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This Old Bee House: Study Deems Hive Boxes Drafty, Inefficient

honey bee hive boxes

The classic wooden hive box used by beekeepers worldwide, first designed in the 1800s, is prone to temperature swings, according to a study by researchers at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. That’s bad news for the honey bees inside, who must expend energy to maintain their favored internal hive temperature. (Photo by Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org)

By Paige Embry

Paige Embry

Paige Embry

European honey bees (Apis mellifera) suffer from an astonishing array of problems—Varroa mites, hive beetles, foulbrood, chalkbrood, stonebrood, deformed wing virus, 20-plus other viruses, poor diet, predation, pesticide exposure—it’s death by a thousand cuts. A new paper in the Journal of Economic Entomology adds another knife: the typical house beekeepers provide for honey bees. It’s a wooden box based on a nineteenth century design that leaks and gains heat just like you’d expect it would. And occasionally someone comes along and takes away part of the insulation (honey). Honey bees just can’t win.

Daniel Cook is a Ph.D. candidate at Queensland University of Technology in Australia and lead author on the study,  published in March in the Journal of Economic Entomology, which examined the thermal dynamics of the traditional managed honey bee hive box. Cook says via email that the commonly used wooden hive boxes “are designed for the human first, with the bee a vague afterthought.”

Daniel Cook

Daniel Cook

While studying industrial design as an undergraduate, Cook looked at how to build a better hive box. “I had a small bee yard peppered with sensors to determine how the bee hive itself behaves thermally,” he says. “From there, the design of the hive screamed of thermal inefficiencies.” Cook and colleagues’ research on the thermal properties of typical hive boxes quantifies their leakiness and highlights the potential impacts on the bees and their keepers.

Honey bees are persnickety about the temperature of their home. It needs to be between 34.5 and 35.5 degrees Celsius (approximately 94-96 degreesFahrenheit) or it adversely impacts the brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae), so the bees work to maintain that ideal temperature in various ways, such as fanning with their wings to cool or shivering to warm.

In their study, the researchers calculated the heat loss of the boxes along with the thermal impact of certain beekeeping practices. All the experiments looked at the heat loss only from the boxes and their non-living components (honey, wax, etc.). “The reason I left bees out of this study was that there are far too many behaviours that occur in the hive for thermoregulation,” Cook says. “It is not an easily applicable constant!”

The authors compared the heat loss of a standard wooden box to a polystyrene model where the internal temperature was a honey bee-idyllic 35 C and the outside temp was 25 C. The polystyrene version’s heat loss was 23 percent of the amount lost by the wooden box. Cook notes that about half the heat loss is through the lid; therefore, “a well insulated lid could reduce stress in the hive and increase forager availability.”

Two beekeeping practices can also have a large impact on the hive’s temperature: honey extraction and cold storage of box parts (which prevents damage from various pests). A standard wooden hive consists of stackable boxes. The queen is sequestered in the bottom box where she lays her eggs. As the colony grows, boxes can be stacked on top of the base box. Only honey gets stored in the upper boxes (supers). It’s a convenient system for beekeepers who can pop off a super to extract the honey and replace it with an empty box, but that new box can lead to a lot of warming-related work for the bees. Not only is the insulating honey gone, but the authors calculate that adding supers with components that had been stored between 2 C and 5 C could require bees to expend 130,000 to 145,000 “bee minutes” to heat up the new box. That’s time that could be used for other activities, like pollinating plants and bringing home nectar to make honey.

Why do beekeepers keep using boxes that make bees expend energy in ways that aren’t useful to beekeepers? Cook offers several theories. Many beekeepers buy a beekeeping business that already has boxes, or get boxes secondhand. Plus, wooden boxes are long-lasting and cheap to fix. Changing to a new style of box could be costly. Also inhibiting uptake of better box design, Cook says, is the “yawning divide between the science and the practice of beekeeping.” Cook notes that about 9 percent of global agricultural production relies on pollination, and so, he says, “It really is time we started looking to optimise pollination systems and services from the ground up rather than using a 160-year-old honey-collection system.”

He adds, “I have put this forward to beekeepers and scientists and often hear the response ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ to which I always reply with my favourite Henry Ford quote: ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.'”

Journal of Economic EntomologyRead More

Thermal Impacts of Apicultural Practice and Products on the Honey Bee Colony

Journal of Economic Entomology

 

Paige Embry is a freelance science writer based in Seattle and author of Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them. Website: www.paigeembry.com.

14 Comments »

  1. I don’t know how much time and money you spent on this study, but it’s really common sense thinking, that’s why I designed a heated bee hive called the “WestCoast Heated Bee hive”. Have a look on marketplace on FB, or Kijiji.

  2. Derek Mitchell in the UK has already done this work several years ago and published two peer reviewed papers testing the thermal properties of a variety of hives against the gold standard of a hollow tree. We Europeans have been using polystyrene for 20-30 years and know they work much better for the bees as well as giving an uplift of up to 40% in hney harvests.

  3. I will just quote what anyone can read in the official website of TechnosetBees, in Europe, Greece:

    Advantages Of Synthetic Beehive
    06 May 2015
    European Patent OAMICD 001800277

    The new synthetic Beehive constructed from polypropylene copolimer with great mechanical strength.

    The product is GREEK and MADE by TECHNOSET.

    With the NEW BEEHIVE Beekeeper’s dream did COME TRUE!!!!

