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What Is A Top Bar Hive? A Beekeeper’s Guide 2023

A top bar hive in a meadow

Top bar hives are worth considering if you’re hunting for a beehive. They’ve been used for thousands of years, with modern versions gaining popularity since the 1960s.

The top bar hive addresses some of the common issues in vertical hives. It’s easier for beekeepers to manage and a more natural environment for honey bees. This guide will help you decide if a top bar hive suits your needs.

What is a top bar hive?   

A horizontal top bar hive is a wide box that sits on legs and has a cover. Across the top of the hive cavity are top bars on which honey bees build their comb.

The bars have no frames and foundations, so the bees can naturally build out their home the way they choose.

Closeup of an open top bar hive covered with bees
The horizontal design of a top bar hive is simple, but effective.

Its design is about simplicity, meaning the beekeeper has a hands-off experience managing the hive. This feature has a drawback, though. Adding extra boxes to top bar hives isn’t an option, unlike the Warre and Langstrong. Beekeepers can’t expanding the living space for a thriving colony.

Be sure to also check out our guide to Langstroth hives or Warre hives.

An African beekeeper standing next to his top bar hive
A beekeeper in Uganda Kampala.

Parts of a top bar hive

Top bar hives come in a range of styles. Manufacturers will make subtle changes like adding a viewing window or moving the entrance. The essential components of a top bar hive include:

1. Top Bars

Instead of frames, a top bar hive uses wooden bars positioned along the top of the hive body, like a Warre. The bar count will vary depending on the box size, but most have 20-32.

On the bottom of each top bar is a spline. This jutting-out section encourages the colony to build straight comb.

One horizontal row of bars is a huge advantage for beekeepers who can’t lift heavy boxes. They can inspect one comb at a time instead of moving entire boxes – a common complaint with vertical hives.

Beekeeper holding a top bar with honeycomb from a top bar hive.
Bees get free reign to build comb like they do in wild nests..

Quick tip: Discover the best hive design for honey extraction in our ultimate guide to Flow Hives.

2. Roof

A pitched roof covers the hive body to protect the bees from the elements and predators. Some roofs are attached with hinges, which makes them easier to lift off. Others can be removed entirely.

Attic space is available to the beekeeper to fill with insulation during winter. This extra layer keeps the hive warm and stops condensation from freezing on the roof or dripping back down on the bees.

In hot climates, painting the roof white in summer helps reflect the sun’s heat. Painting the roof black keeps the hive warmer in winter.

A beekeeper pointing to the entrance of his TBH where honey bees are bearding on a hot day
Our friend, Mutabazi, points at his bees staying cool outside the hive.

3. Hive body

The hive body of a TBH will have different features and dimensions depending on who makes it. There are two main types of top bar hive:

  • Kenyan bodies have slanted sides that taper in from top to bottom.
  • Tanzanian bodies are rectangular with sides at right angles to the bottom of the body.

If you’re buying a kit or ready-made hive, make sure it’s at least 3 feet long. Any smaller and your bees could fill the box before capping any honey. You can’t create space by harvesting honey, meaning the bees could swarm.

A top bar hive has a horizontal body, which is advantageous over winter. Vertical hives are inefficient, allowing heat to rise to the highest boxes. Horizontal hives don’t have this issue, so bees don’t work as hard to stay warm during winter.

A jar of honey and honeycomb on a board
Honey is easy to harvest from a top bar hive.

4. Legs

Top bar legs raise the hive to waist height. That’s a helpful feature for beekeepers who have difficulty bending down.

Returning forager bees prefer entering a hive at a comfortable flying height rather than low down. Keeping the hive off the ground also keeps the colony at a distance from pests and damp.

5. Follower boards

Bees prefer to start in a small hive rather than an expansive space. Langstroths make it easy to start with a couple of boxes and add more as the colony grows.

Top bar hives only have one box, so a follower board is used instead. This component reduces the colony’s available space. It is moved across as the colony expands, providing more space.

Looking into a TBH to show the follower board with a hole for bees to access the feeding area
A follower board separates the feeding area from the rest of the hive.

With many top bar hives, one solid feeder holds fondant to help the bees through winter. A second follower board is positioned to divide the colony’s living space from the feeder. It has a small hole to allow the bees through.

6. Window

Some top bar hives have a window for beekeepers to inspect the colony without disturbance. A shutter can usually be pulled down, allowing the bees to work in darkness.

Windows give the beekeeper a quick snapshot of the hive when inspections aren’t required. It’s also an excellent way to let visitors admire a colony with minimal disturbance.

Close up shot of a honey bee in the hive
Observing the hive is easy through the window of a top bar hive.

7. Feeders

Top bar hives have an inner feeder, which is often an upside-down mason jar. It has holes in the lid to allow liquid to drip. It is separated from hive activity with a follower board.

A fondant feeder offers a good food source during winter, replacing inner feeders that may freeze during cold spells.

