top bar hives

Top Bar Hives - A Complete Guide

Starting a beehive is a great hobby filled with new learning experiences and a sweet reward—honey. The problem, however, is that you’re likely faced with the question of which type of beehive to choose. In this article, we’re all about the top bar hive and will reveal everything you need to know.

When and Why Should You Choose a Top Bar Hive?

Top bar hives have been around for a long time, in fact, some suggest the design is hundreds of years old. Experts found evidence of its use dating back to 1686, in Greece. Of course, those were not identical to the top bar hives we have today, but the basic concepts are the same.

Top bar hives offer a very basic way of keeping bees. Everything is straightforward and fairly easy to manage.

Beekeeping has, in some ways, become a relatively expensive hobby when using conventional beehives. These generally consist of the main container with removable frames filled with man-made foundations, where the bees build their combs. Then there are separate supers for the honey.

If you’re into beekeeping solely for the purpose of producing honey, then conventional, box-style beehives are ideal. These are basically made to help the beekeeper extract as much honey as possible. Conventional beehives, however, work less in favor of the bees.

The bees, on the other hand, tend to prefer the top bar hive. Wild honeybees build their combs in a deep, catenary curve.

Because the conventional beehives already have pre-made foundations in a rectangular shape, it forces the bees to construct in unnatural ways.

In a top bar hive, you, as the beekeeper, can encourage the bees to build in natural ways. By applying some starter wax to the top bars, the bees take the hint and start constructing downward.

Because there’s no pre-made foundation, the bees can build the combs as they like, often mimicking their natural environment. So if you’re into beekeeping for other benefits, such as pollination and preserving the species, top bar hives are for you.

The bees will still produce enough honey for you; however, the extraction is a little different. With a top bar hive, you have to take out the frame, crush the comb, and strain the honey into a container. More on that further down.

Why You Should Choose a Top Bar Hive

Beekeeping with a top bar hive doesn’t require much equipment. All you basically need is the beehive, a suit, and a knife. Many top-bar beekeepers don’t even use smokers when inspecting the bees. This is mainly because the bees are less agitated as the beekeeper only opens up a small portion of their home.

Some beekeepers do, however, use a solution of water and a couple of drops of cider vinegar or essential oils. This is just to spray the bees to keep them at bay.

Top-bar beekeeping is also more generous on the bank account. You don’t need the expensive honey extractors, queen excluders, frames, supers, uncapping knives, or other tools.

Another reason to choose a top bar hive is that it’s easier on your back. Horizontal top bar hives are often elevated to a good height and there are no heavy boxes to lift. Conventional honey supers, which you find with box-style hives, can weigh up to 80 pounds.

With top bar hives, the heaviest bar you’ll have to lift will probably be around three to seven pounds.

Individual Components and Features of a Top Bar Hive

Before we get started, there’s one fact you should be aware of. There are actually two types of top bar hives—the Kenyan and Tanzanian.

Although these differ a little in terms of design, they consist of the same components. This is also why, when you’re shopping for a top bar hive, this is not referenced to very often. So for the sake of not causing too much confusion, we’ll simply give you a general idea.

A top bar hive consists of three principal sections—legs, box, and top. Let’s zoom in on these:

The Legs

For the beekeeper prone to back problems, this is probably the most useful component on the top bar hive. The legs elevate the beehive to a comfortable waist height, resulting in a better beekeeping experience, with less bending.

The legs are generally made from a strong, sustainable type of wood, to carry the weight of the hive. The design may between each model, but it’s usually four crossed legs. There are also other types, with a pole instead of legs.

The Main Body

This is where you’ll see the most variations between different manufacturers. Remember the two types? Kenyan and Tanzanian? Well, the main difference between those is the shape of the box.

Kenyan top bar hives have sloped sides, whereas the Tanzanian have straight sides; apart from that, they’re pretty uniform. Top bar hives have no specific standards when it comes to the width or depth of the main body. The only measurement that really matters is the length.

The ideal length to look for is no less than three feet—even longer is better. If the body is shorter, the bees will likely fill it with honey before having a chance to cap any of it. This, in turn, means less honey for you to harvest and less space for the bees.

One of the advantages of other beehives is that you’ll have expansion options by buying more boxes. A top bar hive, on the other hand, is self-contained, which means fewer options for expansion. Although this is generally not a sought-after feature for top bar beekeepers.

The Top Bars

The top bars are the inspiration for the beehive’s name. This can be confusing for some, seeing that Warré beehives use the same system of top bars. There are, however, differences—so don’t get the two confused.

The top bars are, basically, pieces of wood that you place across the top. As we’ve seen earlier, these are foundationless, meaning that the bees can build from scratch, essentially following the principles of natural beekeeping.

As you introduce the bees, they’ll begin to build comb facing downward into the box. You can buy bars with a “comb guide” which is a small piece of wood, giving the bees a head start.

