Roe Valley Beekeepers Association

Bee Space & Hive Choice

Beekeeping Advice

Bee space is a term coined in the early 1850s to describe a unique dimension in beekeeping. Close colony inspection by Rev LL Langstroth in 1851 resulted in his discovery that when bees were confronted by spaces they reacted differently to spaces of different widths. If the space was less than 6mm they would attempt to seal it using propolis. If the space was greater than 12mm the colony would produce wax comb within it (Brace Comb). If the space was 8mm bees would work within it but would not attempt to change it. This discovery had a profound significance for beekeeping. It lead Rev Langstroth to further experiment by building movable frames of wood within hive boxes. He found that the centre of the frame being a large space would be filled with comb. Bit if the space around the frame (between it and the body of the hive0 was 8mm, the space was left unsealed and this could permit the removal of the drawn comb. If the frames onto which comb was to be drawn were 8mm apart, each would be separately removable. The invention of the removable frame set the path to modern beekeeping. Prior to this bees kept in skeps or other hives had to be destroyed or disposed to extract a harvest. Now beekeepers could examine the progress of their colony, removing frames as required without disruption to hive activity. All modern beehives contain the beespace between frames, between the frames and hive walls and between individual hive boxes. Some designs use top bee space where the space above the top of frames is 8mm, whilst others use bottom bee space (National, WBC, Commercial) where the tops of fames are flush with the box top, and the 8mm space is at the bottom. The design of beehive brood chambers generally allows for a much deeper space at the bottom of the hive between the bottom of brood frames and the floor. This space which is usually 25mm is not filled with brace comb although space larger than 30mm may be. Bees use this as a vestibule when assembling or arriving in the hive

There are a number of different hive designs available to beekeepers.  All but the WC hive are constructed with single walls. The WBC designed by William Bourough Carr has a double wall the outer of which is composed of interleafing lifts. This hive looks very attractive, but has several disadvantages. It has the smallest brood area of all available hives, costs considerably more, is cumbersome to move in migratory beekeeping, and although good at insulating in winter, will result in the colony in spring being less aware of weather conditions and thus not maximising opportunities for collection of nectar and pollen. There are three hives which use top bee space- The Smith hive popular in Scotland and the Langstroth and Dadant hives which are of American extraction. It is essential that top and bottom space components are not mixed up. The most commonly used hive in this area is the modified National which had a brood area of 2200 sq ins. The box has a design which permits wide frame lugs but the components do not interlock. The hive is widely available and relatively cheap. Its disadvantage is its relatively small brood chamber size which may quickly be filled. This can be avoided by the use of a double brood chamber, or by the purchase of deeper brood boxes (and frames) The deep box is designed for a 12 in deep frame. Beekeepers may not like the basic looking structure and may attempt to improve it by the purchase of a gabled roof. The smith hive has similar dimensions, but has no particular advantage. Its inclusion in an apiary could lead to confusion re top & bottom space, and it will require short lug frames. It should therefore be discounted. The most commonly used large hive is the commercial which is often used by the larger producer. Its brood chamber is approx 3000 sq ins and it has the advantage of using standard national frames, and component parts of similar dimension to the national, making equipment interchangeable. Many commercial users use the same boxes for brood and as supers and this produces an efficient large area for honey collection. The Langstroth hive is a large hive with a brood area of 2740 sq ins which may be expensive to purchase but which provides plenty of brood space. Because it uses large short lug frames, these may be awkward to manipulate. The roof design is not deep enough for exposed sites. The other hive which is the largest with a brood dimension of 4000 sq ins is the modified Dadant, which is American and which also uses a top bee space. This hive is very large for the native bee, which is unlikely to require this volume of space. The frames used are large and have short lugs making full frames difficult to manipulate. Full supers would require several people to lift them. Because of the frame sizes it may be difficult to fit them into budget extractors.


There are a number of frame designs. These can be divided into self spacing and plain requiring the use of spacing devices. A frame is composed normally of soft wood (pine) and comprises a top bar which may be 22mm wide in budget kits or 27mm. The side bars include the self spacing design if present, and a groove internally to accommodate the wax foundation; the rectangle is completed by the bottom bars. The components are held together with glue and gimp pins. The most common self spacing design is the Hoffman which has a 35mm shoulder which includes interlocking v shaped grooves. When used with a 27mm top bar the correct bee space is maintained. These frames are ideal for brood chambers because of their ease of use and because they are resistant to move when a beehive is moved (eg in migration to heather crops) If a plain brood frame is used it will require metal end spacers but may swing on movement with the potential to kill the colonies queen. The simple 28mm frame is cheap and when used with a 12mm spacer will achieve the correct space. In the super beekeepers may use a shorter version of the Hoffman, but this has no particular advantage in this position and can be awkward to uncap. The better alternative is the Manley frame which has wide side bars (42mm) and the top and bottom bars are of similar widths. This has the advantage of easier decapping. Because of the width of the frame, bees will draw it more deeply and will therefore make more efficient use of their wax supply. If flow is slower, the frame may be irregularly drawn.

Foundation is either plain or supported with wires (wired). Plain foundation is useful if curt comb is intended, but can break in the extractor (Tangential) For other purposes therefore wired foundation is preferable.