PHOTO: Tom Fassbender/Flickr
I first watched honeybees through the glass of an observation hive at the NC Mountain State Fair the year we moved to western North Carolina. The local county beekeeping chapters took turns managing the booth, which was located under the same roof as prize-winning fruits and heirloom vegetable specimens. At their post, seasoned beekeepers answered questions from enthusiastic children and adults (ahem, yours truly) and challenged any willing person to find the queen bee among the thousands of workers behind glass in the observation hive.

Once I got into beekeeping fully, I couldn’t see the appeal of an observation hive to the hobby beekeeper; I was so concerned about the bees’ well-being that the observation hive had little draw for me. In contexts other than educational venues—such as the fair—it seemed like a luxury to me. I’m happy to say that a lot has changed.

I’ve spent years sharing my enthusiasm for honeybees verbally to friends, family members and strangers (and anyone who is unfortunate enough to open the can of worms that is my favorite hobby). During that time I’ve realized that many people, myself included, are visual and kinesthetic learners. That is, we learn best by touching, holding, handling and experiencing events, rather than simply listening to lectures or watching videos.

Observation hives offer an invaluable experience to people who would otherwise never want to get close to a buzzing, humming, vibrating hive of honeybees. For those with fears or phobias, an observation hive is as close as they might ever get. For others, it’s a way of experiencing bees and learning a bit about themselves in the process: Do bees interest me? Can I see myself handling a frame of buzzing insects?

These hives work in a very simple way. The observation hive is constructed of a wood frame with glass “windows.” It is designed to hold a few frames at a time, and some semi-permanent observation hives will have a tunnel or tube that connects to a window to let the bees come and go (this is their hive entrance). Mobile observation hives are sealed from bee traffic and are easily transported. Simply return the brood frames back to the hive when the event is finished.

Established beekeepers know the draw of the observation hive at market or when otherwise promoting their business. With a simple frame or two from a hive, customers can marvel at the very bees that produced the sellers’ honey, wax, pollen, salve or tincture. This is a wonderful way to bring people to your table or booth and strike up conversation. The observation hive not essential for even the experienced beekeeper—but it spreads the love and excitement of beekeeping, and for that it’s well worth the effort.

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