Does it make a difference what you build your hives out of? Depends on who you ask and the answer will depend on why and how they keep bees. It is generally accepted that commercial hives serve a different purpose then Alternative hives.
The wood and other materials used to construct commercial hives are excellent for the purpose they serve. Many times a keeper wants to make the hive itself- a symbol of statement. Neat rows of bright white Lang hives have a beauty showing a pride of ownership. Some keepers of Lang hives make their hives yard art by decoratively painting them with bright colors and designs. The bee hive can be a piece of art that just happens to house honey bees.
Western Red Cedar hives are very attractive in the Alternative beekeeping circles. They do make an attractive piece of yard art that houses bees. A hive of any style made of Western Red Cedar has a natural level of unique aesthetic beauty. The wood has the quality of not being uniform in appearance. Every piece of cedar will have a different design of color, grain, and knot pattern. When I build with it, I organize the pieces of wood out on the work bench. I will move them around, turn them over, study the wood, looking to maximize that uniqueness. I make a deliberate effort to accent the beauty of the wood. Then build it into the bee homes I am making. When I build hives for other keepers I guarantee them their hive will be “one of a kind”.
Western Red Cedar is more then just a beautiful wood to look at. It has several physical qualities making it an excellent material to make bee homes with. Cedar is a wood with a very low density. Low density means a high proportion of air spaces, which makes Cedar the best thermal insulator of all our common building wood. It has a 1 ½ to 2 times better insulating value then other woods. A hive with a higher insulated value assists the bees in managing the warming and cooling duties preformed by the bees in the hive. A low density also makes Cedar more dimensionally stable, shrinking and swelling less in a wet climate. That’s not to say that it doesn’t shrink or swell at all, it just doesn’t do it as much as other woods. Another property of Cedar that makes it a good hive building material is that it is hygroscopic. Meaning that the wood will absorb and expel moisture trying to balance with its surrounding environment. When I talk about this I say, “Cedar can breath”.
The natural preservative properties in Cedar wood means it can also absorb high levels of moisture without developing mold and fungus growth. Being hygroscopic and resistant to mold and fungus is a good quality to have inside a bee hive because of the high levels of humidity and condensation the bees can produce.
One thing I did find out, well I should say, I could not find- Evidence that building a hive out of Cedar will deter Wax moths. The Cedar wood appears to not have any properties that has any effect on any of the pest and diseases that affect honey bees. In my mind it would stand to reason that if there were substances in Cedar wood irritating or harmful to other insects it would have an adverse affect on the bees. Through it does make for lively debate in the social media beekeeping sites, I can not find any scientific study or verifiable evidence showing any adverse effects on bees kept in cedar hives.
My experience building and using Cedar hives is that they do take bee housing to different level for both the keeper and the bees. Personally I refer to Cedar hives as “Bee Homes”.
It’s all about the bees,