The Best Hive for the Backyard Beekeeper

Two hives

The options are many: Langstroth, Warre, Top Bar, Long Hives. The impassioned reasoning to favor one or the other is endless. For someone trying to get started, it has to be overwhelming.

I am going to make some very specific recommendations for your first hive and give you the reasoning for each part of it. What works (or lately doesn’t work so well) for a commercial migratory operation almost never makes sense for someone with a hive or two in their backyard.

The recommendations involve standard equipment that is easy to find, easy to assemble, and should last a long time.

1) Standard bottom board with the entrance reducer turned to the two bee width entrance. This provides an even foundation that rests on concrete blocks or bricks. You should level it very carefully side to side with a slight tilt toward the front to help move any water toward the entrance. The two bee entrance lets the bees guard the bottom entrance with minimum resources and keeps out rodents while serving as a drain if any water gets into the hive. The bottom entrance should be thought of as a service entrance, a place for the bees to take out the garbage.

2) Medium boxes so that any frame in any box can be changed out with any other frame in any hive. Being able to move resources around will help you resolve almost any issue that your hives might have. Medium boxes are relatively easy to lift even full of honey.

3) Top entrance made using either a migratory cover and shims, or a telescoping cover with a homemade rest which has two positions to open up the entrance in summer and reduce it in winter. Either way, you want an entrance that spans the entire front face of the hive. I discovered this almost accidentally with a nuc which had a very small entrance. I was worried it might be too hot and propped the lid open at the front lip with a stick. The bees love a top entrance.  The difference in the amount of foraging and the build-up of resources inside the hive is obvious to even casual observation when you have two otherwise equal hives.

4) Foundationless frames with a bare wooden starter strip. If you want, you can use a little wax in the groove to help hold the starter strip in place. Let the bees build on bare wood. Their attachment will be much stronger than to a melted wax coating. Foundation is made from old contaminated wax. If you use foundation you are not chemical-free. Letting the bees draw their own wax is key to the future health of your hive. Harvesting older frames wax and all is the best way to keep out any contaminates the workers bring into the hive.


5) No painting. Paint is just another chemical. Keep it away from your bees. Your equipment will last just as long as if it was painted since you won’t be chiseling and prying at it like a commercial migratory operation. I would also recommend using cypress boxes and covers if you live in a wet climate. I love the weathered look of unpainted hives after a few years exposed to the elements.

6) No Chemicals. I have talked about this extensively in other posts. If you are using anything in the hive you are not a natural beekeeper. Chemicals kill bees, either quickly or slowly, they have no place in your hive. In principle, I am opposed to feeding the bees even sugar water. I have done it in the past and probably only succeeded in propping up a doomed hive a little longer

7) No Queen Excluder. Let the queen go where she needs to go in all seasons. Take frames of honey from where you find them, replace them with empty frames so the bees can draw fresh wax. Put frames of brood back in the hive as close to where you found them as possible. The bees probably put them there for a reason.

The next post will cover hive management practices that will work in harmony with this setup to keep both you and your bees happy.


16 Comments on “The Best Hive for the Backyard Beekeeper

  1. I really enjoy your blog. I am planning on taking up beekeeping from scratch this coming spring. I plan on keeping a natural organic chemical free hive. I have read the arguments against feeding and think this makes sense. Everything I am reading says that when you install a new package you need to feed a lot so they can build up the frames. What would you recommend for someone starting their first hive from a package who wants to start on foundationless frames. Is that insane? Possible. What process would you use?

    • Hi Manny! Glad to hear you are getting some bees. You might want to check out the new post that went up today about getting your first swarm. As far as getting them started foundationless:
       Start them in a Nuc with foundationless frames. When the Nuc is nearly full I move them to a hive and interspace to filled frames with fresh empty frames. There is more there for the bees to harvest than you think.. The bees look places you would never think of. Don’t sweat it too much. If you have feral hives, and I am sure you do, your hive can make it too. One thing you can do to help your bees through a dearth is to stop fighting the dandelions in your backyard/beeyard. Dandelions by themselves can help the bees get through the tough times. You can also plant some sage, false oregano, and other plants with tiny compound flowers that flower for extended periods. Finally make sure there is a good source of fresh water with rocks to prevent drowning. If the bees have readily available water, they can spend more time hunting for food. I hope this helps. Good Luck.

  2. I just found your blog tonight.  I’m starting over, lost my hive this winter so sad.  In any event will you please explain or even better, post a picture of “a telescoping cover with a homemade rest which has two positions to open up the entrance in summer and reduce it in winter.”  I have been searching high and low for a way to make a top entrance on my telescoping covers!


