Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Frames and Their Forgotten Diversity: Part 1 – Their Shapes

- February 1, 2020 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

old beehive diagram

Today’s frame, based on the bee space, officially commenced with patent number 9300, on October 5, 1852, put forth by Reverend L. L. Langstroth (see Figures 1 and 2).

Besides the standard sizes, currently the rectangular frames come with minor variations: The top bar has a removable wedge or is grooved; the bottom bar is slotted or grooved. (For beginners, you need to be certain the type of foundation matches the kind of frame.)

While Langstroth’s rectangular frame seems to have become the rectangular frame of today with some improvements, that is far too simple, too straightforward. An explosion of hive designs took place post-Langstroth, resulting in all kinds of frames, not just in sizes, but in shapes — like geometry gone crazy.

In my paper files, I have almost 1,000 beehive patents. My digital beehive patents file has about 1,200 patents (both files end around 1900). So let’s go hunt through my files for old beehives with unusual-looking frames. Keep in mind though, a beekeeper, long ago, believed earnestly in his or her hive design enough to secure a patent for the idea. Also, there’s no telling what else we will learn.

On December 26, 1865, John H. Hendricks of Clinton, Illinois, patented (#51,716) his hive with triangular frames shown in Figure 3. The left diagram shows the triangular frames inside the sloping sides of the hive body. Notice the hive has no flat floor under the frames; all the surfaces slope. This feature is quite common in old hives. Why? Wax moths. The debris that accumulates on a flat hive floor cannot do that here. It falls from the hive through a small crack between the converging boards at the bottom of the hive.

Appreciate now the thinking back then, the striking triangular shape of the hive was mostly for the hive itself, to prevent wax moth larvae from gaining access inside the hive (by using the debris as cover). Beekeepers once said they wanted to “moth-proof” their hives. (The rectangular chamber above appears typical. Those three receptacles are honey boxes, the distant ancestor of the comb honey section box.)

Why would an annoying pest of today cause such a huge impact on an 1860s hive design? Briefly here’s why. We now know honey bees (the genus Apis) were in North America eons ago from a fossil record in Nevada shale. In recent history, colonists began bringing honey bees here as early as the spring of 1622 (from a shipping record). For unknown reasons, apparently wax moths did not arrive until the early 1800s (in Boston by 1806). Comments scattered in the old bee literature support this claim by saying beekeeping was good here until “the moth” came.

Having endured the invasion of varroa mites, that is, the initial phase when colony losses were exceeding high and many beekeepers just quit, my impression is that the greater wax moth invasion was far worse in colony losses. With the varroa invasion, beginning in 1987, we had a bee research community searching for solutions and an extension service to educate beekeepers in the latest varroa information. Beekeepers of the early 1800s had no such things.

Being mechanically inclined though, hive designers sought to make the hive combat the wax moths. Numerous hive designs had some ingenious device meant to protect the bees from wax moths. Even Langstroth included a wax moth trap with his hive, seen as the pie-shaped wedges flanking the entrance. Those devices trapped adult moths trying to enter the hive to lay eggs.

Other old hives had triangular frames too. One complicated hive had the points of all the triangle frames sticking straight up. Triangular frames had unforeseen difficulties. W. A. Flanders of Shelby, Ohio, noted in his July 14, 1863 patent (#39,221) the bees did not build comb down to the sharp point of his triangle frames. Moreover, the tight little points provided harborage for the wax moths at the bottom of the combs. Flanders sought to eliminate this point with a frame shaped like a — “U” shown in Figure 4. The diagram of the hive at the lower left shows the semicircular frames.

The frame material was a flexible hoop material attached into the top bars. The hive entrance is at the bottom. A moth trap is directly below the entrance. Essentially, debris falling along the curved sides and out the bottom entrance dropped directly down and baited the trap to attract the night-flying moths there to lay eggs and not inside the hive.

At this point, one naturally wonders, if the frame could be rectangular, triangular, and semicircular, could an old frame have ever been circular? Well, that’s not quite the right question. A better question is — how many old hive designs had circular frames? Here are two:

On April 9, 1872, Cyrus C. Aldrich of Morristown, Minnesota, patented (#125,427) various technical aspects of his hive with circular frames shown in Figure 5. He also included his ventilation system, the most prominent feature being the vertical pipe in the upper right diagram. Aldrich felt a cylindrical shape, not a rectangular shape, was the best for a colony because it matched a colony’s natural shape. Looking at the upper left diagram, the outer case is also ….