    The advantages of the hive is:

    1. We saved the Beekeeper from all unnecessary maintenance tasks that are necessary for the wooden hives like painting, sanding, oiling.

    2. The results of using the synthetic beehives within a three year span showed GREAT behavior with the frost of the last two years, offering great protection to the SWARM.

    3. During the summer months it offers great protection from the HEAT inside the hive by protecting the Honeycombs and the Swarm, due to the twin wall insulation technology.

    It was observed that during night time in the summer bees remain inside the hive due to its good climate, while in Wooden hives a large part of the flock stays abroad because of the high temperature inside the hive.

    Also due to good conditions inside the hive, we achieve higher yields on honey collection and lower consumption of food.

    The tests were done at Karpenisi and Crete Greece showed perfect results during 36 months of operation as well as in Russia, America & Australia.

    4. It does not get infected by germs contributing to indoor hygiene of the hive that is necessary to protect the swarm from diseases.

    5. Easy to be washed with water and disinfected by a brush or a washer machine.

    6. It is fireproof. (see related video)

    7. It is protected by a warranty of 8 years for the strength of materials.

    8. It is made with material suitable for food.

    9. It comes with sunscreen for the Sun rays.

    10. Is not in danger from the ΜΟΤΗ.

    11. It is designed with a twin wall with styrofoam INSULATION.

    12. It includes a built-in carrying handle.

    13. It is designed with safety bolts between floors and recesses on the lid for safer transport of the beehives when placed one upon another.

    14. It removes the humidity because it has no pores to hold water like the wooden hive causing it to maintain a healthier environment.

    It is claimed that wood is a natural product and is better compared to Synthetic, so we would like to inform you about a research made by Professor of apiculture Fresnaye about the problems of wooden hives.

    The research has reached the following conclusions:

    1. A wooden hive, even if it is well painted with high quality oils, has a resistance to fungi and insects that does not exceed 2 years.

    2. The good condition a wooden hive rarely exceeds 3 years.

    The research indicated that:

    The most radical solution would be maybe the ABANDONMENT of wood for the use of SYNTHETIC MATERIALS or other synthetic products that would be resistant to physical, chemical and biological agents.

    This observation is also reported by Pierre Jean-Prost in the book of APICULTURE at page 125 for those who would like to be informed.

    We achieved the above helping the beekeeper getting rid of all unnecessary tasks for wooden hives, utilizing his time for more creative things like packaging and promoting his product on the market.

    Similar researches have been done in Europe already, with identical results. The difference, is that this company, has utilised those results, and gave an actual solution!

  4. My issue is I am not allowed to use a modified langstroth hive because of provincial regulations. The rules can be very strict if they don’t change than how can we adopt new designs?

  5. I use 1″ polystyrene insulation on three sides, leaving the front open. My bees winter well here in central Wisconsin.
    I am considering leaving the same on during the hindy season as a protection against excessive heat. During hot, dry days I use a fine mister on the garden hose to supply additional moisture.(about 8-10 feet from the hive.

  6. Bees in my backyard. In 2020 I carved out a tree log. Hung some wooden cross bars for bees to hang comb. Capped top and bottom. Drilled 2 holes. Bee swarm found it in a few days in June & moved in. They survived Canadian winter just fine because warm in the log and had enough food (I take no honey and dont feed sugar water.) They did a cleansing flight end of Feb. Started bringing in pollen in March. No smell. Dont see mites. See my journey on Instagram bstings7

  7. Why not build inside of a greenhouse where the temperature is regulated? Plant various flowers for pollination.

  8. Bees generte a fair bit of heat. Is it possible an insulated hive could overheat in hot weather? A cool hive may be inefficient but a hot hive full of dead bees is a disaster.

  9. The biggest hindrance to wide acceptance of polystyrene or any other design for a hive is not science, but cost and tradition. Beekeeping is a very traditional hobby, we do things the way we do because it has been done that way for hundreds of years. It does not matter if it is the best way, it is the way we do it. Until you can change that attitude you will never effect wide scale change. Secondly, most beekeepers have thousands of dollars invested in their equipment. The idea of throwing it all away and investing in new and different equipment, just does not make financial sense. You would need to get the cost of this new equipment so inexpensive that it made financial sense to change if you wanted wide scale acceptance. You would also need to ensure that polystyrene supers would work with wood supers so that they could be introduced as replacements for worn out equipment. Eventually, all the old wood equipment would be replaced but it would take time.

    While polystyrene (or other plastics) may sound like a great idea for thermal regulation there are other issues with it that also may not make it an idea solution. First, is the impact of making and disposing of polystyrene (or many plastics). Secondly, is the weight. While wood equipment is heavy that weight also helps protect the hive from predation. The weight alone makes it far less likely that a raccoon, opossum, or skunk is going to be able knock over the hive. The light weight of polystyrene means that wind and small animal predation become a much greater concern. There is also the issue of venting heat when it gets too hot. Polystyrene may keep the hive warm, but what happens when it gets too warm? It will be much more difficult for the bees to cool a hive designed to keep things warm, the beekeeper will have to be much more actively involved in venting the hives.

    All this to say, polystyrene hives are not a bad idea but it is not the be all end all that the article makes it out to be,

  10. Very well written and interesting study. I hope Paige continues to work on hive construction that can reduce stress on the workers

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