8. Bottom board

Most top bar hives makers include a removable bottom board. It helps beekeepers inspect mites and apply treatments as needed.

How to operate a top bar hive

A top bar hive is relatively easy to manage. Beekeepers should check the available space each week and adjust the follower board as needed. If there are only 1-2 empty bars, the follower should be adjusted to add two bars.

Reduce the hive space by moving the follower back once the honey flow ends. This step will make it much easier for the colony to stay warm during the cold months.

Beekeepers inspecting a top bar hive
Inspecting a TBH requires no heavy lifting.

Harvesting honey is a simple job that doesn’t require any special tools. Honeycomb can be cut from the top bars using a kitchen knife. Extract the honey using the crush and strain technique.

Removing burr comb and propolis is another typical job with top bar hives. It builds up on the inner hive cavity walls but is easy to remove with a hive tool.  

Quick tip

When lifting out each to inspect always keep them vertical. Turning them on their side may cause the delicate comb to break off.

Are top bar hives better than vertical hives?

No hives are perfect. Each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. A top bar hive is ideal for beekeepers wanting to avoid heavy lifting. They’re also frameless, which will appeal to natural beekeepers.

Advantages

  • Less lifting and bending is required.
  • Easy to inspect by looking through a window.
  • Low cost to get started and no expensive tools needed.
  • Inspecting bars is less invasive than shifting whole boxes.
  • A useful design for overwintering.
  • Removing comb is easy using household items.
  • Queen excluders aren’t needed.
  • Reduced varroa mite population.
  • Provides more beeswax than most other hives.

Disadvantages

  • Less honey production than a Langstroth.
  • The hive capacity can’t be expanded.
  • Fewer learning materials and mentors.
  • Parts are not standardized.
  • Handling bars requires extra care to avoid breakage.
  • Sweltering weather makes the comb delicate.

History of top bar hives

Basic forms of top bar hives have existed for thousands of years. The Greeks used a hanging basket or pot to harvest honey.

The top bar hive we’d recognize today was created by Dr. Maurice Smith and Dr. Gordon Townsend in 1971. Sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, the pair were from the University of Guelph in Canada and developed their design in Kenya.

Two horizontal hives covered in snow
The colony can survive cold winters in these hives.

What’s the difference between a Tanzanian and Kenyan top bar hive?

Tanzanian and Kenyan hives have the same basic components. Tanzanians have a rectangular hive body with straight sides while the Kenyan has sides that slope inwards from top to bottom.

  • The advantage of a Kenyan is more space for the hive to build our comb.
  • The advantage of a Tanzanian is the top bars hold the weight of the comb a little better and they’re easier to remove without causing damage.

Interesting Research: Comparing the two types

Researchers tested Tanzanian and Kenyan top bar hives with different hive entrance locations to see which worked best. The four options were:

  1. Kenya top bars hive with entrance on the floor (KF)
  2. Kenya top bars hive with entrance on the wall (KW)
  3. Kenya top bars hive with entrances on both floor and wall (KFW)
  4. Tanzania top bars hive with entrances on both floor and wall (TFW)

Results: All these hives were baited with bee wax to attract bees. Over 16 weeks, the researchers observed:

  • Hive design didn’t significantly impact the time it took for bees to colonize them.
  • All TFW and KF hives were fully colonized, while KW and KFW saw about 67% colonization.
  • Bees colonized the KF hives the quickest (in about 3.67 days) and the KFW hives the slowest (in about 7 days).
  • Hive design didn’t really impact the weight gain of the hives, which ranged between 0.3 kg to 2.5 kg.

In conclusion, the KF hive (entrance on the floor) is the researchers recommended option. It is especially beneficial in places where rainwater entering the hive isn’t a concern. The KF hive showed fast colonization and high occupancy rates.

Download the .pdf research>

A man standing in front of a small horizontal hive
Horizontal hives come in different sizes.

How to build a top bar hive

Making a top bar hive at home is possible if you’re handy with tools and enjoy woodworking. While a Langstroth requires pinpoint precision when measuring, the dimensions of a top bar don’t need to be as exact. There’s only one hive body, and you don’t need to fit additional boxes onto the top.

Check out the video below to learn how to construct a top bar hive.

Summing up

Top bar hives are a popular type of hive around the world. Although they’re not as common as Langstroths in North America, they have some big advantages.

People with restricted mobility will appreciate how easily a top bar hive operates. Lifting comb-laden bars without bending over is much easier than moving a Langstroth deep.

Bees can construct their hive, and the queen can move around it without a queen excluder. The colony is also less prone to varroa mites and is more tolerant to freezing winters in a horizontal hive body.

A non-modular design means no ability to expand. That means top bar hives produce less honey per hive than a Langstroth or Warre.

If you’re new to beekeeping, support from experienced beekeepers is useful. While there is a lot of introductory information on top bar hives, more specific queries aren’t covered either. You may also need help finding someone local who can help get started.

Image credit: Goldstar Honeybees

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