Horizontal or Vertical?

At the beginning of the main swarming season in 2012, I made the decision to stop keeping bees in horizontal top bar hives and move to using Warré hives.  For those unfamiliar with Warré hives, I will write more about them elsewhere.  This page is about my primary reasons for changing hive type after 5 years of keeping bees in horizontal hives.  I should emphasize that all experiences are individual and one should not be too quick to generalize.  However, I hope what follows is of use to those who may be considering what sort of hive in which to keep bees.

My original choice to keep bees in horizontal hives was, in fact, no choice at all.  It came about because, at the time,  all the sites that I found on the internet about natural beekeeping promoted only horizontal hives.   So I was unaware of alternatives such as the Warré hive.

Coming from a background of conventional beekeeping, I was a little dubious about bee colonies expanding horizontally, rather than vertically, but experience quickly showed that they will do this quite readily.  So the objection that is sometimes raised, that ‘bees won’t move horizontally,’ seemed unfounded.  Beyond that, I found that bee colonies will generally place their brood nests near the entrance of the hive and set up a distinct honey storage area away from the entrance.  So another supposed objection, that ‘without a queen excluder, the bees will mix honey and brood indiscriminately’ also seemed to fall by the wayside, at least for the time being.

A further question that arose was whether to have entrances in the middle of the of the hive or at the end (either at the end of the long side or on the end proper).  Some web sites advised one, some the other.  Middle entrances seemed to me to introduce a question about which way to expand the hive as it grew – left, right or both?  I allowed the bees to decide by giving colonies both types of entrance.  The bees voted for end entrances, using these in preference when both were available.

The next issue to be addressed was how to persuade the bees to follow the top bars when building comb.  This took a bit of fiddling.  Eventually I found a design of top bar that gave unequivocal signals to the expanding colony.  Even with clear comb guides, however, I found it necessary, especially with swarms,  to add top bars only one or two at a time and to keep an eye on proceedings until several straight combs had been built.

Moreover, I found that colonies often wanted to build widely spaced combs in the honey storage area and preferred closer spacing in the brood area. Using top bars of an equal spacing throughout the hive led to combs being built increasingly off centre, particularly in the honey storage area.  So I started using spacing shims between the top bars.  Using the shims in different configurations enabled me to vary the spacing between the brood and honey storage areas without having the inconvenience of using top bars of different widths.   In addition, removing the shims either side of a top bar gave a degree of wriggle room when removing an individual bar from the hive.

The next thing I noticed was that the bees had a marked tendency to ‘hang out’ on the bottom mesh below the hive.  Whole festoons of bees would cluster below the mesh for days on end.  I concluded that this was a heat, and possibly humidity, control mechanism; removing bees from the face of the combs allowed for better air circulation.  My response to this was to increase the depth of the hives and to create a false floor that prevented the bees from building comb all the way to the bottom of the now enlarged hive.  Thus the bees would have space  inside the hive to ‘hang out’ below the combs.  And that is exactly what they did.

At about the same time,  I had been experimenting with open versus closed bottoms to the hives, and had concluded that closed bottoms gave colonies more control over internal hive conditions.  The combination of ‘hanging out space’ and closed bottoms seemed a good one.   I had also taken to placing  a bag of wood shavings in the roof space above the top bars, to keep the warmth in during cold weather and to protect from the direct heat of the sun during hot weather.

Then came a spell of warm summer weather that coincided with a heavy honey flow.  I was delighted to see the bees add bar after bar of newly built comb, chock full of honey.  That is until I realized that, below the bars, unseen by me, comb after comb had collapsed.  Some of the collapsed combs were in the storage areas of the affected hives, but others were in the brood nests.  The latter were combs that had become empty of brood and had been used for honey storage because no other space was available.  What a mess; for both the bees and me.  Cleaning it up meant considerable disruption and I could see that some degree of comb strengthening was urgently needed.  After a good deal of experimentation, the answer that I came up with was the use of 6mm diameter dowels, set into the top bar and extending vertically downward about 100mm.  I put two such dowels in each top bar,  spaced roughly 100mm in from each end.   It seemed that dowels of 6mm or less in diameter are incorporated by the bees into their comb, giving much needed extra strength.

