Part of the fun of being an amateur beekeeper is doing as much as you can for your bees on your own. You want to be as industrious as your bees rather than taking the easy way out. It is with that in mind that some amateur beekeepers decide to make their own hives. It doesn’t hurt that commercially built beehives can be expensive.
This comprehensive guide to making your own beehive looks at the project from two angles. The first is building the actual boxes that will house your bees and their honey. The second is setting up those boxes and populating them with bees.
Remember that a box is not a hive. A hive is a community of bees that work together to build the honeycomb structure in which they birth their young and store their honey. Hives can be built in man-made boxes or in tree hollows. Your goal is not just to make a beautiful box; it is to make one that will allow your bees to thrive season after season.
The Tools You Will Need
Building the box that will become your beehive requires at least a basic collection of tools. You can spend more than $1000 buying brand-new power tools at the DIY store but, if this is your first carpentry project, you probably don’t want to do that. You might complete your first box and decide you never want to do it again. Do not invest a lot of money in expensive tools until you know for sure you’re going to keep making your own boxes.
For your first project, you can get by with:
- a hand or table saw
- a miter saw or chisels
- a drill and screw drivers
- wood glue and clamps
- a pair of tin snaps.
You can make a beehive ornate or simple, so it’s up to you. On a first project with limited tools, it is better to keep it simple. You will be working with different types of screws along with plywood and several sizes of boards. Choosing pine boards will keep your costs down. Whatever you choose, do not buy pressure-treated lumber. It has chemicals that can be deadly to bees.
Choosing a Box Design
This post assumes that you have no experience building beehives. You can come up with your own design, but a safer bet is to look online for plans that detail how to build the most common types of hives. The three most used hive types are:
1. The Langstroth Hive
If you have ever driven past a beekeeping operation and seen stacks of wooden bee boxes, you have seen Langstroth hives. The Langstroth hive is the de facto standard among amateurs and professionals alike. It is more or less a square box that holds ten frames. It is popular because it can be stacked.
Langstroth hives are comparatively easy to build. They are also easy to place and transport. This is a good choice for a first hive project in that it will teach you the basics of box construction in relation to the natural habits that honeybees display.
2. The Warre Hive
The Warre hive is similar to the Langstroth in terms of its design. However, it offers two notable differences. First, the box itself is slightly smaller based on the idea that bees naturally build their hives in trees. Being as narrow as trees are, the inventor of this design wanted his boxes to be narrow as well.
The other key difference with the Warre hive is that new boxes added to the stack are not placed on top. Rather, they are placed at the bottom of the stack. Inventor Abbé Émile Warré observed that honeybees build downward as they need room to expand. He decided to add new boxes to the bottom of his stack in order to mimic that behavior.
Proponents of this particular hive style say that it is more natural for the bees. It supposedly requires less work at inspection time because frames are not removed. However, there is more work involved when you are adding new boxes. Why? Because you have to lift the entire stack up. One last thing to note is that some U.S. states have banned Warre hives.
3. Top Bar Hive
The third type of hive on my list is known as the top bar hive. You can easily identify this hive style on a single look. It has no foundation or frames, just a series of up to twenty-four wooden bars that hang from the top of the box. Bees construct their honeycomb structures on the undersides of the bars, just as if they were building nests on tree limbs.
In theory, each bar can be individually removed for inspection without disturbing the others. Some amateur beekeepers build small windows into their boxes to allow for inspection without having to remove the bars at all. But of course, all of this is contingent upon leaving enough space between the bars to accommodate normal honeybee activity.
Regardless of the style of hive you choose to make, the general rule of thumb for ‘bee space’ – the amount of space bees need between honeycombs to work comfortably – is about three-eighths of an inch. Leave too much space and you will have bees that may struggle to stay warm when temperatures drop. Make the space too narrow and you will have honeycomb in places where you don’t want it.
Purchasing Supplies and Building
Once you decide on the style of the box you want, the next step in making your own hive is to obtain your materials. To that end, make sure you work out your material needs before you go to the store. Commercially available plans should come with a detailed list of all lumber, fasteners, and other supplies.
You won’t need anything fancy to build a good bee box. Everything you need should be readily available at your local big box DIY store. If you live in a more rural area, lumber might be more difficult to find during peak construction season. But don’t sweat it. Most amateur beekeepers have no problem acquiring the construction materials.
When you are ready to start building, do the following:
- Assemble all your materials and tools to make sure you have everything you need before you start.
- Prepare a work area that is clean and free of clutter. You are going to need space to work.
- Read through the plans entirely, making sure you understand what you will be required to do.
As strange as it sounds, it is a good idea to take photographs at every step of construction. The idea is to document the entire process so that things you discover during your first build can be revisited later on. Document everything – even your mistakes!