When you set up your hive, you’ll have to lay each bar across the top. To give you an idea of how many you’ll need, let’s take for example a 42-inch box. This size will need 28 bars. If your main box is smaller or larger, you’ll need less or more top bars.

There is one useful option most top bar beekeepers will recommend that you look into: namely, a follower board. As I said earlier, it’s not easy to expand a top bar hive because it’s basically one box. The size remains the same from start to finish.

When you first introduce the bees, it’s good to have them in a confined space within the hive. This will help them as they’re constructing the first combs. This is where the follower board comes in handy.

A follower board is basically a top bar with a large piece of wood extending down into the box. It sections off part of the hive, to keep the bees in one end. As your colony grows and will need more space, you simply move the follower board as needed.

There are even follower boards fitted with feeders that the bees can access through a hole. This is very useful, especially during the winter.

Optional Window

This is a fun feature to have. It’s a viewing window into your top bar hive—these usually span the length of your box. This optional feature allows you to inspect your bees without disturbing them or having to move the hive.

The Top

The top is the last piece on your top bar hive. These usually come as a hinged design, which will keep your colony protected from wind and rain.

Some manufacturers place ventilation windows in the top. This is particularly useful if you’re living in warmer climates. During the winter, you can seal it off with a piece of insulation.

How to Maintain a Top Bar Hive

If you have any experience in beekeeping, you’ll quickly learn that maintaining a top bar hive is a lot easier than others. This, however, doesn’t mean that you can completely ignore the bees.

After you’ve set up your hive, you’ll need some bees. You can, of course, always purchase a bundle or nuc from a honeybee supplier. However, it’s fairly easy to attract a swarm of wild honeybees to a top bar hive.

To do this, during swarming season, typically late spring to midsummer, place your beehive in a suitable location. This should be near foraging spots, such as blooming flowers and a water source.

honeybees drinking water

Then, bait the hive with beeswax or a couple of drops of lemongrass oil. The scout bees will be attracted to it, hover close to inspect it, and return to the swarm to communicate their find. The bees will then naturally swarm to it, and your beehive will be filled.

Once you have your bees, after a while, it’s time to focus on harvesting the honey. This is actually pretty simple, but you do need to be careful.

To harvest the honey, take out one top bar at a time, and cut the comb off. Place the bar back into the hive to let the bees build more.

How much you should harvest at a time depends on the season. A summer harvest should consist of only a few bars. Your bees will need more honey in storage to sustain them during winter.

The following spring, you can easily harvest more. Flowers are aplenty and your bees have enough time to replenish their store before winter.

Once you have harvested the honeycombs, place them in a stainless steel pot or bucket. Grab a paddle and proceed to mash it all before straining the mash through muslin.

If you want to keep some of the beeswax separately, simply remove it and place it near the hive. The bees will come close and gather the honey still present, thus cleaning the wax for you. Now you’re free to use it for other projects.

Things to Look out For

One issue that new top bar beekeepers might face is the bees building comb on the sides of the hive. This is a big issue because it means you can’t remove the top bars without ripping the comb apart. If it’s used for brood, you’ll lose a potential new generation of bees.

One way to avoid this occurring is by using a top bar with a comb guide. This will help the bees build straight combs, as opposed to crooked ones that eventually reach the sides.

How Much Do Top Bar Hives Cost?

Top bar hives are simple and thus inexpensive. If you want to purchase one that’s all assembled and ready to set up, it may cost anywhere from $300 to $600.

If you’re a handy person, you can construct one yourself for less than $100. You might even be able to build it using scrap wood around your shed or garage.

Pros and Cons

If you’re still not sure whether a top bar hive is for you, let’s help by weighing on some pros and cons. Top bar hives aren’t for everyone, but they may surprise you.

Pros

  • Top bar beehives are simple yet very elegant to look at. They look beautiful in the garden while still preserving a natural environment for the bees.
  • Because the top bars are foundationless, the bees can build as they please. There’s no foundation telling them how to do their work.
  • The beehives are often elevated using legs or a pole, meaning they’re at a comfortable height for the beekeeper.
  • Since the top bar hives don’t use boxes, there’s no heavy lifting involved in the process.
  • Harvesting is quite easy. It’s a simple lift-cut-replace kind of process—very straightforward.
  • They’re usually inexpensive. Not much equipment is needed and the top bar hives are very affordable.

Cons

  • It’s a self-contained box so the size is predetermined, meaning that there are no expansion options.
  • Because of the smaller capacity, there’s less room for honey.
  • Since there is no foundation for the comb, it may break if you don’t handle it carefully. It may take some time getting used to.

Summary

The top bar hive is the one for you if you want to keep bees in a natural way. It’s basically a box elevated with legs, and a row of top wooden bars that the bees will build comb from. It’s very simple and straightforward, perfect for any hobby beekeeper.

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