One of the great things
about beekeeping is the many ways that bees can be housed. The Kenya-style "top
bar" hive is a lower cost alternative to the standard movable-frame hive, but
produces less honey. I experimented with top bar hives in the early 1980's, and then
used them when serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji. I still
occasionally maintain one or two Kenya-style top bar hives.
My friend Petero (right) inspects a hive by
removing one top-bar to give some working room, then lifts each comb to check colony
development and condition. Each comb is returned to the hive in the proper order.
The Kenya top bar hive has been used
extensively in development work because it is easy to build and its relatively low
cost. Ordinary lumber will do nicely. This hive design is often practical for
small-farmers in developing countries.
The entrance is best built on the end of the
hive, not the middle of the side as shown left. Bees tend to build their brood nest
near the entrance, so an entrance at the end allows a beekeeper to harvest honey from the
opposite end. No queen excluder needed!
There is only one critical dimension
in a top bar hive. The top bar width must be about 1 and 3/8 inch wide, or just
slightly wider. This is because honey bees like to build their combs this distance
A top bar length of 19 inches is also
convenient, so the top bar will fit into a standard hive. This is useful for
starting comb and brood rearing in a standard hive, for later transfer to a top bar hive.
A line of beeswax or a 1/2
inch strip of wax foundation helps the bees building the comb in the right places.
The walls of a top bar hive are sloped inward
towards the bottom so the bees will build less comb attachment to the walls.
In nature, bees attach comb to the ceiling and often
to walls, but rarely
to the floor. Taking advantage of this, the
top bar hive has walls that slope inward towards the bottom. The bees
behave as if the walls were a floor, and attach far less brace comb. This makes the comb easy to remove.
The comb in top bar hives
is more fragile than in standard hives, because it doesn't have wooden frames surrounding
Care must be taken not to turn the comb
sideways. The comb must be handled in ways that use the
comb's own geometric strength to advantage. It can even be turned upside down.
Practice makes for good handling!
Extracting honey from a top bar hive is done by
cutting the comb off the top-bar, leaving about 1/2 inch of comb so that the bees will be
able to rebuild correctly.
Top bar hives are not a new idea. The picture on the right shows a Greek
movable comb hive described in the year 1682, nearly two centuries before Lorenzo
Langstroth is credited with popularizing the "bee space".
The woven wicker basket walls of this hive
slope inward similar to today's top bar hives. The sticks on top were placed about one and
a half inches apart and were rounded on their underside, so the bees would build comb in
the desirable direction. A basket lid (not shown) normally covered the hive.
of a top bar hive:
one critical dimension for construction (1 & 3/8")
area exposed when handling bees. Great when working mean bees or when there is no
storage of supers
beeswax, since the honey comb is crushed to extract the honey. Comb honey production
is also an option.
Disadvantages of top bar hives
to get advice from experienced beekeepers, since their advice is typically geared towards
flexibility in swapping combs between colonies, since the combs are not built uniformly
are more fragile, especially in cooler weather. The fragile combs
can make transporting hives difficult when they have a lot of honey in
a higher level of knowledge about bees to be an effective beekeeper.
I think top bar hives are
interesting for hobby
beekeepers, and also for use in developing countries. However, I recommend regular framed bee
hives for most beginners and those interested in efficient honey production.
An article that I wrote on top bar beekeeping
was published in Bee Culture magazine in December, 1986.