I love our top bar hives but like any other hive design, they are prone to certain problems. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to throw in the towel and stop using them; I just want to make a few modifications that I think will correct these problems. To give you an idea of my overall experience working with my own top bar hives I’m going to do a quick list of pros and cons and then go into more detail about the ways that I’m going to modify them. The whole point of this is to give you some ideas about how you’re (hopefully) going to build or choose your own top bar hives(s).
My top bar bees are without a doubt the calmest both in the yard and during hive inspections. This is especially appreciated by someone like me who has kids and close neighbors. The more docile, the better.
Hive inspections are a breeze as long as you pay adequate attention during comb building season (nectar flow) to comb attachment. You don’t have to tear the whole hive apart at once which can be stressful to bees. You’re literally just moving one bar at a time and replacing it. It’s so much less disruptive and quicker to get through.
NO HEAVY LIFTING! This is a big deal to someone who has back problems. Langstroth supers full of honey are heavy and can be cumbersome to deal with. I’ve heard stories of beekeepers that were no longer able to keep bees in their langstroth hives due to physical problems or injuries so they switched to top bar hives. Also, you can build or stand your hive at your perfect working height and because there are no supers this height will not change.
I love the flexibility where harvesting honey is concerned. You can do one or five bars at a time. In other hive designs there is typically one harvest a year and it’s a long, hard messy day. This also allows you the flexibility to harvest honey specific to the time of year and what type of nectar they are bringing in which I really like.
With a top bar hive there is little or no equipment to store through the winter. If you keep bees in langstroth hives you can fully appreciate this. No supers full of drawn comb to figure out how to freeze and then keep safe from those tenacious wax moths. Also, those empty supers take up an amazing amount of space that I can’t really spare.
Because you harvest the comb along with the honey you will typically not harvest as much honey each season as you would with a langstroth hive where the comb is reused. This doesn’t really bother me because I also use the wax but if you’re in it for maximum honey production this might be something to consider.
Small Hive Beetles - I really hate these things. I saw a bigger problem with the SHB in our top bar hives (compared to my langstroths or warres) last year but am pretty sure that it’s because the bottom is solid wood. This makes it hard for the bees to get rid of the SHB’s. Also, I realized a bit late that they love to hide out in the knots or imperfections in the wood.
You’re going to need to do more frequent inspections during the spring when the colony is building most of the wax. For a new colony, I’d recommend getting into your top bar hive twice a week to stay on top of any comb that may be getting attached to more than one bar. You don’t want to find out later by ripping brood apart.
There are no extractors for top bar hives so extracting the honey from the comb can be a little more work. Cutting out chunks of the comb and including it in the honey you sell though will fetch a higher price.
Of all the cons listed above, the only thing that’s a deal breaker for us is the problem with SHB’s so that’s what we had in the front of our minds when designing our new and improved version. After several discussions and sketches we got in touch with an acquaintance and local woodworker who has an interest in beekeeping to help us produce some hives.
Here’s what we’re changing:
We’re taking off the solid bottom board and replacing it with a screened bottom small enough that bees can’t fit through but SHB’s and varroa mites can fall through.
Below the new screened bottom, there will be a pull out tray that can be oiled to catch and kill the varroa and SHB’s ensuring that once the bees find and toss them they will not make their way back.
This tray will be removeable completely to help ventilate the hive during hot weather but will also slide right back in during winter or if beetles and/or mites start showing up.
Also, we will seal any imperfections in the wood with beeswax prior to putting the bees in (much easier that way).
I feel really confident that these new and improved versions of our top bar hives will make a major difference in our chemical free apiary and I look forward to reporting back at the end of the season with great results.
Photos by Lindsay Williamson and Vance Lin