Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Top bar hives (TBH’s) are quickly gaining popularity among beekeepers and people interested in keeping bees. They are an especially appealing option to people who want to keep bees but may not be willing or able to invest in more standard beehives and the equipment that goes with them. You can build a TBH for little or nothing using materials you have lying around and there is a lot of room for improvising. There are numerous plans for building top bar hives online so I won’t get into that here but I will highlight some of my personal experiences in an effort to shed a little light on the day to day.
Setup and Installation
Once you have your top bar hive in place you’ll need some bees to go in it. There are several options and opinions on this matter but the number one factor dominating your decision will probably be what’s most available and least expensive. If you are an experienced beekeeper then the options that will probably make most sense for you would be to catch a swarm of bees to start your TBH or make a split or artificial swarm from one of your existing hives. If neither of these avenues is an option for you then you are looking at purchasing bees either in the form of a nuc (nucleus hive) or a package of bees.
A nuc is a small five frame hive with a laying queen, worker bees, brood and some food stores. The reason I prefer a package to a nuc for a TBH is that the nuc frames are sized for a Langstroth hive so putting them into a TBH will require some messy sawing and cutting to make it fit and nothing will distress your bees like killing brood. Of course, if you have more than one TBH of the same dimensions, you could execute a nuc like split which would be a less risky option than just installing a swarm or package of bees into the hive. That being said, this probably won’t be something you'll be able to do until at least your second season of using a TBH.
A package of bees is literally a package of worker bees with a queen in a cage ready to be installed into a beehive. My number one concern installing packages of bees into my TBH’s was the bees absconding (leaving the hive). There are a few things you can do to prevent this from happening. If you have some drawn comb to put into the hive then it will automatically be more attractive to the bees. I installed my bees in the early evening just before dark when they are much less likely to fly and closed the hive for a day to encourage them to make it home and begin building comb. Once the bees begin to build comb they are much less likely to abscond. Some beekeepers put a drop of lemongrass oil in the hive as it is said to be a fragrance that the bees are attracted to. Once you have your bees in their new hive I think it’s best to feed them at least one time. If you’re going to close your bees in the hive you need to make sure they have access to a feeder.
After installation into any type of hive, most beekeepers I know agree that it’s best to leave the bees undisturbed for a week or so and just let them get used to their new space. At that time you’ll want to get into the hive for your first inspection to monitor the comb building (you will be amazed at how fast they build comb). Top bar hives do not have frames, foundation, or anything other than horizontal wood bars lying across the top of the hive for the bees to draw out their own comb so it’s essential to get into your hive for inspections about twice a week during the honey flow or comb building season so you can intervene if they start to attach their combs to more than one bar.
Inspections in a TBH are much less invasive than most other types of hives, (as you’re not breaking the hive apart, just taking a look one bar at a time) so I feel that these quick inspections don’t typically cause the bees too much stress as long as you choose a day with good weather conditions. I have personal experience with the bees connecting two or more combs together and I can tell you that it makes inspections difficult. Once the comb building slows down in early summer, inspect your hives periodically to assess the overall health of the colony and check for sufficient food stores.
When doing your inspections you’ll want to look out for small hive beetles in addition to varroa mites. If there are any knots in the wood, small imperfections or holes from screws or construction seal them off. These places are like safe havens for the small hive beetles. Make sure that whatever you use to seal up these hiding places is non-toxic.
One of the great things about TBH’s is that you have more freedom when it comes to harvesting honey. As with any other type of hive it’s best to plan on not harvesting any honey the first season. When you do harvest though it can be several bars or just one or two at a time. The one unbreakable rule is to make sure and leave your bees with plenty of honey for themselves. Most TBH keepers will cut some comb for each container of honey and then crush and strain the rest. As I discussed in my last blog Langstroth, Top-Bar or Warre?: Choose the Right Hive for You and Your Bees, comb honey sells for more money so it makes sense to include some comb in each jar.
Preparing for winter is as simple as making sure your colony is strong with sufficient food stores and no signs of a major pest problem. Keep in mind that you’ll want to start looking out for all of this while you still have time to address any potential problems and get them under control before the cold weather sets in. There is no extra equipment or supers to store so putting a TBH to bed for winter is quite a pleasure compared to the work that goes into getting my langstroth or warre hives ready and there’s no heavy lifting!
Lindsay Williamson is a stay at home mom to two beautiful boys and keeper of several hundred thousand (bee) girls. She also enjoys gardening, cooking, baking, sprouting, and brewing at her home in North Carolina that she shares with her partner Vance and their children.
1. First inspection after installing bees by Vance Lin and Lindsay Williamson
2. Brand new comb by Vance Lin and Lindsay Williamson
3. Inside Top Bar by Vance Lin and Lindsay Williamson