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The setting up, management throughout the season and the uses to which they can be put

J.D. Yates

Beekeeping in a Nutshell


(the setting up, management throughout the season and the uses to which they can be put)

Observation hives are very important for educational and scientific research projects in apiculture yet it is not always easy to find readily meaningful information about them; including an account in the "Nutshell series" may assist those who seek such information.


The first reference I have found to observation hives occurs in Samuel Pepys's Diary in 1665 which states, "After dinner to Mr. Evelyn's; he being abroad, we walked in his garden, and a lovely noble ground hath he indeed. And among other rarities, a hive of bees, so as being hived in glass, you may see the bees making their honey and combs mighty pleasantly". Maraldi had an observation at the French Royal Observatory as early as 1687 and Huber's leaf hive (so called because the frames were hinged down one edge and opened like a book) appears about a century later. Herrod-Hempsall, who was paranoid about all things British, claimed that the first observation hive was made by an Englishman, Robert Boyle, in 1688. Here he might well have been not quite accurate, as he always claimed he was, noting the date of the entry in Pepys's Diary! From the middle 1800s observation hives were extremely fashionable with the gentry and hive makers such as Nutt and Neighbour produced very ornate designs.

It will be clear from the above that observation hives have been around for a long time yet have received little attention in the classical bee literature. The best dissertation that I have found is contained in "Beekeeping New and Old described by pen and camera" by Herrod-Hempsall where he even gives detailed plans.

Types of observation hive.

The objective of all observation hives is to be able to study the working bees without undue disturbance to the colony and with minimum risk to the observer. To do this, invariably glass is used to form part of the hive, which is generally located in a room of a building with an entrance tube to the outside allowing the bees to fly in a normal manner. Many types of hive have been modified embodying glass panels in the sides, bottom and as crown boards, but such modifications are of very limited use for observation purposes. Generally, in such cases only

the ends of the frames are visible in two planes and the face of the 2 outside combs in the other plane. For this reason modern observation hives are now only 1 frame in width and 1 or 2 frames high. It will be this type that is addressed in the following paragraphs in connection with setting up such a hive and managing it throughout a season. Great care is needed in the construction and the specification for such a hive is very stringent as follows:

(Illustration taken from Observation Hives, Their Construction by Edward Gough NBB 1994 £2.00 pp) Observation Hive

a) The internal dimension between the glass facing panels must be the width of the comb (2 x 7/16 inch) plus a bee space (5/16 inch) on either side, ie. between the face of the comb and the glass face and glass rear. It should be noted that for some purposes, such as studying comb construction, there are advantages in making one side with a gap of two bee spaces (5/8 inch) thereby encouraging the bees to build comb in this area.

b) Provision must be made to suspend the frames in the hive on knife edge supports to make them easy to remove at a later date while ensuring that the bee space requirement is observed adjacent to the side bars of the frames. If two frames are used the distance between the top bar of the lower frame and the bottom bars of the upper frame must also be a bee space.

c) There must be a bee space above the top bar of the upper frame.

d) There is advantage in leaving a space of 2 or 3 inches at the bottom below the lower frame to allow debris to be examined and to make provision for the entrance. Also it is advantageous to have the bottom made of stainless steel mesh to allow debris (and mites) to fall through into a removable drawer for detailed examination, rather like the drawer of a pollen trap.

e) The construction is generally in wood with glass panels on each side. In this day and age the panels are best in double glazed units which can be purchased very cheaply from the double glazing merchants (ie. those panels they have made up to an incorrect size).

f) Whatever opening arrangement is designed for stocking the hive with bees and frames it must be closed finally with screws put in with a screwdriver. The reason is obvious; someone somewhere will open it while stocked with bees unless it is securely closed (and subsequently opened) using hand tools. Please note schools, shows, etc. where the general public have access.

g) Provision must be made for an entrance that can be closed for transportation and capable of having an entrance tube attached. Again it must be made secure with a 'jubilee clip' firmly fixed with a screwdriver. The entrance is best located at the bottom of the hive through the centre swivel if the hive is a rotatable one or at the bottom of one of the sides if it is a fixed arrangement. The bottom entrance makes it easier for the bees to remove debris and dead bees.

h) The entrance tube requires to be no less than 1 inch inside diameter in clear polythene so that the inside can be observed. If condensation in this entrance tube is a problem small holes can be drilled along its length on the underside; if it is installed correctly with a downward slope from the hive this should not be necessary.

i) Good ventilation is essential and the best start is with the mesh floor. A mesh top will suffice providing adequate through ventilation. It is a good precaution to be able to blank off some of the ventilation vents as required by the population of the hive and the ambient temperature.

j) Provision must be made for feeding the little colony and an inbuilt mini Ashforth feeder is well worth incorporating at the top of the hive. Again please note the requirement for making it tamper-proof against idle fingers either at school or elsewhere. This makes provision for feeding syrup but we believe provision should be made also for feeding pollen patties (see later).

k) In a permanent installation an arrangement should be incorporated at the outer end of the entrance tube to prevent driving rain from entering the tube. An arrangement rather like a 'Dorade Ventilator' used on boats is ideal, letting in the air and keeping out the water. The downward slope of a few degrees ensures that rain does not flow back into the hive through the entrance tube.

l) The only other item, which is optional, is a piece of queen excluder between the two frames. This seems to be an unnecessary complication and can be omitted as it serves no purpose from an educational or scientific point of view.

