Beehive Composters

Beehive Composters

Article by Sarah Cowell

You have to admit that the compost area isn’t usually the most beautiful part of the garden. In fact hiding black plastic cones (and wheelie bins!) can end up being a major part of the garden design especially in a small garden. A beautiful traditional English beehive disguise might just be the answer.

The iconic beehive design was conceived by William Broughton Carr at the end of the 19th century and is known as the WBC hive. It was a way of using old fruit boxes which were made of thin wood. Bees like to be warm and a single layer of thin wood wasn’t enough protection through the winter on its own. WBC created an outer layer made of overlapping wood boxes stacked one above the other with a sloping roof to keep the rain off. Between the two layers was a gap where insulation could be stuffed to keep the bees cozy through the winter. The design of this outer shell has transferred well to a compost bin although much thicker wood is used these days.

The stacking boxes of the WBC hive design can be put to good use for composting, especially if more than one hive is used. When the first hive is full, the second one can be started and by the time that’s full the contents of the first one will have started to sink. Now the top box can be removed and placed on the ground to start a third heap. And so it goes on, taking a box off each time the compost reduces to the level below it. (A minor snag is you really need a third lid).

Beehive composters come in different sizes from 250L to 495L, but are on the small side for compost requirements. It would be a very small garden that can manage with just one 250L compost bin and even the larger sizes aren’t big enough for the compost to get ‘hot’. (For more on how to create hot compost see the link below).

One thing to be wary of when buying any wooden composter is that wood rots! Most of the beehive composters on the market are “pressure treated”. What’s lurking behind this seemingly innocent phrase is that pressure is used to treat the wood with insecticides. Until recently the treatment included the toxic heavy metals arsenic, chromate and copper. Acknowledgement by the authorities that arsenic and chromate will leach into their immediate environment has led to their restricted use. Copper is still part of the treatment. Good composting is all about encouraging a thriving population of microorganisms and putting insecticides next to them is not a great idea, not to mention the potential poisoning as heavy metals accumulate over time.

There are natural ways to preserve wood, indeed the heartwood of some trees, for example eucalyptus and red cedar, contain natural preservatives. Unfortunately there are no beehive composters made in these woods at the moment. Linseed oil or eco-friendly paints can be used as a protective coating on bare wood although sooner or later having wood next to its primary decomposers is a recipe for disaster. It’s a bit like putting a honey pot next to bees and expecting them to ignore it! Heat treatment and acetylation make the wood environment as unattractive to the microbes as possible and these methods will prolong the life of the wood without harming your end-product of rich, brown compost.

The trade off with a beehive composter is whether you think its aesthetic pleasure is worth its price. In the scheme of composters it is not the most expensive (unless you include two of them)! For details of a beehive composter not made of pressure treated wood and available on the Internet see the link below.

There’s are long tradition of painting beehives so there really is no limit to how beautiful you can make your compost area – happy decorating!

About the Author

Want to learn more about the alchemy of composting and how to choose the right system for you? Go to and sign up for a FREE 10 part mini-course now! Sarah Cowell Dip. Hort. is a gardener and writer on horticulture matters

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