Sunday, 12 February 2017

Making an Observation Hive

I am asked to provide exhibits at a number of shows and events throughout year.  As far as possible I like to take along an observation hive. It is an excellent way to allow the public to interact with bees.  People can view the bee colony close up without needing protective clothing and as beekeepers we can talk about the way the colony works.
My observation hive in use.  Our stand won second prize!

For many years I have borrowed observation hives, but this year I decided that it was time I got my own one.   All the events I go to are one or two day events, so I was looking for a temporary observation hive with one visible frame with glass on each side.  The queen is trapped on this frame, but the workers can go down through a queen excluder to get to another 5 or 6 frames in a nucleus box below. I think this is enough of an approximation to a ‘normal’ hive to keep the bees trapped inside for a day.  I don’t have a requirement for a permanently installed observation hive where the bees can fly out.

There are a number of companies who make observation hives, for example who make a lovely hive for £280.  However, I decided that I wanted to make my own OH, partly so I could make it to my exact requirements, but also so I could justify the purchase of a table circular saw, which I have always wanted!

This posting is not a complete set of instructions about how to make an OH, just some things that I found out along the way that may save other people some time.

My requirement was for the main body to be the same size as a standard nuc box.  I made two of these bodies so that I could use them to keep a colony in during the summer.  Then when I wanted to use the OH, I just needed to find the queen, put her on a good example frame, and put it in the top.  Then I could just clip the top on and take the entire hive to the show (having first closed the entrance).  At the time this seemed like a good idea, but I have actually not used the hive in this manner, because the flying bees from the nuc have nowhere to go back to when the hive body has been removed.  I therefore now take most of the frames out of a static hive, which leaves somewhere for the flying bees to return to during the day. 

I wanted plenty of ventilation to the hive, so I have a stainless steel mesh as the base and mesh covered holes at the top of the hive.  This gives a good airflow when the OH is being used inside a hot marquee at a show.  I can squirt water into the top of the hive using a water mist spray.  If the bees rush up to the water and start drinking it I know they are getting hot.  If they ignore it then everything is OK. I got the stainless steel mesh from they were happy to sell me exactly the right size sheets, so I didn’t need to cut the mesh out of a larger sheet (nucs need 18” by 10” which is inconvenient for cutting out of any sheets sold for a full sized beehive!)

I went to my local glass merchant ( in Bromsgrove)to discuss the best glass to use.  They recommended laminated glass.  This is made of two 3mm panes of glass with a central plastic film.  The advantage to this type of glass is that if it is broken it remains in one piece, so the bees cannot escape.  Toughened glass is stronger, but, if broken is designed to shatter into lots of small pieces.  Not ideal if you really wanted the bees to remain in the hive! Good job I went there first, because it determined the size of the grooves that I needed to cut to hold the glass in (the glass is 6.4mm thick).  Incidentally, my local glass merchant was happy to cut glass to the nearest mm (ie not rounded to 5mm) and also rubbed off the sharp edges of the cut glass so that I would not cut myself when loading the bees.   

The nuc hive design I took from Roger Patterson’s design on The only thing to watch out for is that you need to modify the dimensions slightly if the wood you use is not 19mm thick.  I got all my wood second hand from a great recycling centre in Worcester called ‘Worcester Resource Exchange’ ( It turned out that most of the wood was actually offcuts of Ikea shelves, which were perfect for the job.

The design for the top ‘observation’ part of the hive came from I didn’t realise it at first, but writer of this article is in the US.  He complains about the difficulty of getting the clip fasteners to hold everything together and about how he had to get them sent from England.  The company he used was It turns out this company is in Redditch, a few miles from my house, so I was able to go the factory and buy everything I needed!

So, onto the building!
The 'Observation' part of the hive
I made this part before I bought the glass.  I then cut a cardboard template for the glass so I could be sure that a rectangular piece of glass was going to fit.  If I was making it again, I would make the large pieces of wood that support the lugs of the frame a little thinner, because the glass rubs against them when you slide it in.  You don’t want to leave too much of a gap, or bees will get in it, but a couple of mm would make the glass fit easier.

It looks a little unstable, but in use, there is a top board, which is clipped on and makes it all secure.

As you can see, I went for security over elegance and everything is held together with both screws and glue.  I bought stainless steel screws from Screwfix, so that if the bottom part of the hive was used as a nuc there would be no rust stains.  (

I built everything and varnished it with several coats of Sadolin Extra Durable Clearcoat ( This gave a great finish, with a slight ‘warming’ of the wood colour, even though it is described as a clear coat.  I found that it did eventually dry rock solid, but it worried me for about a week because it still felt soft when touched.

I suggest trying out the fixings on a scrap piece of wood before you screw them in, because the tightness they clip together is dependent on the spacing you fix them with.

Testing the clips on scrap wood
I found that the clips were correct if you spaced the two parts as shown in the photo, so that the catch was at right angles when the two parts rested together.

Clip with safety catch
Here you can see the fastened clip with the stainless steel safety catch (like a big safety pin).  The safety catch is a vital part of the mechanism as it stops small fingers from finding out what happens if you flip up the catches when the OH is full of bees!  I bought them from Protex, but you probably could use a big safety pin.  The hole is already drilled if you buy the right clips.

The part numbers I used were:
Clips:  18-2075SS
Catches: 01-613SS
Safety catch: 613/7SS
Because I wanted to be able to use the bottom of the OH as a conventional nuc, I needed to have an entrance for the bees that I could seal up at shows.  At the Protex factory I found a larger clip which worked perfectly to keep a cork in place.  I used the sort of cork you get on liqueur bottles where the cork has a decorative top (in my case a wooden cap) so that the cork cannot be pushed all the way into the hive.

Flight hole closed and secured
This shows the extended clip covering the flight hole with cork in it.  Note the safety pin in place.

Flight hole open
Here the cork has been removed so that the bees can fly.  Note how the safety pin can be used to hold back the clip so that it does not blow around in the wind and get in the way of bees entering the hive.

The part number for this toggle clip is 18-2430SS and of course you will need the 01-613SS catch at the other end and a 613/7SS safety clip

Finally .. with bees in it!

Observation hive in use at Hanbury Hall

The finished hive, complete with bees, in the walled garden at Hanbury Hall.  The only thing I have had add to the hive is the detachable stand at the base (not yet varnished).  The stand allows air to get up through the bottom of the hive so that a convection draft can cool the bees on a hot day.  Obviously the hive is kept out of the sun (under a tree here) but it is still difficult for the bees to ventilate if they cannot get out to fan air into the hive.

I have only had it for a couple of months, but I am really enjoying my observation hive.  Not only is it great for showing non-beekeepers what goes on in the hive, but I have been able to watch a queen lay eggs in cells, and watch workers as they manipulate wax in their mandibles and build new comb.  The only thing I have not worked out yet is how to take photos through the shiny glass without getting reflections.  Clearly a work in progress for that one!