The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861

Plain Talk Beekeeping

Simple Observation Hives A unique way to watch and study bees

- November 1, 2023 - James E. Tew - (excerpt)

observation hive

An immediate confession

As has happened so many times in my life, when I chose what I thought would be an easy writing assignment on observation hives, I quickly found myself in the deep end of the pool. My initial concept was that this effort would be a simple explanation of this specialized aspect of viewable beekeeping. Then things got away from me. The concept and design of some observation hives are anything but simple.

The Challenges

My first challenge is that there is no “standard” observation hive. These viewable hives come in all shapes and sizes. Many are craftsman constructed. They may be simple or they may house multiple frames in a furniture-quality structure. In fact, sections of tree logs have even been modified to show the activities of bees in a natural nest. Again, there really is no standard observation hive.

The second challenge that I confronted was, in fact, what actually makes up an observation hive? During my time at both Ohio State and Auburn universities, I occasionally used caged outdoor beehive exhibits. A beekeeper entered the large cage and manipulated a small colony for the edification of the viewers who were safely standing outside the screened cage wall. I contend that this is a complex example of an observation hive.

Beekeeping investigators have devised innumerable styles of viewable hives for various research projects. Nature exhibits, restaurants, and zoos routinely have personalized styles of viewable hives. Photographers and videographers set up clear-walled hives for photographic purposes. So, an observation hive can be a simple, single-frame glass-walled box, or it can be a complete hive in an enclosed cage. It’s whatever meets your needs.

Through the years, I have personally built several different sizes and styles of observation hives. I was aware that there is abundant diversity within the observation hive arena, but I stressed myself when I began to try to force the topic to fit a single bee magazine article.

This is my plan. In this article, I will offer a general, introductory piece on small observation hives and present some of their attributes. Later, during the upcoming 2024 winter, I will offer a second, companion piece on the more complicated aspects of complex observation hives.

Grandkids, observation hives, and me

Without a doubt, the most popular bee thing that I have done with my grandkids is take an observation hive to their classroom. I would love to tell you that all my age-appropriate grandkids are consumed with bees, but they are not. In fact, they are very cautious about bees, but when I show up in their classroom — with seemingly dangerous bees in tow — they suddenly become all mouth and authority, and it is true that all the other kids sit in amazement. Of course, my grandkid-of-the-day is my able assistant. At that moment, we both look good, and looking good always feels rewarding to this old beekeeper.

In fact, observation hives interest most people — no matter the age. It gives one a chance to see bees up close but free from the threat of stings. Since it’s normally a small hive with few parts, new beekeepers frequently assume that it will be a simple hive to initiate and operate. That’s not true. Glass-walled observation hives are a particularly unnatural environment for a bee nest. If one plans to maintain a permanent observation hive, one needs to be skilled in both bee biology and behavior. For long-term use, a good observation hive design is imperative, and I must say that some designs are better than others.

Observation hives differ from standard colonies in several major ways. I have listed some of those characteristics below.


Light allows the observer to see every part of the observation hive and what’s going on inside it. The problem for the bee nest within the observation hive is that bees prefer their hives to be dark. In fact, light seems to inhibit the production of wax by bees. Yet, without light, there is no observation hive. Commonly observation hive sides are covered by panels made of hardboard or expanded-foam insulation that are kept on the glass walls when bees are not on display.

Note: a glass-walled hive should never be in direct sunlight. Due to the greenhouse effect, the hive will overheat causing damage to the colony.


Observation hives are generally small hives — frequently only one deep frame. That makes them lightweight and easy to transport. However, these small hives do not winter well, if at all. They are too small to perform cluster mechanics efficiently.

Even if the hive is in a warm house, there are potential problems. Bees tend to fly freely from the hive on days that are too cold — probably due to the unnatural wintertime heat of the house; so many beekeepers only maintain the colony during warm months. As the winter season approaches, the observation colony is combined with an established colony. The observation colony is then re-established the next spring. Of course, a queen is lost when using this procedure.

When working these small colonies, minimal smoke is required. More than defensive control, smoke is commonly used to “steer” the bees into the observation hive or to control the bees when bunching within the hive as it is manipulated. In general, bees are “wiggy” about being housed in the small, glass box.

An alternative to seasonally breaking down the observation hive is to maintain a hive large enough to support itself through winter months. Such a hive would have to be made of a minimum of three frames and would survive even better if it were as large as nine frames (three frames side by side and three levels high). Such colonies survive seasonal variations better, but due to their size, they are much more difficult to manage. Because of the increased number of bees, the chances of seeing the queen are greatly reduced. In such a hive, crowding is common which causes springtime swarming. However, in a sense, a spring swarm is an observable event, too.

Disease and pest control

In any bee colony, diseases and pests must be constantly controlled. Though, in the case of a small observation hive, if it was healthy when established, there should be little danger of diseases or mite buildup during the few months that it is in use. However, in larger observation hives that are maintained throughout the seasons, standard controls for mites and other bee diseases are important.


Opening a standard beehive is relatively easy. Just use some smoke and remove the outer cover of the colony. However, with an observation hive, the hive must either be taken outside or worked in a darkened room allowing some of the bees to escape. One must expect a few bees to occasionally get free into the room when the hive is opened or moved. Plan accordingly.

If bees can be allowed to escape in the building, then the beekeepers can work inside without disassembling the hive. After completing the job, the room can be darkened except for one closed glass window. Bees in the room will fly to the window where they can be freed or captured.

Various types of doors or slots can be developed on the observation hive body to allow access for installing mite strips or pollen patties. Also, such openings are good for holding a queen cage. However, there are no standard plans for any of these suggestions. Remember that slots and grooves are quickly filled with propolis or burr comb by the bee colony.

Feeder access

Preparations must be made that allow quick and efficient feeding device installation. Bee populations in observation hives are small requiring that they be …