1st Honeybee Management revision post: hive types and frame sizes used in the UK

This is a 1st revision post for the British Beekeeping Association’s Module 1 exam, Honey bee Management, which I plan to take in March.

Over the next few months I’m going to aim to do a post on each item on the syllabus, starting with:

“The Candidate shall be able to give a detailed account of:-

1.1 the types of hives and frames used by beekeepers in the United Kingdom, including comparative knowledge of frame sizes of the following hives, National, WBC, Smith, National Deep, Commercial, Langstroth and Dadant.”

I find it quite annoying that we’re being asked to memorise frame sizes – in real life I cannot imagine how this would be useful. If I really need to know the different frame sizes, I can look them up on the internet. But it’s point 1 on the syllabus, so here we go…


Named after the famous Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, who is credited with having being the first person to use the concept of ‘bee space‘ to have removable frames in a top-opening hive (a few European side-opening hives had previously used bee space).

Langstroth realised that bees will leave a gap of about 6mm (0.25 inches) – 9mm (1/3 inch) between frames unfilled with either propolis or comb, instead leaving it as a space for themselves to walk around in. Spacing out the frames appropriately therefore allows beekeepers to inspect with ease (in theory!), rather than finding all the frames stuck together with burr comb or propolis. His patent is available to read online via Google Patents.

His idea revolutionised beekeeping and made it possible as a commercial industry; since he patented his design in 1860 a top-opening, removable framed hive has become the standard choice for around 75% of the world’s beekeepers. The National, Smith, Commercial etc are all variations on Langstroth’s original design, with a few differences here and there – mainly in the size and number of frames used. Langstroth’s original dimensions are popular with commercial beekeepers and used extensively overseas but not so much here in the UK.

Brood frames – 10
Brood body dimensions – 508 x 414mm
Max no. of bees per brood box – 61,000
Comb area (inches sq) – 127

National (also known as the Modified National)

This is what me and Emma, and the vast majority of beekeepers in our apiary and across the UK use, as shown in my photo below.

So why is the National so popular in the UK? Well, it’s a practical, simple, single-walled design. It has handy grooves in the side acting as hand grips to lift the boxes with. Some beekeepers find one National brood box too small – one is designed for a colony no larger than 55,000 bees – and add an extra brood box (for a double brood system) or an extra super as a brood box (brood and a half). As you can see in the photo above, Albert had his New Zealand bees on two brood boxes and two supers this summer as they were a large colony. Giving bees more space can help prevent swarming.

Brood frames – 11
Brood body dimensions – 460 x 460mm
Max no. of bees per brood box – 55,000
Comb area (inches sq) – 93

National Deep

To prevent having to use a double brood or brood and a half system for bigger colonies as mentioned above, National Deep brood boxes were created in a 14 x 12 inch size, giving a brood space slightly larger than the Commercial or Langstroth. This does make it heavier to lift.

Brood frames – 11
Max no. of bees per brood box – 72,000
Comb area (inches sq) – 143


Named after its inventor, William Broughton Carr, this is the classic English country garden style beehive.

WBC hive

(Photo from English bee suppliers www.stamfordham.biz)

Is it not a thing of beauty? But rarely used nowadays as its double-walled design makes it cumbersome to move and inspect. Inside is a standard box shape hive which provides a small brood chamber suitable for a colony no larger than 45,000 bees.

The extra wall insulation makes it good in cold winters; however this can also mean it takes longer for the hive to warm up in the early spring sunshine. The extra wood also means extra cost – Thornes are currently selling a assembled WBC for £351.27 compared to £266.42 for a National or £298.02 for a Deep 14″x12″ National.

Brood frames – 10
Brood body dimensions – 460 x 419mm
Max no. of bees per brood box – 45,000
Comb area (inches sq) – 93


Mainly used up in the cold wilds of Scotland, and named after their Scottish inventor, W. Smith of Peebles, who originally designed it for heather working. The frames have the same surface area as National frames, but smaller handles or ‘lugs’, creating a slightly smaller box. The brood chamber is suitable for up to 50,000 bees.

Brood frames – 11
Brood body dimensions – 464 x 416mm
Max no. of bees per brood box – 50,000
Comb area (inches sq) – 93

Commercial (also known as Modified Commercial)

These hives have the same dimension as a National, but with no grooves on the side so that the hive is a simple cuboid shape. This allows the frames to be larger, with shorter handles, making the brood box suitable for up to 70,000 bees. The brood box and supers are picked up using small hand holds cut into the outer wall of the hive. These small hand holds can be hard to grip a super full of honey with, so some beekeepers use National supers on top of a Commercial brood box.

Ted Hooper recommends the Modified Commercial in southern Britain and the National in a “colder, more austere area”.

