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Whether you want an observation hive to increase your own knowledge of beekeeping, or you want to set up a hive for introducing others to the wonder of honey bees, we trust you will find this site useful!

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Whether you want an observation hive to increase your own knowledge of beekeeping or you want to set up an observation hive for introducing others to the wonder of honey bees, we trust you will find this site useful.

There’s a lot going on in a honey bee colony; and the more we understand about colony activity, the better beekeepers we will be. Unfortunately, we usually keep our bees in wooden boxes and we cannot see what they are doing without disturbing them.

Fortunately, bees do not much mind living in glass houses, i.e., observation hives, where we can see what they are doing without disturbing them.

I have had an observation hive in my house since 2005 and my beekeeping is better for it. The hive is also a hit with my neighbors, who even bring their visitors by to see it, and the occasional repairmen will pull out their smartphones and snap a photo to share with co-workers.

On thebeepeeker.com website, you’ll find a comprehensive list of things to think about when selecting and installing your observation hive, as well as links to instruction sheets for setting up an observation hive, to some useful books, and to sources of observation hives.

Illustration by Lela Dowling. Used with permission.

Photo by Douglas Schauss. Originally published on MainStreetCityNews.com, June 25, 2013.
Used with permission.

Considerations before you buy or build your observation hive

Whether you buy your observation hive or build it yourself, you should keep in mind the following points:

  1. Location: Select one that is both good for you and good for the bees,
  2. Safety: You must set things up so that both the bees and the people they share the space with are safe,
  3. Light: You will need a bright light to see the bees’ activities clearly,
  4. Working site: You will need a place to work the hive,
  5. Weight: You must be able to move the hive easily to the place where you will work it,
  6. Closures: You will need to seal the hive entrances before you move it,
  7. Backup hive: Most sources note that an observation hive should have a normal hive as backup,
  8. Standard size frames: These are a must for operating and maintaining the hive. And movable frames are required by law in most jurisdictions.
  9. Parasites, pests, and predators: Make plans for how you will prevent these, and how you will treat them,
  10. Swarms happen: You will need to be prepared to preempt them, and when necessary, to capture them,
  11. Feeding: Be prepared to feed the colony as needed, the amount of feed they need will vary greatly over the course of a year,
  12. Cleaning: Bees coat the interior of their hives with propolis, including the viewing panes, you will have to clean these occasionally,
  13. Overwintering: In most observation hives the bees cannot cluster, you must keep the colony at 65°F or warmer,
  14. Summering: Several blog posters mention melting the comb in their observation hive by leaving it in the sun; don’t do that,
  15. Beekeeping: Keeping bees is a skill; you don’t have to do a lot, but you have to know a lot, if you are not already a beekeeper, practice beekeeping with a standard hive for a year or two before trying to operate an observation hive,
  16. Bee space: Be sure it is right; when there is more than one layer of bees between the glass and the comb you will see very little.

Helpful books, information sheets, and images about observation hives

If you search the internet for “images of observation hives” you will find a vast number of them. Most of these images are of the same few commercially-available observation hives, or of homemade variations on these same themes.

However, it seems that creative beekeepers have also made observation hives in every imaginable size and shape, using every available transparent material. Some of these observation hives hold just a single frame, others are full-size hives with windows in their sides, and still others have no relation to any standard hive.

Among this multitude of images, there are also several good instruction sheets listing things you should consider when purchasing or building and operating an observation hive.

Information Sheets

• Starting an Observation Hive of Honey Bees – University of Kentucky College of Agriculture
• Observation Hives as described by Michael Bush
• Improved Ulster Observation Hive – Beehacker.com
• Building and Operating an Observation Beehive by WL Gojmerac and MW Allington (a PDF file)
• Constructing an Observation Bee Hive – University of Florida IFAS Extension
• Vital Stats and Materials List for Four-Frame Observation Hive by Howland Blackiston
• Setting up an Observation Hive – North Carolina State Department of Entomology (a PDF file)

Videos

Videographer Phil Frank has constructed an observation hive in his kitchen. He describes it in a video here:

Books

There are two books currently available in English about setting up, maintaining, and using observation hives:

  • New version now available at Amazon.com! Linton, F. 2017. The Observation Hive Handbook, published by Cornell University Press
  • Webster, T., and Caron, D. 1999. Observation Hives, Root. Now out of print. Check for it in bee suppliers, used books, and libraries.

A third book is aimed at beekeepers with a woodworking shop who are interested in designing and building their own observation hive:

There’s a lot going on in a honey bee colony; with an observation hive you will get to see it. To get a better understanding of what you are looking at, I recommend these two books:

Of course the classic beekeeping references are also practically a requirement:

Forum

Observation Hive Forum

On the beesource.com website, a moderated forum on observation hive construction and management.

Sources of observation hives

Almost every honey bee supply company offers an observation hive of one sort or another. The “best” observation hive is the one that best suits your circumstances. Listed below are a few of the more popular ones; there are many others, as well as sites that offer plans for building an observation hive yourself.

Almost every honey bee supply company offers an observation hive of one sort or another. The “best” observation hive is the one that best suits your circumstances. Listed below are a few of the more popular ones; there are many others, as well as sites that offer plans for building an observation hive yourself.

Draper Hive

Draper offers a variety of hives built of various woods on the principles of fine construction and finish. They use safety glass; which is easier to clean than Plexiglas. These hives are a good choice for public locations. Their unique rotating design makes it easy to see both sides of the hive, even when the hive is mounted against a wall. Moving these hives, when full, is a two-person job.

Ulster Observation Hive

From Mann Lake, and others, this hive is a clever combination of a nucleus hive with a frame display window. Normally the colony would live in the nuc box but at display time, at a weekly farmers’ market, say, or on a school visit, the frame with the queen and brood can be placed in the display window; and the queen-bearing frame replaced with a feeder.

Kelley’s Observation Hive

A small hive for short-term use. Has a 1-frame extension.

Maisemore Apiaries

A UK source of observation hives.

Can you recommend another source? Let us know!

 

Comments or questions?

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