How Does a Beehive Work – Parts of a Beehive

You can buy a lot of different pieces when you’re setting a beehive. After seeing a local hive with the bottom board upside down and the slatted board in a wrong place, I was glad we learned where and why the boxes stack up as they do.

How does a beehive work? The hive sits on a base. The bees enter through the bottom board. A slatted rack provides ventilation and a place for foragers to rest. Bees build wax comb in brood boxes for baby bees, honey and pollen. An inner cover goes over the brood boxes and a top cover protects from the weather. Additional equipment includes honey supers, candy boards, quilt boxes, queen excluders, mite boards, and entrance reducers.

As a hobbyist beekeeper, you can collect a lot of pieces of hive equipment. Read on for an explanation of the basic ones you’ll be using if you are using a Langstroth beehive.

Hive Equipment

There are fifteen basic pieces that you’ll be using if you stay with beekeeping for very long. The first nine are in order from the ground up.  Following that are the seasonal pieces you’ll be using.

  • Hive Stand
  • Bottom Board – screened, solid
  • Entrance Reducers/Mouse Guards
  • Sticky Board
  • Slatted Rack
  • Hive Body / Brood Boxes and Frames
  • Inner Cover
  • Top / Outer Cover

And more equipment:

  • Honey Supers – metal frame spacers (8 or 9)
  • Queen Excluder
  • Escape Screen / Fume Board
  • Candy Board
  • Quilt Boxes/Moisture Boxes
  • Robbing Screen
  • Feeders

Hive Stand

You want to keep your hives off the ground, so you need a hive stand.

The main bee equipment suppliers have various types of stands available, but this is one area you can be creative.

What you want in a stand is something that:

  • keeps your hives off the ground
  • is stable and will hold over 100 pounds of weight
  • can be leveled

Among our bee friends, no two have the same type of stands. One uses concrete blocks. One has treated 4”x4”s attached with brackets to concrete post bases.  Another built square bases out of treated 4”x4” s. We began with and still use repurposed sections of our old picket fence, raised off the ground on patio blocks. 

Your hives should be level from side to side. You will want to tilt the hives, so the front is slightly lower than the back, which helps with drainage during rainy weather. 

Bottom Board

The bottom board sits directly on top of the base. It provides landing space for the bees flying back to the hive and is the main entrance to the hive.

Bottom boards are made of wood and now you can find them made of plastic. No matter the material, you will need to clean the bottom out. The plastic bottom boards have posts in between snap out sections of entrance reducers. These make it more difficult to clean.

Two other options you’ll find for bottom boards are to have screened or solid. The solid ones keep out drafts. The screened ones allow ventilation and allow varroa mites and hive debris to drop through. We used screened bottom boards for both of those reasons.

Our bottom boards also have a slot to slide in a mite board. (see below) Make sure there is enough room behind your hive to insert and remove the mite boards. Don’t back your hives up against a fence.

Entrance Reducers/Mouse Guards

Entrance reducers go in front of the entrance on the bottom board.

You’ll come across a couple of types of entrance reducers and mouse guards. There are both wooden and metal ones. Either will work well. We use metal because our first hives came with them included. They work well, so we’ve continued to use them.

Reducers give you the ability to close off the entrance entirely. You may want to do this if you are moving a hive or using an oxalic acid mite treatment.

You can also limit access to the hive, hence the name entrance reducer. This is handy during honey robbing season. You can keep out aggressive bees from other colonies, wasps, yellow jackets and hornets.

A mouse guard may be screen mesh you use along with your wooden entrance reducer, or just the flip side of a metal one. Mice like to stay in warm hives over the winter. They can cause a real mess if allowed in.

Sticky Board

A sticky board is also called a mite board.

It is a white plastic rectangle that is slid under the screened bottom board. The stickiness comes from sticky paper or from a quick spray of kitchen baking pan spray.

These are used when you want to do a varroa mite count to check on the health of your bee colony and to see if you need to do a mite treatment. You can also reduce ventilation to the hive by putting in the sticky board.

Slatted Rack

The slatted rack goes on top of the bottom board. It has a frame that fits on top of the bottom board and has vertical slats running across it. We use them, but not all hives have them. 

Slatted racks give added room for ventilation. In the winter they are an additional space between the cold air coming in the entrance and the bees clustering for warmth in the hive bodies above. And, foragers will rest on them at night if the boxes are getting short on space.

