Beekeeping boxes

Wanna-Bee A Stingless Beekeeper? Experts Tell Us What To Know Before Getting Started.

PlantingSeeds’ B & B Highway project is proof positive of the growth of interest in native stingless bees. The tetragonula carbonaria has become a mascot for the regeneration movement in Australia and people are clamouring for hives and bees. It’s not just the spoonful of honey people desire – it’s this little bee’s ability to pollinate, create magical spiral hive structures and more. How to keep up with the demand for artificial hives? Nejra Salihbegovic travels the information spiral…

For the past 30 plus years, Australian stingless beekeeping – known alternatively as ‘meliponiculture’ – has developed into a thriving industry. This expansion, growing at roughly 15% per year , has been in large part thanks to industry pioneers, notably Dr Tim Heard and John Klumpp.

The reasons for keeping stingless bees widely vary, ranging from simple enjoyment to conservation efforts, scientific research, honey production and perhaps most importantly: the bees’ essential role as pollinators. Indeed, studies beginning in the late 1980’s have shown stingless bees to be effective pollinators of strawberry, macadamia, mango, lychee and avocado. Moreover, whilst the Australian honeybee pollination industry is currently strong, global honeybee populations are on the decline due to pests like the Varroa mite, disease and pesticide usage. It is likely that such issues will reach our own shores in the future, making our stingless native bees highly viable alternative pollinators.

Given the monumental importance of stingless bees to biodiversity and pollination, it is unsurprising that a significant portion of academic research has centred on the best ways of rearing and propagating them. In the natural environment, Australia’s two stingless bee genera: Tetragonula and Austroplebeia both tend to favour tree hollows. But what about artificial hives? What are some of the hive boxes currently on the market, and what are the benefits of each design?

We look at two of the most common hive designs in Australia – the ‘OATH’ and ‘eduction’ boxes. While there are countless other models currently available, the key distinctions in these two designs help to reflect the broader motivations for stingless beekeeping. Indeed, as community ecologist Dr Mark Hall suggests, the suitability of a given hive box largely depends on whether it is used primarily for commercial purposes, or for simple enjoyment in the family backyard.

Oath boxes

Dr Tim Heard, Research Scientist, talks about the design of an Australian native beehive, suitable for many species, especially Tetragonula carbonaria and Te...

A popular hive box design – and arguably the most suitable for crop pollination – is the OATH (Original Australian Trigonula Hive) box. The OATH box has been advocated by Dr Tim Heard as a good starting point for beginners. In his bestseller book The Australian Native Bee Book, Dr Heard writes that the OATH box fulfils a number of key criteria for a hive box, as it is:

• well insulated, to help ‘protect against climatic extremes of heat and cold’
• light and compact
• durable and strong, so that it lasts a long time
• low-maintenance
• simple enough for anyone to make
• comprised of two dividable sections, facilitating colony propagation
• economical

The need for cost-efficient boxes is particularly essential, as Heard estimates that Australia will need to produce 100,000 stingless hives in order to create a viable crop pollination industry.

The standard OATH box is 280 mm in length, 200 mm in width and 115 mm in height, with internal dimensions of 230 mm by 150 mm. The actual box can be made from a number of materials, including PVC plastic and concrete. However, according to Dr Heard, timber is the most commonly used and reliable material. This can include hardwoods such as eucalypt and softwoods such as pine.

Other important features of the OATH box include a roof to shelter the box from the heat and rain, as well as observation window option on the top of the box. These windows are useful for research and help beekeepers detect any problems in the hive as early as possible. They can be made of glass, Perspex or acetate sheets and are covered by a removable lid to keep the hive dark and insulated when the window is not in use. It is also helpful to incorporate windows that are easily replaceable and removable, as the secretive stingless bee will quickly cover the clear material with propolis.

Undoubtedly, one of the most recognisable features of the OATH box is its horizontal split technique, which propagates a new colony from an existing one. [For a video demonstration of Heard splitting a stingless beehive, see here] Essentially, this division involves separating two sections of a full hive and coupling each half with a new empty hive. This is usually done with a hive tool and is best aimed for when the original colony is healthy, full and the bees are very active.

Ideally, when the two halves are split, both sections are full of brood, stored food and adult bees. The top section is also equipped with two split bars, which aid separation and prevent the contents from slumping into the new bottom section.

Unfortunately, the split technique can lead to the loss of some bees in the colony. However, as Dr Heard reminds us, ‘propagation by splitting existing hives has led to exponential growth in the number of hives and increased interest in keeping them.’ The argument here is that the creation of a new colony of thousands justifies the loss of a few individual bees. This carries weight, given the increasing popularity of stingless bees in Australia, and the need to propagate colonies as rapidly as possible from a sustainability point of view.

Eduction hive boxes

Images by Nejra Salihbegovic from left to right:

  1. Repurposing nature’s gifts: hive box attached to the remains of a tree after a storm. Husband-and-wife duo Saverio and Amber Russo pictured, alongside engineer Peter Atkins and melioponist Francisco Garcia Bulle Bueno.
  2. For those looking to keep bees on their property, a local water supply is essential. The Russos opt for marbles in this water fountain – landing spots that help prevent the thirsty bees from drowning.
  3. Eduction method – parent and daughter hive attached. At just 4mm in length, you’d be forgiven for mistaking these stingless bees for flies. The swell of activity outside the entrance hole indicates a very healthy colony.   
  4. Saverio Russo, Nick Russo and Peter Atkins in the Russo garage, treating us to fresh cups of coffee and snacks. Atkins’s hive box – made from sustainable Canadian cedarwood – is pictured on the right.