The comb collapse episode started me thinking, however.  Both the hives and the roofs were made of thick wood (25 mm or more).  This, together with the wood shavings above the top bars and closed bottoms, meant that short term changes in external temperatures should not unduly affect the temperature inside the hive.  I had in mind the damping effect that one gets in a thick walled, small windowed, thatched cottage of the sort in which I grew up: cool in summer, warm in winter.  Yet the comb collapse episode suggested to me that something else was involved.

To create hexagonal cells, bees form a cluster and heat the wax they exude to 40°C.  At this temperature, wax goes through a phase change and becomes very malleable.  Could it be that the heat created by the bees to form new comb had spread to the completed, and now full, storage combs, causing them too to become soft and malleable?  If so, it would suggest a problem with heat distribution within the hive.  Or to put it another way, a problem with keeping one part of the hive -the comb building area- warm while keeping an immediately adjacent area -the storage combs- cool.  This was not a problem that I had seen in years of keeping bees in conventional vertical hives and is not a problem that I have seen in Warre hives.  If this was so,  it could be imagined that the collapse of the first comb would make the problem worse.  In slumping against the walls and floor of the hive, the collapsed comb would impeded air circulation, making any heat pocket harder to dissipate, increasing the likelihood of further comb collapse.  Not a cheering thought.

The year following the one in which the comb collapse occurred was a quiet one for bee colonies where I live.  Which brings me to the spring of this year.  It was marked by a period of unusual early warmth and bee colonies showed signs of rapid early expansion.  One of my colonies had gone into the winter occupying almost a full hive as I had not harvested any honey from it in the autumn.  I decided to use the warm weather to take a look at the colony to determine its status.  If it had room and was expanding well, that would be fine, but I was a little concerned that the large amount of stores it had carried into the winter might be restricting its space.

It turned out that I was partly correct.  Rather than having a single unified brood nest, bounded by pollen stores and, beyond that, a honey storage area, I found that the brood nest had become fragmented, and was partially separated by intervening combs of honey.  It was not possible to completely fix the problem without causing unacceptable disruption, although I did manage to introduce some empty top bars to allow space for expansion.

Then the weather turned distinctly cool.  Some weeks later, I checked the hive again.  I found that the combs of brood that were separated from the main body of the brood nest had been chilled and were dead.  The cool weather had caused the colony to reduce the area of brood it covered in order to conserve heat and the brood that was separated from the main nest, even if only partially so, had been abandoned.

Such chilling of brood can occasionally happen with other sorts of hive in cold weather,  but the weather that had caused the problem was cool, not cold.  I was surprised and disappointed that temperature control had again been a problem.  Especially after all I had done to enable the bees to maintain an even and acceptable hive climate.

I thought about this for some time and, eventually, came to the conclusion that a long, relatively shallow, horizontal hive tries to reconcile essentially irreconcilable concepts.  In simple terms,  in the absence of outside interference, hot air rises, it does not move horizontally.   Bees have evolved for millions of years in vertical hollows inside trees.  As a result, they are perfectly adept at coping with the fact that warmth rises and their ventilation strategies will all be based on the physics of natural convention.  Sure, a degree of lateral air movement takes place when a bee colony ventilates its home, but this is minimal in comparison with the vertical element of the air movement.  While it may not be the case in shorter hives, in a long horizontal hive, the opposite is true, the horizontal element dominates.

I could, of course, go back to fiddling with the design and operation of horizontal hives, maybe revisiting closed floors or changing the size of entrance holes in accordance with the weather – larger when hot, smaller when cold.  But this would be to introduce more intervention when my path has been to find a way to interfere less.  Maybe the bees should be allowed to build combs exactly how they please; in circumstances where I have seen this, the combs run lengthwise or diagonally within the hive.  Maybe this is how bees cope in nature with ventilating a long horizontal cavity; the end of each comb abuts the entrance and the combs run in parallel away from the flight hole.   Perhaps there is a format of horizontal hive waiting to be designed that allows for this and, hence, allows for a natural control of hive ventilation.  Maybe a combination of deeper combs and a hive that is less long provides an answer.

