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Top Bar Hives
By: James Elam
Often people are interested in trying beekeeping methods that are different from that of the traditional vertical Langstroth hive. Exploring various methods of beekeeping is both fun, practical and should be encouraged. Top bar beekeeping, with a little research and study, fulfills both categories. The horizontal top bar hive is the oldest hive style design in the world, featuring individual bars laid across the top of the hive cavity that bees build their comb down from naturally created bees’ wax. The 2 most modern versions date back to the mid 1960’s and 1970’s: the Kenyan Top Bar Hive and the Tanzanian Top Bar Hive. This style of hive allows beekeepers to overcome the need to lift heavy boxes while still enjoying the benefit of good bee and honey production.
Kenyan Modern Top Bar Hives The most commonly used design of top bar hives is the Kenyan. The typical Kenyan top bar has sides that are sloped and standardized at a recommended 30 ⁰ angle. The total width of one top bar is the width of the honeycomb thickness plus one bee space (3/8 inch). This ensures that honey bees build only one comb on each bar.
Tanzanian Top Bar Hive The Tanzanian top bar hive was developed in Tanzania as a result of government efforts to move farmers away from log hives. Harvesting honey in log hives required brood comb to be destroyed. This design helped beekeepers avoid damaging brood comb by allowing minor inspections before honey harvesting, although the straight sides of the wall construction are considered a disadvantage by some when observing honey bee natural comb building. This design is more conducive to integrate traditional Langstroth frames as shown in this video by Patrick Thomas of savebeesflorida.com.
Hive Body The hive body supports the top bars on which the bees build their comb. It can be built of most any new or recycled wood and may contain an observation window if desired. The depth of the top bar hive should be 12" or less. If deeper, the weight of the comb filled with honey tends to cause it to fall off the bar into the bottom of the hive.
Top Bars A top bar hive has bars of wood sitting side by side across the top of the hive on which bees draw comb. The bars are usually 1¼ inches to 1½ inches wide. The length of the bar can be whatever the beekeeper wants. The bars can be used with or without foundation strips. Standard top bar hives have 28 bars. The top bars can be made from any type of wood with a thickness of at least ¾ inch. This thickness is strong enough to hold the weight of the honeycomb without it breaking or bending. It is important to give the bees a clear starting point to build comb on each top bar. Some beekeepers make their top bars with a V-shaped bottom to guide the comb building. Others use a table saw to cut two closely spaced slots along the long axis of each new top bar. Either type gives bees a place to "drape" or festoon which is the beginning of comb building. Another method of encouraging comb building is the use of foundation strips. These strips of foundation run along the length of the bar and can be made of wood, plastic or wax. The minimum size in depth of the strip should be 2 inches. Melted beeswax can be used to attach to both the sides of the foundation strips and the bars so it doesn’t fall off under stress.
Follower boards are solid wooden frames sized to fit up against the bars effectively reducing the colonies cavity size. The board allows the beekeeper to reduce the “living space” of the colony allowing expansion only when manipulated by the beekeeper.
Queen excluders are not a typical component of top bar hives. Natural queen exclusion happens due to the design of the hives. Top bar hives cause bees to store honey in one section of the available space and brood in another area. The presence of brood among honey storage comb is an indication that the colony wants to grow larger.
Hive stand and roof Top bar hives were originally made for hanging from trees and poles. For most, it is better to have your hive on a stand rather than hanging, making for easier management. Covering the hive body is a roof. This roof can be ventilated, gabled or flat. It can be hinged or simply held down with a weighted object.
Entrances can be a small slot or a number of holes of roughly an inch in diameter; similar to what honeybees prefer in nature. The brood nest will be established nearest that entrance. A popular method is to make 3 holes in the middle and one at each end on the opposite side of the hive body, using cork to close off holes not being used.
1. Open the cover and remove 5-6 bars to make space for the bees you are about to install. Position your divider board at or close to the 11th bar from the hive entrance. Place your feeder with syrup into the hive.
2. Open only 1 entrance within the access area, keeping the other entrances closed.
3. For bees caught in a swarm trap, pour or brush them in and replace the top bars.
4. With package bees and split hives where you know where the queen is, work with the queen first. Open the top bar hive and remove 5-6 bars and install the follower board. Tip: Allow new colonies access to about 10 top bars in the hive to start.
5. Attach the queen cage the center of one top bar in the hive, 3-4 bars from the entrance using a tack or clip. Remove the cork in the candy end of the queen cage.
6. Release the bees into the beehive and replace the top bars you had removed and cover the hive.
7. Continuous feeding 1:1 sugar water is important for newly installed bees in a top bar hive for drawing comb. Checking back After installing the bees, wait approximately 3 hours to confirm they are clustering around the queen. Close the hive and leave it undisturbed. In 3-5 days check to ensure the queen has been released from her cage. If she has not, you can let her out by opening the cork at the non-candy end of the queen cage. If the queen has emerged from the cage, remove the cage from the beehive. Continue to feed until they have at least 10 top bars with honeycomb drawn.
Tips: Use a hive tool to loosen top bars before removing them. Lift the top bars straight and out of the beehive for inspection. Hold the top bars in a perpendicular position. The comb is fragile and can break easily. Monitor closely that bees are building straight comb. Push it back in place as needed. In spring, inspect every 7-10 days and take steps to prevent and control swarming.