This text is not a history of beekeeping, but is more of a commentary on how standards develop and evolve, this history details how British beekeepers came to use the sizes and standards of equipment that are now commonplace in UK beekeeping. I have received considerable correspondence, some of which has been quite rude, from those who consider that their pet local beekeeping hero deserved mention, but if the gentleman concerned had no impact on the British beekeeping scene, he does not deserve mention here.
Any items that I am unsure about will show in GREEN text.
Sources and references are in BLUE text
Giovanni Rucellai writes about hives with combs built on
moveable top bars.
1609 In Butler's "Feminine Monarchie" there is a mention of hives built up to four tiers in height.
1650 approx. A glass sided hive was built, it was intended to be a single comb observation hive, but as bee space was not understood it was built with too great a space between the glass panes and thus the bees built multiple combs at right angles to the glass. Samuel Pepys the diarist mentions travelling to see it.
1652 Rector William Mewe, (could have been Mew) of Eastington in Gloucestershire, England, built hives of wood with moveable top bars, but no dimensions are available. (It may have been octagonal.)
1675 In Greece basket shaped bodies without bottoms or tops were used with bars across the open top to enable the support and removal of individual combs. (as illustration right)
1682 Wheler reports on a Greek hive having moveable top bars. He also reports on the practice of artificial swarming, such methods being far in advance of any manipulations in this country at that time. The inference of this is that the frames/combs were sufficiently removable to permit individual inspection.
1683 An Englishman named John Houghton invented what he thought was a moveable frame hive, but the bee space dimensions were too great and the frames became fixed by the accretion of brace comb.
1768 Thomas Wildman describes the use of wooden boxes with individual bars for each comb. (Much like the Greek basket system described earlier.)
1789 Francois Huber, (the Swiss blind man), Introduced hives made from a series of wooden frames connected together with strips of leather to form a system rather like the leaves of a book. This was a research tool rather than a beekeeping method.
1819 Robert Kerr of Stewarton Ayrshire designed an octagonal shaped hive with top bars that varied in length according to their position within the box.
1830 approx. (some say 1806 approx.) A Russian (Ukrainian?) named Peter Prokopovitsch used frames with channels in the side of the woodwork, these were packed side by side in boxes that were stacked one on top of the other. The bees travelling from frame to frame and box to box via the channels. The channels were similar to the cut outs in the sides of modern wooden sections.
1850 Glass bell jars were common on both skeps and wooden 'box' hives. Sometimes bell jars were placed on Stewarton brood chambers giving a very fancy, but typically Victorian appearance.
1851 Rev. L.L. Langstroth is always credited with the invention of the top opening hanging frame hive. It is much more likely that he was merely the first to recognise 'Bee Space' and by observing the principles of bee space, in the design of his hive, he rendered the frames truly 'removable' for the first time. 1851 was the publishing date and a patent was issued in 1852. It is thought that experiments had been conducted for at least ten years prior to that date. Certainly he showed a version in 1845. Ironically he was pursuing methods of reducing comb built on the inside walls of box hives in an effort to reduce or eliminate wax moth damage rather than looking for methods of rendering frames easier to move.
1852 Baron Von Berlepsch... After studying Langstroth's patent he developed the back opening hive whose descendants are common in middle Europe to the present day. A modern attempt at popularising this method, in this country, is the Euro Hive. Dzierzon is also credited with this work, but it would not surprise me if they both came to the same conclusions independently.
1857 Johannes Mehring invented wax foundation in Austria. The process was improved by E.B. Weed of USA and remains much the same today. Also at this date Wooden Sections were introduced by J.S. Harbison in California. They became, (for 80 or 90 years), immensely popular all over the world.
1860 Thomas Woodbury of Exeter incorporated Langstroth's ideas into his hives, which became the forerunner of most of the subsequent hive designs in this country. The frames were 13" x 7 1/4", this size was one of the proposals at the later standardisation discussions. lug size unknown.
1865 ish. The queen excluder was invented by Abbe Collin. It was originally unknown, at least by myself, whether it was a wire type or a perforated sheet type, but James K. Watson in the book 'Beekeeping in Ireland' indicates that it was perforated zinc.