Hive Bodies/Brood Boxes And Frames

The boxes the bees live in are called hive bodies or brood boxes. This is where the bees make their wax comb, the queen lays eggs, the brood emerges as young worker bees, and the bees store honey and pollen.

In Langstroth hives these boxes contain frames – rectangular wooden frames that hold “foundation” – a sheet of beeswax or wax coated plastic that the bees build wax comb on. There are plenty of reasons for using either type of foundation. We particularly like the coated plastic foundation in black because we both can see eggs. We can’t see them at all (without a magnifying glass) on white foundation or on beeswax.

Boxes come in two different types of sizes. One has to do with the number of frames it holds, and the other has to do with its depth.

Langstroth hives hold 8 frames or 10 frames. The difference will be in the width of the hive bodies. You can’t mix and match 8 and 10 frame boxes. They just won’t fit together. The other hive equipment you use will be made for either 8 or 10 frames sizes. If you choose to 8-frame box, every box has to be the same.  You cannot mix and match with a 10-frame.   

The three sizes, based on the depth of the boxes are ‘deeps’ (9 5/8”), ‘westerns’ or mediums (6 5/8”), and shallows (5 11/16”). Shallows are specialty boxes and can be used for honey or as the basis for quilt boxes or to cover in-hive feeders.

If you use mediums/westerns for your hive boxes and for honey supers, all your frames are interchangeable. Also, the hive bodies will weigh about 2/3 less than deeps.

When we got our hives, we went with deeps, not thinking about the weight or the ability to take frames from honey supers and put them into the brood boxes. If we were beginning all over again, we might consider having all western sizes. Hindsight is wonderful!

Inner Cover

The inner cover goes right on top of the hive bodies.

It is a thin piece of plywood or Masonite that covers the top and has a ventilation hole in the center.

When you take off the top cover, you don’t immediately encounter all your bees. You have the inner cover.

There are several reasons to use an inner cover, though not everyone uses an inner cover all the time.

It provides “bee space” on top of the hive body, so the bees can move around on the top of the frames in the top brood box.

We were told that one of the primary functions of the inner cover around here is to prevent the bees from sticking the top to the hive body with propolis. Instead, they glue the inner cover, which is much easier to break loose and to clean.

If it has a notch in the top edge, the bees can use that as another entrance/exit to the hive.

It is said that an inner cover helps with ventilation for the hive, though I haven’t figured out how that works.

For moisture control in the winter, we remove the inner cover and use quilt boxes.

Top/Outer Cover

The top cover is what the name says. It goes on top. It’s the roof that keeps the weather out and protects the top of the hive.

No matter which type of outer cover you use, always put a weight on top to keep them from blowing off in a strong wind. One of our club members told of losing a hive when he was away for a blustery, wet weekend and had forgotten to weigh down the lid. His bees got rained on and died of the cold and damp.

We use patio bricks on all our covers. Others use regular bricks, decorative concrete bricks or rocks.

There are several types of hive covers, fancy ones and ordinary ones. These are the three standard ones most of us around here use.

Telescoping Metal

This is a wooden cover that fits down over the top of the hive box underneath it, hence the name ‘telescoping’.

It often is covered in metal to make it more resistant to the weather. Beekeepers say they are a good cover in winter weather.

Migratory

Migratory covers are a flat piece of wood with a lip on the front and back that hook over the edge of the top box.

These are good if you are going to be transporting your hives because hives can be put up snug next to each other and they can be stacked. They are used by commercial beekeepers who transport hives for pollination.

They are not as good as a telescoping cover in cold and snowy winter climates.

Ultimate Hive Cover

The Ultimate Hive Cover by Bee Smart® is the brand name for a cover made from techno polymer. We pretty much just call them plastic covers.

Not to sound too much like an advertisement, it is lightweight, doesn’t need painting, won’t rot, allows ventilation, and had double wall construction which is supposed to help with hot and cold temperature insulation.

All our hives have these covers. 

And More Equipment

Honey Supers

Honey supers are the hive boxes that you stack on top of the brood boxes. The name super is because they are superimposed on the hive.

Once the bees have filled the lower boxes with brood and honey, they will move up into the honey supers. Beekeepers feel they can harvest from the supers once the bees have adequate winter storage in the lower boxes. These can be stacked several supers high. If there are strong nectar flows, the bees will fill them.

