5 Things You Didn't Know About Top-Bar Hives
Categories: On The Farm
These are the basics everyone should know when thinking about Top Bar Beekeeping. It covers the basic ideas developed by Wyatt A. Magnum PhD. Wyatt is the author of Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure, a must read for every new Top Bar Beekeeper.
Top-bar hives, a more natural hive design, is catching on with beekeepers, and here’s what you should know about them.
Top-bar beehives are an ancient method of beekeeping that are experiencing a well-deserved renewal of interest as modern farmers begin to think less about the quantity of their honey yield and more about the care of their bee colonies. Here are a few things you might not know about the top-bar hive design and why it is a new favorite with holistic beekeepers.
1. Top-Bar Hives Are Nature Friendly
A top-bar hive is horizontally oriented with an interior open cavity and usually sits 3 to 4 feet off the ground. The "top bar” name comes from the narrow bars of wood placed across the top of the hive. Bees will build their combs down from these bars, mimicking the natural way that a hive is created in a tree hollow or rock cavity. This gives the bees the priority.
A top-bar hive can be built with minimal material costs from untreated wood. While a top-bar hive being used for honey production needs maintenance to ensure that the harvest will go well, a colony can also be left to its own devices and continue quite happily because the overall shape of the hive matches what they would seek out in the wild.
2. Bees Make The Combs
A healthy comb is the key to a healthy hive. In a Langstroth hive, the traditional box-shaped beehive that most of us are familiar with, sheets of wax or plastic are provided to start the combs. These plastic foundations have cell shapes imprinted on them and the bees build their cells off of this. Unfortunately, this has a few negative effects. Bees know much better than we do how to build combs, often varying the size and shape of the cells depending on the type of larvae being raised. The ingrained cell shape of a Langstroth hive doesn’t allow bees to create their own natural combs, and the plastic material will not readily compost with time.
3. More New Combs Mean Less Disease
Along with making their own combs, another factor that keeps a natural hive happy is creating new combs. For large-scale production of honey, Langstroth hives are sometimes preferred because the honey is extracted via a centrifuge method and then the used combs can be returned to the hive to be filled with honey again. However, it is unsanitary for a hive to continue reusing the same honey combs. In fact, so many particles of dirt and daily wear can cover an old comb that it actually turns black in color.
In a top-bar hive, the beekeeper extracts the honey by cutting the entire comb off of the top bar and then either allowing it to drip out or crushing it out. Although it will take the colony longer to replace the honey because they have to build the combs again, this is much more natural for the bees—just think, a bear does not leave behind neatly extracted combs—and will greatly reduce the risk of disease in the hive.
4. Cross Combing Can Happen
The biggest nuisance of a top-bar hive is the bee's tendency to cross comb. This is when bees will start to build across the bars instead of along them or even shape a comb diagonally. The problem here is that in order to check your hive or harvest honey, the bars must be removed and cross-combed bars will be meddled together with combs. Stopping this process is easiest at the beginning of a hive's comb build. The cross comb must be removed and reattached in the correct, parallel manner, and from there, the bees should continue to follow the lines of the bars. This requires monitoring the colony when it starts building. Once the hive is underway, cross combing is unusual.
5. You Can Watch Bees Build Their Hive
One of the most enjoyable aspects of keeping a top-bar hive is how easy it is to watch the hive progress. It’s simple to include a large window as part of your hive design. A long piece of glass will fit easily into the slanting side of the hive and can be covered with a hinged shutter. This simple addition to the hive means that without going through the process of suiting up and opening your hive, you can keep a close eye on comb development and show your friends and neighbors exactly how a bee colony lives.
A top-bar design provides you with a simple structure to house your bees that better reflects their natural environment. The simplicity makes it inexpensive to build and fun to maintain. Your bees will be grateful for a home that is just what they would look for in nature.
About the Author: Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is a freelance writer and small-scale farmer from Woolwich, Maine. When not cultivating a growing garden and tending to her geese and other animals, she maintains Day's Ferry Organics, hoping to help others learn about self reliance and simple living.