Saturday, July 19, 2014

Musings on top bar hives for economical/sustainable/natural beekeeping

All my bees are kept in top bar hives, a system that is beautifully simple for these colonies and for the beekeeper.

These are long horizontal beehives that use a system of movable combs. Each of the boxes, about four and a half feet in length, is covered with a series of bars from which the bees build a comb. This allows the beekeeper to be able to pick up a bar with its attached comb for inspections or other manipulations as part of hive management. With the correct top bar width (1 3/8 inches) and the correct management, the bees build only one comb per bar.


An example of my inexpensive top bar hives made with recycled tin cans. This one is just about five feet long and covered with about 35 bars, which means up to 35 combs. With a 12 inch depth each comb has approximately the same area as one deep Langstroth comb. The entrance is in the front at the bottom, with a two-inch landing board.

This contrasts with the more common system of beekeeping using the Langstroth hive. This has movable frames in rectangular boxes that stack vertically on top of each other. The frames allow the combs to be extracted of their honey in a centrifuge without breakage. The frames also allow hives to be moved from one location to another, again without comb breakage. Boxes are added or removed according to the size of the bee population and the honey flow/harvest.

There are those beekeepers who are opponents of these hives, saying it is a bad way to manage a hive, an inefficient way of producing honey and archaic (the principle behind them has been around since the ancient Greek basket hives). I’ve occasionally received these comments myself when I mention I use only top bar hives.

But that just isn’t true in my opinion. I have nothing against the common Langstroth system of beekeeping. I have had lots of experience with these hives and there are many positive points to using them. They have their place in the beekeeping world.

But at the same time a top bar hive also has a definite place. These are the hives of preference (or should be) for many people in the world, including in the United States. Below I muse about the reasons I use top bar hives for my beekeeping and enjoy promoting them with others.

Inspecting a top bar hive while in Jamaica. There is one comb per bar which makes it easy to remove each individually for inspection or manipulations.

Advantages of the Top Bar Hive

One of the main advantages in my opinion is that it is very economical. The system is much simpler and does not require all the extras that you would ideally use with Langstroth hives. This is the main reason that we promoted it as Peace Corps volunteers in Honduras and why I chose it when starting my own beehives. The same even holds true for many people in the “land of plenty”—the United States.

There are many people in Honduras that need to find a way to provide an extra income for their families—for basic things like better food for their table and better education for their children. And this holds true for so many people around the world. Beekeeping and honey production can provide this. It doesn’t require good farming land or a lot of time and you can harvest a very profitable product that won’t perish.

A pair of top bar hives in my bee yard on a coffee farm up in the mountains above town.

The problem with the Langstroth system is that it can be prohibitably expensive. The wooden ware is not cheap nor that easy to make it well yourself. Honey extraction ideally requires the use of an expensive extractor—a centrifuge used to spin the honey from the combs. The system also ideally requires the use of wax foundation sheets for the frames, which can be rather costly or hard to obtain.

There are ways to make Langstroth beekeeping less expensive and more available for everyone, but each one of these changes only leads towards just beginning with a top bar hive management system from the beginning.

It can be made cheaply, even with recyclable materials. I have made these hives with things such as tin cans, wood pallets, recycled wood and even bamboo and banana leaves.

This is a prime reason I use them. I can get four or five top bar hives started for the amount I would need to invest in one Langstroth hive. There never seems to be the extra money needed to invest in the more expensive Langstroth wooden ware.

The bees build their combs and establish their hives in a more natural way. The bees make those decisions and are not forced to draw out unnatural comb on wax foundation. Bees have been around for millions of years and know what to do. They know when they need to build more worker cells or more drone cells. We just need to let them do it.

Moving a swarm caught in a trap hive into their permanent box. The bees build the comb in a natural U-shape and according to what they feel they need. Man doesn’t impose their will on them.

A natural beekeeping system means that the bee colonies are often much more healthy. The system of management is less stressful to the bees. The constant removal and renewal of combs, because of the harvesting system, helps keeps pests and diseases at bay.

