Keeping Bees: Using the Top-Bar Beekeeping Method

Conventional methods of keeping bees are effective, but top bar beekeeping is simpler, less expensive, gives bees a greater degree of freedom, and still leaves you with honey and pollinated crops.

| October/November 2009

keeping bees - top-bar beekeeping

In top bar beekeeping, the comb must be handled carefully so it doesn’t break away from the bar.


Beekeeping is a great hobby, whether you keep bees for pollination, honey, profit, medicinal uses, or all of the above. But getting started with bees can be expensive if you use conventional hives. A basic setup with bees can cost more than $200, and building conventional hives and frames is time-consuming. But there’s a simpler, less-expensive and more natural option: top-bar hives. The top-bar beekeeping method allows you to make simpler, inexpensive hives. Build them now and you can start keeping bees next spring.

In the top-bar system, you build simple box hives with slats (bars) of wood laid across the top, to which the bees attach their wax comb.

With growing concerns about colony collapse disorder and the resulting decline in the number of pollinators, gardeners might consider maintaining a top-bar hive of honeybees simply to increase vegetable and fruit yields through better pollination.

Top-bar beekeeping is for both urban and rural dwellers who want to keep bees on a modest scale, producing honey and beeswax. Above all, top-bar beekeeping is for people who love bees and understand and appreciate their role in the pollination of many wild and cultivated plants.

If your goal is to obtain the absolute maximum amount of honey regardless of all other considerations, top-bar beekeeping is not for you. This style of beekeeping can produce adequate amounts of honey, but the emphasis is on sustainability and keeping healthy bees rather than maximizing honey crops.

Natural vs. Industrial Beekeeping

Beekeeping does not have to be complicated. And you need none of the stuff in those glossy supply catalogs to keep healthy, happy, and productive bees.

5/22/2014 5:59:35 PM

We collected a swarm for our top bar hive by placing a "swarm removal ad" on Craigslist. Our feral bees have been very healthy and we haven't used any chemicals in the hive. We provide a clean water source for our bees, and protect them from Argentine ants and yellow jackets. Be sure to leave all the honey for your bees the first year. Then take only a few bars in late spring, leaving a surplus for winter. Take one comb at a time, cut it from the bar and replace the bar for the bees to build more comb. New top bar beekeepers can find more information about the basics at: "Beekeeping with a Top-Bar Hive"

tim hammond
2/27/2013 7:31:28 PM

I actually have a top bar hive and can tell you I do nothing to help the bees. They stay out all winter with very little wind break in frigid Iowa. They survive on their own. They are even surrounded by pesticide ridden corn and bean fields. I take little more than a couple bars of honey from them each year, but they do a great job of pollinating.

robert krayer
1/25/2013 12:51:55 AM

I beg to differ on many of the 'positive' points to the top bar hive. First of all, these hives are considered to be a natural method of beekeeping. The only natural thing about these hives is the fact that the bees draw their own comb. (A Langstroth hive can be set up to draw natural comb too. Just don't put in foundation, only put in strips just like the top bar hive). The top bar hive is designed for the bees to move side to side through the winter. Honeybees naturally move up throughout the winter to consume foods to survive. The idea that the bees can draw a 'curved' comb in a top bar hive is false. Beekeepers use follower boards to FORCE the bees to draw straight comb up and down. According to the author this isn't natural. By state laws comb must be removable for inspection. So, twisted comb isn't going to allow an easy inspection. Some negatives to the top bar hive is the frustration of extraction, limited honey production, and comb easily breaking. If a beekeeper truly wants to run a natural hive then the Warre hive should be used. It's labor intensive to get started but it matches the natural development of a hive. I run 50 langstroth hives and find it much easier than any other type hive out there. The bees live fine within the hive and it's easy to cut down the size of the hive for winter preparation. I have one top bar hive for demonstrating when I teach beekeeping classes. I personally don't like them, but others love them. The top bar hive does have a big advantage over the Langstroth hive. If a beekeeper has a bad back or can't lift heavy things then the Top Bar Hive should be considered. And yes, a top bar hive can survive the winters here in the Philadelphia area.

grace sutherin
4/5/2012 1:22:34 AM

I am a bit behind-hand in the timing of my hive. The structure will be done this weekend (It's April 4 today) and I'm told that, here in Texas, the bees are swarming. . I plan on using raw linseed oil with a bit of beeswax melted in, and I just read today that this mixture might not be fully dry for weeks. Considering that it's a non-toxic mixture, can I invite the bees even before it fully dries? Thanks!

judith moran
7/22/2011 10:01:37 AM

@ glenda Lots of American hobby beekeepers (myself included) successfully overwinter bee in our top bar hives.

