Before Year One – Setting Up Your Hive

November 2018

Preparing Woodenware

This web site is focused on Backyard Beekeeping.  Experienced commercial beekeepers and beekeeping sideliners will have suggestions and recommendations that are significantly different than what you are going to find here.  That does not make their opinions right or wrong.


There are a lot of Backyard Beekeepers who are also woodworking hobbyists or competent carpenters.  Personally, I can’t look at any component of a beehive or some new item of woodenware without thinking about how I would make it and how much work it would be.  I have, at one time or another, made at least one of each of the major components at least one way.  Hive bases, bottom boards (screened or unscreened), hive bodies, inner covers, telescoping covers, migratory covers, feeders, vivaldi boards, etc..  There are lots of fun and relatively easy woodworking projects for beekeeping.

That said, does it make sense to make your own beekeeping woodenware?  My experience is that my finished components invariably cost more for me to make than if I had purchased a comparable item from Brushy Mountain or Mann Lake (unless I was able to use all scrap material).   Unless you have a real sweet deal directly with a lumber mill you are not going to save any money by making your own beehives.  I also have to say that the quality of the millwork from these suppliers is every bit as good a quality as my handiwork (being brutally honest with myself here).  There is, however, a deep satisfaction that comes from making something functional with your own hands.  Just don’t expect to save any money in the process.

The major beekeeping suppliers all offer hive components completely assembled, finished, painted, and ready for use right out of the box.  I find it interesting that while I like the quality of materials and millwork from the major suppliers, I find their assembly and finishing to be below my standards.  I’m sure that they will provide years of serviceable use to those who buy finished hive components, they just aren’t up to snuff for me. 


I’m a bit picky about believing that woodenware that is going to live in the weather needs to be well glued, screwed, and clamped when it is assembled.  I believe that countersinking the screws and puttying the screw holes to keep water out of the joint is important.  I’m a bit fussy that any exposed end-grain be sanded and filled before priming to avoid swelling and cracking.  I always thoroughly sand both the inside and the outside hive components before priming and painting (yes, I paint the inside of the hive boxes and covers).  Because of all of this it can take a week or more for me to assemble a beehive.  A commercial beekeeper would go broke real quick trying to do this.


The woodenware provided by the various suppliers is not identical.  There are differences in the joint type (usually box joints, but sometimes just butt joints or rabbit joints).  There are even differences in how boxes made with the same type of joint (e.g., box joints) are cut.  Almost without exception, hive bodies of the same type from all of the suppliers will stack on each other and fit from a functional perspective.  The misfit between a Brushy Mountain 8 frame box with a 13 3/4 inch width and a Mann Lake 8 frame box with a 14 inch width is manageable.  If the difference is split evenly on each side while stacking the boxes the bees can deal with the difference inside.

A bigger problem comes from suppliers that cut the depth of the frame rests differently.  So far, I have encountered frame rest cuts that range between slightly over 3/4 of an inch and others that are slightly less than 5/8 (even more shallow with a frame rest protector strip).  Stacking a box with a deep cut frame rest on top of one with a shallow cur frame rest can result in too little bee space between the boxes. 

When practical, a beekeeper should determine which supplier makes the right box for the right price and stick with them.  I don’t think it is worth the effort of trying a couple from each supplier to decide what you like (even though I’m guilty of doing this).  Just find one that works for you and stick with them.  I will buy my 8 frame equipment from Man Lake.  I would buy all of my 5 frame boxes from Brushy Mountain if they had nor just closed.  My second choice for 5 frame equipment was Kelly.  We’ll see how long that works out.


A properly glued and clamped wood joint is actually stronger than the wood.  Screws make a significantly stronger joint than nails (although some special purpose ringed nails come very close to the joint strength of a wood screw).  Just simply nailing boxes together is the weakest option.  It will work, but it will also be the first to fail.  As a backyard beekeeper I have the time to not only choose the strongest option, but to make glued and screwed even better by carefully countersinking the screws, filling the screw holes with wood putty and sealing any exposed end grain in the joint. 

The outside fingers of a box joint have a tendency to split if a screw is over tightened.  To avoid this I will use a nail on these end sections of the joint and use clamps to hold the edges in tight until the glue has set.

Bottom Boards and stuff



Preparing Location

Site Selection

In Backyard Beekeeping, site selection is pretty much “it is what it is.”  There are a few things to check though before starting a hive.  These relate to the flight path of the worker bees and the orientation flight space of the hive.

Grab a chair and go sit in the place where you are planning to put the hive.  Set the chair down where you plan to put the hive facing outward from where the hive entrance will be.  Now sit down in the chair and look at the location from the hive’s perspective.

Orientation Space

New forager bees need to lock in the location of the hive before going in search of pollen and nectar.  Once they are selected for promotion from nurse bee to forager they will begin orientation flights.  The bees will come out to the front of the hive (often in groups of hundreds of bees) and start flying in circles or figure eights in front of the hive (looking at the entrance).  They will do this for several minutes, then go back into the hive.  They may do this several times over two or three days before they get serious about foraging.  These training flights can make the front of the hive a very busy place.  The space about ten feet wide and about ten feet out from the front of the hive can be filled with orienting bees for two or three hours a day.  Remembering that a queen can lay over 1,000 eggs per day there should be times when the orientation flights have thousands of bees.  This space will basically become unusable by humans on afternoons when the weather is good.  If you have a barbecue or a trampoline or a water faucet or an entry gate in this area that needs to be where it is then this is NOT the place for a beehive.

Sky View

Sitting in the same chair, looking out from where the entrance of the hive will be, look to see where the unobstructed view of the sky is.  Foragers leave and enter the hive in a rush.  They shoot out of the hive like bullets and come in hot and fast until they are feet away from the entrance.  They will climb to their cruising altitude (they fly over trees and houses to keep a straight line to their objective).  They have a job to do and they are serious about it.  The bees seem to adjust their rate of climb to where clear sky is visible.  You may want to make sure that this sightline from the hive entrance to clear sky does not cover things like your neighbor’s patio or a public sidewalk.  If it does you need to seriously consider erecting a visual barrier to get the bees to fly higher sooner.  A section or two of six foot privacy fence may be needed.


So now that you have looked at problem areas to avoid, think again about the location and orientation of the hive.  An East facing hive will get the bees foraging earlier in the day.  A South facing entrance will give them better temperature modulation through the colder months (both of these assuming that sun actually strikes the hive in the morning).  If you can’t find a location where either of these orientations works it isn’t a show stopper.  It just is what it is.

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