Beekeeping equipment

Apiary equipmentEquipment needs vary with the size of your operation, number of colonies, and the type of honey you plan to produce. The basic equipment you need are the components of the hive, protective gear, smoker and hive tool, and the equipment you need for handling the honey crop.

The hive is the man-made structure in which the honey bee colony lives. Over the years a wide variety of hives have been developed. Today most beekeepers use the Langstroth or modern ten-frame hive. A typical hive consists of a hive stand, a bottom board with entrance cleat or reducer, a series of boxes or hive bodies with suspended frames containing foundation or comb, and inner and outer covers (Figure 8 includes dimensions for those wishing to construct their own hives). The hive bodies that contain the brood nest may be separated from the honey supers (where the surplus honey is stored) with a queen excluder.

Hive stand – The hive stand, actually an optional piece of equipment, elevates the bottom board (floor) of the hive off the ground. In principle, this support reduces dampness in the hive, extends the life of the bottom board, and helps keep the front entrance free of grass and weeds. Hive stands may be concrete blocks, bricks, railroad ties, pallets, logs, or a commercially produced hive stand. A hive stand may support a single colony, two colonies, or a row of several colonies.

Bottom board – The bottom board serves as the floor of the colony and as a takeoff and landing platform for foraging bees. Since the bottom board is open in the front, the colony should be tilted forward slightly to prevent rainwater from running into the hive. Bottom boards available from many bee supply dealers are reversible, providing either a 7/8- or 3/8-inch opening in front.

Hive bodies – The standard ten-frame hive body is available in four common depths or heights (Figure 9). The full-depth hive body, 9 5/8 inches high, is most often used for brood rearing. These large units provide adequate space with minimum interruption for large solid brood areas. They also are suitable for honey supers. However, when filled with honey, they weigh over 60 pounds and are heavy to handle.

The medium-depth super, sometimes called the Dadant or Illinois super, is 6 5/8 inches high. While this is the most convenient size for honey supers, it cannot be cut efficiently from standard-sized lumber. An intermediate size (7 5/8 inches) between the full- and medium-depth super is preferred by some beekeepers, especially those who make their own boxes.

The shallow-depth super, 5 11/6 inches high, is the lightest unit to manipulate (about 35 pounds when filled with honey). This size has the greatest cost of assembly per square inch of usable comb space.

Section comb honey supers, 4 5/8 inches high, hold either basswood section boxes or plastic rings and section holders. Section comb honey production is a specialized art requiring intense management and generally is not recommended for beginners.

Some beekeepers prefer eight-frame hive bodies. These were mostly homemade, but one U.S. bee supplier is now selling eight-frame boxes as English garden hive boxes. Beekeepers rearing queens and/or selling small starter colonies (nucs) prefer to use a three- or five-nuc box usually with standard deep frames. These can be purchased from bee supply dealers and are constructed from wood or cardboard, the latter for temporary use only.

Different management schemes are used according to the depth of hive bodies utilized in the brood area of the hive. One scheme is to use a single full-depth hive body, which theoretically would give the queen all the room she needs for egg laying. However, additional space is needed for food storage and maximum brood nest expansion. Normally a single full-depth brood chamber is used when beekeepers want to crowd bees for comb honey production, when a package is installed, or when a nucleus colony or division is first established. Most beekeepers elect to use either two full-depth hive bodies or a full-depth and a shallow for the brood area. Using hive bodies similar in size permits the interchange of combs between the two hive bodies. Beekeepers who wish to avoid heavy full-depth hive bodies may elect to use three shallow hive bodies for the brood nest. This approach is certainly satisfactory, but it is also the most expensive and time consuming in assembly since it requires three boxes and thirty frames instead of twenty.

Frame and combs – The suspended beeswax comb held within a frame is the basic structural component inside the hive. In a man-made hive, the wooden or plastic beeswax comb is started from a sheet of beeswax or plastic foundation. After the workers have added wax to draw out the foundation, the drawn cells are used for storage of honey and pollen or used for brood rearing.