Cutting Your Lumber First
Some amateur beekeepers recommend cutting all your lumber first. That way, you can put away the saws and concentrate on assembling the pieces. You will need all your measurements up front. You’ll also need to be very careful to make sure you measure accurately. If you cut everything ahead of time and get one piece wrong, you could ruin the entire project.
Other people prefer to cut lumber as they go for that very reason. Cutting as you go allows you to measure one piece off the one before it. That way, if you miss by an inch, you can make up for it with the next cut.
Assembling All the Pieces
Whether you cut everything at once or do it as you go, you will be fastening the pieces together with screws and wood glue. Wood glue is not an absolute necessity, but it does make a beehive stronger. The idea is to cover all contacts surfaces with a thin film of glue before screwing pieces together. The glue ends up holding the wood together while the screws act as a reinforcement.
Note that glue will not dry well if it’s too cold out. If you are not building in a climate-controlled space, do not attempt to make your own beehive until the weather gets warm. Also note the purpose of the wood clamps: to hold wood pieces tightly together while the glue sets up. Clamping wood pieces while they dry allows you to get away with using fewer screws.
The Different Parts of a Bee Box
Different bee box designs consist of different components. However, there are a few components that are similar across most designs. The first is the hive body. It is the main box in which the majority of the bees live and work. In a Langstroth beehive, the main box contains 8 to 10 frames.
Next up is the honey super. Top bar hives do not have honey supers, but Langstroth and Warre hives do. The honey super is a second box bees can use to produce honey when the main hive gets crowded. Between the two boxes is a piece known as the queen excluder. This is generally just a mesh frame. It is designed to keep the queen with the brood during honey production.
The third and final common component is the cover. Every hive has one. Some hive designs actually have two: an outer cover/roof and an inner cover. The second cover is just to make hive inspections easier.
Other typical hive components include:
- Frames – Frames are the structures on which bees build their honeycombs. Again, the top bar hive doesn’t have them.
- Floorboards – Warre hives don’t have floorboards because you add new boxes at the bottom. Most other hive designs do have them. There is generally an entrance between the floorboard and bottom box in the stack.
- Entrance Reducers – At various locations along the stack, beekeepers may insert small pieces of wood known as entrance reducers. They help protect bees against intruders and cold air.
It is pretty normal to build Langstroth and Warre boxes with handles on them. That way, you can easily lift each box in the stack when it comes time to inspect or transport. It is a good idea to attach separate handles rather than just cutting notches in your boards. Separate handles attached to the side offer you more surface area to grab.
Installing Your Hive
The final step in making your own hive is to install the bee box and then fill it with bees. Your choice of location will play a critical role in whether your bees thrive. So, first things first.
A hive should be located within a reasonable distance of food and water sources. This may be easier said than done if you live in an urban or suburban environment. If you live rurally, choosing a location near a tree line will usually do the trick.
Next up, you want to position the hive so that it is protected against the wind. It doesn’t need to be in direct sunlight, but it does need enough exposure so that the sunlight can help keep it warm during the winter. In the northern hemisphere, a south-facing location is ideal.
Finally, choose a location that doesn’t get much foot traffic. Honeybees are not normally aggressive, but they do get agitated by a constant flow of people and objects passing by. Agitated bees are unhappy bees, and unhappy bees do not produce as much honey.
Put Your Stack on Blocks
Believe it or not, honeybees can fall victim to mold, fungus, and parasites. One of the easiest things you can do to avoid these sorts of things is to put your stack up on blocks. In other words, do not set your hive directly on the ground. Get yourself some pallets or railroad ties and put them down first. Then put your stack on top.
Elevating the hive will make it more difficult for parasites to get in. It will also reduce the chances of the hive being overcome by mold or mildew.
Filling Your Hive with Bees
The final step in making your own beehive is filling the box you have just made with bees. There are multiple ways to do this. The first is to purchase a commercial bee kit from a local or online retailer. A typical kit contains a queen along with enough worker bees to get things going.
Your other option is to go out and get the bees yourself. This is normally done in the spring when honeybee colonies are swarming in search of a new hive location. Should you decide to try this, it is a good idea to wear protective clothing. Bees are most aggressive when they are swarming.
The key to obtaining bees from the wild is to locate a swarm and then find the queen that is leading it. Capture the queen and the worker bees will follow. It is biology. It is also fascinating to watch.
Regardless of how you acquire your bees, you will introduce them to the hive by placing them in the main body. Some beekeepers recommend rubbing beeswax on the tops of the frames (or the bars if you have constructed a top bar hive) in order to entice the bees to stay.
With any luck, your bees will thrive and you’ll have a working hive in no time. You can then set your sights on building a second hive in anticipation of next year’s hive split. And if your project turns out exceptionally well, you might find other amateur beekeepers asking you to make hives for them.