The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Antique Miniature Hives Show the Development of American Hives Part 2

- June 1, 2021 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

Antique Miniature Bee hive

In the previous article, we studied the rare Phelps hive from the early 1850s to learn about hive development. We saw the Phelps hive as a complete miniature hive, a full-size outer case, and even the book Phelps wrote. Mostly we will lose this exotic luxury of having both a complete hive and book by the beekeeper from over a century and a half ago.

Before the emergence of the movable frame based on a surrounding bee space, early in the 1850s, all sorts of hive designs appeared. With the destruction wrought by the greater wax moth, real or imagined, hive designs often included some means of resisting the pest, during either the larval or adult stage. Some of these hives, made more perplexing with wax moth traps or other anti-moth designs, may not resemble anything that was once meant for bees.

Figure 1 shows one of these hives. The entrance side (front) is on the left and the doors (rear) are on the right. The tilted alighting board provides an easier landing surface for the bees, but as we will see, the incline is fundamental to the hive design. The small tab of wood blocking the left half of the entrance was probably a way to reduce the entrance because only one colony resided in the cabinet.

This hive is only 16 inches tall and resembles a miniature cabinet from the rear with its pair of long doors. As we encountered in the previous article, miniature hives were made for a couple of reasons. The patent office required a model submitted with the patent application in some years. Before the standard hive prevailed, beekeepers selling their hive designs door to door (farm to farm) carried a more portable miniature hive, generically called a salesman sample, instead of a bulkier full-size one. Even these miniature hives are ultra-rare. They were never mass-produced. For full-size hives that strain the imagination of being a beehive or a cabinet, or some other odd thing from over a century ago, remnants of old combs and propolis can become crucial identifiers. Wax moth pupation scars in the wood survive the best.

Several times wax moth scars have been the saving grace, a welcomed sight, to keep rare hives from being lost forever. It sounds convoluted and crazy, but these situations for me are historical recoveries. Even the pattern of the pupation scars tells where internal hive parts nearly touched because wax moth larvae prefer to pupate in those gaps. Obviously, they can be found in working hives, but none are in miniature hives, never meant to hold bees. Yet when the little hive has all its parts, you bear rare witness to the way the designer originally built the hive, as we saw with the Phelps hive.

Identifying whether old furniture was once really a beehive can be far more complicated than the bit explained above. Once for about three years, I tracked down a midsize cabinet-style hive which was bought and sold, starting in North Carolina and finally residing in Florida. Long before the internet with a “Buy It Now” button, I finally had the antique dealer on a land line. He was telling me about the hive. Bees had definitely been in it, as he described the bits of comb from under the regular horizontal shelves with the cabinet doors open. He was ready to sell. The price was painfully high because of the cabinet’s beehive status and its old weathered blue paint. I was ready to drive to Florida and haul home the beehive treasure (to North Carolina at the time). It would be another long-targeted trip, which I gladly did for the right historical piece, sleeping in my bee truck along the way. Except I knew all those remnants left in the hive by bees and moths from long ago can be a blessing, or dreadfully misleading.

As a final check, I needed to know, where is the hive entrance? A cabinet-type hive must have an entrance, like the hive in Figure 1. After much consternation and searching on the other end of the line, I found out, there was nothing on the cabinet the bees could have used for an entrance. After more conversation, I learned the cabinet had been stored on a porch with other furniture. Now I figured, years ago the cabinet was exposed to scout bees. One of the old doors probably let a crack remain from not closing properly. He had a cabinet that once had a swarm of bees in it, rather than a structure built especially for bees as a beehive. The owner doggedly stuck to the position that he had a bee hive because the high-priced antique once had bees in it. I found that a rather entertaining thought, mostly because I learned it in North Carolina and not in Florida. By that same argument, I have been gassing up the truck at a beehive because a feral colony resides in the back wall of my local gas station. Silly me.

Opening the doors of the hive in Figure 1 reveals an intricate hive, nothing like a regular set of horizontal shelves. As we will see, this hive was probably designed in the 1840s, possibly reaching back to the 1830s (see Figure 2 left). Originally the hive had six boxes, partitioning the hive volume like we saw with the Phelps hive, but in a vertical rather than a horizontal direction. Four boxes survived. I have them on the lower two shelves like a colony growing up from its entrance below on the other side. Figure 2 (right) shows a side view of the hive with the boxes on the shelves like they would be inside of the cabinet.

From being a top-bar hive beekeeper, I know bees naturally organize the contents of the hive relative to the entrances, unless some difficult circumstance disrupts this behavior. The brood goes near the entrance, and the bulk of the honey is stored away from the entrance. Therefore, the lower boxes, close to the entrance, would hold brood; the upper ones would contain honey. Little glass windows in the boxes were for viewing the interiors to see when they became full. Each box has a pair of perforated metal ventilators and a pull ring to aid removal of the box from the cabinet. The tilted shelves, sloping steeply to the front (entrance side) of the hive, are a striking feature of the hive design. Even the ends of the boxes must angle to fit against the vertical ends of the cabinet.

The crucial element in these cabinet hives is having a free flow of bees between adjacent boxes and through the sloping shelves. That may sound obvious, but it has cryptic qualities. The shelves do not extend completely to the front wall of the cabinet (as one might expect with horizontal shelves in a regular cabinet). Instead a narrow gap (scaled down in the model) lies between the front wall and the shelves. That gap did not remain by accident, rather by design to let the bees move vertically in the hive. The gaps are not obvious. When hunting for full-size cabinet hives in old furniture, I use a flashlight to search for the gaps or I feel for them.

The gaps in the shelves match lower and upper gaps in the front corners of the boxes (the entrance end) to allow vertical bee flow into them. A box opens at its lower front corner by sliding its floor toward the window end. When a box is closed from below, the floor is even with the window end. Leaving the floor pulled out a little forms a slit at the other end aligned over the gap at the end of a shelf. That allows the bees to enter a box from below (see Figure 3, left). To let the bees ascend into a box above, each box has a slit in its upper front corner, which aligns under the gap at the end of a shelf (see Figure 3, right). Bees can also move horizontally in the hive through matching holes in the sides of a pair of boxes on a shelf as shown in Figure 3.

At harvest time, the beekeeper closed off an upper honey box so the bees could not come out and sting. A practical bee smoker was still roughly 30 years away. Beekeepers of the time used smudge pots and other awkward devices that had   ….