Top bar hives are easy to build. You don’t need master carpentry skills. If your measurements are off a bit for the boxes, it won’t matter that much. The construction of the box is not complicated. The only thing that should have exact measurements is the with the width of the top bars. But even here it can vary a bit. There are proponents of using 1 ¼ for the brood combs and 1 ½ for the honey combs.

The problem with the Langstroth equipment is that it needs fairly precise measurements for it to work well. The frames need to fit into the box and maintain the bee’s transit space. If the transit space is too big then they build bridge comb. If the transit space is too small then they may glue things together with propolis. The result is that bad measurements cause things to get glued together.

The management of the bees is simple, not any more difficult than a Langstroth hive. Many beekeepers will say it is easier. It is also fun.

Honey extraction is also simple since it does not require the use of a centrifuge. Instead beekeepers use a simple crush and strain method that only requires some buckets.

I go to the apiary with my buckets. After brushing the bees off the combs that are ready to be harvested, I simply cut them off the bar and let them drop into a bucket. At home they will be crushed using a big wooden paddle and strained using a five gallon bucket that I turned into a filter. From one day to the next most of the honey has drained from the combs.

An extractor is beyond the reach of many small beekeepers, even a simple stainless steel one that meets hygiene standards. Homemade extractors are often prone to rusting.

Harvesting honey from one of my hives in the valley where I live. You go in with some buckets, cut off the honey comb, put everything back together and let the bees continue to do their thing.

A top bar hive is versatile. It can be used for the same things as a Langstroth hive. That means it can be used for honey production, pollen collection, and queen rearing. The principles of each of these activities remains the same, you only need to make some modifications to the equipment.

It is good for many people since there is no heavy lifting—including children, older folks, women, and people with bad backs. No heavy lifting of honey supers is required.

Lifting a 60 pound super filled with honey is very difficult for many people. It’s not simple. I can testify to this after having worked with a commercial beekeeper for three years. During the harvest season you basically pull supers of honey off the hives and heft them up on the truck all day. There was a lot of grunting done on my part. Thank God John had the wisdom to use only medium supers so they were more manageable. The deep supers will go about 90 pounds or so.

Combs in a tbh are removed and harvested one by one. The beekeeper decides how full or heavy they want to fill the bucket. A five-gallon bucket filled as much as possible will go about 55 pounds. Sofia, my wife, can easily help me in the apiary with these hives, even harvesting by herself if necessary. This makes them accessible to everyone.

The hives themselves can also be made to be very light.

Sofia, my wife, giving me a hand in one of the apiaries. She has no problem managing the lifting involved with these hives (except when I fill the honey buckets too much!)

The beekeeper gets more wax from a top bar hive. This is due to the cut and strain method for extracting honey. Wax is a valuable secondary product.

Beekeepers themselves always need to use some wax. Otherwise the wax can be sold or used in making products such as candles or lip balms. My preferred method of utilizing my wax is making them into foundation sheets and selling them to the Langstroth beekeepers in my area.

Bees stay calmer in a tbh. It is much easier to control the bees, especially in my case where I work with Africanized bees. The beekeeper only needs to keep a small space open, the equivalent of three bars perhaps. You smoke the bees and they run to the other end of the box. The bars are just shuffled back as the beekeeper goes through the hive.

This is in contrast with a Langstroth hive that is much more open when the cover is removed. Bees don’t run to the bottom--they fly out. The situation worsens when boxes are removed, exposing the nest even more.

I often think that I would like to go back to some Langstroth hives and have the ability to use an extractor with the honey combs. But having the bees in an uproar as in the past when I used them tells me “no”.

It is a good system for those who may not have a lot of time to devote to beekeeping. This is my case because of my job as a teacher. I only have the weekends to work the bees (my summer vacation unfortunately doesn’t coincide with the honey season in Honduras) and often I need to just take it easy. After working with fifth and sixth graders all week the last thing I usually want to do is spend a hot, sweaty day in the bee yard. I also don’t want to spend a lot of money on the movable frame system and then not have time to manage it as I should.