    • Hi Angie, I don’t have a good photo of this. What you want is the type of hive cover I have in all my photos, pushed to the front of the hive. inside the cover add two of the shims you can get at any hardware store that are used to level cabinets. This creates the bee space so the bees can get over the front lip of the top hive box.

  3. Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for the great post.

    I would greatly appreciate your opinion on the following

    We are planning to use honey bees for the pollination of our
    greenhouse. We plan to integrate the
    honey bee hive within the greenhouse wall with two entrances. Hence, the bees will have access to the
    greenhouse as well as outside of the greenhouse.

    Your opinion will be very much appreciated.

    • I would not suggest having the hive be in the wall. It will interfere with working the hive and with the ability of the colony to regulate the temperature. It may also prevent them from overwintering behaviors that help them preserve resources that your greenhouse cannot hope to replace. You might want to run a short length of the clear tubing that is used for demonstration hives that are kept indoors from the hive to the greenhouse instead. Let me know how your project goes!

      • Dear Kevin, Thank you for the insight. Could you please elaborate a bit more on the clear tubing idea….Since i am new in bee keeping it will be helpful for your elaboration.

        • Hi Aswin, Look at information about observation hives. There will be tubing to allow the bees to access the outdoors. In this case you are using the tubing to let the bees access the inside of the greenhouse. You would also have a more conventional entrance to let them access the rest of the world.

    • Very late reply, but I think it is worth mentioning that honey bees don’t pollinate certain fruits/vegies. For example: tomatoes. I was shocked when I learned that because like you I wanted the best of both worlds, honey and pollination. All is not lost however, bumble bees will provide extra coverage in regards to pollination. The catch is, you typically would not harvest a bumble bee hive for honey. Their hives are very easy to construct, but then it is literally a game of chance that it will be used. Hope this helps anyone who stumbles into this posting. (Awesome point Rob! -Kevin)

  4. Hello, I am very new to beekeeping. I am in the process of constructing my hive and ordering nucs with someone local. My question is when I get the nucs in should I immediately add them into my medium boxes?

    • If you work with someone local you should be able to get a nuc of medium frames. If not, do a cut out when you move them over and tie the deep comb into medium frames.

  5. Hey Kevin – you mention that the top entrance should span the entire front of the hive. If I’ve got a young/weak hive, should I still do this if I’m concerned about robbing? Does a top entrance make a hive “warmer” than a bottom would?

    • A top entrance gives the bees more control over both temperature and humidity.

      Remember that I recommend a bottom entrance set to a two bee width as a service entrance/emergency drain/throw out the garbage spot.

      Always have a top entrance. The telescoping cover combined with shims done as I recommend creates a very defensible entrance even at full width.

  6. Hello Kevin, I am going to have a nuc: four frames: brood, honey, pollen, and empty comb (foundation). My beehive will be foundationless. The beekeeper from whom I am buying my bees told me that fourth, empty comb is for the queen to start laying immediately. I asked guy to give me more bees instead of forth frame with a
    contaminated comb. My way of thinking is that I need more bees as some
    of them will be busy with drawing combs. From this what I understand the queen will be delayed only around two day and she can do it in a new, clean comb. It will be much healthier option. Please let me know if my way of thinking is correct.

    • You won’t loose any time at all. The workers will sketch in comb faster than the queen can lay. They will actually finish building the cell walls after she lays in the sketched in cell bottoms.
      I would just go for two frames that have brood or eggs, there will be honey and pollen on the outer rim of those frames. Alternate with two empty frames with the tongue depressor guide as I recommend. If you have room for a third empty frame in the nuc then go for it.

      Then as you move to a full size hive alternate your 4 (or 5) full frames with 5 more empties. You will not believe how fast they get the empties filled in.

      Finally use the old frames as the ones you pull up to the new box when you add it. Keep pushing them slowly out to the outside edge and adding fresh empties in the center. If they have capped honey when you hit the outside then harvest with cut and crush to get rid of the contained wax. Keep doing the same with all the other frames till they are completely cycled out of the and back in as fresh empties in the brood nest.

      The life cycle of a frame is
      1)Fresh empty in the brood nest.

      2)Mature brood frame being pushed out to the edge of the hive by new empties.

      3) Emptied of brood and Backfilled with honey as it is moved up to the second box.

      4)Mature capped frame hits the outside of the top (usually the 3rd box, in some climates the 4th box) box and is harvested for both honey and wax using cut and crush, cutout (for comb honey), or extraction followed by cutout (even if you extract your need to cut out the wax and melt it down for sale, never, ever, ever return wax to a hive.)

      • Thank you so much Kevin for your advice.
        Now I have another question, if I may. When the split has only queen cells instead of the queen, may I expect that bees will build a fresh comb even if she is absent? Thanks! (edit Yes!-Kevin)

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