The only other type of observation hive is the single frame with no entrance whereby the bees are kept enclosed. It can only be used for a few hours and in my opinion is very unsatisfactory. It puts the bees under considerable stress and its use should be discouraged. I have seen many, particularly at shows, often in direct sunlight with the bees panicking to get out. In such a condition it serves no purpose as the bees are not behaving naturally. At the very minimum

provision should be made to cool the bees with water as the more they panic the higher the temperature rises.

Setting up an observation hive.

It is imperative that any observation hive is stocked with bees which are free of disease. If this simple requirement is not observed failure will ensue. There is sufficient stress on a little colony being forced to exist under very abnormal nesting conditions without having to cope with any disease problem as well.

Any frames for the observation hive must be of the best with uniform thickness of comb otherwise they are likely to come into contact with the inside glass. Brood combs which have been thickened at the top with an arch of honey are unsatisfactory.

If the observation hive is to be of any use it must have the 'right' number of bees. Clearly if there are too many and the hive is overcrowded then an observer is not going to see what is going on easily and clearly. If there are too few bees, eg. to incubate the brood, then the colony will fail eventually. So what is the 'right' number? Consider a BS frame (c.14 x 8 inches). If it is well covered with bees there will be c.1,500 bees on it, 750 on each side. If we

have two of these frames then 3,000 bees are required. In any balanced colony about 2/3 of the bees are house bees and the remaining 1/3 are foragers. Initially it is wise to stock the with young bees (ie. house bees) to ensure that any brood does not become chilled and is incubated properly at the correct temperature. When the little colony has settled down there are likely to be about 2000 house bees and 1000 foragers.

The location of the observation hive needs consideration and how close this is to where the original colony was sited. Ideally the distance between the two should be 2 miles or more. If the distance is to be less than the normal flying distance of the bees then additional bees will be required to make up for the losses. With the best will in the world it is never possible to get rid of all the old foraging bees.

It is best to stock the observation hive away from its final location by taking a frame of emerging brood lightly shaken in order to drop off the flying bees leaving the young bees on the frame. Another frame of sealed stores and pollen plus young bees (shake off the old ones) will be required. When this is in placed in the observation hive with the brood frame lowermost, another two frames of young bees should be shaken in to augment those on the two selected frames. Again these should be lightly shaken first to get rid of the old foraging bees. It goes with out saying that a young queen properly marked will complete the stocking process.

Care must be taken siting the observation hive, cognizance being given to the following points:

a) The entrance must be away from footpaths, public highways and in an area not frequented by the general public. Ideally the entrance should be in an unfrequented area such as a flower bed and be at a height of at least 2m (6´ feet), above the heads of any passer-by. The ideal cannot always be achieved and compromise will often be necessary.

b) It should be located in a position where sunlight cannot fall directly on to the hive; a north facing wall is always best. Direct sunlight is extremely hazardous to bees under glass and could spell the destruction of the colony.

c) It should be provided with polystyrene sheet covers while it is not in use, about half inch thick is adequate. These will not only exclude the light but provide good insulation thereby lowering heat losses


d) One person must be allocated the responsibility for monitoring its progress and for feeding whenever necessary. Note that any feeding should be with a syrup strength of 50:50 or 1 kg sugar to 1 litre water so that the bees can metabolise it with minimum processing. Most observation hives of this type will require virtually continual feeding.

e) The installation must be secure and safe; by its very shape the observation hive is an unstable object with a high centre of gravity and requires to be bolted down firmly so that nothing can be moved accidentally.

Initially the hive will have no flying bees and will need feeding. When it has reached the stage where it becomes balanced and has its own foragers it will then be just a matter of monitoring its progress and feeding as required. Once young brood is evident, pollen foraging will start and the bees are able to cope with the little colony's requirements. Experience of maintaining an observation hive in the City of Plymouth Museum for many years showed that it always needed supplementing with pollen. There was insufficient forage at some times of the year in the concrete jungle.


Management throughout the season.

Providing the queen is young and prolific the small colony may be expected to become congested in a good season, if left to its own devices and will require attention by removing brood and/or bees. This will mean taking the hive out of commission for an hour while it is removed to the outdoors (after the entrance to the room is blocked) to relieve the colony accordingly.

Continual feeding will ensure many of the cells are filled and capped; these liquid stores will prevent the queen laying in them, thus preventing the over crowding situation postulated above. With care and attention it is possible to keep the colony at just the right strength throughout the whole active season but a bit of experience is required to achieve this state of affairs.