Frames are 17 5/8 inches long and either 9 1/8, 7 1/4, 6 1/4, or 5 3/8 inches high to fit the various hive-body depths. Each frame consists of a top bar, two end bars, and a bottom bar. Top bars may be either grooved or wedged; bottom bars are split, solid, or grooved. Some types may have advantages over others, but the choice is generally a personal preference that includes consideration of cost. Top bars are suspended on ledges or rabbets in the ends of the hive body. V-shaped metal strips or metal frame spacers are often nailed on the recess for reinforcement. A popular commercial end bar has shoulders to help ensure correct bee space between adjacent frames and side of the box.

The comb foundation consists of thin sheets of beeswax imprinted on each side with patterns of worker-sized cells (Figure 10) Two basic types of comb foundations are distinguished by their relative thickness: thin surplus foundation is used to produce section comb honey, chunk honey, or cut-comb honey; a thicker, heavier foundation should be used in the brood chamber and in frames for producing extracted honey. Thicker foundations often are reinforced with vertically embedded wires, thin sheets of plastic, metal edges, or nylon threads. When deciding whether to invest in plastic beeswax foundation in plastic frames versus pure beeswax foundation in wooden or plastic frames, initial cost, assembly time, durability, and length of expected use are all factors you should consider. Plastic foundation and frames are becoming increasingly popular.

When using beeswax foundation in wooden frames, securing the foundation within the frame with either metal support pins or horizontal wires is necessary. The thin wedge of the top bar secures wire hooks extending from one side of the vertically wired foundation to help secure the foundation, ensuring that it remains in the center of the frame for proper drawing by the bees. Combs may be strengthened further by embedding horizontal wires (28 or 30 gauge) into the foundation with an electric current from a small transformer or by using a spur wire embedder. This activity is time consuming and difficult to master, but only a well-supported foundation results in well-drawn combs.

Frames with new foundation should only be given to rapidly growing colonies such as a package, swarm, or colony split (division) or to established colonies during a major nectar flow. Workers build beeswax combs of six-sided cells by adding wax to the cell base imprints on the sheet of foundation (When foundation is given to colonies during a nectar dearth, the bees will often chew holes in the foundation, thus resulting in poorly drawn finished combs.

Beeswax is produced by four pairs of glands on the underside of the worker’s abdomen. As wax is secreted and exposed to the air, it hardens into flat wax scales. To produce comb, the bees remove the wax scales from the underside of the abdomen with spines located on their middle legs. The wax scale is then passed to the mouthparts where it is manipulated until pliable and ready to be formed into six-sided cells.

Queen excluder – The primary function of the queen excluder is to confine the queen, brood rearing, and pollen storage to the broodnest. It is an optional piece of equipment and is used by less than 50 percent of beekeepers. Many beekeepers refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders” because at times workers are reluctant to pass through the narrow openings of the excluder to store honey in the supers above until all available space in the brood chambers is used up. To minimize this problem, allow the bees to begin storing nectar in the supers before installing the excluder. Nectar stored in drawn comb will entice the bees to pass through the excluder. Never put supers of foundation above a queen excluder.

An excluder is constructed of a thin sheet of perforated metal or plastic with openings large enough for workers to pass through. Other designs consist of welded round-wire grills supported by wooden or metal frames.

Frames of honey in the super directly above the brood chamber or comb sections act as a natural barrier to keep the queen down. Properly timing the reversal of brood chambers in the spring with supering and during a surplus nectar flow will serve the same purpose as a queen excluder. For this reason, queen excluders are sometimes used with the addition of the first supers (but again, installed only after some nectar has been stored in the supers) and then removed. Since beeswax comb used for brood darkens with use, a queen excluder can help ensure separation of brood combs from honey combs to avoid unnecessarily darkening honey.

Queen excluders also are used to separate queens in a two-queen system, to raise queens in queenright colonies, and for emergency swarm prevention. An excluder also may help in finding the queen. If you place an excluder between two hive bodies, after 3 days you will be able to determine which hive body contains the queen by locating where eggs are present.

