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What Do Bees Need in a Beehive?

The hive is the bees’ home. As a doting beekeeper, you aim to provide an environment for your bees that meets or exceeds the needs they seek out in nature. Here are the basic housing requirements for raising happy, healthy, and productive colonies.

Bees need shelter and safety

In the wild, honeybees don’t nest underground (like bumblebees and yellow jackets). Instead, honeybees seek shelter and safety above ground, typically in the spacious hollow of an old tree. This arrangement keeps the colony much drier than the underground alternative and provides much more room and ventilation than cramped tunnels drilled into the soil. Anything approaching the bees’ feral conditions is very attractive to the colony.

The beehives that you will find building plans for are designed to mimic honeybees’ preferred conditions in the wild. These man-made hives simulate and even improve upon the “cavity” bees seek for shelter and safety in the wild. (Bonus: Man-made hives also provide a degree of convenience for the beekeeper, allowing for easy inspections and manipulations to encourage large, healthy colonies and a bountiful honey harvest.)

Bees need the ability to expand

Colonies of honeybees grow in population, both in the wild and in a man-made hive. And that’s a good thing. Larger colonies have a greater chance of survival by collecting more food. And a large population of bees means more warmth during the cold winter.

Beekeepers want to encourage this growth. The more bees in a hive, the more bees you have for pollination and honey production. If you don’t give a flourishing colony enough room, however, they’ll likely swarm, effectively cutting the size of your colony in half.

In that case, your colony’s productivity is seriously compromised. So if you’re keeping bees to optimize pollination and honey production, you want to build hives that address this expansion issue. Most of the so-called “modern” hives (such as the Langstroth, Warré, and British National) can easily expand in size as the colony grows.

Bees need dry and well-ventilated conditions

Honeybees do remarkably well in all kinds of extreme weather conditions, provided you keep the hive dry and well ventilated. Excess moisture and the inability of the bees to regulate the hive’s temperature can spell deep trouble for the colony.

Maintaining ideal conditions can sometimes be a challenge for the bees in the wild, but here’s where the beekeeper can help. When building your hives, provide good airflow. Screened inner covers, elevated hive stands, and screened bottom boards all help the bees maintain the ideal living conditions.

Bees need a nearby source of water

During their foraging season, bees collect more than just nectar and pollen. They gather a whole lot of water. They don’t use it primarily to quench their thirst; they use it to dilute honey that’s too thick and to cool the hive during hot weather.

Field bees bring water back to the hive and deposit it in cells, while other bees fan their wings furiously to evaporate the water and regulate the hive’s temperature. They look for a source of water that’s nearest to the hive (they’re practical, not lazy).

If your hive is at the edge of a stream or pond, that’s perfect. If it isn’t, you should provide a nearby water source for the bees. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, you don’t want your bees wasting a lot of energy traveling long distances to fetch water. That energy is better used collecting nectar.

And two, remember that the bees will seek out the nearest water source, and you certainly don’t want that source to be your neighbor’s kiddie pool. Or, if you’re in an urban setting, you want to keep the bees away from your neighbor’s air conditioner drips. So what should you do? You can place a watering device closer to the hives than the alternative source. I

You can improvise all kinds of watering devices: a hive-top feeder filled with water rather than syrup, a pie pan filled with gravel and topped off with water, a chicken-watering device (available at farm supply stores), or simply an outdoor faucet that’s encouraged to develop a slow drip.

Here’s a nifty idea — find or purchase a clean pail or bucket. Any size, color, or material will do. Just make sure that it’s clean and has never been used for chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides. Drill a few 1/2 inch drainage holes around the top edge of the bucket. Four or so should do the trick.

Place the holes about 1 to 3 inches down from the top edge. Fill the bucket nearly to the holes with water, and then float a single layer of Styrofoam packaging pellets on the surface. The pellets give the bees something to stand on as they sip water. That way they won’t drown.

Alternatively, you could use wood chips, sticks, or any other floating platform the bees can get a good footing on. The holes around the top are drainage holes that keep rainwater from overflowing the bucket and washing away the pellets, sticks, or wood chips. Neat, huh?

Bees in a hive need a watering device, like a bucket with water and packaging pellets. [Credit: Pho
Credit: Photograph courtesy of Howland Blackiston
Bees in a hive need a watering device, like a bucket with water and packaging pellets.
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