The Langstroth is a popular hive that beekeepers around the world trust to keep their bees in. But it’s not the only style of hive worth considering. Depending on what you’re looking for in a hive, you may prefer a top bar hive, which has grown in popularity since the 1960s.
The top bar and Langstroth are two distinct types of hives with features and benefits that will appeal to different styles of beekeeping. In this comparison guide, we’ll explain how a Langstroth and top bar differ, to help you decide which is right for you.
Quick tip: if you’re short on time skip down the page to our handy comparison table of the top bar vs. Langstroth. It sums up all the main points.
What’s the difference between top bar and Langstroth hives?
A top bar hive consists of one horizontal box that sits on legs. It is filled with frameless top bars for the bees to naturally build comb how they choose. The top bar hive is easier to manage and doesn’t require heavy lifting.
You can get lots more detail on what top bar hives are here.
The Langstroth is a more hands-on style of vertical hive that has separate modular boxes for the honey bees’ brood and honeycomb. Unlike the top bar hive, a Langstroth can easily expand with the colony. However, using frames with foundations requires extra commitment to managing the hive.
Check out our guide to Langstroths here.
Is the top bar hive or Langstroth best?
The Langstroth is an excellent hive for beekeepers focused on honey production, queen rearing, bee removals, and pollination work. It’s also versatile enough to allow a wide range of management options.
The top bar hive is best for hobbyist beekeepers interested in natural beekeeping, producing beeswax, or wanting to avoid heavy lifting. If you’re looking for a low-cost option, then building your own top bar hive is affordable and requires no additional extraction tools.
The above explanation is a quick overview of the two hives. Let’s take a closer look at the TBH and Lang to get a better idea of how each one works.
Hive boxes are where the colony live, raise their brood, and store food resources. The Langstroth and top bar have completely different designs which each have their pros and cons.
A top bar hive has one large horizontal box that can range in size depending on who makes it. Its dimensions don’t need to be as exact as there are no additional boxes to fit perfectly on top.
Top bar hives will appeal to beekeepers who don’t want to bend or lift cumbersome boxes. Instead, one box sits on legs to reduce bending and it remains in one place so long as bees are inside.
An added benefit of any horizontal hive is overwintering. The colony will find it much easier to keep this type of box warm as the hot air doesn’t rise. There are also no issues with condensation forming inside the hive, a big concern for vertical hives.
Langstroths use rectangle boxes that need to conform to exact dimensions so that they can fit on top of each other. You can review the Langstroth hive dimensions here. Anyone looking to make their own Lang boxes will need to be handy at woodwork and measure precisely.
The Langstroth is designed to easily expand as the hive swells in numbers. This feature provides a massive advantage for beekeepers, reducing the chance of the hive swarming and producing large quantities of honey.
Langstroths use frames that can be inspected individually. Although beekeeping styles can vary, the idea is to perform weekly or monthly inspections. The beekeeper may check for varroa mites, inspect brood, repair comb, look for the queen, or cut out unwanted propolis.
The need for hands-on beekeeping comes from the many new pests and diseases that have migrated to areas where bees used to live in peace. If you want to actively manage your apiary, then a Langstroth is the best choice.
Top bar hives are more about letting the bees manage their own affairs. With just one box and no frames, there’s less scope for beekeeper involvement. TBH owners can still perform limited inspections, like checking for varroa mites. But the overall approach is more about leaving the bees to look after themselves.
Box management will vary depending on which type of hive you choose.
A top bar hive doesn’t require any box management as it is a fully contained hive. This isn’t ideal for anyone that wants to maximize honey output.
On the other hand, beekeepers that want to avoid lifting boxes and adding supers will love the top bar. It’s easy to manage and looking inside the hive only requires lifting a light lid that may be on hinges.
A bonus of owning this horizontal hive is that there’s no need to use up storage space with lots of spare boxes.
Managing boxes in a Langstroth is much more involved. As they start to reach capacity, an extra super or two get added to the top of the hive. This takes more work and during the warmer months, you’ll need to stay vigilant, or your hive may quickly outgrow its home and swarm.
Inspections are also more work with a Langstroth. Instead of just lifting a lid, boxes need to be moved. This is disruptive for the bees and may be tough work for some people. Keep in mind medium supers full of honey can get heavy.
The roof of a Langstroth is often flat and relatively lightweight for removing. A heavy item like a brick or straps may be needed to keep the top securely in place during high winds.
Hive top bars usually have pitched roofs and are also easy to remove. Some models come hinged, so the beekeeper only needs to fold it back. This is a handy feature and there’s less chance of crushing bees.
If you’re looking to maximize honey output, then a Langstroth is your best option. Adding supers to the top of the hive allows the colony to quickly build out honeycomb.
Top bar hives produce useful amounts of honey too. However, to harvest honey the entire comb is cut from the bar. That means the hive suffers a setback as it needs to rebuild the comb. With a Langstroth, the honey is extracted using special equipment and the comb can then be returned to the hive.
Beekeepers looking to avoid the cost of expensive extraction equipment should opt for a TBH. Harvesting is simple and only requires a kitchen knife to slice off the comb. It can then be crushed and strained.
The Langstroth hive offers more flexibility when compared to the top bar hive. It is well suited to commercial operations and beekeepers who actively manage their hives.
The operational benefits of a Langstroth over a top bar include:
- Can split fast-growing hives.
- Increase hive size by adding a super.
- Easily rear queens.
- Frames with foundations make it easier to transport hives without damage.
The Langstroth’s flexibility can also create problems for a beginner beekeeper. It is easier to mess things up which can be a liability. Some hobbyist beekeepers who don’t want to get too involved with their hive will be better off with a top bar.
In countries like Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, top bar hives are harder to source than Langstroths. You may not be able to find a local beekeeping equipment supplier that stocks them, but they’re available online. If you’re good at working with wood, then making your own top bar hive is cheap and relatively simple.
Langstroths are sold everywhere which means getting spare parts and the correct equipment is also easy.
Summary comparison: Langstroth vs. top bar hive
|Top bar hive||Langstroth|
|Hive boxes||One large horizontal box that is often 40” or longer.||Larger rectangle boxes around 20” in length.|
|Inspection philosophy||Bees manage their own affairs, with occasional inspections.||Regular, hands-on management of each frame.|
|Box management||No moving of boxes. A separator can be used to increase or decrease hive volume.||Supers added to the top of the hive.|
|Honey production||Good quality honey in high quantities. Frequent small harvests throughout the year.||Excellent quality, pure honey in high quantities. Can do one harvest each year.|
|Flexibility||Less flexible – unable to move the hive, split, or rear queens.||More flexible – can split the hive, rear queens, and transport the hive.|
|Hive availability||A little harder to locate in some locations.||Easy to find in most places.|
The top bar hive and Langstroth are both excellent hives that have their own set of pros and cons. Most fit and healthy beekeepers who are excited by the challenge of managing hives will do well to choose a Langstroth. It is a flexible hive that will provide lots of honey if you play your cards right.
The Langstroth takes more work, and you’ll need to make more decisions. Be prepared to make mistakes that could cost you in the first few years. Once you gain some experience, the seasonal tasks become easier, and decisions are more informed.
The top bar hive is also an excellent option, especially if you want to be less involved in managing the hive. Inspections are still needed, but they’re less frequent and no heavy lifting is required.
You can also produce a lot of honey from a top bar hive. However, you’re limited by the size of the box as it can’t be expanded with extra supers.
Without the need for expensive extraction tools, this hive is good for beekeepers on a budget. Some everyday kitchen tools like a potato masher and kitchen knife are all you’ll need.