Inner cover – The inner cover rests on top of the uppermost super and beneath the outer telescoping cover. It prevents the bees from gluing down the outer cover to the super with propolis and wax. It also provides an air space just under the outer cover for insulation. During summer, the inner cover protects the interior of the hive from the direct rays of the sun. During winter, it prevents moisture-laden air from directly contacting cold surfaces. The center hole in the inner cover may be fitted with a Porter bee escape to aid in removing bees from full supers of honey.

Outer cover – An outer telescoping cover protects hive parts from the weather. It fits over the inner cover and the top edge of the uppermost hive body. The top is normally covered with a sheet of metal to prevent weathering and leaking. Removal of the outer cover, with the inner cover in place, disturbs few bees within the hive and allows the beekeeper to more easily smoke the bees prior to colony manipulation.

Beekeepers that routinely move hives use a simple cover, often referred to as a migratory lid. Covers of this type fit flush with the sides of the hive body and may or may not extend over the ends. In addition to being lightweight and easy to remove, these covers allow colonies to be stacked. Tight stacking is important in securing a load on a truck.

Other pieces of equipment – In addition to the basic hive components, adding other pieces of equipment is possible. A few beekeepers like to use the slatted bottom board, others a different English-style cover. Beekeeping offers much room for creativity and individualization.

Painting the hive parts – All parts of the hive exposed to the weather should be protected with paint. Do not paint the inside of the hive; the bees will varnish it with propolis (a mix of plant sap and wax). The only purpose in painting is to preserve the wood. Most beekeepers use a good latex or oil-based, exterior, white paint. A light color is desirable because it prevents heat buildup in the hive during summer. Although white is a traditional color, various combinations of colors will help reduce drift between colonies.

Plastic equipment – The basic parts of the hive traditionally have been made out of pine, cypress, or redwood. Today all hive components are available in plastic. Plastic hive components and plastic frames that snap together are durable, strong, lightweight, easy to assemble, and require little maintenance. While plastic frames and foundation are becoming increasingly popular, plastic hive covers, bottom boards, and hive bodies have not proved to be as useful because plastic does not breathe and does not allow easy moisture ventilation. Plastic also warps easily and some types let in too much light, which make drawing foundation difficult.

Equipment suppliers – New bee equipment is generally “knocked down” or unassembled when purchased, but you can also purchase assembled equipment for a higher price and shipping fee. Assembly directions are furnished by bee supply dealers and are usually easy to follow. Novice beekeepers are strongly encouraged to seek the help of a more experienced beekeeper in assembling the hive components for the first time. Beginners should purchase their equipment early so that they can put together and paint hives before the bees arrive. Sheets of foundations should not be installed in the frames until needed because storage temperatures and handling may cause the wax to stretch and warp, resulting in poorly drawn combs.

Some beekeepers find they can save money by making their own equipment or by purchasing used equipment. With both approaches, the equipment must be a standard size. When constructing beekeeping equipment, a thorough understanding of bee space is a necessity. You can consult readily available construction plans or use commercial pieces as a pattern. Many beekeepers find they can economically make covers, hive bodies, and bottom boards, but frames are more difficult and time consuming. Success depends on availability and cost of materials, proper equipment, and the beekeeper’s woodworking skills.

Purchasing used equipment can present problems and is not recommended for the beginner. Initially you may have problems simply locating a source of used equipment and determining its value or worth. In addition, secondhand equipment may be of non-standard dimensions or contaminated with pathogens that cause various bee diseases, despite considerable time in storage. Always ask for an inspection certificate indicating that the state apiary inspector examined the hives and did not find any evidence of disease.

