Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Making of a Hive: Part 2 of 3

Update: Added new links.

I've been wanting to build a double-walled insulated hive for a few months now. Part 1 of this series of posts outlines the reasons behind this approach and design considerations. This post chronicles how I went about making this crazy idea come to life. BTW, please, do not confuse this with a "How To." I'm not a woodworker, builder, architect, engineer, etc., and true craftsmen will doubtlessly find my approach (which is more of the "make it up as you go along" variety) cringeworthy.

How I normally make my hives
Normally, when I make my hives, I use a template to cut out the divider and end boards. Then I attach the sides (the bottom edge of the side is angled), and the bottom board goes on.

How I normally assemble the pieces.
Attach sides to ends, add bottom.

My husband, who has made a number of lovely pieces of furniture does it a little differently. He angles the bottom board instead of the sides. Probably easier that way, but the bees aren't picky.

Some Completely Inadequate Planning

While I was sketching out plans, I figured I'd build it the way I usually do, but just add lots of angled layers to the walls. My super genius DH, though, pointed out a much more obvious (and easier) way to build it. He advised me to build it like a door. He advised me to cut out a plywood panel, build a frame on it to hold the foam, then add another plywood panel on top.

My DH's idea for building the walls

After asking around and doing some online research, I opted against using plywood. The consensus seems to be that even if the wood is produced in the U.S., the glue might still have some sketchy chemicals in it. Also, plywood hives don't appear to last very long. That was the clincher. I hate redoing work. (Note: After finishing my hive, I reread sections of Lazutin's book and realized that he uses plywood for his hives, so I guess it probably would have been ok after all.)

After solving the problem of how to make the sides, I turned my attention to how to attach the bottom and ends. I figured I'd just do a rectangular end panel, but the bottom was giving me more difficulty. So I abandoned the drawing board and chose to fall back on a motto that has seen me safely through many a hairy situation -- Fake it 'til you make it.

Gathering Materials

I had some wood at home already, but I augmented my stash with 2x4s for the legs and framing the wall panels. Picked up some 1x12 pieces for the sides as well as 1 1/2" thick foam insulation.

Seriously, my next vehicle is going to be an old pickup.

I don't know much about foam insulation, but I chose this delightful purple stuff, and not just because it had an image of the Pink Panther on it.  I made this particular choice because:

  • The description showed it being the most efficient choice on the shelf at the Home Despot [sic] and was their second best product for resisting moisture, too.
  • I would've preferred 2" thick insulation, but the 1 1/2" stuff seemed easier to frame since 2" thick wood is really only 1 1/2" anyway. So I figured I'd gain some efficiency and reduce waste by getting the slightly thinner foam. However, even the 1 1/2" foam has an R-7.5 rating. With the double wood walls, that rating should get bumped up to R-9.5 to R-10.5. According to Lazutin, prior to widespread clear-cutting, wild bees preferred trees with 4"-6" walls. While various woods differ in their ability to insulate, I looked up the R-value of wood, and someone said 6" is about R-9. Therefore, the thinner foam seems safe enough.
  • According to the label, the production had zero effect on the ozone. Is that true or just a clever marketing spin? Don't know, but it was mental salve for my anxious conscience.

Ok, ok, the Pink Panther *was* a big selling point.

Step 1: Make Divider Boards

I keep a wood template on hand for making divider boards so that all I have to do is trace and cut dividers and ends. For this project, I didn't need the end pieces because I planned to make a large rectangular end piece. However, I did want two divider boards -- one was a regular board. The other would be a second wall near the entrance to provide a little additional warmth.

 The divider that goes near the entrance is made a little differently from a regular divider. Instead of being centered on the bar that holds it, it is attached all the way at the edge. The little lip (3/8") provides bee space so that when it's inserted into the hive, I don't have to add another spacer.

Profile view of "divider" that will go next to the entrance.
See the lip that will provide bee space in lieu of a separate spacer?

Step 2: Make Side Panels

I try to avoid measuring as much as possible, so I used a divider to figure out the height of the side panel (about 10"). Then I cut four 44" panels to make the side walls. 1 1/2" x 1 1/2" pieces made up the frame.

One wall all framed out
 A minion helped cut the foam.

Oops, just realized he wasn't wearing shoes.
Looks like I'll be in the running for world's worst mom again.

Insulation in place

 After screwing in the top panel, another minion sealed up all the cracks.

His first time with the caulk gun.

