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The purpose of the bee-house is to provide an efficient, secure and comfortable environment for the bees and the beekeeper whether the bee-house be a small converted shed at the bottom of your garden, a caravan or a research centre such as those in Switzerland or Germany.
In Britain bee-houses tend to be converted garden sheds or workshops but there is no reason why disused hay lofts, pigeon lofts, stone outbuildings or even chicken houses could not be utilised.
Bee-houses came about partly due to the need for security and partly due to the advantage of entering spring with a healthy, strong and rapidly expanding colony capable of maximising the yield in the forthcoming season. What started as a necessity in areas with winter temperatures of -20.C for weeks at a time and apiaries at the mercy of badgers, bears and humans soon became a desirable commodity simply because of the additional advantages that a bee-house gave. The problem in Britain has been that because our winters are not severe and losses have been at an acceptable level we have not felt able to justify a bee-house. In recent years however we have started to recognise the advantages of additional protection, convenience and efficiency.
Bee-houses provide protection from the elements. It may be more accurate to say they provide protection from the extremes of the weather since that is the secret of the bee-house. It is not the intention to maintain a high temperature in the bee-house during the winter months otherwise the bees would not become dormant and would use up their stores and starve due to excessive activity. The best bees go into dormancy ball quickly and stay that way for most of the winter using the bulk of their stores to assist in an early and sustained spring build-up. Because of the protection afforded by the bee-house winter-feeding can be reduced and because less food is required for maintenance you can expect better wax production and more honey going into the supers. Frames not covered by bees in winter keep dry and do not suffer from mildew, which can be a problem with outside hives.
It is not unusual to find that the temperature in a bee house is 10 degrees C. higher than the ambient temperature. This is due to the heat given off by the hives and would be lost to the air with an outside hive. The temperature inside an out-door hive near the wall is only slightly higher than the outside air . It follows that with a bee-house the air temperature in a hive is more evenly spread and easier to maintain thereby releasing bees for foraging and giving those who stay at home better working conditions. In summer the well-ventilated and correctly positioned bee-house would provide protection from overheating and reduce the need for water carrying and excessive fanning. Bees are also less effected by cool summer nights.
Whilst there is the additional cost of maintaining the house the need to maintain the hives is greatly reduced since they are not subjected to the full effects of wind, rain, frost and sun. It is far easier to maintain a bee-house than beehives where the bees have to be transferred to another hive before the work can be done.
The greatest convenience must be that all the equipment, records, etc., can be stored in the bee-house where you need them and never again will you have to dash back to the house to get the item you forgot! In addition you can open a hive without the inconvenience of bees from the other hives getting interested because they will not be aware that another hive is open. It is the best cure for robbing bees whilst opening hives but the important thing is to close one hive before opening another.
For the beekeeper interested in studying his bees a bee-house offers the advantage of being able to watch your bees in comfort and at close quarters, even seated by the hive without undue stress being caused to the bees. They are unlikely to notice you in subdued light unless you move between the bees and the light source. You will become more closely associated with your bees and gain a better knowledge of the condition of the stocks. There is great pleasure to be derived from sitting quietly in your bee-house planning your program for the next few weeks. It is also far easier to set up temperature, humidity and weight recording equipment when you don't have to allow for the weather. In addition, hive records can be kept in full view on the hive.
A major advantage to the weekend beekeeper and the breeder of queens is that you are never dependent on the weather in a bee-house so plans and timetables can be adhered to without disruption. You will also notice that the protection and tranquillity of the bee-house seems to calm the bees and reduce their stress levels. Nucleus hives can be stood at a convenient height without fear of them being blown over. Bee-houses lend themselves to the disabled beekeeper.
Obviously there are disadvantages but fortunately not that many. There is the initial capital outlay but that must be balanced by the lower hive maintenance, reduced feeding required, faster build up in spring, higher honey yields, convenience, etc. There is a greater risk of disease spread from hives in close proximity particularly with a variety of bee that is prone to drifting such as the New Zealand. The argument of less mobility is a debatable one. Whilst one type of hive may be heavier than another the difficulty of moving hives from a bee-house to an out-apiary are in my opinion no different than moving hives from one out-apiary to another.
I have added a number of pictures of bee-houses/caravans throughout this article from Holland, Germany and Switzerland. I hope they fire your enthusiasm.
Suggested further reading: An Introduction to Bee-houses