In nature, bees typically build their hives in hollows and cavities in trees and logs. Climate permitting, they will also construct comb, which hangs down in the shape of a smooth catenary curve. To witness sunlight shining through one of these combs, full of honey and amid a forested scene, is one of the most beautiful sights in nature. The ambrosial serenity of this display has led many beekeepers to strive in their beekeeping to imitate natural apiculture in their hives, living out the very sound advice that bees should be left to their own devices as much as possible. The top-bar hive is the result.
The top bar hive is an innovation of the mid-20th century – yet with roots going back centuries – that abandons familiar frames for a sequence of parallel wooden bars that cross the top of the hive like the beams of a roof. Bees then build comb which hangs down from these wooden bars just as they do in nature.
Top bar beekeeping is of course the form of apiculture that makes use of these hives, and it certainly has its enthusiasts. Top bar hives come in various shapes and sizes, and there are some more popular than others. Top-bar beekeeping, in turn, has its supporters and detractors, pros and cons.
The fact that a top bar beehive more resembles the hives of nature is the most often touted reason for using one. But there are other peculiarities as well (which we will explore below). Notable is the fact that top-bar beekeeping is relatively hands-off compared to other forms of apiculture. Inspections, for example, are not regularly carried out (often as rarely as once a year) and disturbance during an inspection is significantly reduced. When harvesting, top bars are removed one at a time, causing very little disturbance to the majority of the hive. Top-bar beekeeping really is as au naturelle as you can get without hollowing out a part of a tree and hoping for the best!
That is not to say that it’s for everyone. In fact, it very certainly isn’t. Top-bar hive beekeeping has elements which many consider to be real disadvantages. The great variety of beekeeper priorities make it worth keeping in mind that there are few absolute disadvantages. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that.
Nevertheless, many are not enthused by the fact that a top-bar beekeeping yields comparatively less honey than other popular forms of beekeeping, owing to the fact that (again, just like in nature) the internal space in the hive is not the most economically used. For example, a top bar hive is never more than 12 inches deep; any deeper and the comb simply becomes heavy enough to fall from the top bar to the floor of the hive. This puts a natural limit on honey yields, although top bars are known for producing quite a bit of beeswax, which certainly has its value.
Top-bar beekeeping is most prominent in the anglophone countries. This reflects not so much the climates of these countries as the fact that this is where top bar hives were developed (names such as the “Kenyan” or “Tanzanian” top bar hive are a little misleading). Nevertheless, it has proven consistently popular among those prioritizing a hands-off approach, an imitation of nature, and happy, calm bees.
The History of Top-Bar Hives
The top-bar hives that are widely used today – and some of the principles behind them – were developed in the mid-20th century, although the history does not begin there. The earliest example of the top-bar method, that we are aware of, was practiced in 17th century Greece. These top-bar hives were barrel-shaped with the bars across the top opening. Interestingly, unlike most modern top bars, these hives were easily portable, which you might think would be a good feature for modern hives, prioritize, as they do, the minimal disturbance of bees.
Today, a “Tanzanian” top-bar hive denotes a top bar with straight rather than sloping sides. However, in the early 1970s this referred to the first widely used modern top bar, developed as an alternative to the wasteful and destructive Tanzanian log hives that were widely used in that country at the time. Top-bar beekeeping really took off, however, with the development of the “Kenyan” top bar hive (KTBH) in, err, Canada by two experts at the University of Guelph. This hive was initially designed to be hung from trees and poles (reflecting the priority of imitating nature) but later evolved into the most familiar top bar of today, which usually goes on stands. This is the most common type of top bar and the one we will most often refer to here.
Scale (Industrial vs Natural Beekeeping)
The imitation of nature, which top bar enthusiasts prize so highly, is not the only driving factor. An aversion to its opposite, so-called “industrial” beekeeping, plays a role too. Nobody would use a top bar for serious industrial production of any bee product – the yields are just not high enough – but if that is not the priority (as, let’s face it, it isn’t in the majority of cases) then there is much to recommend the smaller scale of natural beekeeping to industrial scale production.
It is harder to remove the honey crop from a top bar than it is for a conventional Langstroth hive, which has in its favor regular frames that are easy to remove and are suitable for extraction with a centrifuge.
Yet this is actually where top bar beekeeping really comes into its own. Bees like to build their combs in catenary curves – that, by the way, is the shape made by a rope suspended from two points – because it allows them to adjust cell size according to their needs. With nothing more than a thin strip of starter wax on the underside of the bars for the bees to build on, they are allowed to do this where frames would prevent it. When harvesting, this comb is cut from the bar with a sharp knife, crushed and the honey squeezed out with a strainer. Many top bar enthusiasts insist that this natural way of doing things produces less, but superior, honey (although, it must be said, that has far more to do with what type of plants your bees are pollinating).
Top Bar Design
Another great advantage of the top bar hives is that they can be made in virtually any size and shape, the only limits being general practicality, top bars of sufficient width and, as we have already mentioned, a depth of no more than 12 inches in order to prevent the collapse of a comb grown too large.
There are, however, a range of specifications that are generally adhered to and recommended by beekeeping authorities. For example, top bars are usually between one and two inches wide and the sides typically slope at 30 degrees.
