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John's Beekeeping Notebook

Top Bar Hive Beekeeping

Top bar hives expose the beekeeper to fewer bees.One of the great things about beekeeping is the many ways that bees can be housed.  The Kenya-style "top bar" hive is a lower cost alternative to the standard movable-frame hive, but produces less honey.  I experimented with top bar hives in the early 1980's, and then used them when serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji.  I still occasionally  maintain one or two Kenya-style top bar hives.

My friend Petero (right) inspects a hive by removing one top-bar to give some working room, then lifts each comb to check colony development and condition.  Each comb is returned to the hive in the proper order.

The Kenya top bar hive has been used extensively in development work because it is easy to build and its relatively low cost.  Ordinary lumber will do nicely.  This hive design is often practical for small-farmers in developing countries. Some top bar hives are hung from trees to avoid ants.

The entrance is best built on the end of the hive, not the middle of the side as shown left.  Bees tend to build their brood nest near the entrance, so an entrance at the end allows a beekeeper to harvest honey from the opposite end.  No queen excluder needed!     

A line of beeswax encouraged the correct comb orientation.There is only one critical dimension in a top bar hive.  The top bar width must be about 1 and 3/8 inch wide, or just slightly wider.  This is because honey bees like to build their combs this distance apart. 

A top bar length of 19 inches is also convenient, so the top bar will fit into a standard hive.  This is useful for starting comb and brood rearing in a standard hive, for later transfer to a top bar hive.

We corrected brace comb problems when inspecting the hives.A line of beeswax or a 1/2 inch strip of wax foundation helps the bees building the comb in the right places. The slope of the walls is not a critical dimension.

The walls of a top bar hive are sloped inward towards the bottom so the bees will build less comb attachment to the walls. 

In nature, bees attach comb to the ceiling and often to walls, but rarely to the floor.  Taking advantage of this, the top bar hive has walls that slope inward towards the bottom.  The bees behave as if the walls were a floor, and attach far less brace comb.  This makes the comb easy to remove.    

Comb depth more than 12 inches becomes too fragile to handle.The comb in top bar hives is more fragile than in standard hives, because it doesn't have wooden frames surrounding the comb. 
Honey comb is heavy, and care must be taken when lifting.

Care must be taken not to turn the comb sideways.   Comb is very strong when hanging as intended.The comb must be handled in ways that use the comb's own geometric strength to advantage.   It can even be turned upside down.   Practice makes for good handling!

Bees are gently brushed off the comb.Extracting honey from a top bar hive is done by cutting the comb off the top-bar, leaving about 1/2 inch of comb so that the bees will be able to  rebuild correctly.

Greek basket top bar hive from 1682.Top bar hives are not a new idea. The picture on the right shows a Greek movable comb hive described in the year 1682, nearly two centuries before Lorenzo Langstroth is credited with popularizing the "bee space".

The woven wicker basket walls of this hive slope inward similar to today's top bar hives. The sticks on top were placed about one and a half inches apart and were rounded on their underside, so the bees would build comb in the desirable direction. A basket lid (not shown) normally covered the hive.

Frame length of 19 inches makes transfering comb to and from a standard hive possible.Advantages of a top bar hive:

  • Only one critical dimension for construction (1 & 3/8")

  • No extractor needed

  • No foundation

  • No frames

  • Cheap

  • Less area exposed when handling bees.  Great when working mean bees or when there is no flow!

  • No storage of supers

  • Less heavy lifting

  • More beeswax, since the honey comb is crushed to extract the honey.  Comb honey production is also an option.

Disadvantages of top bar hives

  • Lower honey production

  • Harder to get advice from experienced beekeepers, since their advice is typically geared towards standard hives.

  • Less flexibility in swapping combs between colonies, since the combs are not built uniformly straight.

  • Combs are more fragile, especially in cooler weather.  The fragile combs can make transporting hives difficult when they have a lot of honey in them.

  • Requires a higher level of knowledge about bees to be an effective beekeeper.

I think top bar hives are interesting for hobby beekeepers,  and also for use in developing countries.  However, I recommend regular framed bee hives for most beginners and those interested in efficient honey production. 

An article that I wrote on top bar beekeeping was published in Bee Culture magazine in December, 1986.


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John's Beekeeping Notebook  http://www.outdoorplace.org/beekeeping/   Content from John's Beekeeping Notebook may be used for any non-commercial purpose except internet duplication, providing the source is acknowledged.  Created by John Caldeira, Dallas, Texas, USA    john@outdoorplace.org