Top Bar Hives — It's All About the Wax!!!

Reader Contribution by Christy Hemenway

 Hi Kim —
I’m playing catch up with blog posts – We’ve had our first snow here in Maine – just in time for Halloween, which sent me out to my bee yard to take winterizing pictures.  So we’ll fire off two in a row here…

What you described in your recent post (but one) is one of the reasons I say “It’s all about the wax!”

In a first year top bar hive, an important task for the beekeeper is to monitor the building of comb inside the hive.  A top bar with an effective comb guide is essential to this process, but no comb guide works perfectly every time – so the management of it is up to the beekeeper, and (gasp!) the bees.

Here are some things we’ve found very helpful in keeping your bees on the straight and narrow:

Having a full bar of comb (or more than one!) to start.  Of course, this is more easily said than done when one is first starting out with a brand new top bar hive.  When I began in 2008 I had nothing but five bare wood hives and some packages of bees, with a hint of lemon grass essential oil to entice them to stay put and build wax.  It was hard going!

But bees make beeswax, it’s what they do – and soon I had some full bars of natural wax honeycomb.  When you have got one bar of straight comb, it’s a very helpful tool for getting more straight comb.  You put a bare top bar between your follower board and a piece of drawn comb, and now the bees must draw only in that space, which, ipso facto creates a new bar of straight comb between the two.

Then, with this second piece of straight comb, you can repeat the process.  This works well, especially early in the season.

You mention that you saw comb building behavior change about the end of August.  Here in Maine it seemed to have begun a bit earlier – and corresponded to a couple of other factors.  We had an extended period of hot dry weather, and a bit of a dearth.  New top bar beekeepers were a little nervous about looking at their bees as they began to build up – they do get a little more fearsome than a mellow little package in May at about that time of year.  July and August are also vacation season and so plenty of beekeepers were away from their bees for a time.  Bees will be bees and some of them just don’t understand what we want from them!

Vacation season requires a bit of a balancing act with hive management.  You want to give them enough space to build on that they don’t run out of room while you are away, and yet if you give them too much space they sometimes run amok.  Best to err on the side of a little bit short on space than too much space.  This brings up concerns about swarming due to overcrowding – another thing that the beginning top bar beekeeper may not be completely confident about recognizing before it happens.  It’s best to inspect for swarm cells regularly as the summer progresses because of course, I would never suggest that the beekeeper shouldn’t go on vacation!  Seeing the drones and then the swarm cells come on is a good indicator that timing is good for a pre-emptive swarm maneuver, or a split.

First year top bar hives don’t always fill the hive wall-to-wall with wax, no different from any other first year hive.  This brings us to the challenges of wintering a top bar hive, especially in the wilds of Maine – where losing bees to winter is our most common lament.  I don’t have your knack, Kim, for calculating the population of a hive but for first year hives – we leave them all the honey they can make.  

Next post up:  Winterizing tricks with top bar hives!  With pictures!