Find out why Harry built a top bar hive and what happened to the honeybees that made it home.
What is a top bar hive?
When people think of beehives, they often imagine a white gabled hive - the pretty kind you might see in a Victorian garden. Most UK beekeepers today keep bees in a square wooden box – not quite so attractive but more practical. These hives are designed to build upwards as the colony gets bigger.
A top bar hive is quite different. It is a horizontal hive.
It differs in other ways too. Rather than having full frames for the bees to build comb on, a top bar hive just has "top" bars. These are suspended along the length of the hive. Each bar has a little strip of bees wax to help get the bees going. That’s it.
The bees build their comb from these top bars. The comb hangs down, in what a beekeeper calls “curtains”.
Why build one?
Top bar hives are really interesting. They are loved by some beekeepers and intensely disliked by others. In part, these very different feelings spring from the hive's design.
Hives are just a box for bees to live in – a top bar hive is about as simple as it gets. They seem quite easy to build BUT because they are simple, they don’t have any of the rinky-dinks beekeepers have developed over the years. So, depending on your beekeeping style (more on this later) they can present some interesting beekeeping challenges.
Harry wanted to build one because beekeepers love a challenge!.
How did Harry build his hive?
The hive was built from ordinary lumber and other easily available bits and pieces. It was made long enough to hold three small colonies, or one large colony that has space to expand width ways.
It was built at waist height (to help his back) and included an open mesh floor for ventilation. He made sure the top bars were set the right width apart so the combs would be centred on the bars. Most importantly, he built a jig to keep the top bars in line.
What happened next?
Once Harry had worked out how to get it out of the basement (it was big!) he moved the hive to our training apiary on the Notgrove estate.
The next thing was to populate it with bees. This is one of the challenges of a top bar hive. It doesn't hold frames that can be moved from a standard "frame" hive. As swarming season was underway, Harry caught a swarm. By April, the hive had bees in it.
Over the next few months, the colony grew very quickly. Those who came on our bee keeping courses and experiences were amazed to see the beautiful white comb - because there is no foundation, the comb's full beauty is revealed.
The colony grew so quickly that before the season was even over, it was big enough to swarm itself. Swarming shows there are enough bees and stores for the colony to split in two - so they were definitely happy in their new home.
What are the pros and cons of a top bar hive?
There are positives and negatives as regards keeping bees in a top bar hive. The challenges are for the beekeeper rather than the bees:
The hive can be built from easily available materials. In many parts of the world, this is a big advantage. In the UK, on balance, it's cheaper than a “standard” factory made hive. You will need some space, time, and tools plus you do need to be pretty handy. You can buy a ready made hive but check the design to make sure it will keep the combs aligned.
Finding bees to populate the hive can be a challenge. If you are new to beekeeping, we wouldn't recommend starting out with a swarm.
Without foundation, the bees will build their comb as they need. Because of this, some beekeepers consider a top bar hive a very “natural” way to keep bees. However, it is quite possible to keep bees in a "standard" hive on "foundation-less" frames.
The curtains of comb are very delicate. You need to take care handling them (especially on a warm day).
Without the wax “foundation” traditionally provided by the beekeeper, the bees will use a lot of energy (for that read honey) to make their comb. So, if your main aim is to harvest honey, you will probably get less than from a “standard” hive.
The only way to extract honey will be to crush and press the combs. With this method, the wax that inevitably gets mixed in gives honey with a particular look/taste. It's great but will be different to the clear honey you might be envisaging.
If feeding or treating for varroa are part of your beekeeping routine, the non-standard nature of the hive will make these things a challenge unless you plan for them in the design of your hive.
Hive design is important too because it’s easy for the top bars to drift out of place. This won’t matter at all to the bees but as they build their comb it may get harder and harder for the beekeeper to move the bars without damage. The jig idea certainly helped.
Harry enjoyed building this hive and thinking through how it would work in practice.
From a beekeeping point of view, the “non-standard” nature of the hive definitely requires some thought - because of this, a top bar hive is not something we’d suggest for a completely new beekeeper.
All beekeeping styles require some knowledge. Most information you'll find assumes you'll be keeping bees in a "standard" hive. Absorbing this and then applying it to a top bar hive might be a step too far for a newbie.
The top bar hive is often associated with "natural" or "sustainable" beekeeping but you don't need a top bar hive to follow this style of beekeeping. We'd suggest getting your personal beekeeping approach sorted first - then perhaps check out the top bar!
If your main beekeeping aim is to harvest lots of honey, you might also think twice about this type of hive.
Having said all of this, a top bar hive is a great thing for anyone interested in bees to see. It's a good source of discussion.
Most of all, it’s an amazing insight into the bee’s delicate but prodigious work. Truly awesome.
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For more information about foundation-less frames read this excellent article by The Apiarist at :