Observation Hive

A functional $10 four frame observation hive.

Plans

Four frame observation hive.

Plans? Want plans? Here’s a Google Sketchup based plan for this hive:

observation-hive-plan.zip

This hive is one frame high and four frames wide. It is large enough so that a small colony of bee can sustain itself during the summer. And it is easily transported for demonstrations or maintenance work.

Details

Observation hives are small hives used to observe bee behavior. They consist of a box with glass sides. So, the bees are observed without disturbing them. Many hives are custom built for a specific location or need. Some observation hives are constructed as a fine piece of furniture. Some are elaborate and expensive.

I’ve been building them for over 30 years. And have built almost every kind and size. I use a deep frame as the basic building block for my hives. I’ve built them tall and thin, short and fat, and a few intermediate kinds as well.

My observation hive spends much of it’s time out doors on my patio. It’s simple, portable, and self sustainable. I sometimes use it as a mating nuc or hold a spare queen in reserve. I come home after work. Sit on the patio, and watch the bees. It’s sort of like a beekeepers tv channel. :-)

Material

Four frame observation hive.

This Ob hive is built from 3/4 inch thick lumber. A six foot piece of 1″ x 8″ provides the necessary lumber.

The hive consists of:

  • a bottom at 22″ x 7 1/4″.
  • two sides at 10 7/8″ x 5 3/4.
  • a top at 18 3/8″ x 5 3/4″.
  • 2 side cleats at 5 3/4″ x 1 3/4″.
  • 2 bottom cleats at 7 1/4″ x 1 3/4″.
  • 8 mirror clips.
  • 2 pieces of glass or plexiglass at 19 3/4″ x 10 3/4″.
  • 4 deep frames.
  • a small piece of 1/8″ hardware cloth, about 5″x 5″.
  • wood screws.

Wood Work

Prepare the bottom pieces, the two sides and fasten them together,:

  • the sides have a 3/4″ dado cut starting 3/4 inches below their top edges.
  • center one side on the bottom.
  • make it flush with the edge of the bottom piece.
  • drill pilot holes and screw the side piece securely to the bottom piece.

The second side is centered on the bottom board.

  • There are 19 7/8 inches measured to the outside edges of the sides. Check the spacing with a frame. Make sure the sides align with each other and attach it, with screws, to the bottom.

Corner details.

Next, cut out the top piece:

  • cut a mason jar ring size hole in the lid.
  • staple a piece of 1/8″ hardware cloth on the inside surface to cover the hole.
  • securely fasten the top between the sides.

Fasten the cleats and provide an entrance:

  • place the top cleats flush with the upper surface of the top piece.
  • place the bottom cleats directly below the sides on the very bottom of the hive.
  • cut a 1″ entrance hole on one end.

It’s a good time to apply a wood finish, if desired.

The Glass

Mirror clip.

When purchasing the glass, have the glass shop round off the edges and the corners.

Mount the mirror clips that hold the glass in place. These clips, when loosened, allow the glass to slide vertically. If the clips are removed, the glass can be removed horizontally.

Modifications

It is easy to add a super or two to this observation. Such a super could incorporate an excluder and simplify colony management. Excess honey or bees could easily be removed without disturbing the entire hive. But the resulting hive would be heavy.

Stocking

Stock this hive with:

  • one frame consisting of a queen, bees, brood, honey and pollen.
  • two empty drawn comb frames.
  • one foundation frame.

Remove any excess propolis and beeswax, especially on the end bars. Tolerances are kept fairly tight to maintain a proper bee space and deter burr/brace comb.

Hive Maintenance

Completed hive with frames, glass, and chair.

Eventually, the glass will need cleaning. It’s a good time to:

  • remove extraneous comb or propolis.
  • provide additional space with a frame of foundation.
  • remove a brood frame when excess bees become a problem.

Over Wintering

Once winter sets in, I’ve over wintered this hive by moving it inside to a cool, dark, undisturbed location.

When the weather permitted bee flight, I’d set it outside. And then retrieve it when winter weather returned.

Conclusion

I’ve spent countless hours watching bees in observation hives. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a sensual experience that encompasses sights, sounds, smells and taste.

And it’s a great way for non-beekeeping family members to share in a beekeeper’s experience. And you’ll need a good chair with this hive.

But this is not the only way to build one. Check out these images from Google.

