Abuzz Over Top-Bar Beekeeping

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In top-bar beekeeping, bees build a comb on a single beam of wood rather than a frame. The comb must be handled carefully.

When it comes to building a more self-sufficient lifestyle, food is fundamental. You tell us, via our Editorial Advisory Group surveys, that you want gardening articles as much as, if not more than, articles on any other subject. In this issue, we cover two topics essential to growing your own food: winter food production using greenhouses and low tunnels, and a less expensive way to keep honeybees to pollinate your crops: top-bar beekeeping.

As we report in Colony Collapse: Are Potent Pesticides Killing Honeybees?, honeybees are in big trouble, and nobody really knows why. Could be pesticides. Could be a new disease. Could be the malnutrition and stress that results from expecting bees to thrive on monocultured crops. Most likely it’s some combination of all these factors that is causing billions of bees to die mysteriously.

But if you grow a food garden, you need to have bees around. Even if you have no interest in the sweet honey they produce, you need them to pollinate many of your crops, including cucumbers, squash, strawberries, raspberries and even tomatoes. Because honeybees store their winter food in a form so delicious to humans, and because they are so good at pollinating so many different crops as they produce honey, humans have developed hive systems to maximize honey production and efficiently remove honey. But these systems can be pricey for home gardeners — upward of $200 for a hive body, frames, and a starter batch of bees with a queen. These days, that’s not an investment everyone can make.

It’s funny how we can sometimes lose sight of simpler ways of doing things. For thousands of years before modern beekeepers invented those pricey hive systems, humans had been inviting bees to help in their gardens. So we were excited when we came upon top-bar hives. Conventional hives depend on precise construction, using a set of wooden frames containing sheets of pre-formed wax that guide the bees to produce their honeycomb in a specific shape.

In contrast, a top-bar hive is basically just a box that can be easily built from scrap lumber, with wooden bars laid across the top. Each bar contains a strip of wax to signal to the bees where to build the comb. Not only are top-bar hives simple for gardeners to build, they let bees produce their honeycomb in a more natural shape. To learn more, read Keeping Bees.

Every spring, bee colonies that make it through the winter in good shape will swarm, meaning they will produce a second queen, and some of the worker bees will leave with the new queen to seek a location for a new hive. Top-bar hive experts say you can sometimes attract a swarm to a hive by baiting it with lemongrass oil. Or, you can contact local beekeepers and they may be willing to deliver a swarm to your hive if they remove it from a location where it was not wanted. Bees for free!

All this means you can start and keep a top-bar hive for little or no cash. You’ll get more food from your garden, thanks to higher yields of bigger fruit and vegetables, plus the bonus of honey in years when bees build up a good supply. Best of all, you’ll have the satisfaction of participating in an age-old partnership that benefits bees and humans alike.