Top-bar hives are becoming increasingly popular with beekeepers as they help encourage bees to colonize in a more natural way than Langstroth beehives. The horizontal top-bar hives have bars across the tops for the bees to build their comb off of and more accurately mimic the tree hollows and nooks that bees would inhabit in the wild.
If you have decided to go with a top-bar beehive, you may be eagerly awaiting your first colony of spring bees. Installing them in the top bar frame is a little different than the process with an upright hive, and has some unique requirements.
Receive Bees by Mail
While it may seem unlikely, bees are commonly purchased from apiaries and then sent to you through the US Mail. Your post office will give you an urgent call upon the arrival of the hive, and you can go pick up a wire-covered box filled with honeybees. Bees are sold by the pound, and a new colony is usually a three pound package.
There are many different kinds of bees, and you should research your area and the bees most hardy to your weather conditions before making your purchase. Once you’ve determined the breed of bees you want, you’ll either get a hive with a marked or unmarked queen.
When you pick up your colony at the Post Office, or at a local beekeeper’s, the queen will be in a small cell separated from the rest of the hive by a cork.
Occasionally, apiaries will block the queen’s cell only with a sugary substance that the worker bees can chew through, but usually you will have to remove a cork between the queen and her bees.
The queen is not immediately released into the colony, but should spend her first few days in the compartment while they adjust to her scent.
Install Follower Boards
Before you install the colony in your hive, make sure that only one of the entrances is open. Bees need to defend their hive against possible intruders, and when the colony is starting they won’t have enough guard bees to watch all of the entrances. Block the other entrances with corks so they will not be overwhelmed.
Top-bar hives also have blocking boards that can be placed to limited the number of bars your bees have access to. These are called follower boards, and placing them so your bees can move around between 8-10 bars will prevent them from potentially swarming. Giving them too much space at first will discourage them from believing they can use the space, and therefore they might leave.
Insert a Mason-Jar Feeder
You should also have a feeder installed in the hive. One of your follower boards will have a small hole in it so the bees can access the other third of the hive, and the feeder goes on the other side of that follower board.
A top-bar bee feeder can be created by puncturing a few holes in the top of a mason jar and placing it upside down with a few pieces of wood to lift it so the bees can get under it to drink. Fill the mason jar with a 1:1 mixture of sugar and water and check it regularly to ensure the hive has enough to eat.
Installing the Bees
After your hive is set up and you are decked out in protective gear to install your new friends, remove the top and several of the top bars so that you can put the bees into the hive.
The container the bees come in will be wire with a wooden top and bottom and a can of sugar water blocking a hole in the wooden top. Remove the can gently and you will have a large open hole in the box of bees. You should see a yellow strip which you can pull to remove the queens container.
The worker bees will swarm around the queen’s chamber, so be careful removing it from the colony.
After extracting the queen from the bee box, remove the cork from the end of her container and use the yellow strip to attach her to one of the top bars. Once she is installed in the hive, you can add the rest of the colony.
There are some different opinions on how to get the rest of the colony in, but the most common one is pretty simple: Turn the box of bees upside down over the opening in the hive and shake it firmly to remove the bees. They will fall out in a large clump, straight into the hive.
Replace all of the top bars and the top of the hive, and don’t disturb your bees for at least 3-5 days while they settle in.
After 3-5 days, check on the hive to ensure the queen has made it out of her container and your bees are starting to make comb. You can also incorporate a window into the design of a top bar beehive, so you can keep checking up on them without disturbing the colony.
After your bees start making comb and foraging the local flowers, you are well on your way to a successful honey harvest. Check your hive regularly and make sure they have enough space and food, and you should have a very happy colony!
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200 year old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living’s site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.
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