Beehives: A Guide to Choosing the Right Size Boxes

Updated on February 15, 2018
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One of the first decisions that the beginning beekeeper must make, and often one of the most confusing, is the size of the boxes and frames to use for hive bodies and supers. Several options are available. Weight, efficiency, and convenience are the primary considerations when choosing between these different options.

A note on nomenclature: The four-sided boxes used in beekeeping—the ones that hold the frames of wax comb—are referred to as hive bodies, or supers, depending on how they are used. The same box could be used at one time as a super and another as a hive body. To add to the confusion, a hive body is sometimes referred to as a brood chamber. I will refer to both hive bodies and supers as boxes.

Bee Hive Box Sizes

There are boxes of three depths: deep, medium, and shallow. The frames that fit inside the boxes are sized accordingly and are only used in boxes of corresponding depth. In other words, a medium frame would not be used in a deep box.

A standard box holds ten frames. Eight frame equipment is available; the depths for the three sizes are the same as for standard boxes, but the boxes are narrower and will only hold eight frames.

Ten Frame Boxes: Shallow, Medium, Deep
Ten Frame Boxes: Shallow, Medium, Deep | Source
The Three Standard Frame Sizes
The Three Standard Frame Sizes | Source

The chart below summarizes the differences between boxes:

Ten Frame Box
Length (Inches)
Width
Depth
Volume,** cubic inches
Weight Full of Honey, Lbs.
Deep
19 7/8
16 3/4
9 5/8
3204
80
Medium
19 7/8
16 3/4
6 5/8
2205
50
Shallow
19 7/8
16 3/4
5 11/16
1893
40
Eight Frame Box
Length (Inches)
Width
Depth
Volume,** cubic inches
Weight Full of Honey, Lbs.
Deep
19 7/8
14
9 5/8
2678
64
Medium
19 7/8
14
6 5/8
1843
40
Shallow
19 7/8
14
5 11/16
1582
32
**Computed using outside dimensions but close enough for our purposes

In most parts of the country, the tradition has been to use two ten frame deep boxes, one stacked upon the other, for the brood chamber, a configuration called double deeps, and to use either mediums or shallows for honey supers. The brood chamber is the place where the queen lays her eggs and the young bees are raised. During a nectar flow, honey supers are placed on top of the brood chamber (thus the name super, derived from the Latin word meaning above); this is where the bees store the surplus honey. The supers are removed when the honey is harvested.

Double Deep Brood Chamber With Two Medium Supers Above
Double Deep Brood Chamber With Two Medium Supers Above | Source

The double-deep configuration has worked well for decades. However, many people starting out in beekeeping today are women, retirees, or others that find the weight of deep boxes full of honey and bees difficult to handle. Those concerned about weight can choose to use smaller boxes both for the boxes that make up the brood chamber and for the supers.

There is nothing magical about the double deep configuration. The bees don’t care what size the individual boxes and frames are as long as enough boxes are used to provide sufficient space. Notice that three mediums offer roughly the same volume as two deeps but each box is quite a bit lighter for the beekeeper. Use of eight frame mediums would reduce the weight even further. Eight frame shallows are as light as it gets. I don’t know anyone who has used eight frame shallows for brood chambers but there is no reason why it couldn’t be done as long as enough are used to provide sufficient volume.

The weights listed above for the ten frame equipment are commonly given in the beekeeping literature. That being said, I use deeps for my brood chambers, and for supers, and I rarely see a box that weighs 80 pounds. Come harvest time, I wish that they did. It is best to think of these weights as possibilities rather than the norm. Most of the time, they will be lighter even with honey in them. To arrive at the eight frame weights I simply reduced the ten frame weights by twenty percent.

You will learn that only nine frames are normally used in a ten frame super. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that this reduces the overall weight of the super. The bees compensate for the extra space by drawing out the comb a bit further on the nine frames. This makes the harvest process easier for the beekeeper.

Eight Frame Deep Box Next To a Ten Frame Deep
Eight Frame Deep Box Next To a Ten Frame Deep | Source

Availability was a concern with eight frame equipment, but as eight frame has gained in popularity, it has become more a question of selection. The selection of eight frame accessory equipment is limited; there might be three or four styles of queen excluders available for ten frame boxes but only one for eight frame. Also, if you have eight frame equipment and all your beekeeping buddies have ten frame, then you can’t swap equipment back and forth. Remember, all the other hive components, like bottoms and tops, also have to be sized to eight frame dimensions.

So the advantage of using smaller boxes is weight. The disadvantages are matters of efficiency, convenience and expense. Having to use more boxes to provide the necessary volume for the brood chamber means having more frames to go through when performing certain operations, like finding the queen. Smaller supers mean having to add them more frequently to the hive during nectar flows and having more frames to process when extracting honey. Smaller equipment also means having to purchase and assemble more boxes and frames.

To put it in a nutshell, using larger boxes and frames is more efficient, but you pay the price in increased weight. For most hobbyists efficiency is a secondary concern and there is great benefit in choosing a box size that you can handle. If you always dread working your hives because of heavy boxes, then you are less likely to perform certain hive operations in a timely manner, making successful beekeeping less likely.

So before you purchase your first equipment, make a realistic assessment of how much weight you can comfortably handle and consider that against the convenience and efficiency of larger boxes. Choose appropriately sized equipment and you will be on your way toward beekeeping success.

Questions & Answers

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      • GetitScene profile image

        Dale Anderson 

        2 months ago from The High Seas

        This was a fun read, thanks for writing it and posting it here,

      • profile image

        Andy Sedensky 

        2 years ago

        I made the mistake at the beginning of using smaller 6 frame (9 5/8) boxes, then adding others to accommodate the expansion. Now I have made larger 10 frame boxes. When is it appropriate to move the (bees) frames to the larger boxes? Can I do it at any time?

        Thank you,

        Andy Asedensky23@aol.com

      • Primeonly27 profile image

        Primeonly27 

        2 years ago from California

        Well written hub.

      • aksem62 profile image

        aksem62 

        6 years ago

        Very interesting. My grandfather was beekeeper, so in childhood I have spent many summer months near beehives. Thank you for awakening of old memories

      • Wib Magli profile imageAUTHOR

        Wib Magli 

        7 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama

        schoolmarm and Seeker7,

        Thank you both. I am glad that you enjoyed it.

      • Seeker7 profile image

        Helen Murphy Howell 

        7 years ago from Fife, Scotland

        I'm not a bee keeper but I found this hub to be very interesting. I really enjoy watching bees working away in the spring and summer. Many thanks for sharing. Voted up!!

      • schoolmarm profile image

        schoolmarm 

        7 years ago from Florida

        Very interesting - I admire beekeepers! I recently had one out to move a nest from my yard and was very impressed with their skills. Voted up - Thanks!

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