Bees in the wild
During the long millions of years before man started to 'keep' bees, honeybee colonies lived wild in natural cavities. Provided they were healthy and the weather was favourable, they swarmed most years as a means of reproduction. However, starting a new colony is risky; three quarters of natural swarms are dead from starvation within a year. Beekeepers today provide hives three times the size of natural cavities, reducing the chances of a colony swarming. There are now a wide variety of beehives to choose from. Here is a brief history.
About a few thousand years ago, beekeeping progressed from robbing wild nests to housing swarms in upturned baskets (skeps) - the swarms that escaped were captured to replace colonies that were killed for their wax and honey. You cannot realistically keep a colony of bees in a skep because it is almost impossible to inspect them (in fact in the USA it is illegal to keep bees in them). However, a skep is sometime useful to catch a swarm in.
1850 - The Langstroth
The Langstroth was developed by a very famous beekeeper of the same name - Loranzo Langstroth. He formally recognised 'bee-space' and produced the first practical movable-frame hive around the 1850s. Bees could now build their comb on frames which could be moved and manipulated. Langstroth was primarily interested in bees rather than honey - but his developments provided the basis for modern honey production. He listed fifty-four desirable qualities for an improved hive - most, but not all, are now standard. The Langstroth hive is the most popular in America and Australia.
1880's - The Abbots Combination, Cheshire and Cowan Hives
The late 1800's were perhaps most the prolific for beehive inventions: British hives mirrored the development of the Langstroth and added their own touches; the British Beekeepers Association finally agreed a standard frame size; Cheshire wrote his famous beekeeping books and produced a beehive; Abbot (owner of the British Bee Journal) launched a new hive; and this was quickly followed by Cowan's beehive; and then...
1890 - The WBC
Named after the inventor, William Broughton Carr, the WBC has become an iconic and highly recognisable beehive design. It is based on the same principles as the Cheshire and Cowan but with an extra outer wall. This provides the bees with additional insulation and quickly became popular. However, it was rarely used commercially because it was complex and costly to make and also inconvenient to use.
1920 - 1930 The National
Simpler, cheaper and utilitarian - the National hive was introduced to make it easier for beekeepers to move hives to pollinate agricultural crops, in particular orchards and heather. It has a small square footprint and can be stacked efficiently on pallets or backs of trucks. The National is now the most common hive in the UK for both commercial and hobby beekeeping due to its perceived cheapness. The frames are smaller than the Langstroth but have larger lugs on the side. However, many modern beekeepers argue that the brood box is too small for modern breeds of bee. To house the complete brood, an extra brood box is often required, which is sometimes called a 'brood and a half'.
1975 - The Dartington Hive
The Dartington Hive was developed by the engineer and inventor Robin Dartington. He developed the Dartington hive specifically to keep bees in gardens or rooftops and not for commercial purposes. Robin had started keeping bees on the roof of his London home and become frustrated by the complexity of the National and WBC hive. The Dartington's brood box is larger than both the National and Langstroth beehives - giving the bee colony freedom to grow without restriction. However, the supers are half the size, allowing for easy handling.
Want to learn more? - It is worth reading David Cushmans detailed dates