Langstroth, Top-Bar or Warre?: Choose the Right Hive for You and Your Bees

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If you’re interested in beekeeping but are debating which type of hive to choose or if you’re already a beekeeper and are wondering about different types of hives then read on.  Here I’ll talk briefly about the three different types of hives I use and discuss some basic pros and cons.  Let’s start with the the best known and most popular.

Pros and Cons of the Langstroth BeehiveLangstroth Beehive In Field

So, chances are if you’ve ever driven by a house or piece of land and seen beehives, you were looking at a langstroth hive. These are the standard hives used in the United States and most developed countries.  Imagine a wooden rectangle with wood frames that slide in vertically and rest in place on a top lip like a file folder.  Inside the frame is a thin layer of wax foundation printed with a hexagonal pattern that the bees will use to draw out their comb.  There is a removable top cover, a bottom board upon which the hive rests and a narrow entrance or slit between the bottom board and the hive body from which the bees come and go.  To add room for an expanding colony or for honey stores you add a super (basically another hive body, frames and all but shorter in height) directly on top of the hive body, then replace the cover on top of the super.

Pros

- Langstroth hives are standardized so it’s easier to find solutions for a specific problem.  For example, during my first year of beekeeping, one of my hives had so depleted their honey stores that their population had grown dangerously low. I was able to obtain a frame of brood and two frames of honey from a fellow beekeeper and save my colony. Due to the standard dimensions of langstroth, there are a lot of accessories for pest control, harvest, expansion, etc. that are readily available.
- When you harvest from a Langstroth, you slice off the tops of the honeycomb and spin the honey out of the cells.  You then put the frames back into your hive ready to go. It takes 8 lbs. of honey to make 1 lb. of wax so because the bees aren’t building comb from scratch every year you will be harvesting much more honey from a langstroth.
- Extraction is also much easier because honey extractors are built to work exclusively with langstroth frames.

Cons

-There is no way to know where your wax foundation is coming from or what contaminants it has been exposed to.
- Bees draw wax out from the cell size printed on foundation which is larger than cells in natural comb.  Some beekeepers feel that this contributes to problems like the varroa mite.
- Bees naturally want to move down not up which can prove to be a problem while overwintering.  Sometimes bees will starve to death because they have no honey stores at the bottom of a hive even if they have one or two supers full of honey on the top. 

Pros and Cons of Top-Bar HivesTop Bar Beehive Honey Comb

A top bar hive (TBH) is a long manger-like hive that has wood bars covering the top from front to back and some sort of roof over that. The bees will draw a comb from the bottom of each bar (no frames or foundation here). The entrance can be a slit in the front or a few holes in the side.  TBH’s can be an inexpensive DIY option or you can spend a pretty penny on one made of cypress or cedar complete with an observation window.  My point is that it can be as basic or fancy as you want and that in itself should probably count as my first pro.

Pros

- My number one pro here is that in all three of my top bar hives my bees seem to be unusually docile and prosperous.  They just seem to be really happy in this architecture and don’t mind inspections.
- Watching your bees build their own, pure white combs down from a bar of wood is really nothing short of magical.
- There are no supers to deal with during inspections which means little to no heavy lifting.Top Bar Beehive Comb
- As previously stated TBH’s can be a very inexpensive option so if you’re on a budget it’s worth doing some more extensive reading on this subject.
- The honey and wax you harvest will be from your colony only.  This is especially important if you’re planning on using the wax you harvest to make cosmetics.
- Comb honey generally sells for more money.
- You will have much less hardware to store through winter months.

Cons

-They require more frequent (at least twice a week) inspections during honey flow/comb building season in order to intervene if they start to attach their comb onto more than one bar.
-Since there is no standardization, you will have to custom build most equipment (hive beetle traps, entrance reducers, queen excluders, feeders, etc.).
- Your honey harvest will be significantly less than with a langstroth. 

Pros and Cons of Warre BeehivesWarre Beehive Timber Frame

In my mind a warre hive has aspects of both a langstroth and a top bar but the ultimate goal here is minimal intervention.  If your main interest in keeping bees is pollination for your garden then this is an excellent option to look into.  It’s basically a vertical top bar hive that is meant to mimic the hollow of a tree.  It’s smaller than a langstroth and has a box at the top that you fill with wood shavings between two layers of a “quilt” (pieces of cotton fabric) for temperature and moisture control.  The entrance is in the front at the bottom but much more narrow than a langstroth so you won’t need an entrance reducer.  Just like langstroth hives you use supers but you add these to the bottom instead of the top.

Pros

- Super low maintenance for the hands off beekeeper.
- They are more self regulating. My warre bees seem to have less issues with population and temperature control.  I rarely see significant bearding on my warre hives even when my top bar and langstroth hives are bearding like crazy.

Cons

- Warre hives can be ¬≠¬≠expensive if you’re planning on buying one ready made.
- Adding supers to the bottom is difficult if you don’t have an extra pair of hands to help you.
- The entrance (while perfect for the bees) makes it impossible to use an entrance feeder so you have to either make your own top feeder or place a feeder into an empty super on the bottom but this is really inconvenient to refill.

Personally, I don’t feel compelled to have a favorite.  I really enjoy having all of these hives in my home apiary and find that they all add something unique because of their individual strengths and weaknesses.  I feel that by keeping bees in different types of hives I’ve learned more about bees themselves, not just how they behave in a single type of structure and for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Photo of Langstroth by Flickr/2020 Vision
Photos of Top-Bar by Lindsay Williamson (2)
Photo of Warre by hive manufacturer and store, Bee Thinking,
www.BeeThinking.com.