Observation hives are valuable educational tools for two very different audiences, beekeepers and the public.

Observation Hives for Beekeepers

For beekeepers, especially backyard beekeepers, installing an observation hive permanently in one’s home, or seasonally on a deck or in a garage, is a way to observe all the behaviors bees engage in without disturbing the bees in ones’ production hives. Moreover, it is a way to see the seasonal changes in colony activity during spring build-up, summer nectar flows and dearths, fall cooldown, and winter cold.

As beekeeper and writer Michael Bush puts it “Every beekeeper should have an observation hive. Not only for what you will learn about bees, but what you can tell, day to day, about what is happening in your other hives”.

RESOURCES for Beekeepers wanting to start an Observation Hive:

  1. A web page focused on observation hives for beekeepers is: http://thebeepeeker.com
  2. The Observation Hive Handbook is available in the MCBA library, from several beekeeping suppliers, and online bookstores such as Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Observation-Hive-Handbook-Studying-Honey/dp/1511681098

We thank MCBA member and EAS-certified Master Beekeeper, Dr. Frank Linton, for these resources.

MCBA members with observation hives at home include Phil Frank, Tim McMahon, Frank Linton, Jim Frazier and others [If you run an observation hive, please let us know; we’ll add you to the list.]

Observation Hives for the Public

  • Portable Observation Hive
    MCBA's Portable Observation Hive
  • You can get CLOSE to the bees
  • You can get CLOSE to the bees
  • Permanent Observation Hive in home
    Permanent Observation Hive in home
  • Outdoor hive with window-hatch
  • Outdoor hive with window-hatch
  • Outdoor Hive with Window-Hatch
  • Brookside Nature Center Observation Hive
  • Entrance Tube between observation hive and outdoors

Two kinds of observation hives are used for public education, temporary portable hives, and permanently fixed hives.

MCBA's Traveling Observation Hive

Beekeepers take temporary portable observation hives to farmers markets, street fairs, school visits, and the like. These are typically single-frame hives, with or without the queen. The bees and comb in these hives are often pulled from a production hive and returned to it on the same day.

These hives are used to “show and tell” about honey bees, beekeeping, pollinators, environmental issues, etc., and to attract attention to the table or booth where the hive is located.

Several temporary portable observation hive are available to MCBA members for their use in public outreach, along with a variety of informative materials.   To borrow a portable observation hive contact the MCBA Outreach Coordinator, Pam Hepp.   IF YOU WOULD LIKE A BEEKEEPER TO DEMONSTRATE AN OBSERVATION HIVE at your school or group, click here.

Brookside Nature Center's permanent Observation Hive maintained by MCBA member Tim McMahon

In contrast, permanently fixed observation hives are found in nature centers, museums, and other public educational sites. These hives require more attention than a standard hive because the colony must be kept healthy and appealing. Also, to be successful, a permanent public observation hive requires the coordinated efforts of a team comprised of several roles, only one of which is the beekeeper. For example:

  • Someone to check the hive daily, feed it as needed, and notify the beekeeper when further attention is necessary.
  • Someone knowledgeable to respond to visitor’s questions
  • A docent to provide ‘tours’ or demos of the observation hive
  • An exhibit designer/builder. At least a dozen themed exhibits could be built around an observation hive.

Observation hives for the public may be found in the following places in or near Montgomery County, MD:

  1. Brookside Nature Center, [the MCBA meeting site]: Beekeeper MCBA member Tim McMahon
  2. Croydon Creek Nature Center, Rockville: Beekeeper: Scott
  3. Rock Creek Park Nature Center & Planetarium, Washington, DC 20015. Beekeeper: Tony Linforth
  4. Orkin Insect Zoo, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC.
  5. Maryland Honey Company, 6910 Damascus Road, Gaithersburg, MD:  Beekeeper MCBA member Jim Fraser
  6. Others? Please let us know.

Windows in Full-Size Hives

Outdoor hive with viewing-hatched (closed)

Some full-sized hives such as Flow Hives, Slovenian AZ hives, and top bar hives come with windows in their ends or sides.
These viewing ports make it possible to see a bit of what’s going on inside the hive and the advantage of a full-size hive is that the bees in it are a full-size colony.

Outdoor Hive with Window-Hatch

One issue is the need to travel to the apiary to observe the bees’ behaviors, but the more significant issue is that with a window in a full-size hive, you get to see only the ends of the comb or the comb at the side of the hive. These viewing ports are better for a status check than they are for viewing bee or colony behaviors.



Things You Might See in An Observation Hive

Queen Mating Flight

Frank Linton: One of the more interesting events I have seen in my observation hive is a queen mating flight. In the one I saw, the preparation and departure for mating was much like that for an orientation flight or a swarm. That is, the workers ran around inside the hive to warm up, creating a general ruckus, and raising their temperatures. Then, many workers departed in a rush. I didn’t see the queen go, but she was not in the hive with the remaining workers. After a few minutes, the workers started returning. Instead of going straight into the hive, many of them paused at the entrance and scented with their Nasanov glands. Eventually, everyone came back inside the hive and quieted down. I looked at the queen for mating sign but was not lucky enough to see any. The entire process was repeated a few times before the queen started laying.