An alternative ‘eduction’ method to the standardised OATH design is gaining support among several Australian beekeepers. PlantingSeeds visited South-Sydney based beekeeper Saverio Russo, whose hive boxes for the two species on his property – the Tetragonula carbonaria and Austroplebeia australis – follow the eduction method. His motto: ‘What is good for the bees must come first’ implicates a rejection of the hive splitting technique utilised in the OATH box, as this can kill some of the bees and damage their pollen and honey pots. Additionally, as Russo’s engineer Peter Atkins argues, the more times you split a box, the greater the chance of pests, such as the syrphid fly, entering the hive.

Instead, Russo and Atkins follow a system of natural hive duplication or ‘eduction’ – a term coined by beekeeper John Klumpp. This non-invasive form of hive propagation works for species of Tetragonula and Austroplebeia and involves attaching an empty ‘daughter’ hive to the nest entrance of a ‘parent’ existing colony via a black polyethylene pipe. Over time – typically several months – some of the hive will move into the empty box. Naturally, this method requires considerable patience!

Various concepts and ideas from other stingless beekeepers have been integrated into Russo and Atkin’s philosophy and constructions. For example, their model includes a ventilation plug in the centre, as inspired by Tim Heard’s research. The two also credit the work of Bob Luttrell, aka ‘Bob the Bee Man,’ a man with over 40 years of experience in beekeeping. From Luttrell, Atkins learnt about the Aussie INPA box, which uses division plates that are proposed to be less harmful to the bees. Atkins goes a step beyond this, adopting a single level non-splittable hive, so that the bees can stay there for life. Atkins was also inspired by Luttrell to create a box with a chamfer (a symmetrical sloping edge) so that water runs off and doesn’t enter the box.

Just as Russo and Atkins are inspired by other beekeepers, they are equally as keen to learn from nature. Taken on a tour of their property, we spot magnificent hives inside rescued tree logs; felled remnants of severe storms that Russo has repurposed into havens for pollinators.

Their artificial hives are equally as gorgeous. Made from recycled cedar wood from Canada, the suppliers promote sustainable farming, promising to plant three trees for each tree they pull out. However, such timber is not without some potential setbacks. The cedar is very expensive, which may not make it the most practical for commercial purposes and transportation miles need to be factored into sustainability equations. However, for a backyard setup like Russo has, it seems to work well.

Atkins believes that uniformity in the boxes is necessary, as it makes them easier to attach and to do an eduction with. Other features of the box include foam insulation built into the lid and hardwood legs. Interestingly, Atkins also encourages hive boxes with a sizeable volume, his boxes measuring in at 75 mm by 300 mm. The argument here is that with more room, the bees will thrive and fill up the space.

The box offers clever pest protection, including an irrigation tube or a milk bottle that can trap a fly inside and stop it from getting into the hive. Similarly, Atkins and Russo also recommend draping a towel over the hive box, as flies won’t enter the covered space.

With the amount of hives on his property, it is easy to forget that Russo only started beekeeping last year, thanks to his young son Eduardo’s love of insects. Since then, Russo has established the Billion Bees Foundation, which focuses on propagation and providing security to our native bees. Beginning with just 39 hives purchased from Queensland, now, on their street alone, there are over 40 hives. An ongoing collaboration with the Men’s Shed in Sydney’s Brighton also aims to produce 50 hives in four weeks. It is promising work. And while it is still early days for Russo and his bees, he tells us that more lemons have grown on their lemon tree than any year previously. This, he adds, may just be pure coincidence, but it may also be another manifestation of our stingless friends working their magic.

There are countless hive box designs on the market, meaning it is essential to do your own research before selecting which one to invest in. Dr Mark Hall’s contention that the suitability of a given box largely depends on your own motivations for beekeeping is one that we here at PlantingSeeds would largely agree with.

With great thanks to Dr Tim Heard, Saverio Russo, Peter Atkins and Dr Mark Hall for their assistance with this article. For more information on stingless beekeeping and to stay up to date on our latest projects, be sure to follow PlantingSeeds on our Facebook page and website. Our highly-successful B&B Highway project expands the conversation beyond bees – establishing strategic urban gardens for all pollinators: birds, bats, bees, butterflies and possums.


  1. Tim Heard, The Australian Native Bee Book: Keeping Stingless Bee Hives for Pets, Pollination and Sugarbag Honey, (Brisbane: Sugarbag Bees, 2015), 118.
  2. Megan Halcroft, Robert Spooner-Hart and Anne Dollin, “Australian Stingless Bees,” in Pot-Honey: A Legacy of Stingless Bees, ed. Patricia Vit et. al. (New York: Springer, 2013), 33.
  3. Heard, The Australian Native Bee Book, 120.
  4. Heard, The Australian Native Bee Book, 146.
  5. Heard, The Australian Native Bee Book, 120.