Top Bar Hives

Top Bar Hives

Don’t you love the Internet.  I followed various links on bee blogs and found myself browsing the Dave Loveless site, an Alaskan beekeeper.  I posted a comment and to cut a long story short this resulted in him offering to write a few words on his experiences of the horizontal Top Bar Hive (TBH).

His review is rather delightful and his photos superb.  I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.  Many, many thanks Dave.

Dave’s Review Of Top Bar Hives

Roger asked me recently if I would be willing to do a review on Top Bar Hives. To be honest, there aren’t that many of us out there, and I fell into Top Bars quite by accident. First, a history….

I got into beekeeping several years ago when, while walking down the street, I saw a neighbor friend on her front porch painting a bunch of large wooden squares. Intrigued, I asked what was up, and got the answer of “beehives!” My first reaction was akin to Kevin in Home Alone. Hands on either side of my head, screaming in panic. My very next reaction was to think how cool.

Over the next year or so, I studied and wondered about it. Then I made the goal with the encouragement of my wife to start the next spring (a year in the future) only to randomly meet a guy who convinced me to move that timeline up about 11 months, which I did. A panicked-month later, and I was a beekeeper!

Currently I run five Langstroth hives of Carniolans in my backyard, and I find the experience to be among the most enjoyable and relaxing things I’ve ever done. Nothing quite tops a quite summer evening out in the beeyard.

This past spring, I convinced my dad to join in the fun. He retired this year and was looking for a hobby. Last fall, he joined me at the hives during an inspection, and the experience stayed with him. But dad being dad and entering retirement, we both knew that lifting 100-pound supers just wasn’t going to work. Hence Top Bars. He’s been keeping two Top Bars since April, and I’ve helped him several times in his hives. Unfortunately, that’s the limit of my experience, and it’s admittedly brief. Still, it is experience….

Photo: honeybees creating their own natural comb in Top Bar Hive

top bar hive 5

Pros of Top Bar Hives

I’ll sum up the Pros of Top Bar Hives in three areas: Weight, Simplicity, and Access.

Weight— When compared to lifting a full Langstroth Deep Body, Top Bars are feather weights.  A Deep can hit close to 100 pounds while a normal Top Bar is probably going to max out around 15, maybe 20 pounds.  At the most.   To clarify, the individual top bars are about the same weight as deep frames, but you never have to lift the whole body.  If you lifted the entire hive, not only would it be a two man job, but it would be much heavier than a Langstroth.  The difference is that with a top bar, typically the most you would ever lift is a single bar, and you don’t have hive bodies to move around.

Simplicity—Top Bars are much more common in the Third World, particularly Africa (one of the reasons that they are called Kenyan Top Bars. A variant, with vertical sides, is known as a Tanzanian Hive.) because they are simple to build and cheap. In a Top Bar, you really only have a box and bars. That’s about it. My dad’s hives even use a generic piece of plywood as the cover. If it breaks, he just goes and gets another one from the lumber store.

Access—Top Bars are horizontal hives and they can be placed at a height that is convenient for you. My dad’s hives are set up so that we can stand and work the hives without bending over. In addition, my dad’s hives have a window set into the side that allows him to take a quick glance inside the hive without opening it up. For him, that takes care of the near constant curiosity without needing to disturb the bees and gives him the opportunity to show the hives to curious neighbors.

In addition to these primary Pros, Top Bars have the advantage of being foundationless. Some beekeepers like that, some don’t. Personally, I like the idea that the wax is naturally rotated in each harvest. If you like to gather wax, Top Bars will always produce more wax than other hives.

If you subscribe to small-cell theories, Top Bars also allow the bees to build the comb size they want, rather than the comb size you give them.

One final Pro is that Top Bars can be opened a single bar at a time, restricting the amount of hive that is actually opened. Most of these Pros are not necessarily Top Bar specific, but they are advantages you can get in a Top Bar hive.

Photo: note the viewing window on the left of the photo (as well as bees and comb)

top bar hive 3

Cons

On the negative side, I would suggest that this can be summed up in several key areas: Experience, Difficulty and Size.

Experience—Bees are bees for the most part, and the old adage holds true that if you ask five beekeepers a question, you’ll get six answers. However, Top Bars are not “normal” hives. It’s hard to find mentors that can help you work through hive-specific issues. If you’re a beginner, that can be a problem.

Difficulty—Similar to the experience issue, Top Bars require more regular care and attention. Because the combs are foundationless, the bees may curve the comb on the bar, which causes problems down the road, including awkward comb attachments. Top Bar beekeepers tend to visit their hives more regularly to handle these and other issues. For a beginning beekeeper, the commitment can be a bit much.

Another difficulty issue is that Top Bars not only lack foundation, but they also lack frames. This requires you to manipulate the bars much differently and carefully than you would a standard Langstroth. I have heard from several Top Bar beekeepers that it is easier to start with a Top Bar and move to a Langstroth than the other way around. For me, when I work my dad’s hives, I have to remind myself to slow down and not “flip” the frame up to get a peek at the back side.

Size—With vertical hives, you have as much space as you can give to your hive. They run out of room, and you add a box. With a Top Bar, you don’t. You have what you have. You can alleviate this issue by harvesting and inspecting more frequently, which most Top Bar keepers do, but it is something to consider.

On the size note, a commercial operation would have trouble running Top Bars I think. They just aren’t set up for mass production.