The need for pollen may, in some circumstances, be a problem and it may be necessary to augment a meagre natural supply collected by the foraging bees. The observation hive in the natural history section of Plymouth Museum was provided with a special honey jar screwed to it which could be removed and filled with pollen patty (or pollen substitute) at times when no pollen was being collected and stored in the hive.

Management throughout an active season is not complicated but it does require a sound knowledge of honeybee behaviour within the hive. This lesson was learnt by monitoring the management of the Museum observation hive which was being undertaken by one of the Museum staff; I eventually had to do it myself.

Uses for an observation hive.

As the observation hive is basically a small nucleus it is unlikely to contain drones. Only queen and worker bees are likely to be present. While at most public demonstrations there will be an interest in the queen, from an educational and scientific point of view the activity of the workers is much more interesting.

Places where observation hives are likely to be of interest are:

a) Educational establishments such as schools and universities.

b) At honey shows and events organised by beekeeping organisations where the public are admitted.

c) As permanent displays in the natural history sections of museums.

d) In premises where honey is sold. This is only used as a marketing gimmick to get the honey sales moving initially.

e) On a limited scale for lectures and talks about bees; this is usually the sealed one frame aid mentioned earlier. Not recommended because of the stress caused to the bees.

f) At country craft exhibitions.

g) Perhaps there are others I have omitted?

In general, members of the public just see a mass of bees and that is the end of the story unless they have some previous knowledge of the honeybee or there is an 'expert' there to explain what is happening in the hive. This is an area which needs careful consideration as I have listened to some of these so called experts talking codswallop to people who know no better. Always have a knowledgeable well educated beekeeper to answer questions and to explain the workings of an observation hive.

In a museum it is a good idea to have some well prepared leaflets available for the public to take away. The ones used in Plymouth were based on a question and answer format, the questions being those which were most often asked.

Undoubtedly the major use is for education and research purposes, all the others remain subsidiary to this main use. In schools they can be used as a teaching aid and are far better than a school apiary, which is unsatisfactory for young children from a safety point of view. In Devon we positively discourage children in apiaries unless accompanied by their parents, who must take responsibility for their safety. Listed below are a few activities which can be studied with an observation hive in a school, activities which can apply to most, if not all, age groups:

a) Wax making and comb building including cell capping.

b) Use of wax comb when built such as brood nest, pollen storage and nectar/honey storage.

c) Egg laying by the queen.

d) Development of larvae and pupae; the cells can be marked on the glass with felt-tipped pens.

e) Duties of the worker bee which are legion.

f) Foraging activity through the entrance tube; timing out and in and the type of foragers.

g) Activity with respect to weather conditions and its parameters (temperature, wind speed, sunshine, etc.).

h) etc.

It will be clear that projects involving the above can be made as simple or as complicated as one may wish depending on the age group concerned.

For scientific work there is usually a research project involved and special requirements for the observation hive.

Other points of interest.

It is possible to maintain an observation hive on a year to year basis allowing the little colony to overwinter in its unusual surroundings. It can only do this without clustering because there will not be space for the bees to form a proper cluster. There are two approaches. The first is to supply the observation hive with heat by the use of heating coils either under or round the hive. The second, which is much better, is to keep the hive in a heated room about 65°F (18°C). During the

inactive season the bees do not cluster but remain quiescent, patrolling slowly and consuming stores also slowly. These were the conditions in the Plymouth Museum where bees have been kept under these conditions for a number of years. Slowly, during the course of the winter, bees die off (like any normal nucleus and in accordance with the annual colony population cycle) and the stores reduce. The colony is fed during the late summer like any other colony so that it is completely honey bound as it goes into winter. The hive is taken out of service once a year in March/April to clean and disinfect the hive before it is replaced

for another year. It is even treated with a Bayvarol strip for Varroosis by inserting a strip through a slot made specially for the purpose.

In permanent installations due regard has to be taken of vandalism, an unfortunate feature of today's society. My apologies for 'banging on' so much about the Plymouth Museum but it has been very valuable experience and vandalism is no exception. One would have thought, as I did, that a hive well and safely installed inside the museum with patrolling attendants would be safe. This proved not to be so. It has been vandalised on two occasions by someone killing off the bees, believed to be, with something from an aerosol spray. The first time the colony was decimated completely, thought to be by spraying the toxin through the ventilators. The ventilators were modified so that this could not happen again. It did but the modification prevented major damage and the colony suffered a loss of bees. In the first case the police failed to find the culprits (they did not have a lot to go on) and NBU/MAFF failed to identify the toxin which would have helped the police. It takes some believing but NBU/MAFF lost the sample that was provided. So they said! There has been evidence of physical damage but because it is installed so securely this has not been a problem; had the installation been indifferent there could have been trouble.

J.D.Yates. January 1999.


Front cover:The Ladies' Observatory or Crystal Bee-Hive from The Apiary - Alfred Neighbour 1886

Page 1: The Huber Leaf Hive from The Natural History of Bees F. Huber 1841

Page 2: Observation Hive from Observation Hives E. Gough 1994