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The 4 Confluent Paths of a Bee-Centric Beekeeper - Part 4 - Hive Cavity

In the March 2017 issue of American Bee Journal, Dr. Thomas Seeley, Professor of Biology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, wrote an article titled Darwinian Beekeeping.  Dr. Seeley has been studying honey bees in the wild for decades, and has written such landmark books as Honeybee Democracy and The Wisdom of the Hive.

In his article, Dr. Seeley contrasts the ways that honey bees live in the wild with what we've subjected them to [my words] with modern conventional/commercial beekeeping equipment and practices.  He lists twenty differences, all of which, in my opinion, can be addressed and corrected through thoughtful bee-centered beekeeping practices, along with a re-design of the hive cavity that we host our bees in.

Here are the contrasts specifically having to do with a colony's hive cavity:

* In the wild, colonies occupy small (approx. 1.5 cu. ft.) cavities, while in a Langstroth or National hive they occupy large (approx. 3 cu. ft.) cavities.

* In the wild, colonies live in a cavity that they have coated with propolis due to the cavity's rough surfaces, while in a Langstroth or National hive there is no such coating because the surfaces are smooth to start with.

* In the wild, the colony's cavity has thick walls (approx. 4+ inches), while in a Langstroth or National hive the cavity walls are thin (approx. 3/4").

* In the wild, the cavity has an entrance that is high and small (approx. 4 sq. in.), while in a Langstroth or National hive the entrance is low and large (approx. 12 sq. in.).

* In the wild, all of the thermal, hygroscopic, and ventilative qualities of the hive are static, while in a Langstroth or National hive they are often disrupted.

Why would these differences matter to a colony of honey bees?  I believe the answer can be found in a study of all the things that the colony is doing to control both the micro-climate and the micro-ecology of the hive as they strive to live in symbiotic relationship with over 8,000 other known organisms that share the hive with them.

Here is a short list of just some of the things that research has shown that they are striving to manage: 

  • Amount of ventilation and its route
  • Ambient temperature of the hive
  • Specific temperature of the brood
  • Specific temperature of the queen in the winter cluster
  • Relative humidity
  • pH balance
  • O2/CO2 balance
  • Smoothness of surfaces
  • Structural integrity (sturdiness) of the hive
  • Amount of drawn comb for rearing worker bee brood
  • Amount of drone comb
  • The "historical memory" embedded in their natural comb
  • Bee space between all surfaces
  • Travel routes between combs
  • Ability to remove dead bees and otherwise keep their hive clean
  • Ability to guard their entrance
  • Communication levels using scent
  • Communication levels using vibration
  • Antibacterial qualities
  • Antiviral qualities
  • Antifungal qualities
  • Percentage of worker population
  • Percentage of drone population
  • Health and vitality of the queen
  • Amount of water
  • Amount of stored honey
  • Amount of stored pollen
  • Orientation of stores to the brood
  • Orientation of stores for winter cluster access
  • Orientation of stores for winter insulation
  • Symbiotic relationship with 8,000+ other organisms including:
  • Levels of beneficial organisms
  • Levels of harmful organisms

A review of this list makes it immediately apparent why a honey bee colony would select a hive cavity like they choose to occupy in the wild.

I, personally, am so thankful for Dr. Seeley's article.  It was very timely for me.  It confirmed many of the things that I was pondering regarding the life of a honey bee colony, and confirmed my efforts to develop a hive cavity that gives the bees an environment in which they can live much more closely to the way they live in the wild, and give them the control they need to better manage all of things in the list above.

My quest to develop a new hive cavity has been constrained by two factors:

1) I want to make bee-centered beekeeping accessible to everyone in the United States, even to those beekeepers who live in states requiring that honey bees be kept on removable frames.

2) I want to make it possible for a beekeeper who is already well down the road of conventional/commercial beekeeping to be able to transition to bee-centered beekeeping by moving a colony from a Langstroth hive, into a hive better suited to the bees' biology, by simply moving the frames of bees from one to the other.

This journey has led to the development of the Bee Tree Hive.

All of my colonies are hosted in Bee Tree Hives, and live widely separated in my high mountain valley.  Providing them with this kind of hive cavity, along with the other three aspects of my "4-Pronged Quest of a Bee-Centered Beekeeper," is how I am endeavoring to develop an *ecotype here in my region. 

If this resonates with you, and if you'd like more information about my Bee Tree Hives, you can find that here:


*Ecotype: a genetically distinct geographic variety, population or race within a species [still Apis Millifera, in this case], which is adapted to specific environmental conditions.

Additional Reading:

Darwinian Beekeeping, Dr. Thomas Seeley, March 2017 issue of American Bee Journal

HONEY-MAKER - How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does, Rosanna L. Mattingly




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