Other issues can include the inability to reuse wax (Michael Bush, a proponent of Top Bars, claims he has found a way of spinning the honey out of a Top Bar), the difficulty of sharing equipment across hives (a problem if the angles of the wax on the top bars don’t align between hives), comb attachments to walls, and also the limited harvesting methods. In our experience, the bees tend to attach new comb to the walls, but with regular inspections that impact is limited. As to harvesting, Top Bars are pretty much crush and strain. That’s about it.

One claim I’m not sure I believe is the idea that Top Bars produce less honey than other hives. This is based in the idea that bees have to eat honey to make wax. I have a few complaints about this idea, namely that bees eat honey no matter what (and therefore have the ability to produce wax) and that honey production is more a matter of population, not existing wax. Yes, having the wax already there is a good thing, but it isn’t the only or even primary consideration in honey production. My opinion, of course, and what was that thing about five beekeepers and six answers?

Like the Pros, these Cons are not necessarily restricted to Top Bars only, and you can face these issues in any hive depending on how you have it set up.

Photo: viewing honeycomb and bees through the observation panel

comb in top bar hive

Conclusion

When it comes right down to it, Top Bars like any other hive is a matter of style, preference, and goals. For my dad, the weight issues and the desire to keep bees in a simple, observable way, made a top bar with a window an easy choice, but it is not the right choice for every beekeeper.

Knowing what I know now, if I were to go back and take a second shot at starting over with beekeeping, Top Bar hives would certainly be part of the mix for me, but they wouldn’t be the only hive I kept. In addition to Top Bars, I’d really like to try my hand at a Warre hive and a Japanese hive.

For what it’s worth, I’d rate a Top Bar on par with a standard Langstroth understanding that a Top Bar is limited in some ways and advantaged in others.

Happy Beekeeping!

END OF DAVE’S REVIEW – MANY THANKS, WHAT A FANTASTIC REVIEW & STORY

Useful Books & Products

Whilst building your own TBH is to be encouraged (it’s part of the initiation process), if you are like me, this is not an option.  These products below might be helpful:

 
3'
4'
Build a TBH
Top Bar Hives
(UK)
Top Bar Hives
(USA)

Read More


Comments

Top Bar Hives — 10 Comments

  1. newbie beek here too of around a month, have 2 cast swarms, both in homemade hives/nucs, one is a 6 frame national, the other a top bar, and Ive just finished building (2 days) my 4ft top bar hive, from 6×1 timber, total cost £10, another reason I like top bar hives, there cheapness, mine is slightly different in design, its oblong and can take 2 14×9 national frames either end if needing to add stores,eggs,cells etc
    and fingers crossed I have a local allotment site wanting someone to house bee’s on their land

    • I saw a YouTube video on them that was VERY interesting. They have super thick hive walls, use horizontal wires to stabilize comb development and have no frames or bars. They are also much smaller in terms of thickness. It looks like they’d survive cold climates really well for all the walls.

      Harvesting included pulling the box, cutting out the comb, and then returning the box.

      My big complaint is that the hive has no moveable comb, which would make them illegal in the United States. Still, very interesting concept and design.

      Really, though, the Warre hive is what is most intriguing to me right now.

  2. Dave’s review is the genuine experience of a beekeeper using Top Bar Hives for the first time. I asked members of beekeeping forums with Top Bar Hives for comment. Here is a summary of their thoughts:

    – Top Bar Hives should not require lots of regular care and attention and should only require infrequent inspections. Let them bee.

    – Not being able to reuse wax is seen as a good thing as there is less of a disease and contamination risk

    – Don’t faff about with a 3′ hive, go for 4′

    – Combs sticking to walls is very rare in my experience

    – Lifting a deep and lifting a single topbar are not analogous. In the same way you don’t have to lift an entire topbar hive, there’s no reason why you should be required to lift an entire deep. Anybody can move a deep one frame at a time into another deep or just by themselves and the heaviest thing you’ll have to lift is a frame of honey which probably weighs more than an empty box

    • To the last comment… Well, yes, I suppose you could move a deep one frame at a time, but if you actually do do that, you would be the VERY first person I have heard of that does that. In actual practice, comparing the weight/lifting requirements of a single top bar to a full deep may not be perfectly analogous but it _is_ accurate to the way most beekeepers manipulate the hives.

      • The weight lifting issue may be a difference between UK and US beekeeping – we are usually using Nationals, which are smaller than Langstroths, and most beekeepers have the bees in a single National brood box with supers added on top as needed.

        This means we rarely have to pick the whole thing up, the smaller supers are lifted off and then the single brood box inspected. From what I’ve seen on US blogs the bees are more likely to have the brood nest across a couple of deeps.

  3. I’m a newbie beekeep and I’m sorry to say that I think I lost my bees this winter despite having fed them twice this past fall. For the first half of the winter they seemed great. I would go outside to brush the snow away from the entrance reducer and see approx. 10-20 dead bees outside any time there was a radical temp. drop. I could lay my head against the side of the Langstroth and hear them buzzing away inside, but for the last month, I’ve heard and seen nothing. My guy says I need to have faith and they may be clustered so deeply in the hive but still be there. I don’t like being so negative, but the hive just seems as though no one is at home. I really wanted to start with a top bar hive, but while attending bee school was strongly discouraged from doing so. I already had the top bar all cut out ready to be assembled and I’m determined to start from scratch this year even if I’m back to ground zero. The whole process has been extremely wonderful. The bees are such fascinating creatures.

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