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History of the Beehive

The first record of Beekeeping dates back many centuries. The first beekeepers were more foragers than keepers. Their interest was in the honey and they destroyed the hives to gather it. Evidence of the actual practice of “keeping” bees was found in drawings on the walls of Egyptian pharaoh’s tombs. The drawings depicted natural beehives and even showed smoke being used to calm bees. In the 6th century before Christ, Fan Li, a Chinese philosopher explained the benefits of a wooden hive box. The first artificial beehives called skeps appeared about 2000 years ago.

They were made of baked clay or woven straw. Ancient remnants of the straw and clay skeps were found by archaeologists in Israel. Unfortunately, the skeps were destroyed to gather the honey often resulting in the death of the colony.

In the mid 1700s Anton Jansa, a painter and avid beekeeper from Carniola (now a part of Slovenia) changed the shape and size of beehive boxes so they could be stacked and moved. This picture shows his beehive which has been preserved. It is located in the Jansa Museum of Apiculture in Slovenia, home of the carniolan honeybee.

Although he had no formal education Jansa was appointed a teacher of beekeeping at the beekeeping school in Vienna by the decree of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria at that time. In addition to his beehive, Jansa was one of the first to theorize the honeybee queen is fertilized in mid-air which later was proven to be true. He is also noted for advocating beehives be moved to pastures to pollinate the fields.

A few years later Thomas Wildman, a Scotch beekeeper introduced a hive design that resembled a skep with the top removed. It was made of straw and included removable bars from which the bees could draw comb, an early version of foundation-less frames. Because it was round the bars varied in length. The gap between the bars was ½ inch. It was a novel idea but it was not widely accepted.

Almost a century later, in the 1850s, Lorenzo Langstroth, a Pennsylvania minister and bee hobbyist discovered “bee space”. He observed that bees would not draw comb in a space tighter than 3/8 inch. Tighter than 3/8 inch they would fill it with propolis, greater they would fill it with excess comb. Based on his discovery he designed a hive with frames that hung from the top of the box and were spaced to take advantage of “bee space”.

The bees could build their comb on frames which could be moved, replaced or manipulated. The frames could be removed one at a time allowing inspection without disturbing the bees or damaging the combs.

Although Langstroth was more interested in the bees than honey, the removable frame was a big deal at the time since honey was the primary means of sweetening food. And it has provided the basis for modern day honey processing.

Langstroth patented the removable frame concept but his actual frames were not standardized. Often his frames could not be used in other boxes due to their variation in size. Finally, in the 1880s the British Beekeeper Association established a standard frame size which we still use.

While frame size became standardized the hive boxes did not. The original boxes using the Langstroth style frames were square and held up to 14 frames. You can imagine how heavy there were! With weight as a consideration there has been a gradual move to narrower boxes. In their catalog Dadant marketed an 11 frame box. In the early 1900s Father Adam of Buckfast fame used a 12 frame box (known as a modified Dadant hive). Box sizes continued to shrink and the 10 frame box has been the standard for many years. There is a recent trend towards the 8 frame box. Today, there are also a lot of beekeepers that are using 5 frame boxes, not only as NUCs but also to maintain their colonies. The use of removable frames is now required in all beehives so they can be inspected for diseases.

Although there have been many types of hives developed over the years. Top bar hives, horizontal hives, flow hives, layens hive, and even a Slovenian hive are all being used today but most of the styles have disappeared and the “Langstroth” hive is still the most popular hive in use today.

jansa beehive photo courtesy of

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