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What you need to know about windows in a beehive

If you're looking for a hive that is natural and bee-friendly (which most of you are or you wouldn't be here), buying a hive that has viewing windows will be going against your own interests. And, regardless of what you're looking for, putting your bees in a window hive will be going against their interests.
I think it's important that we all realize and acknowledge a couple of things. First, the idea of putting windows in a beehive in order to use them as a management tool is a new one. Observation hives have existed for many years, but they are different from what we're talking about, because observation hives are not usually expected to house a bee colony for very long. Some have been used for research, but for the average person, they are and always have been a novelty. I equate observation hives with ant farms; you put the insects in, watch them for a while, you're amused, maybe you learn something. Sooner or later (usually sooner), the insects die or abscond (ants die-bees usually abscond) and you clean it out and do it again until you get bored. Most people who have tried to set up sustainable observation hives have found that colonies occupying them are very unlikely to remain, or to survive even a year if they do stay. The second thing we need to acknowledge is that hives with windows have never been marketed to commercial beekeepers. This is because commercial beekeepers know how unnecessary and harmful the whole premise of windows in a beehive is. The first hive I ever saw with a window in each box (that was not marketed as an observation hive) was a Warré hive that was offered on Ebay by someone who ran a micro-business for a few years. His idea attracted enough attention that a now defunct hive supplier in the Pacific Northwest began making them; putting them in both his Warré and horizontal top bar hives. For a long time, I refused to make them at all. After all, Emile Warré felt that his hive did not benefit from any "whimsical so-called improvements", and I tended to agree with him. My big concern was that the window shutters were likely to be problematic; too tight and they'd jam closed when wet, too loose and they'd let in too much light and disturb the bees. Both of these are still very valid concerns, but my list is much longer now. Here's the thing; only Langstroth hives are marketed to commercial beekeepers. Hobbyists sometimes use them too, but my point is that less traditional hives are marketed strictly to hobbyists, many of whom have never kept bees and are just beginning to learn about bees. To most of these people, the idea of a window in each box seems like a fantastic one, especially when the company that's marketing the product is telling them things like "It's a great way to check the bees' progress" and "It's an easy way to check to see if you need to add another box" or "It doesn't disturb the bees". All of these statements are false. It's not a great way to check anything and it disturbs the bees to no end. But we'll talk more about all that shortly.
After a year or so, I did succumb to pressure and began making and selling Warré hives with viewing windows. I didn't really have a choice if I wanted to stay in business, although I never touted them as good; quite the opposite. At the same time that we started making and selling window hives, I started experimenting with them in my own apiary. I used them for one season and then I never used them again. You've heard of medical studies that are cut short because the results are so overwhelmingly bad that it would be unethical to continue? It was like that. But even though I stopped using them, I have continued to receive feedback from our customers about them. Now, I will admit that most of the evidence that I have to show that window hives are bad and that bees do not like them is anecdotal. However, I do have a lot of anecdotal evidence. This is what I know about hives with windows:

  • Every swarm of bees that I've ever installed in a window hive (3 or 4) absconded with 48 hours. The number of swarms that have absconded on me from regular Warré hives (countless) is one.
  • Every call (to the best of my recollection) that I have ever received about bees absconding from a hive in the middle of summer for no apparent reason, have been from people with window hives.
  • The vast majority of people who are using nuc transfer boxes and call me because their bees just flat out refuse to move down into the hive, have those transfer boxes on top of window hives.
  • Two customers have called to let me know that when they stacked their hive so that every-other box had a window, the bees only built one or two combs in the window boxes, as far away from the window as possible, and then moved down into the next box (a box without a window). This is a death sentence when winter comes, unless it is fixed by the beekeeper.
  • People often call because there is a large amount of condensation on the windows. So much that water is dripping from the bottom of the hive. They want to know if this indicates excessive moisture in the hive. No...it indicates the presence of plexiglass in the hive.
  • Common sense tells us that windows have no place in a natural, bee-friendly hive. They let in light (which bees hate) even when they are closed, and cause a significant loss of R-value (insulation) throughout the hive because there is no good way to seal the shutters tightly.

    When using an observation hive, you can actually see quite a bit. Eggs, brood in different stages, brood emerging from cells, workers feeding brood, workers cleaning cells, the queen bee laying eggs, etc. It's not only possible to witness all of these things; it's likely that you will. How likely is it that you'll witness any of this by looking through the viewing window of your Warré hive? Unless you're really lucky...you'll never see any of it. This is pretty much what you'll see at any given time:
Now...I know a lot of you are looking at the photo above and thinking "That's pretty cool!", and I get that...because it is. But really, if you've seen it once you've seen it a million times and for all of the down-sides to having these windows, they're just not worth having.
There's one thing about window hives that causes the most problems for the bees and that's this: People who have them can't stop constantly opening the shutters to look inside!! It's just human nature. You'll open the shutters every time you go out to the hive, and some of you will go out to the hive 10 times a day! You'll show your spouses, your friends and family when they visit, the grand kids will want to look inside endlessly and tap on the glass when you're not looking. The sun will be shining into the hive at random times of day. Your bees will hate it; they'll hate their home and they'll hate you. Every time you open a shutter, all they'll want to do is come through that glass and sting the crap out of you. If they were capable of rational thought, they'd go out the hive entrance and around the side to sting the crap out of you. Of course, that wouldn't do them much good since you'd throw the shutter on the ground and run away. Bees aren't capable rational thought, but they are capable of recognizing when their home is inhospitable. They're also capable of absconding, which is something they're quite likely to do. You and your bees will both be a lot better off if you just purchase our less expensive and simpler Cedar Warré hive. As far as being able to tell when you need to enlarge the hive, please check out the FAQ page, Q and As #3, 27 and 28. Bees readily accept the screened bottom of any hive, so use it to your advantage. You can actually see quite a bit more through the screened bottom than you can through any window. Here's what it looks like (actually, it looks better to the human eye than it does in a photo):
With all of this being said, I'm sure that many of you reading this will ignore my warnings and choose to believe things you read elsewhere about how great windows are. Believing someone who tells you what you want to hear over someone who doesn't is also human nature. So if you decide that you must have a window hive, please take the following tips to heart:

  • The shutters on our window hives will fit better and seal tighter than those of any other design. There are two reasons for this. First, the handle being securely glued to the shutter helps make it more rigid and less likely to warp. And second, the draw catch hardware pulls the shutter tightly closed and holds it much better than closures used by other manufacturers.
  • You will annoy your bees a whole lot less if you blow a puff of smoke into the entrance or through the screened floor before opening any shutters.
  • Open the shutters infrequently and keep them open only for a few seconds.
  • Keep light from entering the hive through the gaps around the shutters by covering them with duct tape (hey...function over form).

    If you want to be able to closely observe your bees and see what's going on inside the hive, purchasing a Modified Warré hive and doing occasional inspections would be a much more bee-friendly option. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's  true because inspecting a modified hive requires work on your part, which means that most of the time your bees will have the peace and seclusion that they desire. Not to mention that when you inspect a modified Warré hive, you'll actually see things that are exciting and worthwhile.
    We will continue to offer Warré hives with viewing windows as long as people continue to demand them. And even though they are quite profitable, I created this page in hopes of selling a lot fewer of them.    -Chris