Beekeeping Wednesday : Top Bar Hive

by Jacob Cole

Top bar hives are a subject that has interested me for a while. Many beekeepers I know have tried it, but I still didn’t know much about this method of beekeeping, plus since I am going to Africa, where they do have mainly top bar hives, I decided to learn about it. So I did a little research, and decided to write an article about it.

Beekeeping is a very popular hobby, as I’m sure we all can agree on. But it is also fairly expensive, generally costing $400 to get started with the Langstroth method. Top bar hives are generally inexpensive, and easy to build. This provides all of the benefits of beekeeping like pollination and honey, at a very economical price. it is also all natural, as you let the bees build their own comb. This is a big plus for people concerned with the possibility of chemicals in the plastic or wax foundation that is generally used in Langstroth Hives.

Generally a Top Bar Hive consists of a simple wooden box, usually three feet long, with wooden slats (bars) over the top. These bars are where the bees will build their wax. some models have a roof, but there are others that use the slats as a roof. one of the biggest draws of this method is the openness of design. The box can be as ornamental and fancy, or plain as you want, though my favorite was one where there was a door along the side, turning it into an observation hive.

Keeping a top bar hive is a way for beekeepers to keep the bees as naturally as possible.  One way that this helps is with the frames. Bees naturally build comb in deep, catenary curves (the shape made by a chain or rope suspended by its ends). But the use of preformed foundation inside rectangular frames causes the bees to build frames out in what seems to them an un-natural form.  Bees prefer to modify the size of the cells for their needs, and this is difficult in Langstroth hives since the foundation usually has preformed cell shape. Honey bees often expand faster in a top bar hive than in a Langstroth hive.

But as with everything, there are also disadvantages to keeping top bar hives. One of the biggest disadvantages of having top bar hives is the lack of reusable, versatile equipment. With Langstroth hives, the hives expandable and the equipment is reusable. This means that it is easier to prevent swarming, and the frames last more that one season usually. In a top bar hive the wax must be crushed to extract the honey. This not only is more work since it requires extra crushing, filtering and stirring, but it wastes resources.

While I am intrigued by this style of beekeeping, I don’t think I will convert to top bar hives any time soon. It is a totally different style of beekeeping than what I am accustomed to, and while it has several advantages, the disadvantages are very strong in my opinion. I will be interested in seeing these hives in Africa, and maybe working a few as well. I hope you have learned  something about this interesting aspect of beekeeping.

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