Enjoy!

14 Responses

  1. George Paglia says:

    Do you have any plans for adding a super to the observation hive?

    Thanks.

    • -dm says:

      Hi George,

      Sorry, I don’t.

      It would be a neat addition. If bee tight and easily removed, bee populations could be easily managed and excess honey harvested.

      I’ll have to think about it and maybe put a pencil(sketchup) to it.

      -dm

  2. Lynn Paglia says:

    Hi Dennis,
    Do you know the dimensions of a five frame observation hive instead of the four frame hive. I want to add an extra frame so the observation hive will fit on a screened bottom board for a five frame nuc. I just don’t know how much bigger to make it to allow for the right amount of beespace. Lynn

    • -dm says:

      Hi Lynn,

      My ob hive was designed for optimal lumber use. Hence four frames rather than five, as four fits the width of conventional lumber better, with less waste than five.

      For a five frame ob hive based on my design, just use the same vertical dimensions and increase the horizontal dimensions by 1 3/8″, the width of one frame.

      But, if I understand correctly, my design won’t be suitable for your needs. My ob hive doesn’t really have a bottom board in the conventional sense. The bottom is a structural part of the sides which are attached to, rather than set on the bottom.

      For your purposes, you’ll need to work off the dimensions of your 5 frame nuc and bottom board. Download Google Sketchup and draw up a five frame ob hive. Sketchup is free and very easy/fun to use. If you don’t have the time, this would be a great school project for a junior high student.

      A bee space is something between !/4″ and 3/8″. From my experience, commercial wooden ware tends toward the larger end of the spectrum. An ob hive should tend toward the smaller end.

      -dm

  3. dries du toit says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise with others likeminded. I’m a teacher in Sout Africa and want to build an outside observation hive. We use the Langstroth hives and I’m thinking in the line of sliding pannels (doors) to reveal the bees when needed.

    Your input will be appreciated.

    Thanking you

    Dries du toit

    • -dm says:

      Greetings Dried du toit

      It’s a simple matter to put panels on conventional hives. Colony development can be observed. Hives can be run without much additional fuss. Panels are very unobtrusive. I assume there will be glass, screen or something similar behind the sliding panels.

      But detailed observations of broodnest behavior will be difficult to see. Most of it will be going on in the interior of the hive which will be blocked by surrounding bees and frames. Many Warre’ hive beekeepers use this approach to monitor colony development. Here’s a Warre’ hive made completely of plexiglass with its cover removed.

      To see what’s going on in the broodnest special observation hives are usually designed. They are tall and thin, often only a single comb wide. You can see everything that going on inside. But they are very intrusive, prone to problems and not easy to manage.

  4. dmacmtb says:

    Thanks for sharing this design. I had volunteered to do a presentation and wanted to put together a simple OB hive fast and this absolutely fit the bill with the side benefit of finally having an OB at home.
    Your site has been both inspiring and a great resource. Thanks again.
    -dmmac

  5. John says:

    I have made an observation hive to house bees in my basement for the winter. I have a plastic tube to the outside for them to exit and enter. Winters are very cold where I am. How do I know when and how often to feed them??

    • -dm says:

      Hi John

      Wintering bees in an ob hive is problematic as the environment they provide is far from what winter bees want. They prefer a dark, draft-less, temperature moderated, undisturbed cavity where they can form a compact spherical shaped winter cluster. The cavity has to be large enough to contain a sufficient supply of food and bees.

      Under such conditions winter cold is an asset. It allows the bees to suspend their activities, consume very little food, and chill out until spring arrives.

      Unfortunately most ob hives provide just the opposite kind of environment:

      • Their tall and thin shape precludes an effective winter cluster.
      • Most are too small to contain enough honey and bees.
      • There’s no temperature moderation.
      • It’s not dark.
      • They are frequently disturbed.

      All of that makes it very hard for the bees to get into a good stable winter cluster. As a result they are more active. Consume more food. Need more winter cleansing flights. And they head toward any light source to defecate often inside the hive. In such cases they come through the winter weak and highly stressed.

      Feeding, especially feeding syrup, only exacerbates the situation.

      That’s why my ob hive is four frames wide and not four frames tall. I can insulate the sides with blue foam and overwinter my bees in a dark, cool spot in my unheated garage. When winter flight is possible, I carry them outside and set them down. Then they are returned to the garage at night.