But that is for others.   For me, for the present at least, there seems an easier way: give in to the laws of physics and the long evolved behaviour of bees in natural conditions and revert to vertical hives.  This is what I have now done.   All of my hives are now Warrés.

You may also be interested in the article ‘Hives for Bees: seeking balance’, published here.

Gareth, West Oxfordshire, 2012


19 Responses to Horizontal or Vertical?

  1. “Maybe a combination of deeper combs and a hive that is less long provides an answer” or maybe a top entrance is the answer in horizontal hives to reduce the upper warm air resulting in cooler comb?

    • simplebees says:

      Hi Che

      I have a friend who has a series of holes along the top of her TBH sides to allow a degree of air circulation. They are small enough to allow the bees to close them with propolis should they wish. The last time I was there, the holes were all still open. There is much still to learn about the perfect home for bees. 🙂

      Gareth, Cotswolds

  2. simplebees says:

    Does you friend has issues with comb collapse in her Horizontal TBH?

    Too early to tell; the hive was populated last summer by a small swarm and is not yet at the stage of being a mature hive. It is also in a well shaded cool spot under high trees; the ideal location for a woodland edge creature such as the bee. So we shall see.

    Gareth, Cotswolds

    • simplebees says:

      As an update, the hive mentioned above came through the winter and has thrown 4 swarms in the last 10 days of June.

      Gareth, Cotswolds

  3. julie says:

    I have four, 40 some inches, top bar hives built by my husband, they are Kenyan TBH. WE got the plans out of bee culture magazines a few years ago. The only bee’s I have put in them have been wild swarms. they all have straight comb. But, he built one for the neighbor, I put a huge swarm in it maybe 4 weeks ago. we looked in again today, and there is diagonal comb. I think some bee’s are more artistic-thinkers with strong leadership skills. the appearance is perfection and beauty. Haven’t decided what to do yet, or when, still exploring. Our TB hives have screen-bottoms, 2/3 of the length from the front. The only time i block the air flow is in severely cold spells (20 degrees), and I have a piece of screen for ventilation where the last top bar would be. We live in western Oregon south of Eugene. This is my fourth season, with tbh and we have not lost a colony yet. Three of them went into last winter with only five paddles (late swarms). All of those were the first to swarm in the late spring. Imagine that!!!!! We also have two langstroth hives in which I cut up the frames and put only to bars in, all straight comb. most of the honey supers on them have drawn comb, and i interspersed top bars only between some of those frames. I am all about experimenting, willing to fail, and press on. At any rate, I am done with purchasing commercial bee’s/queens/ frames/foundation/medication. All my wild hives swarm at will, and i sell them, and other caught swarms for $30 each. Swarm on! Life is good.

    • John Little says:

      I. Would be very interested in buying bees from you.Do you ship them or would you to Missouri?my name is John my email is johnlitt09@gmail.com I am having hard time finding wild bees not medicated any help would be greatly appreciated

  4. solarbeez says:

    I started beekeeping with a KTBH that I built from Phil’s plans. I wanted to keep bees with a minimum of interference and no medications. When I inspected after about a month to month and a half, I pulled out comb that was diagonal and badly cross-combed. I asked my mentor about it. He said I had to inspect at least every 21 days to make sure the comb was straight. When I heard about the Warre hive through a podcast interview I was impressed that the bees would build their own comb design without someone interfering every 3 weeks. You could let them decide what to do! They will build their own tunnels and cell size (cross-combing is not a problem)…and the heat goes upward naturally. In the KTBH, if the bees have built honeycomb outboard of the center entrance holes, they may have a problem in the winter when they have exhausted their honey supply on one end and can’t cross over to the other side.
    I still have questions over what to do in the Warre, like whether to super or to nadir and it’s probably harder to find the queen because you can’t pull out individual frames, but I’ll be sticking to the Warre so I don’t have to inspect so often.