BTW, my husband thinks half the weight of the hive comes from screws and caulk. Apparently, some glue and staples would have sufficed. I'm reminded, though, of my mom. Whenever she sends a package, it's hermetically sealed with packing tape to the point of being nearly impenetrable by knife, scissors, saw... The apple, it seems, does not fall far from the tree.

Step 3: Attach End Pieces

I use dividers to help me line up the hive walls.

Lining things up
 Clamps have also become my best friend when it comes to holding things together.

Clamping it together

 I should've measured so that I could make the screws symmetrical, but whatever. What really bothered me though was the rectangular end, and I ended up changing that to a trapezoid. In hindsight, I wish I'd taken extra time to just cut out the end all fancy-like at the beginning. It would've been helpful in having the ends pieces with their diagonal cuts when trying to line everything up.

The rectangular end was quickly edited.

 Step 4: Attach Bottom

The bottom was the most problematic part of this project for me. Because the hive walls are so thick, there is an enormous gap between where the hive bottom is (bottom of the end panel) and where it should be (e.g., where it falls in the hive).

My husband, who built my first two hives, suggested doing what he did -- angle the sides of the bottom and drop it into the hive. Gravity and tension (along with a few screws or nails) do most of the work holding the bottom in place.

My husband's suggestion
The issue with this idea is that I didn't leave enough space to do this. If I dropped the bottom in from the top (That was confusing. Still with me?),  I'd decrease the interior height by about an inch. Not cool. Instead, I decided to angle the sides of the bottom and push it up from beneath. When I did the measuring, I realized I actually had enough room to add the bottom and a 3/4" layer of insulation. Completely unplanned, but sometimes things work out. :-)

After measuring out the angle I wanted to cut, I discovered that the table saw wouldn't make it because it only angled to 45°. So my DH helped me out and cut a different angle. It still worked, but I lost 1/4" for the insulation. Now, I can only fit 1/2" insulation, but this is the bottom, so it's less of a concern for me.

Hive is upside down. The bottom has been fitted in from this side.

If I ever have to do this again, I might considering making slightly longer walls so that I can fit the bottom in from the top like my husband suggested. Even though the bottom isn't weight bearing, I think his way is sturdier and more elegant.

Interior view of the bottom

Step 5: Drill Entrances

I don't have a photo showing it, but I attached the divider that I made for the front to the entrance wall. I had wanted to attach a layer of insulation between the divider and wall, but I started worrying about losing too much interior space during a strong flow. (After getting it all together, I realize I would have lost only about 2 bars, but I wasn't thinking clearly at the time.)

My entrances are near the bottom, about 2" above the hive floor.

Measuring for entrances

Step 6: Finish Up (For now)

There are a couple things I need to do before I can call this project finished. For example, I plan to attach some insulation the divider board to create extra warmth at the end of the nest in the winter. I also need to make an insulated roof. However, it's close enough to being finished that it's usable.

I like to rub a mixture of propolis dissolve in 80% isopropyl alcohol to the interior of my hives. Spivak has found that it increases hive hygiene. 

You can definitely tell which areas have had propolis applied to them.

Like a dork, I only cut two legs for the hive stand instead of four. My DH came through brilliantly for me and cut them so that I could finish painting. My daughter gave me a hand, too, but I forgot that the legs were going on that end, so most of her work got covered up. :-( However, I've included a photo here so that her handiwork can be remembered.

Anna, Elsa, and Olaf, and lots of snowballs

Even more awesome, my DH put the legs on for me, too.

I decided to go with a wintry theme because as I was building, my Frozen-obsessed 5-year old queried, "Mom, are you making a big hive or a little hive?"


"So that means you're going to name it after a queen, right? Queen Elsa is a queen, you know. Can we call it Elsa?"

"Ok, that's a great name."

"Hey, Mom. Since Frozen is for kids, and I like Queen Elsa so much, can this be my hive?"

"Of course, darling."

"Yay! I have more bees!!!" (Note: She's already claimed the nucs as hers, but I'm doing all the work.)

How could I resist such an adorably voiced (if not so subtle) request. Besides, the name appealed to my sense of the apropos. Like its Disney-namesake, I hope that come February the colony in this hive will be singing, "Here I stand, and here I'll stay / Let the cold winds blow / The cold never bothered me anyway!"

You can really see how thick the walls are in this photo.

Once I build the insulated roof, I'll share my notes on that in Part 3.

