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What to Know About Top Bar Hives

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The top bar hive has emerged as a popular alternative to the Langstroth for people who are looking to avoid heavy lifting and/or enjoy a more natural approach to beekeeping.

Introduction

The top bar hive has emerged as a popular alternative to the Langstroth for people who are looking to avoid heavy lifting and/or enjoy a more natural approach to beekeeping. It is a horizontal hive, enabling beekeepers to inspect the entirety of the hive without moving heavy supers.

There are several different top bar hive styles. The most distinguishing difference among them is the location of the entrance, but they all contain the same basic components and operate with the same basic premises. The beehive dimensions are wider but shorter than the more common Langstroth.

Components

Top Bars

This unique component is what gives the top bar hives its name. Instead of using frames like a Langstroth hive, top bar hives have bars across the top of the hive body. Typically, the bars are tapered and beveled at the bottom encouraging the bees to build their comb straight along each bar. They’re designed to provide the appropriate amount of bee space between comb sections as well as between the comb and the hive body.

Roof

The roof fits over the hive body and leaves attic space between the bars and the peak of the roof. I use this space to hold insulation during the winter months. In hotter climates, many beekeepers will paint the roof white to reflect some of the heat from the sun. In cooler climates, many beekeepers will paint the roof black to help hold the heat.

Depending on the style, some roofs are hinged and lift open. Others, like mine, lift off completely. Functionally, both are equal, beekeeper’s preference is the determining factor.

Hive Body

The horizontal hive body is angled to hold the catenary curve of naturally build comb and is long enough to hold all a healthy hive needs: lots and lots of bees, comb, pollen, brood, propolis, honey, etc. Using the follower boards, discussed below, beekeepers can adjust the size of available space in hive body as the size of the hive grows.

Legs

The legs not only raise the entrance up to a level at which the bees are comfortable flying, they can also be made any length to make the hive an appropriate inspection height for any size person. I’m short (aka concentrated awesome for those of you lucky enough to be in the same category), so I have my hive low enough that I can remove the lid and lift out each bar without feeling as though I’m stretching and straining my arms. For my taller awesome friends, the legs are set higher so they don’t feel they’re in a constant bend while inspecting the hive.

Window and Shutter

One of my favorite aspects of the top bar hive I have is the shuttered window. Unless I’m looking in the window, the shutter is left on to keep the hive dark (bees prefer that), but it’s amazing to pull the shutter off for a few moments and watch the bees through the window.

While not as thorough as a full inspection, it does provide a picture of hive health and also a safe way for visitors to get a peak at the hive activity without needing to open the entire hive. For me, it brings forth the same excitement and wonder as seeing the plexiglass bee hive display at the Museum of Science as a child.

Follower Boards

As mentioned above, the follower boards are used to adjust the open space within the hive body to accommodate the growing hive. Typically, one follower board is solid while the other has a bee size hole in it. The solid one will be used all year and can also be used to hold fondant as extra food for the winter. The follower board with the hole is used to separate the bee living space from the inner-hive feeder.

Feeders

Inner Hive Feeder

Inner hive feeders usually consist of a mason jar with holes in the lid which is inverted on a block of wood with just enough space for bees to get to the dripping liquid and feed. This feeder will be separated from the living space in the hive using the follower board with the hole allowing bees to access the feeder without interfering with the hive development.

Fondant Feeder

The inner hive feeder contains liquid, which will freeze and cannot be used to supplement honey stores during the winter. Instead, supply the bees with fondant – a thick, paste-like sugar solution akin to the inside of maple candy. The challenge is that the fondant must be placed in a manner that is accessible to the hive cluster as the move through the food stores.

To solve this, attach the fondant to the solid follower board using either rubber bands or covering with mesh which has large enough holes for the bees to eat through.

Mesh Bottom with Removable Bottom Board

Environmental control is an important task in all bee hives. Most top bar hives are designed with a removable bottom board and mesh bottom to assist with environmental regulation and mite monitoring.