  5. Hej Gareth

    Thank You for sharing!

    I am on my way to get bees this spring/summer, so I have no experiences of my own. But before I am getting some bees, I needed some kind of “home”.
    Being all new to this, I started looking for a hive…and found plenty of different ones!!!

    After a lot of reading, two models seemed to me the ones that are most bee right: either a HTBH or a Warré hive.
    After studying those two more closely I decided that the vertical hive is the one most suitable for the cold Swedish climate. And the reason is: not only will I try to follow bees nature as close as possible, but even the natural laws of physics (something that I am sure of the bees do as well).
    The reason for a vertical hive was thus given.
    The warm air will rise upwards and not sideways which is what Your experience clearly shows.

    On the other hand: if I would be living in lets say Africa, a horizontal hive might be the better choice.
    Some little spacing between the top bars and You get rid of the heat over a wider area instead of through the whole hive.

    A few weeks more, and I shall start making my own practical (vertical) experiences!
    (and I admit, I am getting exited as I am getting closer to that day…)

  6. tallman1948 says:

    Good information. I started with warre and have been considering a horizontal. Not now. Thanks.

  7. Paul says:

    I used hTBH’s for 4 years (and it looks like I will be using them again this year if I get a swarm, as they’re my currently empty ones). They have one huge plus, for older people with bad backs, which is that there is no need to lift heavy supers. But my current view is that they have a drawback people don’t mention much: their operators tend to think the hives can be left alone because “only conentional beeks inspect every 1 r 2 weeks”. So we get lazy and leave them alone for too long. This leads to nice calm bees in your garden, but the comb gets unamanageable… that isn’t a problem if you aren’t interested in opening them, but what IS a problem is they now rapidly run out of brood space and repeatedly swarm.
    For the less experienced readers, I should explain that queens generally won’t cros honeycomb areas. The workers pack honey behind the brood area (or above it in a vertical hive – anyhow, further from the entrance). In Spring the colony only needs, say, 6 or 7 bars of brood. So bars 8+ are honey. As the year goes on the queen lays so rapidly that the brood area is full, and this triggers the swarming instinct. So the colony swarms. And a few weeks later does so again. And again.
    What’s wrong with swarms? Well one is fine – it will be a big prime swarm with plenty of bees and a fertile queen, it will hit the ground running,build numbers and stores and be in a fine shape to survive winter. It will take a lot of honey from the original colony as it goes but the remaining bees have all year to build up again.
    But TBH’s tend to throw off cast after cast. I’ve seen several left-alone “conservation” hives with almost no bees, and basically no stores at all because each cast tanks up on hney before going. I had one hive that threw off at least 3 swarms in one year, and probably one or two more we didn’t spot. It failed that winter.
    This would be avoided if we natural beeks inspected and moved bars more regularly, expanding the brood area with new bars. And yes me too – I’ve learnt through mistakes and I’d like you to Learn From My Fail.
    Oh, TBH’s have another big plus people don’t mention. You learn a lot faster about bees with them than with Warres, simply because you need to manage them more. So they are great beginners’ hives and I am glad I used them.

  8. Jim says:

    I’m in Portland, Oregon. This is my last year of using a TBH, following a wasp massacre this year. My experiences, trials, tests are as follows:
    1. End or middle entrances. Mine are end entrances, a friend has a middle entrance – both worked to a degree but eventually neither prevented combs with mixed brood/honey in each comb.
    2. Combs mixed with brood/honey – honey typically at top of comb, brood at the bottom
    3.Queen excluder – built one for the TBH after trying the ‘natural’ method for 2 years. Year 1 of excluder, combs on queen side still mixed brood/honey at end of summer. Year 2 of excluder, slowly added combs to brood side with some improved success of honey comb separation. Year 3 – tried bar spacing option B below which was unsuccessful
    4. Bar spacing A – tight bars worked well to keep combs aligned, but more difficult to remove as easier for propolis to hold together
    5. Bar spacing B – left small 1/4″ space between every forth bar. Bad idea – allowed queen to bypass excluder, created more access points for honey robbers as lid perimeter has gaps.
    6. Survival-ability – from Portland Beekeepers collected data; Warre hives are the most successful overwintering, then Langstroth, and least successful are Top Bar.

