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In praise of the Langstroth hive

When I was only knee-high to a goat, my grandfather took me for long rides each evening at dusk. He loaded me into in his Chevy just as the deer began to venture from the woods into the orchards for dinner. He loved to watch them, excitedly calling, “Look there! One, two, three…”

I loved those outings through the farmland, especially as mist settled into the lowlands between the hills, shrouding the fields in mystery. But as he counted deer, I hunted for something else entirely. Bee hives. With my window rolled down, I would climb halfway out, balancing on my belly and inhaling the aroma of fresh-cut hay and warm manure, intently searching for hives as the countryside slid by.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 158 No 9, September 2018, pp. 1049-1052.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the objects of my fascination were Langstroths. Every last one of them. They stood at cockeyed angles, tilting one way and another, coated with heavy layers of lead paint that flaked off in chalky curls. Every farm had a few, usually perched on the edge of a field, curiously white through the descending mist. Although some were tall and others short, all bee hives had the same basic shape.

The Test of Time

The Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth registered the patent for his hive in October 1852. By his own admission, Langstroth borrowed freely from the work of his predecessors, including François Huber’s leaf hive. Although disagreement continues about who first defined bee space and who first cottoned onto moveable-frame hives, the fact remains that Langstroth incorporated these concepts into a hive design that was affordable, easy to use, and highly customizable.

Few inventions have stood the test of time as well as the Langstroth hive, and today—166 years later—variations of it are still used around the globe. In North America, it continues to be the hive of choice for large commercial operations and beginners alike.

Variations on a Theme

A two-queen Langstroth system. Hive and photo © Bill Hesbach.
A two-queen Langstroth hive system. Hive and photo © Bill Hesbach.

Langstroth’s vision of modular boxes containing moveable frames that honored bee space on all sides allowed beekeepers to inspect, harvest, and split colonies without destroying the bees or their living quarters. Although we may not realize it, many other modern hive designs—including the National, Warré, and Flow—are simply variations on the Langstroth.

The National, primarily used in the UK, has smaller boxes that are square, along with many minor tweaks. The Warré hive is sometimes called a vertical top-bar hive, but the idea of modular boxes that sit one atop another and respect bee space, comes straight from the Langstroth playbook. And the Flow Hive is a contemporary Langstroth hive topped with a self-extracting honey super.

The Beginning of an Industry

Just as the invention of the semiconductor precipitated a flood of innovation, so did the introduction of the Langstroth hive. Once the value of the hive became apparent, it was followed by the radial extractor, the queen excluder, and the hand-held smoker—all of which are still used today. Other related inventions included self-spacing frames, the foundation press, and the screened bottom board for controlling wax moth infestations. The synergistic development of tools to be used with the Langstroth cemented its place in beekeeping history. No other hive design offered anything close for practicality and ease of use. In fact, it is the Langstroth hive that led to the development of large-scale commercial beekeeping.

For the migratory beekeeper, Langstroth hives are perfect. They are stackable, palletable, and can be moved with a forklift. They can be transferred to any location and retrieved when the job is done. In addition, boxes can be exchanged between hives and frames between boxes. Like Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press, the Langstroth hive allows endless combinations. There is no limit to the number of changes and tweaks that a beekeeper can make.

Adventures with a Top-Bar Hive

My admiration for the Langstroth hive increased after managing a top-bar hive. My experience with a top-bar hive began ten years ago with a prototype design that we were planning to use at a state prison. I wanted to practice with it before leveling my inexperience on the inmates, so I pulled some plans off the Internet and asked my husband to build the thing.

A top-bar hive covered in snow and shaded by trees.
The same colony has lived in this top-bar hive for ten years, although the trees have grown up and keep it shaded. I get bees, queens, and splits from the hive but no honey. © Rusty Burlew.

The brand new hive was sitting empty at the edge of my driveway, tucked into the shade under some cedar trees. On July 3, 2008 as we prepared for holiday guests, a swarm moved into the empty structure. I remember hearing an urgent call, “Come quick! You’ve got to see this!”

Today, an entire ten years later, the colony is still there. Only now the shade is denser, the trees bigger, and the hive is rotting from all the moisture. In year seven, the bees sealed up the entrance and built a new one higher up, right where the sidewall meets the roof. Last year, they dug through the roof itself and added a skylight, so now it’s open to the Pacific Northwest rain. How they overwinter is anyone’s guess.

