive.


  • Blackiston, Howland. Building Beehives For Dummies. Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  • Tew, J. A Plan for a Very Simple Observation Hive Ohio State University Beelab.