4/4/2011 6:13:24 PM

Great to know people are trying to support the bee populations. Warnings about the top bar hive, however. The top bar design orignates from research done in hot African conditions. If you live in the northern temperate regions, the challenge is overwintering the bees. The topbar only allows for about 20 pounds of honey, whereas a 2-3 box traditional method allows for at least 40-100 pounds. Bees need enough room to cluster over the winter to generate heat. I doubt the topbar hive could successfully overwinter in our cold climate.Also bees need enough food to get through the cold dark months. I seriously question the practicality of the top bar hive with one box for northern climates. The traditional Langstroth design is time-tested and allows for enough honey stores and space for natural organic beekeeping.

mike bokros
3/20/2011 11:53:58 AM

Looking for plans like it said in Oct/Nov 2009 page 53 for top bar hive design. Not on your pages where it should be?? Please let me know the answer via email. thank you

joey teem
12/2/2009 1:18:03 PM

Great article. I would just like to make one quick point. If you live the eastern US DON'T use the water and vinegar mix to spray your bees with. The Small Hive Beetle is attracted to the cider vinegar and the first thing you know your hive will be infested with them. I learned this the hard way. Joey Teem

10/5/2009 9:13:27 AM

PS I always use Champagne bottles and wire the corks. It is also necessary to be careful with Meads because they will fool you. Be very patient and wait until the yeast is clearly dormant. If you bottle your Mead too soon and do not keep it cold you may experience popping bottles. I have had a few actually pop with enough force that it could possibly have sent glass into my eyes had I been holding it when it popped. Be careful!

10/5/2009 8:55:06 AM

Regarding Mead. I have much experience fermenting various types of Honey Wines. My most favorite types are called Melomels and are a mixture of Honey and Fruit. I would suggest that for best results use Raw Honey that has not been heated or filtered but only strained. It is not necessary to pasteurize Honey so I do not heat it at all. I do boil the water vigorously for about 15 minutes and after is has been chilled (I use a brew chiller) to below 80 degrees F I add my Honey. It is my opinion that Meads made without heating the Honey turn out better after they have aged for at least a year. Be patient with your creations. I have made some Melomels that tasted awful after the primary fermentation that turned out to be truly wonderful wines. I only use glass carboys and always use Champagne yeast. I use 6 gallon glass carboys for primary fermentation so there is room for vigorous activity when the yeast "gets going" and then I transfer to a 5 gallon glass carboy for the secondary ferment. If you use fruit that is not acidic you will have to use a mold preventer such a Potassium Metabisulphite. I know that should open a "can of worms" about adding Sulphites to your wine but it is necessary to prevent molds from growing. if you want to avoid using "chemicals" then just use Honey. Keep in mind that after the sugar has been converted to alcohol the floral essences of the honey will provide you with some very interesting aromas and flavors. My most recent batch of Melomel is Raw Virginia Wild Flower Honey and Organic Medjool Dates. The recipe given in this article calls for quite a lot of Honey. I use a maximum of 15 lbs. per 5 gallon batch. I start with 12 lbs. and add an additional 3 lbs. to the secondary fermentation. My methods take quite a long time but when it is time to bottle the end result is something I am proud of. Incidentally, Aeration can be effectively accomplished with an aquarium pump and an aeration "

troy griepentrog_1
10/2/2009 4:37:37 PM

Hi, If you're having trouble downloading the plans on our site, you can find them on Scroll down to the section "Free beekeeping articles." Troy Griepentrog

maria l. becknell
9/30/2009 10:16:39 AM

I did what you said in your e-mail and I still get a blank screen for the Top-bar Hive plans. Now what do I do?

maria l. becknell
9/30/2009 10:06:03 AM

I am also having trouble getting the plans for your top frame hive. When I click on the link all i get is a blank screen. I really want to build this hive. How can i get these plans?

9/27/2009 10:10:19 PM

I tried clicking the link on "top-bar hive plans" and all I get is a blank page with that little square of primary colors. Is there another link that shows the plans? Thank you!

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