1865 The first use of a centrifugal extractor in Austria.
1866 (could have been 1865.) The 'Cowan Hive' designed by T.W. Cowan. It was described in the pages of "The English Mechanic" magazine (no specialised bee magazines had been published by then). It was made from 1" and 1 1/4" timber (I have no drawings of this... Can anyone help?)
1867 The Bingham Hive in America... No hive body at all, each frame had solid rectangular ends that were 3/4" thick. The frames were placed in groups of seven with plain boards front and rear. The whole assembly was pulled together with wire loops thus forming a self contained brood box with integral frames.
1874 Charles Nash Abbott... Founder of the "British Bee Journal", in 1873 and via a campaign conducted through it's pages...Founded the BBKA in 1874. At the time of starting the BBJ he gave up his employment and started a beekeeping equipment business that was combined with a school of apiculture. He is also famous for his type of frame top bar that was self spacing by being broader at the end than in the central portion. This is often depicted in books as being of an 'arrowhead' shape, but this style was only introduced later to save timber (Does anyone know when?) The original shape had the self spacing part of the lug all on one side of the main bar with the spacer at the opposite end on the other side of the bar.
1875 ish, The Kent beekeepers were among the best organised, with a large membership of flourishing and energetic beekeepers. Several of their members had been using a frame of 14" x 8 1/2" for some time, but various different types of top bar gave rise to differing lug sizes and types.
1875 Moses Quinby was the first to design a workable smoker. This relatively late date indicates roughly when modern hive manipulation and multiple box techniques came into use.
1876 ish The Sussex Shallow... This was a 14" x 5 1/2" frame originally with a 16" top bar, all parts of the frame were made from timber that was 1 1/4" wide and 1/4" thick. No distinction was made between brood or super purposes. A hive usually consisted of three boxes full of this type of frame plus a rack (or two) of sections. As the third box was almost always honey only, it was common to cut comb from these frames in a similar fashion to present day cut comb production.
1877(Could have been earlier) The 'metal end' frame spacer was made of lead alloy and was fundamental in the design of the BBKA standard frame. It caused the need for the long lugs which are a unique feature of the British frame. Some Polish frames had large lugs, but they were needed because the frames were up to 1.5 metre deep and very heavy! Some information has come to light Link.
1879 During C.N. Abbott's editorship, there were reports (in an issue of the British Bee Journal) about self spacing frames that pre-date Hoffman style frame spacing in all but the bevelled edges. This un bevelled style is still used in New Zealand and parts of Australia to the present day.
1882 The British Standard Frame. After a marathon discussion this was finally agreed to be a 14" x 8 1/2" frame with a 17" top bar ( giving rise to the now familiar (in UK!) 1 1/2" lugs). The top bar was only 3/8" thick. The side and single bottom bar were 1/4" thick. All parts were specified at 7/8" width. No mention was made at the time to this being a Brood frame. There was no call for a 'Super' frame as such... as most honey, at that time, was gathered in sections. One of the reasons for the selection of this frame was the fact that it occupied a similar space to six 4 1/4" square sections. I was initially baffled by why this was considered such a useful feature, but I have since found a design for a hanging section frame that was used to put six fresh sections in the brood nest to get the comb drawing started earlier than would be the case if they were merely placed above the brood nest in the normal crate.
1882 ish, Many beekeepers took the new 'Standard Frame' and tried all sorts of variations. Mainly alternative thicknesses and widths of the different parts. The most common alteration being to reduce the bottom bar to 5/8" width. Another common, but later, change was to make the side bars 3/8" thick. (The twin bottom bars that we know today did not come in until much later when pre-wired foundation became popular.
1884 ish During the negotiations for the standard frame, Samuel Simmins was a vociferous proponent of a frame 16" x 10" with a 17 1/2" top bar. When he was unsuccessful he decided to 'go it alone', but he reduced the top bar to 17 3/16" and called it the National Major Frame. This and the American style box that he designed to suit it, later became the British Standard Commercial Hive.
