Beekeeping has existed for thousands of years, and humans have come up with so many different ways to manage honey bees.
You’ve probably spotted the stacked wooden boxes that have become emblematic of modern beekeeping, but they’re not the only type of hive that’s popular.
One of the oldest and more common methods is to use a top bar hive. You may have never seen one before, but many beekeepers choose them over traditional Langstroth hives.
Learn all about top bar hives, what makes them different from other kinds of hives, and why so many beekeepers love them. You just might want to try one yourself!
What Is a Top Bar Hive?
A top bar hive is a horizontally-oriented beehive. It gets its name from the bars that sit along the top of the inside of the hive.
The bees will use these bars to build their comb hanging down into the hive. It’s considered a more natural way to keep honey bees because it mimics wild beehives.
There are several different styles of top bar hives, but the main difference between them is where the entrances are located in the hive.
They are generally made of wood. You can make them yourself from scratch or buy them pre-assembled and ready for bees.
History of Top Bar Hives
The top bar hive is one of the oldest designs in beekeeping. Evidence has even been found of top bar hives in ancient Greece.
This style likely started out as sticks laid across the top of a simple enclosure. This is a step up from the original skep hives because the bars can be removed during inspections and remain intact after harvesting honey.
Why Beekeepers Love Top Bar Hives
One of the most popular features of a top bar hive is that it’s closer to what a hive naturally looks like in the wild. The bees tend to like top bar hives for this reason.
Easier and less disruptive inspections are another big benefit. You can skip lifting heavy frames and boxes since each top bar loaded with honey will only weigh three to seven pounds in total.
You won’t need a big expensive extractor to get that honey into jars, either. Extractors are made to hold Langstroth frames, and the top bar comb has no foundation. All you need is buckets and strainers, and you’re good to go.
Top bar hives are much easier on the beekeeper physically. Rather than removing entire sections, you can easily pick up one bar at a time anywhere in the hive. These hives sit on legs, allowing the beekeeper to adjust the hive’s height to be most comfortable for them.
Top bar hives usually include a viewing window with shutters. This way, you can see into the hive from the outside, then close it up and keep it dark the way the bees prefer it.
Top bar hives are a beautiful way to keep bees and look nice in your apiary. You can use natural wood coated in beeswax or paint them in any style you like.
They’re also easy to build yourself and maintain over time. The simple design means you’ll have no problem replacing worn parts and keeping everything clean for your honey bees.
Downsides of Top Bar Hives
Like any piece of beekeeping equipment, hive top bars aren’t perfect.
For one, they’re less commonly used than Langstroth hives in most of the world. That may mean it’s harder to find someone near you who has used them before if you need some help. Most commercially available beekeeping equipment is also made for Langstroth hives.
When it comes to harvesting honey, the comb will need to be destroyed. Since there are no frames to spin, you’ll need to use the crush and strain method. That means more work for the bees when they need to rebuild the comb after each harvest.
You also typically harvest less honey per hive. Each frame is significantly smaller without the tall stacks you see with Langstroth hives.
For these reasons, most commercial or large-scale beekeepers would not choose these hives. They’re much better suited to backyard hobbyist beekeepers who enjoy working with their bees and sharing honey with friends and family.
How to Use a Top Bar Hive
Overall, you’ll need to perform regular inspections just like you would with any hive to make sure your honey bees are healthy.
There are a few things about top bar hives that make using them different from Langstroth hives.
Components of a Top Bar Hive
The components of a top bar hive are contained within the box or hive body. This hive style has a peaked roof that’s usually hinged to make it easy to keep open.
The top bars sit across the inside. Follower boards allow you to keep the space appropriately sized for the colony and expand as its population grows.
Top bar hives feature a window that lets you see into the hive without opening it. It doesn’t replace a true inspection, but it can help you spot things quickly, and it’s amazing to watch your bees at work!
Top bar hives can have either screened or solid bottom boards, just like Langstroths. This lets you control airflow and temperature throughout the year. The hive stands up on legs that can be adjusted to your height.
Setting Up a New Top Bar Hive
Like any hive, you want the bees to start off with the right amount of space. Too crowded or too spacious will make it difficult for them to get to work.
Start with your empty hive body on legs that are at a comfortable height for you. Use the follower boards to set up a limited area where the bees will begin building their comb and place the empty top bars inside. This way, they can more easily regulate their temperature and build comb in the right places.
Using a follower board with a hole in it will allow you to put a feeder on the other side. Feeding new bees is very helpful for them when they have to build out comb.
After first bringing your bees home, allow them to get acclimated and only look at them through the window. As they begin to fill each bar, you can expand their available space and add bars.
Inspecting a Top Bar Hive
Inspecting a top bar hive follows the same concept as a Langstroth, but it works a bit differently.
Start by looking through the window for a preliminary idea of how the bees are doing. Lift off the roof or swing it up if it has hinges. Try not to stand directly in front of an entrance while you inspect to avoid accidental stings as foragers come and go.
Starting from one side, lift each bar out carefully one at a time. Make sure to keep the comb vertical so it doesn’t break. With no foundation, the wax is much more fragile.
Look both sides over carefully, but try not to keep them out too long. Replace the bars the same way they were before once you’ve checked them out.
You’re looking for the same things in a top bar hive as any other. See how many eggs and brood cells are present, pollen and nectar stores, or any signs of illness. Be especially diligent about testing and treating for varroa mites, a challenge for almost every beekeeper.
You may want to switch between a solid and a screened bottom board as needed based on the weather you get in your area. Hot summers call for extra ventilation, while cold winters require a bit more insulation.
Try a Top Bar Hive in Your Apiary
Top bar hives are a great alternative to traditional Langstroths for many beekeepers.
Most beekeepers who use them cite easier hive inspections for both you and your honey bees. Top bar hives virtually eliminate heavy lifting, and you don’t have to bother the bees nearly as much as other hive types.
Beekeepers often point out the more natural organization of a top bar hive, making the bees more willing to use it without hesitation. It’s a much more intuitive design for the way honey bees build their hives out in the wild.
If a top bar hive seems like something that would work well for you, you should definitely give it a try to see if you like it. It’s a great way to try something new in your apiary, and you just might fall in love with it.
Learn more about all the different ways you can keep happy and healthy honey bees on our honey bee page!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.