Top bar bee hives

Back in the time of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck used to keep bees in a straw skep. Bees were plentiful back then so beekeepers could just reach in to a skep and grab a gob of honeycomb and go on with business. If a beekeeper wanted to harvest all of the honey, they simply destroyed the hive (sometimes by placing the skep over burning sulphur… yummy honey I bet). Anyhow, in 1851, the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth invented a beehive such that bees would build orderly honeycomb on frames that could be removed and inspected.  Honey harvest no longer meant that the bees had to be destroyed.  Frames could be removed, honey extracted and the frames replaced.  This type of hive is the one most people think of when they think of a beehive…you know, the white boxes out in a field.

This style is not the only type of beehive though. In the United States, laws require that bee hives have removable frames for easy inspection. Beyond that, it does not stipulate how those frames must be arranged.

So, some new web friends of mine have sent me some pictures of their Top Bar hive. In this type of hive, bees are encouraged to build their own honey comb from scratch (not on wax “starter” comb that most Langstroth beekeepers use). The shape of the honeycomb frames is typically like a blunted triangle rather than a rectangle like a Langstroth hive.  A TBH encourages lateral colony growth (as opposed to vertical in a Langstroth hive) and many say healthier growth.  Please enjoy these pics and narrative by Bob and Gail, beekeepers who use both TBH and Langstroth hives!

from Bob and Gail…

Here’s a couple of natural comb shots.  As you can see from knowing the Lang- there’s no side or bottom bars, there’s plenty of brood along the bottom of the comb and honey along the tb.

taking off the cover. The TBH is horizontal compared to its neighbor Lanstroth hive.
Inside- 31 Topbars and one backboard.
a well-formed natural comb. The top third is capped honey while the bottom third is capped brood.
Holding the comb upside down to inspect both sides. The comb must always be held perpendicular to the ground or it will break off the topbar. Turning and rotating the comb around so that it is always vertical takes some getting used to.
Notice that the bees are "chaining." They are linking together by their feet, setting a pattern for building the shape of the comb. No side bars or foundation required.
a closer view of chaining
Inside the hive, the bees are chaining between two combs. Notice that the TBH has a screened bottom.
All three of our hives looked terrific.  We didn’t see any mites
and have used no chemicals.  Our second TBH is being fed because they
lost their queen, had to create their own so they had a small
population during the flow.  We noticed a number of bee carrying white
pollen which we think is from a cotten field just down the road.  We
saw two pollen-laden foragers doing a waggle dance- isn’t that fun?
Hope these photos reveal more than they conceal.
Bees have a great sense of smell. Bob's handlebar is waxed with a cosemetic containing beeswax so this hitchiker found him irresistible. Now when he observes the hives he has a droopy 'stache. When asked how he would manage to keep his handlebar up since becoming a beekeeper he replied, "Willpower!"

So, why bother? Here’s a great narrative by Bob and Gail that explains it perfectly!

8 thoughts on “Top bar bee hives

  1. Very cool information. Thanks for including the link to “why bother” as I was wondering why do the TBH instead of the traditional white box kind. I, initially, was just noticing how fragile it might be.

  2. I just saw a presentation on this at the Mother Earth News conference at Seven Springs last weekend! Their hives are beautiful, but out of our price range.

    Last year (Oct./Nov. 2009), M.E.N. ran an article from Phil Chandler about top bar hive design. I’ve been asking for someone to make me one for Christmas—we’ll see if I get my wish. Then I’ll need to hire you as a bee consultant to come up and teach me how to manage the bee part…

  3. Ceecee,
    Yes, a certain amount of fragility is one of the tradeoffs. Here in NC it has been in the 90’s for weeks. The wax gets very soft and the comb occassionally breaks off the topbar and falls to the screened bottom. The bees continued to work that comb despite being detached. We remove the detached comb so it doesn’t attract Wax Moths. We take the honey from the detached comb so it’s not a waste. Another hive management problem- the bees build brace comb between the hive body wall and the comb. When we inspect the hive we carefully run a hive tool between the wall and comb so we can lift the top bar out. G&B

  4. Learn something new everyday! Looks good but for me, I can only see its application for hobby beekeepers or those who want comb honey which was a tiny fraction of my parent’s bee business. To harvest large quantities of honey for sale, I would guess the TB method wouldn’t hold up well.

    I hadn’t heard of the cell size/mite theory. I would think that someone would produce natural bees wax foundation (like what we used in our comb honey products) with smaller cell patterns and then you have the best of both worlds.

  5. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday.
    It’s always useful to read articles from other writers and practice a little something from other web sites.

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