When you first start learning about bees, it’s like an itch you just have to scratch. The more you learn, the more you see how fascinating these tiny insects are and the more you want to involve yourself in their world. If you’ve reached the point where you are considering purchasing a hive, take some time to consider what your goals are with beekeeping. Depending on whether you’re in it for the honey production or ease of use, your choice of beehive matters. For those just starting out and those not intending to use a beehive for honey production, consider a top bar hive.
Top bar hives span thousands of years throughout history. The Ancient Greeks had a variation, which employs terra cotta pots. The modern iterations of the top bar hive come from Africa, with two notable models: the Kenyan and the Tanzanian. A Canadian researcher developed the Kenyan hive (in Kenya), which is a box with sloped sides and the Tanzanian model has a rectangular box. If you’re handy with a hammer and saw you can find detailed plans for building your own.
A top bar hive is typically comprised of four legs, a box, and a top. The top serves to protect the hive contents from rain and wind and the box contains the bars of comb, suspended from a frame. Each bar can be removed individually so the beekeeper can inspect the comb. The box is elevated on the legs, typically coming up to waist height.
Many top bar hive designs come with a starter strip to help the bees build their comb. The bees build on the bars from the top down and in shape similar to how they would build comb in the wild.
Each bar, when laden with honey, can be removed and the remaining bars rearranged for seasonal changes. Remember, bees need the bars of honey condensed into one area so it’s easy for them to consume nutrients. Therefore, this helps them remain close to the cluster.
For the novice beekeeper, it can be a more accessible model to start refining their beekeeping skills.
When you get a top bar hive, analyzing the hive contents and harvesting honey is easy. Each bar, depending on how much honey is inside, can weigh 3-8 pounds. A full Langstroth box can be upwards of 50-80 pounds.
A top bar hive helps you preserve your back. Choose a top bar hive if you have family or friends involved in your beekeeping who cannot lift heavy objects.
With a top bar hive, you can lift each bar out to analyze the hive contents. It’s one action. With a Langstroth hive, you need to shift and rearrange the boxes to analyze the brood content.
When working with a bar from a top bar hive, the rest of the bars remain inside the hive. The bees can keep doing what they’re doing without you disturbing them. Therefore, some beekeepers may choose to abstain from wearing protective garb if they are just viewing one bar and leaving the rest of the hive alone.
Harvesting honey from a Langstroth hive requires special tools: hot knife or capping fork, capping tank, and honey extractor. With a top bar hive, you simply remove the bar, slice the comb off of the wooden frame and you can harvest the honey using a strainer and cheesecloth, items most people have on hand in their kitchen.
The process leaves a good chunk of useable beeswax. If you enjoy crafting with beeswax, making items such as candles, balms, and salves, a top bar hive lends itself to your hobbies. There isn’t quite as much usable wax – barely a teaspoon – when you harvest honey from a Langstroth hive.
When you start beekeeping, you get acquainted with the varroa mite early on. These tiny creatures cause big destruction in bee populations. There is research showing mite reproductive capabilities were reduced in hives with smaller brood cell sizes.
With a top bar hive, the cell sizes are self-regulated by the bees and are smaller than with a Langstroth hive. If you wish to practice treatment-free or natural beekeeping, a top bar hive may give you a better chance of success with the varroa mite.
Each beekeeper must choose how they want to interact with their bees. If you value natural beekeeping and want the bees to be able to behave as they would in the wild, a top bar hive is for you.
Not only does this design give bees the space to build comb in catenary curves, as they do in log cavities or cliff crevices in the wild, but there is more freedom for the queen to move throughout the hive. With commercial hives, it is customary to use a queen excluder, which keeps the queen in the lower portion of the hive. This serves to optimize honey production but restricts her from laying brood, her main role in the hive.
The wood itself, especially if you construct one yourself, can be chemical or treatment free, which isn’t always the case with Langstroth hives.
If you want to do beekeeping for the bees and want them to be able to behave and live as close to how they would in the wild, top bar hives offer a lot.
If your main motivation for beekeeping is honey production and you plan to possibly package and sell it in jars, a top bar hive is likely not for you. You can still harvest honey, but if you plan to sell it for a portion of your income, you will be able to harvest more with a Langstroth.
As noted above, the way a Langstroth hive works is to maximize honey production, from the queen excluder to the vertical design to the way you harvest honey. You will still be able to harvest honey from a top bar hive, but the yield will be much smaller.
With our top bar hives, we advise you to leave bars with honey throughout the winter. Only harvest in the spring when bees begin to forage again and are able to replenish their stores. It’s how we do beekeeping for the bees.
Diet does matter for bees and if you value natural beekeeping, it makes sense to leave them with optimal nutrition. Bees are better nourished with honey and pollen rather than sugar solutions. The downside is there will be less honey for you.
Since the comb hangs down from the wooden bar, it can be fragile to work with. Going slow and being sure not to bump the comb on the hive as you remove it is important. If you aren’t used to delicate work or don’t want to worry about broken comb, opt for a commercial hive.
Bees sometimes attach comb to the sides of a top bar hive. This can be an added complication to consider when working with this particular design. Delicately extract the comb from the side of the hive before removing to avoid further damage.
If you plan to expand your apiary, you will need to purchase or build additional top bar hives. A top bar hive is self-contained and has a limited amount of bars affixed to the inside. You cannot add additional bars beyond its original capacity.
Commercial hives have the ability to grow vertically and if your intention is rapid expansion, it would be a safer bet to invest in a commercial hive.
If you’re interested in a top bar hive and are not adept at carpentry or DIY, check out our unique, top bar hive design. We offer service packages and hands-on support when you start your beekeeping journey. Our expertise can help with anything from troubleshooting to honey harvest to how to safely interact with the bees.
Whatever you decide, we wish you the best of luck on your beekeeping journey and we hope you share your experience publicly, whether it’s through blog writing, photography, videos, or community engagement.