Top-bar hives are a style of beehive used for beekeeping. They are especially useful in areas where resources are limited, but are also increasingly popular among hobby beekeepers in industrialized nations. This article is primarily concerned with the application of these hives in non-traditional settings, such as prosperous countries as they offer particular advantages to beginning hobby beekeepers.
A top-bar hive has bars from which the honey bees attach and hang wax comb, an array of hexagonal (six sided) cells. Unlike the full four-sided frames used in a Langstroth hive, the comb on bars cannot be centrifuged to extract honey and then reused. This characteristic might lead to a lower production of honey, but the honey from clear yellow comb (comb that has not been used for brood) is of the highest quality and can be used as in-comb honey product, highly prized by some users in preference to liquid honey. This may be spread on hot toast, melting the wax, or may be chewed as a treat, releasing the honey.
A beekeeper can make top bars from any plain wood. The top bars are usually 1¼ inches to 1⅜ inches (32–35 mm) wide, depending on local conditions and the type of bee to be housed. Combs can be handled individually. The depth of the bar and the length of the bar can be whatever the beekeeper wants, but usually between 17" and 20". The hive body can be a long box, covered by a series of top bars laid side by side like a wooden keys of a marimba. The depth of the top bar hive should be 12" or less. If deeper, the weight of the comb filled with honey tends to cause it to fall off the bar into the bottom of the hive. The bees will lose access to this during the winter cluster in the hanging combs, thus increasing their likelihood of starving.
It is important to give the bees a clear starting point to build comb on each top bar. Some TBH beekeepers fashion their top bars with a V-shaped bottom to guide the comb building. Alternatively, some use a table saw to cut two closely spaced slots along the long axis of each new top bar. Either type of guide, wax line or grooves, gives bees a place to hold on to with their hooked feet. This allows a substantial "drape" of bees to form, which is always the beginning of comb building.
(There are many other variations of this same idea: for example, some beekeepers cut a single thin groove, then firmly glue a Popsicle stick or a thin slat of balsa wood into it with wood glue, thus creating a slightly protruding piece upon which the bees begin their building.)
Unlike the conventional Langstroth hives, the entrance is not part of the hive's ventilation system. This allows a great deal of flexibility in both placement and configuration.
The provision of a single entrance with a landing platform at one end will help in restricting the placement of pollen stores. Combs with pollen will tend to be in the first two combs nearest the entrance. A single entrance is also more defensible and enables the bees to combat robbing by bees from other colonies. This entrance should be protected by some sort of canopy (or an extension of the roof) to reduce or eliminate the formation of dew on the landing platform — large drops of water will tend to trap early leaving bees until the water evaporates.
The entrance should not be placed high on the hive as this will allow the escape of winter heat. Rather than place the entrance in the end wall it should be located in one of the sides of the hive, especially in the Tanzanian (straight sided) hive. This will allow the bees to access the side which they must use to access comb in the back of the hive for storing nectar.
One very effective entrance configuration is to provide a landing pad, which is an extension of a covered porch for the guard bees. All bees are prevented from flying directly into the hive by making the entrance a number of 5/16 inch (8 mm) holes in the hive end wall. Thus any bee entering the hive must land on the pad, cross the sheltered porch and walk through one of the several entrance holes. The guard bees on the sheltered porch may here inspect and communicate with the arrivals and so reject any raiders, which are recognized by not carrying food and by carrying scents from a foreign hive.
(Of course, some beekeepers instead advocate placing several small entrance openings at the top, at one end of the hive only and not of sufficient size to allow significant loss of heat, with or without landing platforms.)
Top-bar hives have a long history as the concept is believed to be several thousand years old. The earliest hives are believed to be baskets with sticks lain across the top as bars. Most modern top-bar hives are found in Africa. Owing to the low cost and ease of construction these are especially appropriate for use in non-industrialized and impoverished locations.
The two basic forms of top-bar hives (named after their countries of origin) are the Kenyan (KTBH, with sloped sides ) and the Tanzanian ("Tanz", with vertical sides ). The Tanzanian is easier to construct, while it is suggested that bees in a Kenyan hive will have much less tendency to adhere comb to the sides of the hive. Once adhered comb is freed from the side (leaving a beespace) the bees tend to not rejoin the comb, so this is not a significant problem for either hive. It is important in either type that end access or some free space without comb is available so adhered comb may be freed.
A purpose built hive may be designed for better ventilation and pest control. Usually protection against ants, hive beetles, and other predators (such as honey badgers in Africa or skunks or bears in North America) must be provided. An open, screened bottom providing both ventilation and varroa mite ejection appears more hygienic than a closed bottom. With all hives a dry, sunny location for wintering combined with good ventilation appears to reduce the incidence of nosema while regular culling of dark comb after two year's use appears to eliminate American foul brood. The culling of old comb is easier in the top-bar hive as a part of the managed progression of bar use.
Traditional top bar hives are appropriate to locations with tropical or temperate climates. Owing to the elongated horizontal configuration of the hive they are not generally believed to be appropriate for latitudes with severe winters.
Some beekeepers are experimenting with short versions of top bar hives which have ~1 cm notches cut in the center edge of the bars so that they can 'super' them (put another hive body above an existing hive body to stimulate bees to produce honey in it) with another short top bar hive, or even a standard Langstroth hive body. This method reportedly works well. These sorts of top bar hives could be insulated easily, as is done with Langstroth hives, for colder climates.
Another variant that may improve over-wintering in cold climates is a design pioneered by Phil Chandler in the UK, which has a central side entrance and two follower boards, between which the colony is confined. This leaves large, stationary air-filled spaces either side of the colony, which can be filled with insulation in winter.