For additional information and sources on beekeeping equipment and supplies, see the list of dealers in the appendix or consult local and regional beekeeping newsletters, your local county extension office, national and regional beekeeping publications, or the MAAREC Web site (

Ancillary equipment

Smoker – A bee smoker and hive tool are essential for working bees. The smoker consists of a metal fire pot and grate with bellows attached. The size of the smoker is a matter of individual preference. The 4 x 7 inch size is probably the most widely used. Plan to purchase/use a smoker with a heat shield around the firebox to avoid burning clothing or yourself if you intend to support the smoker between your legs as you work a colony. Some beekeepers like the model with a hook to hang the smoker over the open hive body as they inspect it, thus keeping the smoker handy at all times.

To produce large quantities of cool thick smoke, coals must be above the grate and unburned materials must be above the coals. Suitable smoker fuels include burlap, corn cobs, wood shavings, pine needles, cardboard, punk wood, bark, sumac bobs, cotton rags, dry leaves, and bailer twine. An alternative liquid smoke is available that you mix with water and spray onto the bees with a mister-type applicator—under ideal conditions and when robbing is not likely, misting with sugar syrup works as well as smoke.

Hive tool – The hive tool is a metal bar essential for prying apart frames in a brood chamber or honey super, separating hive bodies, and scraping away wax and propolis (Figure 11). Holsters to hold hive tools are available, but many beekeepers prefer to hold the hive tool in the palm of their hand to keep it accessible and to keep their fingers free for lifting boxes and frames. The hive tool should be cleaned from time to time to remove propolis, wax, and honey. This may be done simply by stabbing the tool into the ground or by burning it in a hot fire pot of a smoker. Both cleaning methods help prevent the spread of bee diseases. A screwdriver or a putty knife are poor substitutes for a sturdy hive tool and may cause frame/hive body damage.

Protective clothing – You should wear a bee veil at all times to protect your face and neck from stings. Three basic types of veils are available: those that are open at the top to fit over a hat, completely hatless veils, and veils that form part of a bee suit. A wire or fabric veil that stands out away from the face worn over a wide-brim, lightweight hat that fits securely offers the best protection. Veils without hats, although lightweight and fold easily for transport, do not always fit as securely on the head as they should. The elastic band that fits around your head often works upward, allowing the veil to fall against your face and scalp as you bend over to work with bees.

A wide variety of coveralls (bee suit) is available to beekeepers in a wide price range. The most expensive bee suits are not always the best or easiest to use. Coveralls are useful to avoid getting propolis on your clothing and greatly reduce stings if maintained properly and laundered regularly. Coveralls or shirtveils (long-sleeved shirts) made especially for beekeepers with attached, removal veils are popular.

White or tan clothing is most suitable when working bees. Other colors are acceptable, but bees react unfavorably to dark colors, fuzzy materials, and clothing made from animal fiber. Windbreakers and coveralls made from ripstop nylon fabric are excellent for working bees, although they may be too hot to use in the summer.

Beginners who fear being stung should wear canvas or leather gloves. Many experienced beekeepers find gloves cumbersome and decide to risk a few stings for the sake of easier handling. Form-fitting gloves (such as those suitable for lab work or household chores) reduce stings and sticky fingers from honey and propolis. Ankles with dark socks and open wrists are areas vulnerable to stings. Angry bees often attack ankles first because they are at the level of the hive entrance. You should secure your pant legs with string or rubber bands or tuck them inside your shoes or socks. Tie open shirtsleeves with Velcro, rubber bands, or wristlets to reduce stings to these sensitive areas.

You should avoid using after-shave lotions, perfumes, and colognes when working with bees because such odors may attract curious bees. Regularly launder clothing and gloves used in inspection to eliminate sting/hive odors that might attract/irritate bees.

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Beekeeping Basics (Formerly Fundamentals of Beekeeping) – Text covers the basics of beginning beekeeping. $7.50. Information on managing parasites, pests and diseases; honey production and processing; pollination; handling beeswax; pollen trapping; and a guide to important floral sources. (click here for on-line pdf version) Available from Penn State Publication Distribution Center, 112 Ag Admin Bldg., University Park, PA 16802 Phone 814-865-6713