Monthly Archives: January 2012

An Introduction to the Top Bar Hive


We now have plans and an instructional video on
How to Build Your Own Top Bar Hive
based on the improved top bar hive design discussed in this article.

Even if you’ve never kept bees yourself, you’ve probably seen Langstroth hives. Although Langstroths are the most widely used hive among commercial and hobbyist beekeepers, there’s another type of hive.  It offers a number of important advantages, particularly to the homesteader or small-scale beekeeper. This is the top bar hive.

Top bar hive

Top bar bee hive

As a beekeeper and a beekeeping teacher, I have kept both Langstroth and top bar hives for over twelve years and operated them side by side. In this article, I want to describe some of the differences between these two types of hives and show why I think the top bar hive is often the better choice on the homestead.

Langstroth hive

Langstroth hive

The Top Bar Hive

The focus of the top bar hive is on simplicity. It’s a single box hive. Unlike the Langstroth hive, which has multiple different boxes that you add or remove at different times of the year, the top bar hive is completely self-contained. Everything that the bees need to go through their yearly functions is contained in that one box.

The top bar hive differs from the Langstroth both in how the bees build their combs and in how we harvest the honey. Top bar hives have a protective roof. Under that roof, along the top of the hive, are 24 removable wooden bars. (That’s what gives the hive its name.) On each bar hangs a small starter strip, and it’s from there that the bees build their combs.

Langstroth hives, on the other hand, use a wooden frame for each comb. Each frame contains a factory-made foundation, which is a thin piece of wax that has been imprinted on both sides with a series of hexagons, on which the bees will build their cells. The bees will conform their cells to the size of the imprints on the foundation.

comb top bar hive

A comb from the top bar hive

Harvest Your Honey with Household Utensils

When you harvest the honey from a top bar hive, it’s very simple. All you have to do is cut the honey comb off of the starter strip with a kitchen knife, mash it to open up the honey cells and use cheesecloth as a strainer to separate the wax from the honey. The nice thing about this, is you can do it all with very basic kitchen utensils, such as a bowl and a potato masher.

Harvesting honey from the Langstroth hive, on the other hand, requires several specialized tools: a hot knife or capping fork, a capping tank, and an extractor. These tools are expensive, and you’ll only use them for a short time each year while you’re harvesting honey. The rest of the time, they’ll sit idle. To keep bees with Langstroth hives, you’ll need a place to store this equipment, along with the extra hive boxes, and the frames and combs from which you extracted the honey, until you are ready to use them again. Storing the combs also invites a problem with wax moths.

Just the fact that the top bar hive contains everything your bees need for the entire year makes it a lot simpler to manage.

Better Control of the Varroa Mite

Back in the 1950’s, the manufacturers of the foundation material for Langstroth hives began using cell sizes that were slightly larger than what the bees would naturally build. The thinking at the time was that if the cell was larger than normal, the bees would start becoming larger than normal. But that’s not what happened – the bees stayed the same size. So now we have a large cell with a slightly smaller bee in it. Then the varroa mite hit in the 1960’s and 70’s. This mite lays eggs in the cell right about the time that the honeybee larvae is spinning its cocoon. The varroa mite goes through its metamorphosis and develops right along with the honeybee. The larger cell gives the varroa mite just the space that it needs to have a good-sized family. In fact, there will be as many as 3-7 varroa mites in each cell. Varroa mites can be very destructive to a hive, and if you don’t take measures to control them, they can destroy your colony.

The top bar hive helps reduce this whole problem in a very simple but effective way. When the bees build their cells the natural size, which they will do in the top bar hive, they’re just the right size for the developing honeybee. As the honeybee grows, it will fill its cell so completely that often any varroa mites in the cell will die for lack of room. You may still have some varroa mites, but not nearly as many as you’d have in the Langstroth hive, and usually, they won’t be a threat to your colony.

Better Overwintering

Because the top bar hive is horizontal, it holds heat much better than the Langstroth hive, and this makes it easier for the bees to overwinter. During cold weather, bees have to actively work to keep the hive warm. To provide the energy to do so, they consume honey. The Langstroth hive acts almost like a chimney. It is a stack of boxes, and since heat rises, most of the warm air rises to the top. This makes it hard for the bees to keep the lower sections of the Langstroth hive warm.

Improved Top Bar Hive Design

One difficulty we’ve encountered with the top bar hive is that during the hot summers of central Texas, the wax combs will soften in the heat, and they can break under their own weight. To overcome this problem, I’ve worked on the top bar design over the past twelve years to adapt it for our climate. I now have a design that has a shorter, wider comb, which works very well.

Another difficulty, one that beekeepers face each spring, is swarm control.  When a bee hive swarms, it divides in two, and you end up losing half your colony. With this improved top bar hive design, there’s a way to manage the hive that prevents swarming and doubles the size of the pollination force.  We go over this management technique in detail in our hands-on beekeeping workshop.