A Perplexing Design

In spite of what seems like a resounding success, I find the top-bar design irritating. Although I’m in awe of the bees’ ability to survive, I feel like the colony manages me instead of the other way around. I never found a way to keep the queen away from the honey stores, so forget comb honey. In fact, in the ten years this colony has entertained me, it has not given up a single teaspoon of honey.

Most years the entire thing is filled with bees—all 23 frames—at the height of the season. As the population begins to dwindle toward fall, they fill the space with honey. By spring of every year, everything is quiet and I’m sure they’re gone. If it weren’t for the bright red spot on my IR camera, I would give them up for dead.

Instead of harvesting honey I use the hive like a general store. Whenever I need a queen cell, a few eggs, a split, or a shake of workers, I head straight for the top-bar hive. Since the bars won’t fit in a Langstroth, I do a lot of cutting and tying, but we have a working truce: I don’t touch the honey, and they restock everything else the moment I leave. So we’re good.

The Beauty of Options

I concede that all beekeepers are different and all beekeeping is affected by local conditions. As such, there are times when a top-bar hive or a long hive might be the perfect answer. But for anyone just starting out, or for anyone who loves to learn through experiment, I think there’s nothing like a Langstroth hive.

Because the design of the Langstroth is so extendable, an enormous number of optional extras exist for just about any contingency you can think of. Most of these equipment choices are not necessary, a fact that is obvious when you look at most commercial operations. For them, beekeeping is a business where the bottom line needs to be black. As such, they streamline their operations to minimize expense.

The Legos of Beekeeping

Open any contemporary beekeeping catalog and you will see a stunning array of beekeeping equipment designed to be used with a Langstroth hive. It’s often been said that you can sell anything to a beekeeper, and I suppose there is much truth in that. But still, I always sift through the new catalogs to see what’s new and clever.

A Langstroth hive can be customized to do whatever you want it to do. Hives and photo © Rick Cheverton.
A Langstroth hive can be customized to do whatever you want it to do. Hives and photo © Rick Cheverton.

If you are a hobbyist or a tinkerer, I encourage you to experiment whenever you get the chance. I look at each new piece of Langstroth equipment as an opportunity. What does this thing do? How does it work? When would I use it? Why would I use it? What aspect of bee biology or behavior makes it possible? If I learn something about honey bees in the process, it’s a win regardless of the outcome.

If you learn why a Cloake board works or how to use a Snelgrove board, you’ve learned more about the biology and behavior of honey bees. And each time you deepen your understanding of the bees themselves you become a better beekeeper. Langstroths are the Legos of beekeeping. Each new piece invites experimentation and creativity.

Take It or Leave It

Most times, I try something once and move on. But at other times, I’m in. If the equipment answered a question or solved a problem for me, I outfit the rest of my apiary with the new thing. For example, in my damp and rainy climate I like slatted racks, moisture quilts, and candy boards. They work for me and have allowed me to overwinter successfully year after year. But are they completely necessary? No. Are they for everyone? No. That’s the beauty of the Langstroth system. Every beekeeper can find the configuration that works in his climate with his beekeeping style.

As a producer of comb honey, I love the wide variety of Langstroth comb honey supers that I can choose from. I’ve tried them all—from Kelley squares, to Ross Rounds, to Eco Bee Box mini frames. When I found problems with each, I had a super designed and built by a friend. Pretty good. But still unsatisfied, I’ve drawn plans for yet another. The basic design of the Langstroth hive makes experimentation easy and fluid.

The Pros and the Cons

If I were asked to list the good and bad of the Langstroth system, here is what I would say.

The good:

  • The price is reasonable
  • There is standardization among manufacturers
  • The parts are interchangeable between hives and between apiaries
  • It’s easy to increase or decrease space in a hive, depending on colony strength
  • You can set up a colony to pollinate or to collect honey, pollen, or propolis, tweaking the configuration as the season progresses
  • The hive is familiar to many, making it easy to find answers to common questions

The not-so-good:

  • The boxes can be heavy and hard to handle, even mediums
  • Inspection can be cumbersome because it requires removal of the upper boxes
  • The Langstroth can be difficult to manage in extreme temperatures
  • Without a stand, the entrances are close to the ground
  • Beekeepers do not have the option of warm way setups without customization
  • A rectangular stack of boxes lacks eye appeal

Some of the negative aspects have been addressed by alterations to the system. For example, the eight-frame Langstroth was a response to the weight problem, even though the smaller box has less mass and a lower heat capacity. In cold climates, beekeepers have devised wraps as well as internal insulation methods. In hot climates, beekeepers can increase ventilation with screens and optional entrances. Those wanting warm-way frames can put the entrance on the side. As you can see, the Langstroth hive is a tinkerer’s delight.