Components of the Top Bar Hive
The components of the top bar hive are the result of years of fine-tuning the design throughout the 1960s and 70s. Contained within the main body of the hive is the aforementioned 30 degree slope and a covering over the top bars, which can be hinged or removable. There may also be an observation window, which can swing open to allow the beekeeper to view comb without disturbing the colony at all.
A top-bar’s main body will feature entrances that can either take the form of a single entrance at one end or many small entrances over the surface of the hive. Where the entrance is placed also governs the spatial allocation of the hive, with honeycombs being usually found furthest from this entrance. Single entrances need to be closeable for overwintering purposes (the top bar is not the warmest hive, as we shall see).
The foundation of the top-bar refers to that which is added to the surface of each top bar in order to guide the bees towards making a straight comb parallel with the bars. A groove can be cut into the top bar, allowing the bees some physical purchase as they begin to build comb. The significant feature of foundation though is the plastic or wax strips upon which the bees actually begin to build. These strips operate simply enough, the beekeeper only has to take care to have them protrude at least two inches from the bar (smaller strips are not an effective guide for bees) and to ensure they do not touch the sides of the top bar, thereby guiding bees towards building comb on the sides of the bars.
Beyond this a top-bar hive will naturally have a stand and perhaps a queen excluder. A queen excluder is effectively a grill that has spaces large enough for all but the queen bee. In a top bar hive they go parallel to the bars. Queen excluders are a pretty hot topic in the beekeeping world, with many recommending for and against them. In the case of a top-bar hive though, queen excluders are actually rarely used. This is because a top bar hive, mimicking the hollows that bees colonize in nature, quite naturally exclude the queen from laying eggs in honey cells. You might note that many of the beekeepers vigorously against the use of queen excluders are more friendly to top-bar hive – it is all about leaving the bees alone.
You might be noticing a pattern here – top-bar hives rely less on equipment than any other type of hive. For one thing, there is no need for a centrifuge to extract the honey as it is more often strained out of the crushed wax combs. Indeed, most honey centrifuges are designed with the frames of a Langstroth hive in mind. Some beekeepers also neglect to use a smoker with these hives, as the minimal disturbance when checking or harvesting means the bees remain calm. That said, a spray bottle of water infused with sugar, essential oils, or vinegar can perform a similar function to a much lesser degree.
The only tools that you will definitely need for a top-bar hive is the good old hive tool (or a long and strong knife) and a bee brush. The hive tool is for loosening the bars and then cutting off the comb whereas the bee brush is particularly necessary as the comb is delicately hanging from the bar and the bees cannot be removed roughly or by giving the bar a quick jolt without damaging or dropping the comb. Naturally, some sort of face/body protection and sting remedies are also useful.
Harvesting from a Top Bar
When it comes time to harvest honey (and, if you like, beeswax), innovations like the observation window come in very handy. The first thing to note is, like any other hive, whether the colony has made enough surplus honey for you to harvest. With a top-bar hive, however, there are a few peculiarities to this stage.
For one thing, you are not dealing with frames. In a top-bar hive, the surplus honey will often be found furthest from the entrance (this natural division is one of the reasons why a queen excluder is rarely required). Any honey that is seen above the brood comb is not for harvesting. You should also not harvest any honey that hasn’t been capped – this is not ripe and will have a high moisture content. After you’ve made your inspection, take a note of what bars are to be removed and close the observation window.
When removing the bars, a hive tool is very useful, both for loosening them (just like frames) and for cutting off the comb. After removing the bars, the bees should be brushed off. Because the comb is quite delicate, a bee brush can be very useful here for delicately removing any bees. The comb is then to be cut off, sealed in a container and removed to a safe distance from the hive, where you can then crush it and strain it to extract the honey. The wax will be left over. As a top tip, try to harvest on cold days as heat can make the honeycomb and its attachment to the top bar a great deal weaker.
The Pros and Cons of Top Bar Beekeeping
Top-bar beekeeping has a long and fascinating history engendering a number of hive variations and a unique way of caring for bees with as much natural mimicry as possible. By way of a summary then, here are the general pros and cons of top-bar beekeeping.
- The Top-bar mimics bees’ natural habitat – This can be thought of as the biggest advantage because it is surely for this reason that most beekeepers opt for this hive. Bees like to build uninhibited catenary combs – this hive lets them.
- Expensive equipment is not needed – As mentioned, you will not be shelling out for all sorts of expensive equipment that other beekeepers use. The hive is also light and wieldy because there are no spaces within devoted to large stores of honey.
- Bees remain calm – This is because the top-bar beekeeper is not bothering them.
- Yields are low – Or at least lower than other methods of beekeeping. Quite simply, this is not really the method for you if your goal is honey and money.
- A top-bar colony is smaller – This point is naturally related to the preceding one. A top-bar colony is indeed smaller and, as a result, less resilient and has less foraging potential. Hive combination might well be something the top-bar keeper does with some regularity.
- Not the best hive for overwintering – Indeed, just like the natural hollows that it mimics, top-bar hives do not conserve heat particularly well. That said, there are things you can do to winterize your hive.