Observation Hives

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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. They come in many different sizes and designs. This article explores the basics of choosing and using an observation beehive.

Honey bees behind glass wall of observation hive.

Whether you are a beekeeper or just a bee lover, observation hives allow a look into everyday bee activities in a way not available in standard types of beehives.

Types of Honey Bee Observation Hives

There are actually two types of observation hives most commonly used. One is stationary and remains in place – the other can go to events, schools etc. Both provide a viewing area (glass or plastic) so you can watch the bees.

  • permanent
  • temporary

Permanent

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

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

This style of hive can be installed outdoors too. But, the beekeeper must provide glass covers or shutters for the viewing compartment – to give the bees some privacy at times. 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.

More difficult to manage – permanent installations give the general public a special look inside the workings of a beehive.

Temporary or Portable

Temporary observation hives are the ones most popular with beekeepers. These small portable units 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

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. 

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!

A bee feeder is an optional feature for portable 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 water for bees.

Numerous bees on frame of comb inside a glass observation hive..

Choosing the Right Observation Hive

Observation hives generally require more work and maintenance than regular beehives. This is not a natural environment for a honey bee colony. 

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

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).

Location is a consideration if you are placing a permanent hive. If you plan to keep the hive indoors, you will need one 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.

A temporary (show and tell) event does not require much maintenance. However, a permanently installed unit requires more work.

Bees For Your Observation Beehive

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

Stationary Indoor

For a permanent indoor hive, one method is to sit a small 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 honey bee 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.

Portable OB 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 bee 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(after use), you can put the frame and bees back in the main colony.

Expert Tips

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. There should be no risk of your girls getting out.

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.

FAQs

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. A portable unit only need to be cleaned periodically as the bees do live in it as their main home.

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, an observation hive provides 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.