Three overwintered Langstroths come alive in spring. © Rusty Burlew.

I often wonder if the original Langstroths weren’t more cold resistant than the modern ones. Back in Langstroth’s day, the size of dimensional lumber was actually as stated. But today, for example, a 1-by-4 board is actually ¾-inch thick and 3½-inches wide. It seems that such a large difference in thickness would affect the insulation value of the wood. On the other hand, most of the changes that occurred since the original design were for the best and kept the design relevant through the decades.

Try It and Learn

I’m nothing if not curious, so I’m always up for a new invention or an ingenious way to tweak an old one. I’m happy to have experience with top-bar hives, and this year, thanks to the generosity of other beekeepers, I’m experimenting with a long hive and a poly hive as well. The more I try, the more I learn.

The variety, the adaptability, and the ingenuity of beekeeping equipment is one of my favorite aspects of this strange hobby. And because beekeeping is wonderfully influenced by local conditions and individual convictions, the Langstroth hive with its enduring but ever-evolving nature, makes an excellent starting point.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Langstroth hives dot landscapes all over the world. Although they are all similar, they are also very different.
Langstroth hives dot landscapes all over the world. Although they are all similar, they are also very different. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Peter
Reply

Hi all,

I think Langstroth’s original design was too fussy to be practical. By 1870, A. I. Root had pared it down to the essentials of box, frames, top and bottom, all interchangeable. He called it the “simplicity hive” and it was soon manufactured by others, including W. T. Falconer Co., in western NY State. In their literature they state:

The simplicity hive, with its various modifications, is the hive that gives the best satisfaction among advanced apiarist.

A reader writes in to say:

Gentlemen: I have dealt with you since 1884, and I am sorry to state now that failing health, combined with my hip disease, has compelled me to give up my bees. I use your Simplicity hive, many of which I introduced in this locality. Outside of that there are bee-keepers who use all sorts of home-made hives. These are generally the old fogy bee-men.

peterlborst1@icloud.com

Rusty
Reply

Old fogy bee-men? I know a lot of those!

Seattle mike
Reply

Rusty. I’m about ready to give up beekeeping. For the second time in 3 years I’ve had my best hive abscond on me. Heavy and healthy as can be in early November. Totally gone early December. Frustrating. Seattle Mike.

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

Are you absolutely sure they absconded? What you describe sounds exactly like collapse by varroa mite. When and how did you last treat them?

Keith Schultz
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I am somewhat doing a similar thing this year, tweaking the Langstroth. I wanted to try a long hive and figured it would be easier to build it to accommodate my existing Lang frames. I am in northern Lower Michigan, was concerned about the bees needing more comb depth in winter than the standard Long Lang hive. Also had some wants around the hive being more insulated. So I built a double deep long Lang, last winter to use up some materials and nervous energy. I ended up using a standard 2X4 from the store (1.5 X 3.5) for the framing and insulated the wall with Fiberglass insulation. The inside has white pine T&G and the outside has painted 3/8 exterior plywood. They are out in the snows of winter now, I am somewhat curious to see how they do.

To give credit where credit is due Most of the design and feel of the hive came from plans by Dr. Leo Sharashkin’s book “Keeping bees with a smile” The bees much to my surprise filled most of the box in the first year from a 3 pound package. Again some detail, I did hive them on 10 built out frames from a dead out, containing pollen and honey, very early. As in I had to pull the packages into my wooded area on a sled covered in a blanket, thru 15 inches of snow. (early April) I never put a package on foundation any more, seems they linger for a while needing build comb, and are much more delayed. If these 2 winter well, and the idea works, I have a wall in a building 16 feet long and want to make 4 more 4 foot long double deep units next year for, 4 more of these type hives. Plan to just drill a hole thru the wall for the entrance. I have seen several colonies in walls of houses and just let my mind wander from there. Really a warm protected cavity is all the bees need. Being able the use the Lang frames and do splits and make nucs, would be a nice management addition to the current strategy I use. Also allows the investment I have made to be used. Thank for all your work on this site, I look forward to comments on this thread.

