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Ask a Langstroth owner about their beehive and you will get a knowing smile of satisfaction of their choice. Ask a Warre owner and you will get the same.
Ask a Top Bar owner about their beehive and you will hear a passionate and stirring defense of their hive of choice!
We jest (slightly), but of the three primary beehives in use today, the Top Bar is the one that seems to engender the most passion among its users. It is a unique way of beekeeping in several ways and has a strong following with beekeepers. For a new beekeeper, the Top Bar is certainly worthy of consideration.
An important note about this lesson. This lesson primarily describes the "what", namely the design and components of the Top Bar hive. The "how" and "why" of the Top Bar will be covered in separate lessons.
The Top Bar hive has an interesting history. Its underlying principles have been used for hundreds of years, but it is often positioned as a relatively new hive design. Most consider its beginnings to come from the 1960's, in Africa. As we will see, the box design is very simple, which speaks to its popularity in developing countries where complex manufacturing plants are not always an option. Because it uses a single box, there is less of a requirement for precision engineering, since there is no need to accurately match the dimensions of other components.
There are two broad types of Top Bar hives available, although this distinction is not always referenced when buying a Top Bar hive. These are often referred to as the Kenyan and Tanzanian versions. Just to keep you guessing, though, the Kenyan hive was actually developed by a Canadian bee researcher and the Tanzanian hive is not the same as the hive originally developed in Tanzania.
The Top Bar hive is designed with the beekeeper in mind, both in terms of the construction effort and the management of the hive once installed. At a high level, it is effectively a "box on legs, with a cover". While this obscures some of the effort involved in manufacturing a Top Bar, this simplicity is one reason it has been so popular.
Unlike the Langstroth and Warre, the Top Bar is completely self-contained, with no option to add boxes or otherwise expand its volume. This obviously has some drawbacks, but also some positives.
The single box houses a number of "top bars" (hence the name). Bees build comb directly down from each of these. This means that the beekeeper inspects the Top Bar hive a comb at a time. This contrasts strongly with the other two designs where beekeepers effectively inspect a box at a time.
This approach is very beekeeper-friendly. The beekeeper need only lift a single frame weighing perhaps 8 lbs - a single comb loaded with honey - as compared to the 50 - 80 lbs necessary to lift a Langstroth box (the Langstroth beekeeper can inspect individual frames if they are in the uppermost box, but to inspect the whole beehive usually involves some lifting of boxes).
The use of top bars, as opposed to frames with foundation, is a reason that many who follow natural beekeeping principles tend to like the Top Bar.
The Top Bar has three main sections. From bottom to top...
Let's take a look at these in more detail.
Nothing complex here! The legs are often just four crossed legs, using a wood suitable to take the weight of a fully loaded box.
The Top Bar box is where most of the variations of these hives is evident, across suppliers. Aside from the slanted vs. rectangular sides difference between the Kenyan and Tanzanian hives, there are no particular standards for the length or depth of the box. Though this means there is less interchangeability between Top Bar manufacturers, this is not a significant factor since Top Bar hives are self-contained and therefore have few expansion options.
The size of the box can vary across numerous dimensions - its height, width, length, plus the angle of the sides.
The length is important. The box itself should be at least 3 feet long, but larger is preferred. Any less and our bees face the risk of filling the box before they have a chance to cap any honey. This means you don't have the chance to harvest any honey, to free space which, in turn, means your bees may well swarm.
The Top Bar hive is, reasonably enough, based on the use of top bars (note: this can be mildly confusing to a Warre owner since they use top bars too). These are simply pieces of wood laid across the top of the box. Bees will start building comb down into the box from these top bars.
Each top bar is laid across the hive, with one end at the front of the box and the other at the back. The number of top bars the hive will accommodate varies with the width of the box but, as a reference, a 42" box will use 28 top bars.
Many beekeepers will use top bars that have a small "comb guide" hanging down. This provides the bees with a head-start, of sorts, from which they draw comb. Like the Warre, the use of top bars means a foundationless hive, which is very attractive to those following natural beekeeping principles.
A common and fun option available with many Top Bar hives is a viewing window, spanning the length of the box. Given the length and height of this window, this makes the Top Bar one of the better choices if you want a non-intrusive quick scan of your bees.
The top is a hinged design that protects the hive from rain and wind.
Langstroth beehives generally start off small and are expanded simply by adding boxes. This ensures that the bees have a well-defined, relatively small area in which to start building comb. This isn't so easy with a Top Bar hive since there is just one box, the same size whether you just introduced your bees or you have a mature colony.
To address this and ensure the bees initially live in a smaller area when first introduced, Top Bar beekeepers often use a follower board. This is merely a piece of wood that segments off a portion of the box. The entrances on the other side of the board are blocked so that no bees can enter. As the colony expands the follower board can be moved along the box, providing the bees with more space. Eventually, it is simply removed.
Some follower boards also feature a hole so that the empty side of the follower board can house a feeder, connected to the hole. The bees access the feeder through that hole.