(Photo from Fortune Favors the Bold blog)

Brood frames – 11
Brood body dimensions – 464 x 464mm
Max no. of bees per brood box – 70,000
Comb area (inches sq) – 130


Named after a Frenchman, Charles Dadant (1817-1902), who emigrated to America, where he designed this hive, believing Langstroth’s brood box to be too small. Not used very often in the UK, but the favourite hive in France, and popular with commercial beekeepers due to its large capacity. Introduced around 1863, it was used by Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey to breed his gentle and productive Buckfast bees. It’s the largest Langstroth style beehive available, able to house 85,000 bees in a single brood box. Single walled.

Brood frames – 11
Brood body dimensions – 508 x 470mm
Max no. of bees per brood box – 85,000
Comb area (inches sq) – 159

In summary

A smaller hive is more suited to colder areas and less prolifically laying queens; a larger hive better for warmer areas and strong laying queens. I must confess I find it hard to get very excited over all this talk of dimensions. I also wonder why we are not asked to discuss top-bar varieties of hives, which are perhaps more common in the UK than, say, the Smith. The BBKA is perhaps still a very traditional institution! Think I won’t bother memorising all the frame sizes – all the numbers do my head in – instead will focus on doing well in other areas of the syllabus.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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17 Responses to 1st Honeybee Management revision post: hive types and frame sizes used in the UK

  1. ceciliag says:

    I am so so glad that you have decided to post your study, it is great for small beekeepers like myself at the beginning of our learning.. keep up the good work!! c


  2. pixilated2 says:

    WoW! So much to learn. I am constantly amazed at what you have to do there to be able to raise bees. So different here in the US. Thank you for sharing! BTW, When I was learning to be a teacher I was told that teaching others was the best way to learn a topic yourself. You keep teaching us and I think you will ace your exam. 😉
    ~ Lynda


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks 🙂 I find doing these posts useful for making me really concentrate and learn more actively than I would from just reading some notes. There has been some research done which indicates people remember things longer if they write them down, and also if they revise a subject gradually over several months rather than last minute cramming.


  3. daveloveless says:

    Fun stuff. I had no idea of all the variants. I, like most, knew the “standard hives” used around the world, but I had no idea there was so much variance.

    I wish my area had some of these courses and exams, though. I get that the real world use of all this information is probably just shy of useless for most of us, but I wish we at least had the resource.


  4. hencorner says:

    Thanks Emily,
    I studied the course last year but didn’t do the exam as didn’t have bees at that stage…
    Do you know anyone having success with the Omlet Beehaus?
    I’m hoping they’ve storted out there little teething problems now…

    Planning to do my Oxalic Acid Drizzle today and slip in some fondant before it gets too cold to open the hive 🙂



  5. hencorner says:

    Hi Emily,


    James & I have been tweeting each other for over a year now and whilst we’ve both been at several events, have never met….!

    Ian’s stuff looks good so I’ve started following him on Twitter…

    We haven’t got a Beehaus yet, the bees are on loan from Andy and are in a spare National. If all is well in the spring, we’ll buy a hive then…

    Oxalic Acid drizzle seemed OK, then just 4 dead bees this morning (don’t know how many inside), but I’ve heard that there are often some casualties… I’ll keep an eye on the inspection board for varroa…

    Hopefully see you at EDBKA soon!



    • Emily Heath says:

      I’ve seen James across the room at the London Honey Show…he’s hard to miss! Must be about a foot and a half taller than me.

      The Beehaus do look pretty, I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with it if you do buy one.

      Maybe keep an eye on the entrance if you’re getting dead bees, make sure they’re not clogging up the entrance too much and the remaining bees can still get out. I found a couple stuck in the mouseguard last weekend even without doing any treatment, so four doesn’t sound bad…best not to leave the varroa board in for too long, they need ventilation so moisture doesn’t build up.


  6. rumpydog says:

    Nothing like having a head filled with useless information is there? LOL


  7. Mil says:

    I’ve been curious about the hives you use in the UK. Of course, living in California, I use a modified Langstroth. I say modifed, because we have add-ons as recommended by our teacher, Serge Labesque.
    What do you think about the Warre hives?



    • Emily Heath says:

      Hello Mil, thanks for stopping by….your blog looks beautiful and I’ve subscribed to it in my Google Reader. What sort of add-ons are on your hive?

      I don’t know much about the Warre hives, I’ve never met anyone who uses one. Our local bee inspector frowns upon them a bit – she comes to inspect our bees for disease once a year and she mentioned once that inspecting Warre hives is a difficult job as all the comb tends to get stuck together. A lot of Warre beekeepers online seem to take a very hands off approach, which might be fine in the middle of the countryside, but in an urban area like London we can’t have our bees annoying everyone by swarming constantly and we need to keep an eye on disease for the sake of other beekeepers. Do you have any opinions on them?


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