Update: I retrofitted an existing hive with insulation, and in many ways, that was a much easier build. Going forward, that's probably what I'll do -- build a regular TBH, and then build insulation around it.


  1. Boy, talk about overkill... Oh wait, it gets cold up there...

    Re:Plywood. Mine seems to be holding up well after a couple months. I think its less important in regards to how much rain falls on it. I have an unpainted top plywood sheet that isnt fairing as well because I have an 8 frame hive on top of it. I'll be moving EVERYTHING over to a 4 hive rail of 2x4s and cinderblocks at some point, probably next month so I wont have to worry about that as much. The main body however is fairing well as its painted. If you DO use plywood though, I'd have the hive sitting outside with good ventilation for about a month due to the smell of the glue.

    1. LOL! Yes, it's a big, heavy hive. However, this past winter was brutal. Everyone lost bees. Lots and lots of bees because of the extended frigid temps.

      Thanks for the tip about the plywood. Will definitely keep that in mind. Actually, I don't think I have room for more than 2 or 3 more hives, so my "big" building projects may be coming to an end soon.

  2. That should keep them warm this winter! What are the inside dimensions of your hive (i.e. follower board)? Looks like a pretty wide bottom. Do you get much attachment with such large combs?

    1. The hive looks huge, but that's only because the walls are so thick. The inside dimensions are the same as my other hives. The interior dimensions are about 18.5" across the top, 8.5" across the bottom. Can't remember the height -- about 9" high, I think.

      I don't get too much attachment. If I do, I cut it, and they don't seem to reattach.

  3. Julie (Erik here), I visited our local Lowe's today here in Virginia and found some 1/4 inch plywood. Do you think this would work for the interior? Add 1-inch insulated board plus regular 3/4 inch wood for the outside, you'd have a total of two-inches. You can cap it with a 2 by furring strip and caulk the remaining edge. So you'd have the insulated board (R value 5) and about an inch total of wood (R value 1.4 or so). With the little bit of air space we can call it 6.5, which might be okay here in Virginia.

    For a higher R-value, You could use 1.5 or even 2 inch insulated board (each half inch adds around 2.5 R value).

    Do you know the interior dimensions of your hive, and how long you make them? I was looking at Wyatt Magnum's TBH design. The area is about the same as a deep frame, so a three foot hive would hold as much as three 10-frame Langstroth deeps. I know many people use 4-foot hives but a shorter length would keep the weight down as well.

    Finally, I notice you have a central wooden support, do you think this is necessary? I like the idea of making two identical hives - one insulated and one not - to see how they fare. Just trying to think it through....

    1. That's an interesting question about the 1/4" plywood. The first issue is safety, I think. Some plywoods are treated with toxic chemicals, but if you avoid those, plywood should work. Lazutin and Sharaskin both mention using plywood in their hives.

      The other issue is sturdiness. Your plans for combining it with other materials that would boost the R value of the walls seems completely reasonable. However, 1/4" thick plywood just seems kind of thin to me. I'm not a woodworker, but my question centers around whether it will hold up or provide the stability you need in the walls.

      In his plans (, Sharashkin uses plywood, but it's 1/2" thick in the insulated hives and 3/4" thick in the non-insulated hives. If you know a woodworker, maybe you could get a second (informed) opinion on that.

      In deciding on a hive length, my advice would be to ignore the volume that is required for overwintering. Instead, if honey is a goal (for some people it's not), build your hive to accommodate the volume that is required for the absolute height of the spring flow.

      To illustrate this point better, this spring, I found out that my hives may be too short/not large enough to accommodate my spring flow. The bees that survived winter completely filled the hive but ran out of room before any of the honey was capped. As a result, they built swarm cells. Next year, I have some ideas for mitigating that issue, but it's one you might face if your hives are too small. (Of course, your goals are also important. If you just want more bees, a smaller hive will facilitate that.)

      The INTERIOR dimensions of my hive are 18.5" across the top, 8.5" across the bottom, and 9" high. My hives are 44"-46" long. The EXTERIOR dimensions of Mangum's hives are 17 1/2" at the top, 9" at the bottom. Assuming he uses 1" thick boards, this would mean interior dimensions of 16" at the top, 7.5" at the bottom. I don't recall the height offhand. His hives are 5' long.