More Natural Comb Structure

The comb structure inside a top bar hive is very similar to the natural comb structure that honeybees would build in the wild, such as in a log. The queen is free to rotate through the colony and dictate how she wants to build her nest. She can use as much space as she needs to lay her eggs. Usually she’ll use 10-11 combs for brood (sometimes as many as 15). The rest will be available for honey.

inside top bar hive

Inside the top bar hive

In the Langstroth hive, on the other hand, you have to use a queen excluder to keep the queen down in the bottom two boxes because if you don’t, she will lay brood wherever she sees fit, and you’ll end up with combs that have both brood and honey, which would be a problem when it comes time to harvest the honey. Since you’re only giving the queen access to part of the hive, and since this is unnatural to her, you have to monitor how much space she needs, which is difficult to do.

Extra Wax for the Homesteader to Use

In the top bar hive, because you harvest the entire comb when you harvest the honey, you end up with extra wax. A lot of people who learn about the top bar are excited about the prospect of getting extra wax because there are many different uses for it. Every comb will give you about enough wax to make one candle. This may not sound like a lot, but when you’re looking at beekeeping and other homesteading activities from the viewpoint of a larger sustainable lifestyle and culture, the benefits of getting that extra wax are much higher than just returning it back to the bees, as you would in a Langstroth hive.

With the Langstroth hive, when you harvest honey, you cut the wax capping off of the comb with the comb fork or hot knife, and you leave the comb intact, so you’ll barely get a teaspoon of wax per comb. It would take quite a few Langstroth combs to get enough wax to make a candle.

Less Honey Production

The yield on a top bar hive is 3-5 gallons of honey a year versus the Langstroth hive, which will yield 5-10 gallons. For a commercial beekeeper, that’s an important consideration, and Langstroth hives will likely be your best choice, but if you’re looking to get into beekeeping on a smaller scale, as part of a sustainable lifestyle, and without a large investment of time and equipment, you really ought to consider learning more about the top bar hive.

Related Information

This article also appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of the
SustainLife journal.

Ploughshare Blacksmithing Teacher to Attend Training at Gransfors in Sweden

Caleb Nolen, Ploughshare Blacksmithing Teacher

Caleb Nolen, Ploughshare’s blacksmithing teacher is planning a trip to northern Sweden to attend training at Gransfors Bruks. Gransfors makes hand forged axes using traditional blacksmithing methods and is well known for the quality of their axes. Gransfors was founded in 1902 and is family owned.

Caleb will be attending an eight day blacksmithing class that Gransfors offers on tool making and axe forging. The class covers tool forging, forge welding technique, and forging of the axe. This is an excellent opportunity for Caleb to expand and strengthen his blacksmithing, tool making, and axe making skills by learning from some of the best axe makers in the world.

Caleb is developing tool making classes and curriculum for Ploughshare and will incorporate his new skills and knowledge into these new classes so that others can also benefit.


How Does Woodworking Fit Into an Agrarian Lifestyle?

Frank Strazza

[This article is based on an interview with Frank Strazza, Ploughshare woodworking instructor.]

Ploughshare: Can you comment on how woodworking fits into an agrarian lifestyle and the restoration of a local cottage economy?

Frank Strazza: In many ways, it seems like we’ve gotten away from simple tasks—working with our hands and using simple hand tools that people have used for generations. It’s only been in the past 50 or 60 years that people have really turned their back on the traditional ways of doing things and rejected the use of traditional hand tools for simple tasks.

Let’s take a hand saw, for example. Until about 60 years ago, when people would frame houses, they would use hand saws to cut framing lumber. A sharp handsaw will cut through 2×4’s as fast as a circular saw.

Suppose you need to build a chicken coop—I built a chicken coop with my children, and instead of using a circular saw, we used a hand saw. Now I’m building a shed, and I’ve been using hand tools because the shed is far away from any source of electricity, and it would take more time and effort to drag an extension cord out there.  It’s faster to do the work by hand, but to do that, you need to have the hand skills. You also need to know how to sharpen the tools because a dull hand saw will not work.

Many people no longer have the skills to sharpen saws.  When they try to use a dull saw, they say, “This doesn’t work.” So they use a circular saw instead because you can buy a brand new, sharp blade at the store for $10-20 and get on with your work. But if you have the skills to sharpen a handsaw, then with five minutes of sharpening, you can cut through wood very effectively and very quickly. Hand tool woodworking fits into an agrarian way of life because you develop skills that you can use in many different projects on your homestead.

As far as fitting into a cottage  economy, I think there are many ways someone can make a living by making projects in their home shop using hand tools (and power tools).  Working out of the home or home shop is very doable. Having made furniture for a living for years as a sole source of income, I can say it’s a lot of work, so you definitely need to love what you’re doing.

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