Advantages over hive systems using standardized frames
Simplicity and generality of construction
The simplicity of the top-bar hive allows use of salvage materials and even boxes and containers such as half-drums, drawers and packing crates. Almost any container may be used as a hive, provided appropriate bars are placed across the top and a weather tight cover and a single defensible entrance are provided. While this is an advantage in impoverished areas, purpose-built hives offer certain advantages in pest control, durability, and defensibility. While hives in a beeyard should use identical bars for convenience in management, the construction does not require the precise dimensional control of the Langstroth type.
Ease of inspection
Unlike the Langstroth stacked box hive, there is no heavy lifting involved (unless the entire hive is to be relocated). Inspection of the combs can be carried out with far less disturbance to the bees than is the case with Langstroth hives, since only a small amount of the hive is exposed at any one time. Many modern hive designs incorporate a viewing glass window in the side of the hive with a removable wooden cover allowing for complete inspection without disturbance of the hive. This promotes more frequent inspection by the beginner as the bees are less prone to become defensive.
The recent introduction of sliding 'follower boards'  to enclose the colony within the hive body has enabled more flexible management of top bar hives and facilitated quicker inspections with minimal disturbance to the bees. (Follower boards are adjustable solid panels, which effectively reduce the size of the interior space within the hive box that is actually accessible to the bees.)
Reduced storage requirements
Since no seasonal storage of honey collection boxes ("supers") is needed, nor is a centrifugal extractor commonly used, the storage requirements are also greatly reduced.
No queen excluder required
It is not necessary to exclude the queen from the honey stores as some think is necessary using the Langstroth stacked box hive. Keeping a full bar of honey next to the brood plus appropriate introduction of bare bars adjoining the brood in early spring will keep the brood localized. Queen excluders and supers both tend to slow the ability of bees to quickly deposit nectar and resume foraging in hives that are not well-managed.
It is recommended that new or recycled empty bars be placed at each side of the brood chamber just before spring build–up as it is easier for the bees to make new comb than to move honey stores to make room for new brood. This will also ensure the maintenance of a well built honey barrier between the brood and higher grade stores. To prevent the build up of old comb in the brood chamber it may be advantageous to add new bars only on the entrance side of the brood chamber just past the pollen stores. This will cause a collection of older honey in re-used comb, which may be removed and used to produce a somewhat lesser quality of honey, as it will have additional flavors from the propolis used to strengthen and protect the brood comb. Such honey may be especially appropriate for making mead and root beer, as additional flavors will predominate. The progressive removal of brood comb appears, as noted above, consistent with control of AFB. The use of follower boards to selectively control the amount of interior space available to the bees can be helpful, particularly in young hives or when dealing with newly-captured swarms.
Raw (uncooked) honey is extracted by removing several adjacent bars (typically 3) containing honey filled comb. It is best if this comb is well filled and capped. Not only is this a properly dried honey, the taking of any empty comb is a waste of time and resources since it will have to be replaced but does not yield any honey. The several bars removed are replaced with a single empty bar. Addition of at least one bar is required as the shape of the newly adjacent combs no longer match properly, a single bar ensures proper comb alignment, with additional bars added as comb is developed. If both new yellow wax and dark reused brood comb are present these should be segregated to prepare two grades of honey. If any pollen cells are present these should be excised if a clear honey is desired. This pollen may then be mashed into a small amount of honey and put aside for anti-allergenic therapy. The removed bars are then crushed in a screen and the honey drained into a pot or bucket. Additional honey (of lower grade) may then be extracted from the wax by careful heating, done most safely in a double boiler or by placing the pot in the sun under a clear cover. Honey and honey-pollen or in-comb honey mix should be conditioned for a day or so before use. This will allow the anti-bacterial effects of the honey to be effective. Note that comb honey should not be presented dry, but should be covered in liquid honey. This is because although the honey is anti-bacterial, dry comb is not so sanitary. Comb honey is commonly sold in European countries in plastic tray containers with clear lids, without being covered in liquid honey.
Raw honey will have a much more complex flavor than the usual centrifugated commercial honey found in supermarkets. It will also have distinct flavors by season and location. Many people believe that raw honey from a local producer or a mixture of honey and pollen from a backyard hive will help to reduce pollen allergies.
While most conventional honey is packed in jars, there is an advantage with crushed comb honey to using clear poly tubs (8 or 12 oz. liquid measure). The tub may be filled to just below the top fill mark (the bottom edge recess that receives the cover). The cover is then placed and pressed down while tipping the container to allow the exclusion of air. Any small wax particles or bee parts will float to the top in about an hour. The top may be removed and replaced with a clean top, then the old top may be scraped clean into the wax leavings for further extraction. The top may then be washed and dried for future use. A 12 oz. tub will contain about one pound of honey. The exterior of the container may then be washed and dried. Stacking tubs of honey may promote leakage. If they are to be sent, the lids should be taped on, the entire tub placed inside a closeable plastic bag, and further packaged to prevent crushing in normal handling.
- John's Beekeeping Notebook
- The CalKenyan TBH, A Modified Kenyan Top Bar Hive (KTBH), adapted for California
- Tanzanian TBH
- The Barefoot Beekeeper
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: top-bar hives|
- Centerfuge extractor being used for honey extraction of a Top Bar Hive
- "Alternative" Hive Designs from BeeSource
- A Top Bar Observation Hive
- WikiBooks: Top Bar Hive, Kenyan TBH
- Dennis Murrell's Bee Natural Beekeeping
- Top Bar Hive - pictures and info
- Michael Bush's Natural Beekeeping Page
- Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives