Jan. 27, 2022

Let's Discuss Small Observation Hives (058)

Let's Discuss Small Observation Hives (058)

Small, portable, usually single frame observation hives are ideal for meetings, demonstrations, lectures and even for study. They can be homemade or produced by bee supply companies, but there are a few things to keep in mind when using them…....

Small, portable, usually single frame observation hives are ideal for meetings, demonstrations, lectures and even for study. They can be homemade or produced by bee supply companies, but there are a few things to keep in mind when using them…. especially when children are your audience.

Kids are full of energy and accidents happen. Make sure you observation hive is rough and tumble ready, securely held in place for when kids are pointing, showing and asking questions.

How many bees should you have, what kind of comb should you use, how much ventilation is needed and what about showing this to a room full of kids when some of them might be allergic to honey bees? We explore all of this and more.

Jim Tew has years of experience using these will all kinds of classes and demonstrations and locations… and all kinds of things have happened to him. Tune in and find out what works and what doesn’t, when using single frame observation hives.


We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. BetterBee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, BetterBee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 58 – Let's Discuss Small Observation Hives


Kim Flottum: Hey, Jim, somebody asked me the other day about observation hives, and it's been a long time since I've dealt with observation hives. What do you know about them?

Jim Tew: Oh, Kim, I love this topic. I have had some really enjoyable times in my life with observation hives, both big ones and small ones.

Kim: Well, this one, the guy asked me, and I think this one's going to be about a small one because he wants to take it to school. Oh, hi. I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Today, we're going to talk about observation hives. Today, we're going to talk about portable observation hives. I think down the road a little bit, we're going to look at the big ones that live in your living room with you.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world and engaging in informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long-timers, and those just starting their journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Kim: I've never taken an observation hive where there are small children involved, Jim.

Jim: Well, I have. I spent a lot of years as an extension specialist for Ohio State University and I’ve got grandkids. I think I can comfortably say that I've clocked a good deal of time with these single-frame, small units inside a classroom or at a forum show or wherever. You can put a single frame of observation hive out where adults are and get the same crowd you're going to get if you take it to a third-grade class.

Kim: All right, I got a room full of kids who are-- What's the word I want? Energetic?

Jim: That's a good word.


Kim: They're bouncing up and down and they're excited about this thing. I got to believe that dropping an observation hive in a room full of kids and having them all get stung is not something you want to have. What do I need to worry? How do I worry about that so it doesn't happen?

Jim: Well, you always worry. You're always on guard. When you and I were talking about those bee beards, I actually had the observation hive thought at that time because you've got bees in public. In this case, your grandkids' third-grade class or wherever you are. In the oldest days, Kim, I could get this product called double-strength glass. Even then, you put in a double-strength glass just in case one of those kids was rambunctious, tap, tap, tap, and would manage to break that glass. Not only then that you want to have bees out, but you got glass shards everywhere. I did everything I could all those years ago to protect those kids. Then when plexiglass came along and became readily available, I certainly embraced that.

Kim: I can see why, and I can see that making sure that it doesn't get tipped over, some kids pointing, pushing on the glass and it tips over. What kind of base do you use?

Jim: Thank you for asking that. That cues me. Whatever base the observation hive came with, I added a bigger base to it. I added a 1x8, three-quarter-inch pine board so that I had plenty of lip all the way around it and then I securely screwed that board to the observation hive. Then I C-clamped that observation hive to the table edge so that those kids could not knock it off. There couldn't be some kind of unforeseen disaster with that single-frame hitting the floor.

Kim: Well, that's pretty clever. I wouldn't--

Jim: No, it's that deal where you're trying to predict, what are these kids going to do? There's that. The other thing, Kim. You make it sound like you don't know much about these. You're being modest because you've kept observation hives too. When you set those things up, what was the bee population that you put in those?

Kim: Well, I always try to start low because my thought always was, "I'm going to do something really dumb, something really bad. I'm going to kill all the bees in these hives, so I don't want to kill too many, but I want the population to grow slowly." That's how I did it, but that's probably not what you're doing with this small hive for a bunch of kids. You want everybody in there, right?

Jim: I don't want a lot of bees though. If you put a full frame in there of just a really nice full frame of bees, all of it capped brood, then you limit what there is to show. Put just enough worker bees in it like, I think you said, I think we're agreeing. Put enough worker bees in that you can see workers. Ideally, you can see the boy bees (drones). In a perfect world, you've got a marked queen and she's on one side or the other of the frame. Now, she's not going to like going to that schoolroom.

Queens are really good at putting themselves where they can't be seen…. up on the top bar, on the end-bar frame, somewhere out of sight. One of the ways to motivate her was to gently blow in one of the vent holes because the thing is full of vent holes. You got it all closed up. Most of these one-frame units doesn't even have an entrance on it. It was not intended to leave bees in for anything more than the discussion. Gently blow into one of the vent holes. Agitate the bees a little bit. Sometimes you could force her to come around so everybody can see the mom, the mommy bee.

Kim: That makes sense. Of course, if she's got a big yellow slosh of paint on the top of her thorax, it's going to make it even easier to find her. I'm thinking, the basics of the frame that's in there should be-- if you can manage to find one, you should have a sample of foundation that isn't built up empty cells, partially built cells, empty cells, cells with some honey in themselves with honey that's capped, baby bees. capped brood so that you can point out the whole existence. If I'm trying to teach kids about bees, the more stuff I have to point to, the better it's going to be, right?

Jim: You're exactly right. When you were talking, I was thinking that when you've got a group, any group, any age, you talk about whatever that frame shows. If you've got empty foundation, if you've got empty comb, if you've got honey, whatever you got is what you're talking about for the moment. Whatever those non-beekeeping people see is more than they've ever seen before. You do the best you can, and you choose your frame as best you can. When you're out in the field, you're in a hurry…. observation hives there…. don’t lose the queen. You move along pretty fast on all of this. You choose the frame and move on and then what you've got is what you go with.

Kim: You mentioned ventilation. How much do you need? I'm bringing this thing into a heated classroom or into a drafty cool county fair situation. What am I looking at in terms of making it adaptable to either or both of those situations?

Jim: That's a good, broad question. That's not easy to answer. In my experience, overheating is always worse than chilling. If you're really going to chill the bees, and I don't quite know how I got that frame in the observation hive, to begin with, it must have been a cool day already. Certainly, for those folks in Minnesota or someplace, you got to deal with this at times.

I'll just bet you that I want plenty of ventilation and they will deal with that coolness better than they'll deal with overheating. How much? When I would build those single-frame observation hives, I had two three-quarter-inch vent holes on either end. I had three three-quarter-inch vent holes up top all screened with eight-mesh hardware cloth.

Kim: That makes sense. Well, you were building yours.

Jim: I was building them because when I was working for Ohio State, we were a “go-to” source to borrow these. Everybody wants to give a bee talk, so they would want to borrow them, but they were never seemingly timely about bringing them back.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: I think I'll say this boldly. I wrote an article for your magazine, Bee Culture Magazine. It was years ago, 2003 or '04 or so, on how to build a super simple, five-piece, single-frame observation hive. I think I'll post that on our web page site on where people can have a look at that because I built a dozen of these. I built 12 of these just so when I needed to go or some of my lab representatives or some of my students needed to go for one of these presentations, we had an observation hive they could take instead of having to go track down a beekeeper somewhere in the county and get our observation hive back. Yes, I did build some super simple ones. Then later for another time, I have built some that were more complicated.

Kim: Well, I'm not a builder. I don't do much around the house in terms of that. I don't even own a C-clamp, so I can see that I'm going to have to get some. Can't you build these, or can't you buy these someplace?

Jim: Observation hives or C-clamps? You can buy C-clamps and you can buy observation hives. In fact, our sponsor has an observation hive that works out nicely. I would be remiss if I didn't point that out.

BetterBee: BetterBee is pleased to sponsor today's episode of Honey Bee Obscura Podcast. For over 40 years, BetterBee has supplied beekeepers across the country with the tools, equipment, and knowledge needed to succeed. Because many BetterBee employees are beekeepers themselves, they understand your needs and challenges and are better prepared to answer your beekeeping questions. From their colorful catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast, BetterBee truly lives up to their tagline of "Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers." See for yourself at betterbee.com.


Jim: Everybody has them. Kim, a philosophical comment I'd like to make. There is no standard style. These observation hives always reflect the moment. What's this person wanting to do? Are they wanting to just talk about bees at the county fair? Are they going to be taking the observation hive home every night or is this going to be a three-frame observation hive that lives in their house with them? There's nothing standard about this. You either build your own or you buy one for the moment. Then as your moment changes, you get a different one.

Kim: That more suits my skill level here. I think you just get one for every purpose rather than try and make it fit.

Jim: There's people who will happily build you one and happily take your money for having built it for you.

Kim: Well, then you take and start looking at what's your time worth and building when it takes me about way longer than my time's worth. Well, you just mentioned it and that's the big ones. I got to believe that that's a whole different kind of animal. You've got several frames of bees and I've seen them. Nine frames of bees, three deep frames tall, and three deep frames wide, all the way down to just one frame or one frame wide, three deep tall. I know you've had even bigger ones. That's got to be that you're dealing with a whole different kind of ecosystem when you've got those in there. Have you run one of those that big?

Jim: Those bigger ones are a completely different animal. They do different things and they bring different problems. We're almost out of time. What do you think? Can we talk about these bigger units in a separate segment? Because they're the same as the small units, but in many ways, they're different than the small units.

Kim: All right, that's a good idea because I got a lot of questions on those big ones too.

Jim: There's an area I want to go into with the listeners and with you. The observation hive itself, getting the bees in it, that's all straightforward. You do whatever it takes to get her down. Don't crush the queen. Get them closed up. Don't put too many in. This is not really a complicated process. It gets complicated, Kim, when you get to some of these classes with younger people. Some of the strangest things happened that I never would've expected.

I was going on one day waxing eloquently to a first or second-grade class across the road from my lab we were invited over every year. Inside the observation hive, there was a worker bee running around carrying a dead bee. This little girl asked, "What's that bee doing?" I said, "Well, unfortunately, one of her friends is not well and that bee is trying to get her out." The little girl said, "Is the mommy bee crying?"

Realizing I was right on the edge of not having any earthly idea what I was going to talk about at that moment, how I was going to deal with death with this young kid, I said, "I have no idea, but I bet your teacher knows." I turned to the teacher and said, "What do you think? How is the queen bee handling this?" Then I let the teacher trained deal with that, but that little kid innocently asked a very difficult question.

The second thing I want to mention is how clever kids can be. As I was standing there one day giving a talk, suddenly, a bee flew out. That's a moment because I've checked everything. Where did that bee come from? Well, it caused a general panic and then you tell people, "It's going to go to a window. Everybody, calm down. Turn off the lights and it'll go right to a window. We'll let it out."

Then the kids said, "What's going to happen?" and then you lie, "Oh, it's going to fly back home," when in reality, Kim, it was just flying across the road. It probably was going to just fly back home. No longer, no more than I say that, then another bee came out. "Okay, stop, stop. Everybody, move away. There must be a leak. There must be a hole. Did somebody stick a pencil through one of the vent holes here?" Because that's happened, Kim. While I look at all the vent holes, they were all sound. I went about my lecture.

Another bee flew out as the kids were standing around. This is a mystery. Where are these bees coming from? As I was standing there, I saw a kid, with the friction of his fingers, pull the glass up just enough for a bee to run out from under the glass, and then he let the glass go and stood there looking cherubic, looking like an angel. He watched the bee fly around and he watched all the commotion. Just before he caught that glass again to release another bee, I stopped him. I want you to know, Kim, that every observation hive I built had a feature built in that the side glass would not flex upwardly if you caught it and pulled it upward.

Kim: Smart move.

Jim: I never would've dreamed. I never would've thought because gravity is going to keep the glass pulled down. That's not a problem. If you got some quarter-inch slot up top, quarter-inch waist area, no big deal until a kid figures out that you can pull that glass up and let bees out just with his fingertips. The other thing is having to deal with the kids who are highly allergic, who carry EpiPens.

Should they stay in the class? Should they leave? Should they do whatever? These observation hives open up a whole world of concerns, questions, issues about life, death, whatever. You take the whole thing back. You tear it apart. You've had your teaching moment. You put the whole thing back together. For a brief moment, you let people look inside the dark hive.

Kim: You see why I haven't been doing this?


Jim: I don't know why you'd say that. It's enjoyable, but at the same time, it's demanding. That's why I would say that it's so different from the hives that don't transport from the big glass-walled hives that stay in one place, serve a different purpose, do different things.

Kim: We got to run here because we're running out of time, but I got one more quick question. You touched on it, kind of. I'm bringing a box full of live, stinging insects into a classroom full of small children. What kind of insurance do I need?

Jim: If you've been invited by the school?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: I have to believe they're covered.

Kim: Okay, I got to believe that that's probably right, but I'm going to find out first.

Jim: I don't know who you'd ask. When I worked for Ohio State University, I was covered there. If you're just a beekeeper going in, I guess you probably want to ask somebody. Kim, you know how the answer that goes with that. Either you won't get a clear answer, or you'll be told you're not covered.

Kim: Well, I'm going to find out. Pretty soon down the road here, I want to talk about these big hives, the multi-frame hives, and what goes into those. Until then, I'll catch you later.

Jim: Hey, we can go on and on. I had a good time though. Nice walk down memory lane for me.

Kim: Just one thing for the listeners is, if there's something here that you think is worth listening to, share it with a friend because observation hives are part of almost every beekeeper's life at one time or another. Maybe there's some good information here that can help somebody out. I'll see you next time, Jim.

Jim: I'll be here. Thank you, buddy.