    If your TBH are successful, congrats! My 5 years haven’t been, and from sharing data with other TBH hive owners locally they have had the same problems. The main problem I’ve seen in the TBH hive owners is unwillingness to be open about their failures until someone else admits they have failures. Also – the insect world is a truly brutal survival system; you just may not be aware of it until you have a bee hive.

    • Greg says:

      Commenting about:
      “Combs mixed with brood/honey – honey typically at top of comb, brood at the bottom”
      “combs on queen side still mixed brood/honey at end of summer.”

      Unsure what is the problems here. There is no problem, in fact.

      It is totally normal, natural, and expected to have honey storage area placed above the brood area on the same comb. In fact, you *want* it this way for normal wintering in temperate/cold zones. Shallow hives, by design, do not provide much space for placement of honey above brood on the same comb. This is one reason why vertical or deep-horizontal hives are superior for wintering in cool/cold conditions (less important in no-winter zones).

  9. Greg says:

    Good article.

    Too bad the author failed to pursue the traditional European deep horizontal designs that have it all – horizontal expansion AND good vertical depth at the same time. Such designs came along for reason – they fit better the temperate climates than shallow hives that fit better hot climates (different energy distribution profiles of a cube-like structure vs. a shallow/long prism structure – very important consideration in basic construction).

    See Layens hive, for example. Or Ukranian horizontal hive.
    Or Golden hive – http://www.dheaf.plus.com/framebeekeeping/modified_golden_hive.htm.

    If one insists on the top bar keeping vs. proper frames, then the frames could be just replaced by just touching bars with additional *vertical end bars* that will provide additional support for the combs to provent the collapse AND giving an opportunity to move the combs around because the end bars prevent attaching the combs to the hive walls.

    Still, a good read!

  10. Paul says:

    Greg suggests vertical end bars to make 3-sided “frames”.
    One of my Warre hives was recently knocked over. There were a mix of bar types, some had these end bars and some did not. Several combs were knocked loose from their bars, I noticed they were all from bars that had no end bars: the extra reinforcement of these bars saved the other combs.
    In practice I find the bees build up to the end bars, but don’t stop there – eventually they fill up the gap between the end bars and the wall of the hive, so you need an L-shaped Warre knifetocut the wax there to remove a comb for inspection.
    I’ve tried such bars in hTBHs too but they are much trickier to add due to the angled sides of the TBH.

    • GregV says:

      ….In practice I find the bees build up to the end bars, but don’t stop there…

      Well, there is this well known idea of bee space. The space between the end bars and the hive wall should be the bee space (1/4-3/8 inch). That is foundation of the mainstream beekeeping.

      Regarding the “angled sides of the TBH” – well, there is nothing wrong with vertical sides vs. the angled sides. Technologically speaking, 90-degree angles are much easier to work with.

      All in all, this wildly popular KTBH ideas are not ideally suited for the temperate zones (most of the US, for example). The energy profile of KTBH is far from ideal when you have cold season. It seems to me that the hive designers (and users) of KTBH are ought to introduce themselves to basic ideas of energy efficient building. For example: https://sites.google.com/site/lowenergyhome/architectur
      Notice how the most energy efficient forms are sphere, cylinder and cube. KTBH is not even close to any of these forms – not great for temperate zone beekeeping structures.

      • GregV says:

        to add to: “most energy efficient forms are sphere, cylinder and cube”
        …and cuboid almost nearly as efficient
        Hence the deep horizontal hives OR vertically oriented hives are those most well adapted for temperate zone beekeeping structures (using the common building materials which a flat, not curved – just making this clear).

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