Introduction

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.

Top Bar Hive

History

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 hive 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.

Got that?

Two main types of Top Hive?
The Kenyan Top Bar hive has a box with sloped sides, whereas the Tanzanian Top Bar hive has a rectangular box.

Design Intent

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).

Is the Top Bar better for bees?
When a frame is inspected there is no disturbance to bees on other frames. This compares to the considerable disturbance bees in a Langstroth might experience when a box is moved or opened.

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.

Design Overview

The Top Bar has three main sections. From bottom to top…

  • Legs: Elevates the entire hive to a convenient waist-high level, making for one of the most comfortable experiences available to the beekeeper
  • Box: A single box in which all the action takes place
  • Top: To protect the hive from the elements

Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Individual Components

Legs

Nothing complex here! The legs are often just four crossed legs, using a wood suitable to take the weight of a fully loaded box.

Box

Dimensions

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.

Top Bars

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.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.

Window

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.

Top

The top is a hinged design that protects the hive from rain and wind.

Options

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.

Summary

Pros

  • Self-contained: The Top Bar is a wonderfully straightforward and simple design, with everything you – and your bees – need in one elegant package
  • Convenient for the beekeeper: The waist-high box is extremely easy to access
  • No heavy lifting: The box uses relatively light top bars, from which comb is drawn by the bees. These only weigh around 8 lbs when fully loaded with honey
  • Easy to harvest honey: Harvesting honey from a single comb from a Top Bar hive is very straightforward
  • Natural beekeeping: The lack of foundation is consistent with natural beekeeping principles

Cons

  • Expansion options. Since the Top Bar is a self-contained unit it has a pre-determined, non-expandable capacity
  • Lower honey yield: The single box has less capacity than a multi-box Langstroth or Warre hive. The Top Bar hive is not focused on large-scale production of honey
  • Comb fragility: Like a Warre, the foundationless approach means bees create their own comb. The fragility of this comb can initially be a challenge for the new beekeeper

10 thoughts on “A Detailed Look at the Top Bar Beehive”

  1. Penny Henderson

    Hi
    Can you please explain the new bee kit Auto flow and why so many bee keepers give it a thumbs down on this box ?
    Also , please explain the pros and cons . Thank you
    Penny Henderson

  2. Hi Ron, Great answer to Lynn’s comment. But as a newbie, will you explain cross comb for me? Thanks, Jennifer

  3. Hello Lynn,

    The simple answer to your question is that you don’t extract honey from foundationless comb. At least not in the sense that an extractor is used. Foundationless honey comb can very nicely be cut into beautiful comb honey if that is what you want. Something you cannot get from a frame with foundation. But I’m sure you knew already knew that. I just wanted to make note that it makes great comb honey.

    The way honey is “extracted” from foundationless comb is usually done two ways. Some folks will take a hot decapping knife and remove the capping’s from one side of the comb prior to laying it across the top of something like a large sieve. They allow it to drain out of the comb overnight before turning it over and doing the other side. Its a slow process but it does work and naturally this works best in a warm room.

    The most common way to extract honey from foundationless comb is to use what is known as the “crush and strain” method. I even use it for my Langstroth frames that contain foundation when I have a small batch and its not worth messing up my extractor. You can look up crush and strain and find video’s about it, but basically you cut the comb from the top bar, place it in a food grade container and crush it. There are different ways used to allow the honey to drain away from the wax, but basically the comb is crushed and the honey drained by gravity through a stainless steel sieve (or two) to remove wax and bee parts. The drawback is that this method destroys the comb, but its an excellent way to obtain raw honey direct from the hive.

    Just my opinion, but I believe we will see a move away from top bar hives to what is known as the long hive for two reasons. The first is that long hives use Langstroth frames and therefore honey can be extracted without destroying the comb. And yet a majority of the frames can eventually be foundationless just like a top bar hive if that is what the beekeeper wants. The second reason is that with the use of a traditional Langstroth frame a new hive can be established without the mess of cross comb that is so commonly found in new top bar hives. Again, just my opinion, but if you’ve ever had to deal with cross comb you know that its not a place you ever want to visit again. And once straight comb is established with the use of frames, foundationless frames can be used to replace frames with foundation in an alternating pattern to allow the bees to build the comb they want and need.

    I hope that helps answer your question Lynn.

    1. This was very interesting. Thank you again.

      I guess I am still confused though about how you extract honey from foundationless comb.

  4. Is the Top Bar recommended for colder climates? It seems to me there would be problems with clustering and accessing their food supply during the winter.

  5. We are newbies to this year and at the suggestion of a mentor started with top bar hives. The article is correct. If you have top bar hives, you definitely develop a passion not only for the type of hive itself but especially the “ladies” in residence!!! You become more attuned to them and their needs as the top bar hive allows you to see more of what they are doing on each inspection. Because you are not disrupting the whole hive with each inspection, the bees seem to maintain a gentle disposition. We have never had to smoke them – even the two feral swarms we caught this spring. If nothing else, give a top bar hive a try. For us – “taking care of the ladies” has become a family affair with even the smallest of the children wanting beesuits so they can help! They now go out of their way to plants things in the garden and yard for “our bees”. The lessons learned may be significantly during different than from other types of hives.

  6. Although I see the weight advantages to this approach, I don’t like the design at all. I definitely dislike the lack of expandability of this hive. And I also like the lack of productiveness in honey.

  7. In the box description it states the box needs to be more than 4 feet long. Yet, in the bar discussion is states a 42″ box will use 28 bars. Is a 42″ box referenced because it is a common size that is available in manufactured boxes? And if so, why? It is less than 4 feet.

    1. A good spot and a typo on our part. We’ve corrected this, with thanks. The 42″ width is a reasonably common size and we’ve seen this in a number of designs (including the Cedar or Sugar Pines we sell). However, unlike the Langstroth, with it’s precisely defined deep, medium and shallow boxes, the Top Bar doesn’t have a particular set of dimensions to which everyone confirms. Thank you again for bringing this to our attention, Arlene.

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