Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, is also known for designing one of the first wooden box bee hives. Unlike the typical box hive we use today, Wren’s hive was octagonal.
In Wren’s day, beekeepers preferred to use the skep hive, an inverted basket that was fashioned out of straw and wicker. These skeps were sturdy and inexpensive to make, and when covered with a layer of mud or protected from the elements with a hackle made of thatching straw, they could be used for many years.
Wren’s choice of an octagonal shape for his wooden hive was intended to create an environment similar to what the bees naturally preferred. Wild bees tended to inhabit hollow trees, and the octagonal hive was thought to be the closest approximation to a hollow tree trunk that could be made from boards. Moreover, bees cluster in a ball around the queen bee during the winter to keep her warm, and the shape of an octagonal hive was believed a better fit for the cluster.
Octagonal hives continued to evolve during the next 300 years, and they were used well into the twentieth century. The Stewarton hive, developed in Scotland, was equipped with wooden bars across the top of each section to give the bees some guidance in the placement of their comb. Although these hives encouraged the bees to produce lots of honey, they were eventually replaced by the modern box hive invented by Lorenzo Langstroth in 1851, which featured easily removed frames that permitted better bee management and easy harvest of the honey.
Gene Kritsky is Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, and Adjunct Curator of Entomology at the Cincinnati Museum Center. He is Editor-in-Chief of American Entomologist, the magazine of the Entomological Society of America. He is the author of The Quest for the Perfect Hive.
IMAGE: Beekeepers Hive created by Christopher Wren