The mesh bottom is small enough that bees can’t fly in and out of it, but large enough that debris falls through it. The bottom board should be removed when lows are consistently above 60°F. Once the bottom board is removed, sticky board can be placed below the mesh bottom to catch the debris, including mites. By counting the mites over a given period of time, beekeepers can determine if there’s an infestation or not.

Operation

Weekly inspections need to be performed. As the hive grows, follower boards can be moved during the inspections. Most top bar hive beekeepers do not use prophylactic treatments of any kind and reactive treatments, if needed, are applied as necessary during the hive inspection.

Inspection Process

Just as with the Langstroth hive, before you don your bee gear, understand why you’re opening the hive. What are you looking for? Brood? Honey? The queen? Next, and still before you put on the bee gear, check the weather. A warm, sunny day is ideal because most of the foragers will be out doing their foraging thing – meaning you’re less likely to be stung.

With bee gear finally on, be sure to avoid standing in front of the entrance. As you approach the hive, watch for bee activity and listen. Are the bees buzzing low and rhythmically or higher pitched and more frantically? Frantic, high pitched buzzing means they’re already stressed and you may want to come back later. If you like, use smoke or sugar water spray to calm the bees. Note that if you use smoke, it’s a good idea to puff some into the entrance, but that in doing so, you will cause the bees to think there’s a fire and in response, they will start to eat their honey stores.

When you’re ready, lift or remove the lid. Start at one side and remove one bar. If bars are stuck with propolis, use the hive tool to gently release it. Lift it straight up and rotate to view both sides of the comb. Be very careful to keep the comb vertical. If it tips to one side or another the weight of it will cause it to fall off the top bar and be destroyed, along with its contents. Replace that bar in the same orientation as it was removed and move on to the next one. See this video for a demonstration on handling the bars without dropping the comb.

Continue this process until you’ve looked at all the bars containing comb. If there are fewer than three empty bars, move the follower board to provide two more empty bars. Too few empty bars will lead the bees to think they’ve outgrown the hive space and swarm prematurely. Too many empty bars will cause the bees to build their comb across the bars, known as cross-combing, and render them un-inspectable. When you’ve looked at all the bars and moved the follower board as necessary, replace the lid.

What to Look for

No matter the hive type you use, healthy signs and warning signs will be fairly similar, so the list below is going to have many similarities to the Langstroth list.

Healthy Hive

1. Capped brood comb in a tight, compact pattern with few or no gaps indicates a healthy queen

2. New eggs. These look like tiny grains of rice inside uncapped comb with a clear gel surrounding them. Eggs indicate an active queen within the last 3 days.

3. New comb. White and waxy, new comb indicates an active hive preparing for brood and a healthy honey flow. You will also be able to see signs of this through the viewing window.

4. Nectar, pollen, or honey in the cells proves your foragers are out and doing their jobs.

5. Drone brood in about 10% to 15% of the brood cells. Drones help increase genetic diversity and may also perform environmental control functions within the hive.

Warning Signs

1. Supercedure cells. These are queen cups pulled from the center of the comb, rather than the edge, and usually mean the hive has determined the queen is unfit.

2. Swarm cells. Queen cups drawn from the edge of the comb; these typically indicate the hive is preparing to swarm. Swarms are a sign of a healthy hive, but if you’re looking to have more bees or share them with a fellow beekeeper, this is a good time to prepare for a swarm split.

3. Drone brood in more than 20% of brood cells may be signs of a “laying worker” situation where the queen has died or somehow gotten out of the hive and the female (worker) bees have begun laying unfertilized eggs.

4. Signs of disease such as brown-ish eggs in uncapped comb or a high mite count on the sticky board.

Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

Low start up costsDifficult to find local mentor
Easy on back and bodySpecific bar handling technique
Inspections are fairly non-invasiveLess honey produced
Closer to nature’s wayNon-standardized parts…so far

Summary

For beekeepers seeing to do things closer to nature’s way and/or wanting a less physical demanding hive solution, top bar hives are a good choice. For more information, see our Hive and Equipment Choices article.

For more details on top bar hives, check out this video.

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