You will probably want the next item if you are using honey supers.

Queen Excluder

The queen excluder is a plastic mesh or metal bars that have gaps big enough to allow worker bees through, but the queen and drones are too big to pass through. With the excluder in place, the queen can’t lay eggs in the honeycomb. 

Metal queen excluders come with or without a wooden frame.  They sit directly on the top hive body.

There is a bit of debate and joking about how effective excluders are. Some beekeepers call them bee excluders because their bees don’t like to go through them. Others find that their bees go through the excluders with no problem. Our bees have been repelled by the excluders and have gone right through them. For us the effectiveness is at the whim of the bee.

Escape Screen / Fume Board

When you are ready to harvest your honey, you need to get the bees out of the honey supers. Two common and easy ways to do it are the escape screen and the fume board.

The escape screen goes on below the honey supers and above the hive body. It is an ingenious device that has a triangular maze for the bees to get through so they can get out but not get back in. 

You need to put this on toward the end of the day. The bees will be exiting the honey supers and going back into the main hive for night time. The next day the honey super will have at most a couple of bees in it. 

Do not leave the escape screen on more than a day. Give the girls 24 hours to figure out the maze and they will be back up in the honey supers. We have used escape screens and they are magic! They really do work as they’re supposed to.

Fume boards differ from escape screens in that they drive the bees out of the honey supers. The board goes on top of the honey supers. The solid board has a cloth underside that you spray with a non-toxic bee repellant. It will clear the supers within 5-10 minutes.

We haven’t tried a fume board, but friends of ours have and it works well for them.

Candy Board

The candy board holds winter sugar feed for the bees.

A candy board isn’t really a board. It is a box with a wire mesh bottom that the bees can crawl through. It sits on top of the top brood box in winter.

Quilt Box/Moisture Box

A quilt box doesn’t hold quilts. Its purpose is to soak up moisture in the hive to prevent the bees from getting damp in cold weather.

This is a box with a cloth/burlap bottom or cloth and a wire mesh bottom that is the top box in the winter. It will sit on top of the top hive box or, if you are feeding your bees, on the candy board.

The box is filled with material that will absorb water. We use hamster bedding. Some people use old burlap bags. It is something that must be checked through the winter and replaced with dry material when required.

Robbing Screen

From August through October, there is a danger of bees from strong colonies raiding honey stores from weaker hives. Yellow jackets and hornets will also try to get into your beehives.

A robbing screen covers the hive entrance.

Bees who live in the hive can find their way out and back in again. For some reason, raider insects don’t seem to be able to figure out how to get into the screen. They congregate on the outside of the screen opposite the entrance of the hive.

We haven’t used robbing screens yet. Using entrance reducers has been adequate for our hives to date.

Feeders

Besides the candy board, there is a variety of feeders. Most go directly on top of the brood boxes.

Top feeders and Miller feeders are boxes the size of hive bodies that have trays to feed sugar syrup.

Frame feeders go into the top hive body, taking the place of two frames. They hold up to four gallons of syrup.

In hive feeders are containers holding syrup that are inverted over the hole in the inner cover.

Boardman feeders are attached outside of the hive at the hive entrance.

For more discussion on each of these feeders, see our article When Should I Feed My Bees.

How Long Will A Bee Hive Last?

We could be talking bees and queen bees here, but I’ll stick to hive equipment. 

Although you can buy hive bodies made from cedar, most people use boxes made of pine. It’s readily available and it is economical.  You’ll also find different grades of pine to choose from, select, commercial, or budget grade lumber.  The difference in price can be considerable, so go with your budget.

You can paint your woodenware or you can treat it with sealant. You’ll also see other methods, using linseed oil mixed with beeswax or various other ingredients.

Whatever method you choose, only treat the outside of your boxes and equipment. Fumes from the treatment can be toxic to your bees if you do the inside of the boxes.

What we have done with our wooden equipment is to prime it with Zinsser, a water-based, mold killing primer.  We paint a couple of coats of exterior latex over the top. A small roller works great, using a brush for touching up and reaching odd areas like under the handles.

If we see that the paint is slightly damaged or peeling, we’ll do a quick touch-up while the bees are occupying the hives.

The boxes should last a decade or more if they’re being maintained.