Winter In A Top Bar Hive

Reader Contribution by Kim Flottum
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We have decided what to do with the top bar hive for winter. We last examined it in mid-October to check out how much food it had. There’s 14 or 15 full size combs drawn out. The four in front had each had brood, but were mostly empty when we examined them. There was honey on the top, and a little pollen, but not much. Most of the rest of the combs had honey on the top half, a bit of pollen and not much else. There was brood in some combs…all told there was probably two full combs, both sides, of brood. The bottoms of every comb were empty. I did a quick estimate using a couple of combs, and guessed there was about 40, maybe as much as 50 pounds of honey in the hive…total. But there aren’t tons of bees in the hive, so that much honey should be OK. Maybe it’ll work out.

The front comb had separated from the top bar though. Of course it didn’t have far to fall, but it tipped and was resting on the end board of the hive. The entrance of the hive…several half-inch holes…are drilled in that board, at and below center, and the comb was leaning against the board just above those holes, so coming and going wasn’t hindered. It was just sitting there. It had brood, honey, bees, so removing it seemed unnecessary. We’ll fix it in the spring I guess.

They had cross-wired a couple of combs toward the back toward the end of summer, and when we found them we fixed them by cutting, removing the errant pieces (that two or three bites of really new honey is always, always the best honey there is), and they had mostly repaired the

rest, sticking to the top bar system…mostly.

So, winter. What we’ll do is add a thin layer of insulation above the top bars…the same stuff we use to wrap the outside of our other hives with. We’ll take the first comb past the follower board (made of corrugated plastic in the shape of a comb, not quite touching the sides or the bottom, but small enough that a bee can’t get through), but leave the follower in place. This will allow moist air to vent around the edges and up and out of the empty space where the top bar is missing. The insulation won’t be covering that area so it can go up, up and away, away from the bees, and away from condensing and dripping back down. And even if it does a little bit, it won’t drip on bees, but on the floor of the empty part of the hive. This is one of the most frustrating parts of having a top bar hive…there’s not a good reference to go to to see how it’s been done in the past, or what to do in the north vs. the south, or … well, or almost anything. There’s a book in the works by a pretty experienced top bar hive user, but he’s in the south, and those books that exist don’t have a good review process…it’s the author’s point of view, and maybe experience, or not, that you can use, or not. Pretty much everything that exists as a reference is completely local from where the author is…it’s bleak out there. And you’re pretty much on your own.

We’re going to close off the whole screened bottom board, but loosely which will also help move moist air up and out. Then, well set the hive on a couple of cinder blocks to keep it about eight inches off the ground, wrap the whole thing in a tarp, leaving the front — where the entrance is — open, but protected in a tunnel by the tarp, and surround it with bales of straw. This is, essentially, what we do with our tall hives so it should work.

The only unknown: Are there enough bees to reach around or below a comb so they can move from comb to comb to get food during the cold days of winter.

The rule for winter, you know, is “Enough bees, and enough good food in the right place”…that’ll get you through most any winter.

But I’ll worry anyway.

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