The Langstroth bee hive, patented in October 1852, is the standard beehive used in many parts of the world for beekeeping. The advantage of this hive is that the bees build honeycomb into frames, which can be moved with ease. The frames are designed to prevent bees from attaching honeycombs where they would either connect adjacent frames, or connect frames to the walls of the hive. The movable frames allow the beekeeper to manage the bees in a way which was formerly impossible.
Other inventors, notably François Huber in 1789, had designed hives with frames (the so-called leafe or book hive), but Langstroth's hive was a practical movable frame hive, which overcame the tendency of the bees to fill empty spaces with comb and to cement smaller spaces together with propolis. In contrast to August von Berlepsch's frame-movable side-opened hive (May 1852, Germany), Langstroth's hive was top-opened, as was the Bevan top-bar hive (1848, UK). These combined adaptations led to the Langstroth hive design being preferred by beekeepers over all others, and his hive is used throughout the world.
In 1851, the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth (1810–1895), a native of Philadelphia, noted that when his bees had less than 1 cm (3/8 inch) of space available in which to move around, they would neither build comb into that space nor cement it closed with propolis. This measurement is called "bee space". During the summer of 1851, Langstroth applied the concept to keeping the lid free on a top-bar hive, but in autumn of the same year, he realized that the "bee space" could be applied to a newly designed frame which would prevent the bees from attaching honeycomb to the inside of the hive box. This attachment of comb to the hive wall was a difficulty with frameless designs, such as Dzierżon's frameless movable-comb hive (1835). US Patent 9300 was issued to Langstroth on October 25, 1852, and remained valid despite numerous attempts to challenge it based on its alleged use of prior art.
Rev. Langstroth subsequently published a book called A Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee, nowadays commonly known as The Hive and the Honey Bee or, under the title with which it was re-issued in 2004, as Langstroth's Hive and the Honey-Bee: The Classic Beekeeper's Manual. In this book, Langstroth described the proper dimensions and use of the modern beehive as we know it today. Prior to discovery of the dimensions of "bee space", bees were mostly hived in skeps (conical straw baskets) or gums (hollowed-out logs which approximated the natural dwellings of bees), or in box hives (a thin-walled wooden box with no internal structure).
Dr. Jan Dzierżon, a Polish apiarist and Roman Catholic priest, had in the year 1835 determined the correct spacing for the top-bars in beehives. The distance between combs had been described as 1 1⁄2 inches (38 mm) from the center of one top-bar to the center of the next one. In this case, the distance between combs is 1⁄2 inch (13 mm); that is, twice the minimum "bee space" of 1⁄4 inch (6.4 mm). This setup had been established for the brood chamber, as for honey storage the comb distance can be different.
Later, in 1848, Dzierżon introduced grooves into his hives' side walls, to replace the strips of wood that the top-bars had earlier been hung from. The grooves were 8 × 8 mm — a dimension intermediate between 1/4 and 3/8 inch (6.35 – 9.53 mm), the lower and upper limits of "bee space" as understood now. 3/8 inch (9.53 mm) is the usual size meant when "bee space" is referred to.
In Europe, both Dzierżon and fellow apiarist Baron August von Berlepsch had been focused on side-opened hives. Land resources for beekeeping was limited, and traditionally multiple bee hives had been kept in a single beehouse. The so-called "bee space" had been incorporated by Berlepsch into his frame arrangement (Bienen-Zeitung, May 1852) following Dzierżon's discovery that grooves added to inner walls remained free of propolis (1848). Thus, the correct distance between frame side-bar and hive wall was already understood by some European beekeepers prior to 1851.
L.L. Langstroth's patent of 5 October 1852 adopted 3⁄8 inch (9.5 mm) between the side bars of a frame and hive wall, and also reserved rights to use the distance 1⁄2 inch (13 mm) between top-bars and inner cover, the latter of which represents a gap larger than optimal.
The term "bee space" was coined later than Langstroth's 1852 patent. Occasionally incorrect definitions are ascribed to "bee space". Term easily confused with "bee space" include: inter-comb space, 1⁄2 inch (13 mm); the distance from frame to hive wall, 1/4 to 3/8 inch (6.35 to 9.53 mm); and even the distance from frame to hive bottom, which can be as little as 1/4 inch but ranges to as much as 3/4 inch (6.35 to 19.05 mm).
L.L. Langstroth may have been aware of Dzierżon's discoveries prior to submitting his patent application. In the summer of 1851, he was introduced to Dzierżon's work by Samuel Wagner, who had translated it from the German language original. Wagner later founded the American Bee Journal. Moreover, Samuel Wagner visited Jan Dzierżon in his apiaries in Silesia (now Poland). Wagner also subscribed to Bienen-Zeitung, the journal in which Dzierżon published his apiarian works. Wagner's translation of Theorie und Praxis, ... was never published; instead, Langstroth published his A Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee.
Langstroth expressed great respect for Jan Dzierżon:
"No words can express the absorbing interest with which I devoured this work. I recognized at once its author as the Great Master of modern apiculture."
Langstroth constructed his hives so that the frames, in which the bees were to make their combs, could easily be separated from all adjacent parts of the hive — the walls of the hive, the floor of the hive, the cover of the hive, and other frames within the hive. To extract a frame from such a hive will not require any comb to be cut. Usually the most trouble a beekeeper encounters in removing a frame from such a hive results from the bees using propolis to bond frames to the brackets they rest upon. Being able to remove and replace combs so easily makes it possible — and practical — for beekeepers to inspect all of their hives on a regular basis. Such inspections, to check for signs of disease and/or parasites, imminent swarming, an aging queen, and other conditions requiring intervention, are essential to successful bee husbandry.