      My husband suggested the central support in the hive walls. He's the real woodworker, so I deferred to him. We were working with the concept of a hollow door, which has a support in the center. But a door is 6' long. If your hive is only 3', you probably won't need that. Maybe even a 4' hive wouldn't need it, but do think it provides a lot of stability, which I like, since the hive is subject to heat and cold and all the expansion/contraction that goes along with that.

      Love the idea of experimenting with two hives! Hope you do it and share your results!

    2. Thanks, Julie. Can't seem to publish with my WordPress name, so switching back to the Name and URL approach. Oh well.

      I was sure Mangum's were 17.5 on the inside; looked at his book and you are correct. Hmm, I like the bigger interior size, will have to think about this.You don't find the 18.5 size too big? Was aiming to have top bars the same length as a Lang bar just for some swap-ability. Mangum used hives from 1' (for nucs) to 5' (for honey). He used 2' and 3' lengths for pollination. I think Crowder liked the 44" length as it fit nicely between the wheels of his pick-up.

      Thanks for the advice on the hive length, good point. We get a good flow but there are a LOT of hives around me, as there are two long-time keepers raising nucs and queens, and more than a handful of hobbyists. So I think strong spring bees are probably important to grab the flows as soon as possible.

      My dad is a wood worker, though not sure he's used plywood much. Was hoping to have him help me though as he has all the equipment and more than my "zero" experience. Will definitely share the results if I take the plunge.


    3. That's great that your dad is a woodworker and can help you get started! (Btw, it seems there's nothing like beekeeping for becoming a gateway hobby. Soon you'll be woodworking, gardening, mead making, candle making... Lol!)

      I haven't found 18.5" too big at all. Actually, the comb is a very comfortable size for me.

      Cool that you have so many beeks in the area! Especially since they're probably all planting stuff and not spraying! That makes for very strong bees indeed!

  4. This was a great post to read! I'm building my first top bar hive (my first of any type of hive) and you're offering a lot of good insight and experience.

    It's great that you have enlisted the aid of the minions as well - right now my teenage girls vacillate between indifference, to embarrassment, to teen-girl mockery.

    1. Congratulations on building your first hive! You didn't mention whether it was going to be an insulated hive or not. In case it's the former, I thought I'd offer a quick tip. It was very difficult assembling those huge panels. Much easier to build a regular top bar hive and then build the panels out once the main body of the hive is assembled. Sometime during Spring 2016 I retrofitted and older hive with insulated walls -- sooooo much easier.

      LOL! Your comment about the girls cracked me up. Hang in there! When I was a teenager, my dad used to spend what he called "quality time" with us. It always involved something dirty or greasy like fixing the car, painting the house, installing ceiling fans, fixing leaky plumbing, etc. I didn't always appreciate it then, but I do now!

    2. Insulation: Im in New Jersey and we can get some serious cold and snow here, and my hive body is made with 1" pine - so I will be insulating. I am planning to make panels of rigid foam and wood and attach those to the outside as you are suggesting. For the roof I'm toying with the idea of having a panel of foam+wood and a 3-4" space which I can fill with something 'quilt like' to absorb moisture. Warre hive style.

      I'm still working on that concept. All fun stuff!

    3. Before moving to New England, we lived in Sussex County, so I know all about winter in Jersey! Which part of the state do you hail from?

      Glad you are planning to insulate. Some food for thought -- always make sure the roof is warmer than the sides so that you don't get condensation over the bees. Also, in a TBH, the bars touch each other, and the bees propolize any cracks. So a Warre style quilt doesn't work in a TBH -- warm, moist air doesn't vent up into the roof. There are two ways around this. You can build some sort of vent or "chimney" into the roof, but then you have to deal with the hassle of insulating around it. (If you look at some Russian blogs, you'll see some examples.) Or you can add something hygroscopic to the hive itself. Some people have tried diapers or bags of dessicant. Personally, I've found straw (the age-old winterizer in Nordic and Slavic climes) cheap, cheerful and effective. I build gaps/holes into my divider board so that air can flow, and fill the back of the hive with straw. It absorbs moist air pretty well.

    4. Ah, that's helpful & insightful - the propolis sealing the top and negating an absorbent material on top of the bars. And yes, straw in the back of the hive sounds smart.

      I'm in Somerset County - we're not having a very cold winter this year. As I recall Sussex and northern Morris County usually seemed to be 10 degrees colder than other parts of the state in the winter.

  5. The reason some plywoods fail is that they are not rated for exterior use. I have some 5/8" ply out there on the walls of our stone house that have been outside for three winters and four summers, and not a problem yet.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!