Some of my hives receive very minimal management. In some cases a hive gets opened only when it is time to harvest. The bees stay healthy and do well, however. They give me a very acceptable amount of honey considering the lack of my effort (but not theirs!).

Sofia with some rectangular-shaped top bar hives. Due to time restraints with my teaching job, many hives get minimal attention but always seem to produce honey.

The beekeeper does not need a lot of extra equipment, especially taking it to the bee yard. There is no equipment storage, especially of supers. The top bar hive is a stand-alone hive—everything is right there. The beekeeper doesn´t need to be taking supers (the honey boxes) in and out of the apiary to harvest and replace them. The problem with storing the empty honey supers in a place like Honduras is that wax moths will probable get into them and destroy the combs.

I go into the apiary with my buckets, harvest the honey combs, put the hive back together, and leave. The bees will continue to work. There is no second trip to bring back and replace the box with now empty combs after extracting them at home.

I can easily strap all the equipment for an entire hive to the back of my scooter and take it to the apiary. Loading everything for a Langstroth hive would be a bit more difficult and probably require multiple trips.

There is something nice about simplicity that works well.

Top bar hives in the coffee-farm apiary in the mountains above town.


Now, to be fair, there are some downsides/disadvantages to the top bar hive. They aren’t a perfect beekeeping system (but neither is the Langstroth system).

The top bar hive needs a bit more management if you want to get optimal honey harvests. You start with a long box but the space does have its limitations. If the bees are bringing in honey the beekeeper needs to make sure there is room for it. This means you may need to make more frequent but smaller harvests. Lack of space could also mean the bees decide to swarm.

With the Langstroth hive the beekeeper can simply throw on an extra super or two.

The combs need to be handled with care. There is no frame that completely surrounds them. They must be turned on their edge and not with the face, or they could break off the bars.

The same also holds true when moving these hives. New comb can break easily. This has happened occasionally when I need to move trap hives which have caught swarms. These small boxes are based on the tbh system and I hang them in trees to provide a home for swarms. I need to go very slowly when hauling them to the apiary strapped to my scooter. It’s easier to avoid ruts with the scooter so that helps. If jarred too much, however, the comb will break since it is new and often heavy with brood.

To be truthful, too, many of these comb collapses are also my own clumsy fault. Moving hives is usually done at night and I simple trip over a root or rock of something. The same holds true for broken combs during an inspection. I handle them in a way that I know I shouldn’t.

Fallen combs—the result of jarring this newly caught swarm. Heavy with brood, the combs broke off and the bees absconded. (Luckily swarms are plentiful in Honduras so it was easily replaced.)

Another disadvantage is that the honey yield can be slightly less than a Langstroth hive. The space of honey storage in a tbh needs to be managed carefully. And it is true that the bees need to spend time to rebuild combs since they are destroyed due to the harvesting system.

There are those beekeepers, however, that say they do just as well as with Langstroth equipment with honey production. A mitigating factor if there is less honey is that the beekeeper will have more wax, which can make up for some of the difference in earnings.



  1. Hello, nice blog !

    I have a question about the bars dimensions ; aren't the africanized bees better with narrower bars (32,5 mm or 1" 3,5/8) like in africa ? see on this blog

    1. Saludos. I’m glad you like my blog. I hope you are finding it useful.

      With my Africanized bees in Honduras, I use bars that are 1 3/8 inches wide or 35 mm. They work fine for these bees. I usually don’t have any problems if I keep on top of the hives.

      However, I suspect that a bar that is just a bit smaller would also work with Africanized bees. A bar that is 1 ½ inches wide in general would be a bit too wide for Africanized brood combs but should work for honey comb. I’ve seen my bees draw out some fat honey combs.

      To keep everything simple, however, I use bars that are only 1 3/8 inches. I did the same with the top bar hives I had in the United States with European honey bees.

      The point I was trying to get across is that if your measurements are off just a bit because of your carpentry skills or equipment, the bars should still work as long as you keep on top of the hive (as in shuffling empty bars between two well drawn out combs).