The Langstroth bee hive is made up from top to bottom of:
- telescoping cover or migratory cover
- inner cover
- one or more hive bodies or honey supers made of wood, polystyrene, or other plastic
- bottom board, with optional entrance reducer
This is a wooden or polystyrene cover that fits on the top of the hive. In higher latitudes (further north in the Northern Hemisphere; further south in the Southern Hemisphere), a cover which telescopes down around the inner cover and an inch or so down over the top super, called a telescoping cover, is usually used. Many commercial beekeepers use what is known as a migratory cover, a solid cover which does not extend beyond the sides of a hive body.
The inner cover provides a barrier between the telescoping cover and the bees. In more temperate climates, a plastic foil may be used as an inner cover. Plastic foil should not be used to winter bees under, as trapped condensation would cause the hive to become wet, and bees can be lost due to freezing when temperatures fall during the night. In areas with a hot summer, a solid inner cover with a communication hole provides dead-air space for insulation against both heat and cold. This prevents the bees from gluing the top cover to the top bars of the super under it. When an inner cover is used, the top cover is more easily removed from the hive. Notches in the frame of the solid inner cover and telescoping cover can serve as an upper entrance for the bees. A communication hole in the middle allows bees to reach emergency food placed above by the beekeeper if it becomes required. Granulated sugar can be poured onto the inner cover near the hole, and the bees will be able to access it during even the coldest of days.
Hive body and hive super
Hive bodies and hive supers are four-sided boxes with standardized inside dimensions. There are generally four different sizes. Outside box dimensions vary depending on the type of material used. Polystyrene boxes have much larger outside dimensions than boxes made out of wood. Deep and medium hive bodies are provided to serve as the brood chamber, the part of the hive where the queen lays eggs and the bees care for the larvae. Medium, shallow and comb honey supers are used for honey stores and to harvest the honey. The inside width is 14–11/16 inches (373 mm) and the inside length is 18–5/16 inches (465 mm). The frames rest on a rabbeted side along both ends of each box.
The deep hive body is normally used only for brood, as it becomes too heavy to handle manually if it becomes filled with honey. Commercial operations usually use one- or two-deep hive bodies for brood, and additional shallow hive components for honey supers. Some hobbyists prefer to standardize on all mediums. Shallow supers are not ideal for the brood chamber of the hive because the bees need to form a single compact sphere during the cold winter months — a sphere that can expand and contract without being divided by a horizontal plane in the middle caused by the gaps between combs in multiple hive bodies.
|Type||Depth||Frame length||Frame depth||Frame width|
|Deep body||9 9⁄16 inches (243 mm)||19 inches (480 mm)||9 1⁄8 inches (230 mm)||1 1⁄8 inches (29 mm)|
|Medium (Illinois) super||6 5⁄8 inches (170 mm)||19 inches (480 mm)||6 1⁄4 inches (160 mm)||1 1⁄8 inches (29 mm)|
|Shallow super||5 3⁄4 inches (150 mm)||19 inches (480 mm)||5 3⁄8 inches (140 mm)||1 1⁄8 inches (29 mm)|
|Comb super||4 3⁄4 inches (120 mm)||19 inches (480 mm)||4 1⁄8 inches (100 mm)||1 1⁄8 inches (29 mm)|
The hive body or hive super holds 8 to 10 frames that are standardized in length. The frames hold the foundation and the honeycomb that is built on it.
The Cloake board, also known as the "bottom-without-a-bottom", is a specialty piece of hive equipment that is installed between two hive bodies of the brood nest. It allows the beekeeper to insert a sliding metal or wood panel, which will split the hive into two parts without having to lift the hive boxes, the objective being to split a single hive into two independent hives.
The queen excluder is a mesh grid, usually made of wire or plastic, sized such that worker bees can pass through, but queens (generally) cannot. When used, it is generally placed between the hive body and the honey supers. The purpose of the queen excluder is to keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey supers, which can lead to darker honey and can also complicate extraction. Many beekeepers reject the use of queen excluders, however, claiming that they create a barrier for workers and result in lower levels of honey collection and storage.
A feeder is most often used to feed granulated sugar or sugar syrup at times of the year when no, or not enough, nectar flow is available from natural sources to meet the hive's needs. There are various styles. Division board feeders have a shape similar to that of the frame, and hang inside the hive body in the same manner as a frame. Entrance feeders are wedged into the hive entrance on the bottom board with an inverted container of feed. Hive-top feeders have the same footprint as the hive body and are placed on top of the hive, but underneath the telescoping cover. Other hive-top feeders consist of an inverted container with small holes in the lid, which are placed either directly on top of the frames, or on top of the hole in the inner cover.
An "escape board" is placed between the brood boxes and the supers to clear the supers of most of the bees. The escape board lets bees exit the supers into other areas of the hive, but makes it difficult for the bees to re-enter the supers. There are several different designs.
- USPatent|9300—L.L. Langstroth's patent for a Bee hive from Oct. 5, 1852
- USPatent|9300—L.L. Langstroth's patent for a Bee hive Reissued from May 26, 1863
- Huber, François New Observations on the Natural History of Bees, 1806. (English translation as published) Retrieved from transcribed copy at , 21 November 2011; scanned copy also available at  as of 21 November 2011.
- Langstroth, L.L. A Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee, 1878
- Bienen-Zeitung, November 1845 & January 1847, Frauendorfer Blätter (11) 1846
- Bienen-Zeitung, January 1850
- American Master of Bee Culture. The Life of L.L. Langstroth. by Florence Naile, pp. 84 and 85
- "Reminiscences" Gleanings in Bee Culture XXI, 116-118
- gobeekeeping, Basic Beekeeping — The Modern Hive, The Modern Hive, Stahlman Apiaries. Accessed 19 July 2010.