If you’re on the hunt for a beehive, top bar hives are well worth considering. They’ve been used in various formats for thousands of years, with the modern version gaining popularity since the 1960s.
The top bar hive addresses some of the biggest issues with the ever-popular Langstroth. It’s easier for beekeepers to manage and provides a range of benefits for the bees themselves. If you’re passionate about bee welfare, then you’re in the right place.
Top bar hives aren’t perfect though and they won’t be the ideal choice for every beekeeper. We’ve created this guide to help you decide if a top bar hive is right for your needs.
What is a top bar hive?
A horizontal top bar hive is essentially 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.
Unlike the Warre and Langstroth hives, a top bar doesn’t have the option to add extra boxes as the hive expands. Its design is about simplicity, meaning the beekeeper has a more hands-off experience in managing the hive. This feature may appeal to beekeepers but will certainly be appreciated by the bees.
Parts of a top bar hive
Top bar hives come in a range of styles and different manufacturers will make their own subtle changes. Adding a viewing window or moving the location of the entrance are good examples. But they all share the same basic parts and operate in the same way.
1. Top Bars
As you may have guessed, the top bars are how this hive gets its name. Rather than using frames, a series of wooden bars are positioned along the top of the hive body, like a Warre.
The number will vary depending on the size of the box, but most have somewhere between 20-32 bars.
A spline can be found on the bottom of each top bar. This jutting out section encourages the colony to build straight comb.
Having one horizontal row of bars is a huge advantage for beekeepers that can’t lift heavy boxes. They’re able to inspect one comb at a time instead of having to lift an entire box – a problem for some when working with Langstroths and Warres.
Quick tip: If you want to find the easiest way to extract honey then check out our ultimate guide to Flow Hives.
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, while others can be completely removed.
Attic space is available to the beekeeper to fill with insulation during winter. This helps keep the hive warm and helps stop 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.
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 that are 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. That means you won’t be able to create extra space by harvesting honey, meaning the bees could swarm.
A top bar hive has a horizontal body which is a huge advantage in winter. Vertical hives allow the heat to rise to the top boxes which isn’t an efficient design. When the hive is set up horizontally, the bees don’t have to work as hard to keep themselves warm.
The legs are a super-helpful feature for beekeepers, allowing them to lift out frames that are roughly waist height.
The bees also love it.
They get to enter a hive at a height they’re comfortable flying at. Keeping the hive off the ground also keeps the colony at a distance from pests and damp.
5. Follower boards
Bees love starting in a small hive rather than a large, expansive space. Langstroths make it easy to start with a couple of boxes and then add more as the hive grows.
Top bar hives only have one box, so a follower board should be used instead. This can be inserted to reduce the available space for the bees. As they grow in numbers and the comb is filled, the board can be adjusted to expand the hive body.
With many top bar hives, there is one solid feeder which 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 in it to allow the bees through.
Some top bar hives have a viewing window that allows beekeepers to check in on their colony without being a disturbance. To keep the bees happy, a shutter can be pulled down which allows the hive to work in darkness.
Windows allow the beekeeper to get a quick snapshot of the hive when a full inspection isn’t required. It’s also a good way to let visitors admire your colony without causing too much disturbance.
Top bar hives have an inner feeder which is often an upside-down mason jar. It will have holes in the lid to allow liquid to drip. As mentioned above, it is separated from hive activity with a follower board.
A fondant feeder offers a good source of food to the hive in winter. It can take the place of inner feeders which may freeze in winter depending on how cold it gets.
8. Bottom board
Most manufacturers of top bar hives will include a bottom board that can be removed. It helps the beekeeper inspect mites and apply treatments if needed.
How to operate a top bar hive
A top bar hive is relatively easy to manage. It is vital that the hive doesn’t run out of space, or they may swarm. A window makes these checks a quick and easy job that won’t upset the bees.
Each week the beekeeper should check the available space and adjust the follower board as needed. If there are only 1-2 empty bars then the follower should be adjusted to add 2 more empty bars.
Once the honey flow ends for the year, the follower can be moved back to reduce the hive space. This will make it much easier for the colony to stay warm during the cold months.
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. To extract the honey, it can be crushed in a bucket using a potato masher and then strained.
Another common task for operators of a top bar hive is removing unnecessary comb or propolis. It tends to get built onto the walls of the inner hive cavity. It isn’t difficult to remove with a hive tool.
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?
No hives are perfect, and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. A top bar hive is an excellent option for beekeepers that want to avoid heavy lifting. Instead of lifting heavy supers, the hive can be inspected one frame at a time. Top bar hives are frameless so they’re a good option for beekeepers that prefer a more natural style of beekeeping.
- Less lifting and bending 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
- Good design for overwintering as it stays warm easier
- Removing comb is easy using household items
- Queen excluders aren’t needed
- Reduced varroa mite population
- Provides more beeswax than most other hives
- 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
- Very hot weather makes the comb very delicate
History of top bar hives
Basic forms of top bar hives have existed for thousands of years. The Greeks used a type of hanging basket or pot to harvest honey.
The top bar hive that 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.
What’s the difference between a Tanzanian and Kenyan top bar hive?
Tanzanian and Kenyan hives have the same basic components; however, the Tanzanian has a rectangular hive body with straight sides while the Kenyan is shaped like an inverted trapezoid – its sides slope inwards from top to bottom.
- The advantage of a Kenyan is there is more available 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.
How to build a top bar hive
If you’re handy with tools and enjoy working with wood, then making a top bar hive at home is possible. While a Langstroth requires pinpoint precision when measuring, the dimensions of a top bar don’t need to be as exact. That’s because there’s only one hive body and you don’t need to fit additional boxes onto the top of it.
Check out the video below to learn how to construct a top bar hive.
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 easy a top bar hive is to operate. Lifting comb-laden bars without bending over is much easier than moving a Langstroth deep.
Bees are given the freedom to construct their hive how they want. The queen will also enjoy the freedom to move around the hive without a queen excluder in place. The hive will be less prone to varroa mites, and it’ll tolerate cold winters easier in a horizontal hive body.
A non-modular design means there is no ability to expand a top bar hive. That means it’ll produce less honey per hive than a Langstroth or Warre will.
If you’re new to beekeeping, it’s nice to have plenty of support from experienced beekeepers. While there is a lot of introductory information on top bar hives, more specific queries aren’t covered as well. You may also struggle to find someone local that can help get started.
Image credit: Goldstar Honeybees