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A Better Home for Our Bees

    If you Google different types of bee hive designs you can probably find ten unique types used around the world:  Langstroth, Warre, Top Bar, Horizontal Layens, Flow, Skep, British National, WBC, Apimaye, Lyson and AZ.  If you investigate each one of these designs you find no hive is perfect and each has their strengths and weaknesses.  Only two of these hive designs are insulated year round.  This obviously is not a complete list since beekeepers are a curious inventive bunch usually with excellent wood working skills that makes customization and building of their own equipment part of the fun of keeping bees. When you read the good and bad features of each design, there is rarely a mention of our bees.  It would seem that the beekeeper is the most important one to consider.  I know we are paying the bill, but shouldn’t our bees be the first thing we consider when choosing them a proper home?

    I am not suggesting there is a perfect hive design that is best for everyone’s bees.  Every beekeeper has their own set of goals and objectives for their colonies. But I hope our first priority is keeping our bees less stressed and in good health, free of diseases, parasites and predators.  I read an interesting SEMAP TIE GRANT study at Four Acre Farm in Massachusetts at  This was a year-long study comparing two Langstroth hives both starting off with a package of bees in the spring.  One was insulated with Styrofoam R-11.68 sides and R-20 roof and the other standard uninsulated pine boxes.  The insulated hive produced an extra 80 pounds of honey and the uninsulated hive produced no extra honey and consumed most of their stored honey by December 22nd.   If the uninsulated hive had not been feed sugar patties, the colony would have died.  We all know the importance of insulating or wrapping your hives in the winter, but look at the temperature swings in the W-uninsulated hive during the summer when the internal temperature climbed to 100.6 F while the insulated S-hive stayed steady at 83.98 F.

    This is one of several scientific studies that have been conducted in recent years showing the advantage to our colony’s productivity and survival if insulation is kept on year round.  Global warming is making our job as beekeepers even more difficult with extreme weather events happening in increasing numbers.  Even in Maine we are seeing daytime heat index temperatures this summer as high as 90 degrees.  An uninsulated dark colored bee hive with a metal clad outer cover in direct sun is going to get over heated (hyperthermia).  Our field bees now have to bring in water to cool the hive instead of pollen and nectar.  We start to see extensive bearding of thousands of bees outside the hive even as ambient temperatures drop in the evening with the stored honey thermal mass in the hive still giving off heat.  A fully insulated hive will not stop bearding, nor should it with colony populations expanding rapidly mid-summer.  But insulation will moderate the extreme temperature fluctuations and save unnecessary work by our foragers and put less stress on the entire colony.

    So why do we remove our winter insulation warps in the summer?  It’s a pain to remove any external insulation envelope if you have a stack of Langstroth boxes and need to do a complete inspection.  I kept my insulation wrap on my Langstroth hive all summer and to access the brood in the bottom box for my mite sample everything has to be removed and reinstalled when the inspection is compete.  If I had an insulated single box that could hold the equivalent volume of 2 deeps and 3 mediums that I could inspect without removing the roof or moving a box it might be better for my bees and for their aging keeper.

    I believe there is a hive design that with some minor modifications can solve these problems.  This solution is aimed at backyard hobby beekeepers with a limited number of hives, since commercial and sideliners need inexpensive hive bodies that can be stacked and transported on pallets using their existing equipment.  My solution is to modify the Slovenian AZ hive designed by Anton Znidersic (1874-1947) to work with AZ style frames fitted with standard Lang deep foundation that will fit our extractors.   My design AZ hive contains 4 levels or chambers that each hold 10 AZ frames with Lang deep foundation. The entire box is insulated with 1” thick foil-faced polyisocyanurate rigid insulation board.   The interior hive volume of each chamber is 2600 cubic inches the same as a standard Langstroth deep.   Chambers can be opened to the adjacent chamber or isolated with a solid cover so you could over-winter two colonies in one insulated box allowing colonies to share their heat.  Slovenian beekeepers traditionally have kept their beehives in a bee house with hives stacked closely and only the front face of the hive exposed to the weather.  Anton designed a 22mm dead air space between the outside front wall of the box and the interior wall of hive acting as insulation for this one side of the hive exposed to the weather.  The balance of the hive was inside a building providing additional insulation and protection from extreme weather fluctuations during winter cold and summer heat.  Annual honey bee colony losses in Slovenia have been less than 20 percent in recent years according to the Slovenian Beekeepers Association compared to the 40 to 50 percent annual colony losses here in the US.  Are Slovenia Carniolan honey bees better than ours, are they better beekeepers or is their hive design better than ours?  I am willing to bet it has something to do with their hive design and the insulating effect of stacking colonies close together enclosed in a shelter.  

    A properly insulated hive in the winter allows our bees to work less to keep the cluster warm.  Less work results in less honey is consumed, a higher probability of survival and more honey for the beekeeper to utilize for early spring splits or sell.

    I realize that the major disadvantage of what I propose is the extra expense of the bee house or maybe even the area in your yard to erect a small building.  If the hive box itself is fully insulated you don’t need the bee house and can place this hive on a simple stand.  I am currently building an insulated AZ hive with a simple gable roof for a local beekeeper since she did not want a larger shed structure in her apiary.  For my own two AZ hives I built a small 5’ x 8’ shed frame and roofed it over to provide some additional weather protection.  The difference in working my Langstroth out in the open and the two AZ’s under the roof is amazing.  Without the sun beating down on my bee suit it was almost cool working in the shade of the roof.  My goal is to add two more AZ hives to this shed and close it in this winter.  So far I have spent $312.00 for the shed materials.  Once complete I will be able to house all my AZ hive gear out in the shed and free-up some much needed space in my basement wining several kudos from my patient wife.

    There are some AZ style hives available commercially that advertise you can use standard Langstroth frames in their AZ hives.  I do not recommend going down that road since the bees stand a good chance of getting rolled during inspections.  When you pull a Langstroth frame out horizontally in an AZ hive the shoulders on the Lang frame will clear off the bees on the adjacent two frames and your bees will not be happy.   Your bees will also propolis the shoulders of the Lang frames together and make removing a single frame near impossible.  Trust me on how I know this.

    I started my AZ search reading the book A-Z Beekeeping by Janko Bozic written in 2017.  The dimensioned drawings in the book are for traditional AZ Slovenia frames, which are taller and narrower than Lang frames.  My AZ frames are 1” wide by 9-1/2” high by 17-1/2” long and designed to take standard Lang deep foundation.  Once you know the frame size it is easy to calculate the bee space needed and design your own hive.  I have a local CNC wood shop that can cut the seven interior ¼” Baltic birch panels to my design plus I am writing a construction manual for beekeepers who would like to give this type of hive a try.  I can also supply AZ frames, interior screen doors, AZ spacers (AZ Frame Spacers) and the 3/8” metal rods the frames sit on in each of the four chambers.  If you would like to collaborate on your insulated AZ hive project, send me an email at  

    If you ever wanted to know what your bees are doing inside the box without disturbing them and taking off their roof - with this AZ hive - now you can.

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