1885 ish When the Kent frame was adopted, many Sussex Beekeepers were outraged. Partly to pacify them, and their protagonist (William Broughton Carr, who was trying to popularise the idea of extracted honey), and partly to align with the Langstroth Standard, which by this time had a deep and a shallow type of frame. The Sussex frame was revamped with 7/8" wide x 3/8" thick timber and a 17" top bar. This was designated the BBKA Standard Shallow Frame. The Kent frame being renamed the BBKA Standard Deep Frame.
1887 William Broughton Carr invented the tinplate version of the metal end (the one we are familiar with today).
1889 The Hoffman Frame Spacing method was invented. The first reported use was in New York USA during 1890.
1889 (ish) The 16" x 6" frame was added to provide for shallow combs to suite the 16" x 10" 'National Major'. This was intended for cut comb production and the then 'New Fangled' extracted honey. The box that this frame fits became known as the... B.S. Commercial Super.
1890 William Broughton Carr published details of the WBC hive (Mr Carr was the editor of the "Bee Journal and Record"). The WBC was extremely popular, not because it was a particularly good design, but because it could be made from readily available fruit boxes. Bees also did quite well in it as the outer lifts and roof kept most of the rain off the relatively flimsy interior boxes. A further reason for the bees wellbeing was that most of the joints were less than sound and allowed a considerable total airflow through the whole system, such draught eliminated any stagnant moist air and consequently any resulting condensation was relatively minor.
It was also popular because there was a space of about 3" (much larger than present day WBCs) between the inner and outer boxes that could be packed with straw in winter (a common practice at the time).
1891 Porter Bee Escape invented in USA.
1899 James Lee invented the taper sided lifts that we see as a common feature of modern WBC hives.
1900 ish The 1 1/16" (28 mm) wide top bar was tried after reports from Australia that the bees built less brace comb between adjacent bars of this width. It was much more widely adopted in Eire than in the U.K. This width was popular with the Ministry of Agriculture and was adopted later in the first British Standard, but pressure from the equipment trade forced the adoption of 7/8" as an alternative width in all subsequent editions of the standard. These days it is recommended that 28 mm wide top bars be used in the brood frames in order to reduce problems with beekeeper's neighbors.
1906 (ish) The 14" x 12" frame and brood box were designed following experiments by A.N. Draper in the A.I. Root apiaries during 1905.
1911 Half inch thick frame lugs were still in common use at this relatively modern time. Taylor's catalogue of this date lists WBC tinplate ends to suit this thickness as well as the then more common 3/8" variety.
1920 The 'Simplicity Hive' became the most popular alternative to the WBC. The forerunner of this type of hive was the 'Economic Hive' which was championed by Samuel Simmins and was subsequently adopted by the Ministry of Agriculture as... The National Brood Box & Super. It was usually made of 7/8" timber and was 18 1/2" square. It could be made up with either TOP or BOTTOM bee space to suit the requirements of the purchaser.
1928 Mr W. Smith of Innerleithen, Peebles, Scotland reduced the top bar to 15 1/2" and designed an American style, Top Bee Space, hive that is used by about 3% of British Beekeepers. It is more common in Scotland than in any other part of the UK, (it was originally designed for heather working).
1930 ish The Zander Hive (German National) was developed by Enoch Zander to facilitate pollination and movement of bees in an area where most beekeeping was in purpose built bee houses. It's frame at 420 mm x 220 mm is a little larger than our National, but is fairly similar. (Top bee space!)
1936 (Or may have been earlier.) The 3/4" (11/16") thick top bar... This had been tried off and on since the 1880s, but only came into common use with the advent of pre-wired foundation (which was marketed by Dadant). It proved popular because of its greater strength and it helped to discourage the queen from migrating into the supers.
1946 The first issue of British Standard 1300. This formalised the dimensions of the WBC hive and introduced the 'Improved National Hive' which somehow became translated into the 'Modified National Hive' that we know today. It was proposed in 1944, (due to shortages of certain timber sizes), by Burtt & sons in conjunction with other hive manufacturers. Adoption of Hoffman spacing was proposed, but largely ignored for all except the short lugged Smith hives.
1960 The last issue of BS 1300
Most of this material was originally used for a lecture that I used to give in the early 1990's.
Last updated 18/08/2018