Thanks
Keith

Daniel
Reply

Hi, I am always impressed with your write up. Inquisitiveness about beekeeping had lead me to construct three, eleven-frame langstroth hives. Installed and baited with beeswax, coconut oil and lemongrass decoction, expecting swarm shortly after harmattan (late January 2019) in Ondo state, southwest Nigeria. Langstroth hive advantages over top bar made me opt for it, but I doubts the tolerance of our more aggressive honeybee strain with the edifice. If they stay in, I will build more of langstroths despite tedious task in construction with the absence of carpentry machines.

Emily
Reply

A great invention. I really appreciate our tweak on it in the UK too, the National hive. The Langstroth frames with their tiny lugs feel huge and heavy in comparison with our National frames, not the easiest for a beekeeper on the smaller side!

I don’t understand your comment about warm-way frames needing customisation to set up and putting the entrance on the side, can’t you just turn the frames the warm way in the box?

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

No, you can’t turn them because they are not square. The outside dimensions of an American Langstroth box are about 19-7/8 inches by 16-1/4 inches.

Rusty
Reply

Ah sorry I’d missed that. Another advantage of the National hive then, no customisation needed!

Giovanni Mantelli
Reply

@Rusty- FYI-

You should listen to those old fogey beemen, they’re the fountains of information that you rookies should listen to. (Just Saying)

Daniel
Reply

Hi, I am always impressed with your write up. Inquisitiveness about beekeeping had lead me to construct two, eleven frame langstroth hive. Installed and baited with beeswax, coconut oil and lemongrass decoction, expecting swarm shortly after harmattan(late January 2019) in Ondo state,southwest Nigeria. Iangstroth hive advantages over top bar made me opt for it, but i doubts the tolerance of our more aggressive honeybee strain with the edifice. If they stay in, i will build more of langstroths despite tedious task in construction with the absence of carpentry machines.

Rusty
Reply

Daniel,

You should send us a picture!

Deb Corcoran
Reply

Hi Rusty, I, too, have a top bar hive that was made by a friend and have done nothing with since 2015 and has survived. This hive has a pointed roof on hinges which makes is aesthetically pleasing but the bars are “set into” the frame of the body. They have two pegs on each bar to lift the bar with (and has spacers too if needed). Screened bottom with 3 sliding pieces of luan to help with some ventilation, entrance on the short end. Where I am in the Catskill Mtns. I need to insulate the hives; as you mentioned above the wood is thinner now. The insulation is kept on the sides all year.

As for the long Langs, this beekeeper friend built some because of a bad back; he built in the insulation between the sides, and on the sides where the frames rest he molded metal flashing on them so they could slide more easily. On top of the frames he had sliding pieces of wood that had screened ventilation holes (the bees kept propolizing them) that would cover the area he was working so as not to have the whole hive opened while working. He made division boards too, so he could OAV. He kept mouse guards on all year with the same size opening. This was his third design and he still had great ideas to improve these hives.

Anna S.
Reply

A pleasure to read, as usual, Rusty. And the engineer in me loved the analogy with semiconductors 🙂

Ian
Reply

Hi Rusty, it’s interesting to see that your first ‘pro’ is price. Here in the UK we standardised just after WWII, but you wouldn’t think so given the cost of buying a hive here. I think it’s probably the main reason people are put off beekeeping in Britain – which in most other countries is a pastime for the ordinary person. Another great post from you! Thanks, Ian (https://neurotypicalbeekeeper.blogspot.com/)

Erik Lonnrot
Reply

Great piece as always Rusty. I’m relatively new and have only ever used Langs but you’ve given me a new appreciation for things I’ve always taken for granted. Thank you.

Vince Poulin
Reply

Another fun read Rusty. This is just to say beekeeping is for sure not easy for many of us but what makes it fun is the adventure, learning and satisfaction despite the disappointments. After a fabulous summer building two strong hives from a spring package, three queens by grafting, and mite free for most of the season we once again lost the colonies. Hard to say but wasps remained a serious problem and in one hive mites came back quickly in early October. Did we miss something? Not sure, but 50% of members of our local club lost colonies by early November. All experienced keepers. Despite all this, the benefits far out weigh the disappointments. A new spring package will start the colonies again and by summer the garden will be filled with excitement. The freezer is filled with comb and over 30 pounds of unused winter honey went into jars. Langstroth, National, or Warre it is all good.

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