      Normally though, I don’t leave bees in my ob hive through the winter. They are transferred into a five frame nuc box where there’s more room for another frame of honey. And granulated sugar can be poured in at the back of the hive if needed. Feeding them in a nuc box is just more convenient and not as messy as when they are left in the ob hive.

      That said, some beekeepers overwinter tall, thin, small volume ob hive bees, in the worst kinds of indoor situations and the bees do OK. So watch your bees. If they appear too active, you can help limit their activity:

      • Control wind, drafting through the access tube.
      • Don’t let the bees get too warm. Keep room temperatures lower than normal.
      • Moderate temperature and limit light with an insulating cover.
      • If needed, feed bee candy or sugar rather than syrup.
      • Never feed pollen or pollen subs in the winter.
      • Limit disturbances near the hive.

      John, let me know how things work out for you.

      -dm

  6. John says:

    Hi Dennis: Thanks for answering my question. Actually my observation hive is a 9 frame brood box with a feeder. I have put plexiglass on the sides so I can watch the bees. I have put a clear plastic tube which exits out a basement window.
    Why do u not feed the bees sugar water?? You give them plain granulated sugar?? Right now my bees are in a small 4 frame nuc with a feeder. I have been feeding them for several weeks. I am wondering when to bring them inside. I live in Quebec. It is fall time here and is starting to get cold some nights. I would welcome any suggestions as this is my first time trying this. I had ordered two new queens and by the time they arrived, both hives had laying queens. So I had to do something with my queens. Do u have any experience wintering a small weak hive over the top of a strong hive, would that be another option for me??
    Any advice you can give me would be appreciated.
    John

    • -dm says:

      Hi John

      Looks like you’ve got the volume and cavity shape the bees need.

      Sugar water? Lots has been written about the effects of temperature on the winter cluster. But not much has been written about water balance. Research done over a decade ago by a researcher name Mobus found water balance to be the driving force for cluster behavior. He overwintered various size clusters, in different hive/insulation combinations. And found water balance to be the most important factor for winter survival. My experience mirrors what he found.

      If hives need fed, it’s best to fed them before they begin clustering. That way they can put the feed where they need it. And get it in the concentrated form that provides that causes the least amount of activity and stress during the winter. Sugar feed stimulates the bees and causes increased stress. When winter feeding, dry sugar does better. It will fuel the bees without stimulating or stressing them as much.

      In an ideal cluster situation, the bees become almost completely motionless and consume very little food. When I wintered my commercial bees in single deeps indoors, cooler temps were better than warmer ones. A constant temperature in the high 20s to low 30s F was better than higher temperatures.

      Wintering a weak hive above a strong one? Yes and it’s a great option. It’s the option I would choose rather than overwintering inside. You could use an inner cover. Be sure to block the bee escape hole. You don’t want any bee communication between the weak and strong hive. And provide the weak colony with a small entrance of their own. And if they need feed during late winter early spring, it’s very easy to do.

      -dm

  7. Thanks for your post! The information on overwintering bees in an observation hive is very helpful. I am about to take my first beekeeping course and doing research on various types of hives for the Greensboro Children’s Museum where I am a member of the Edible Schoolyard staff. We are trying to figure out the best way to have a successful experience with bees where the bees help in the garden and our many young visitors learn about bees by firsthand observation. If you know of any places where bees are featured as a museum exhibit, I would love to here about them!

    • -dm says:

      Hi Eleanor

      Edible schoolyard? Neat!

      Keeping observation hive bees long term requires lots of beekeeping skill and experience with your local conditions.

      I’ve known of several nature centers who have done it successfully. The most successful actually ran 3 hives, 2 full size hives and an observation hive. The 2 full size hives were run some distance away from the large, probably 8 frame observation hive which was located in a visitors center. The 2 hives were labeled and visitors could watch the bees come and go. This configuration could handle just about any kind of management problem.

      But the key element was to enlist the support of a local beekeeping club. They had the knowledge and experience to prevent much trouble before it happened. And if 3 hives is way too many bees for your property, the support of a local club could provide the flexibility and management options needed to keep an observation hive up and running.

      One of the longest running that I personally know of is at:

      http://lincoln.ne.gov/city/parks/naturecenter/index.htm

      They might have some very good advice.

      -dm

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