Build a Top Bar Hive

Ah, the joy of building a top bar hive.

Top bar hives are the ultimate do-it-yourself hive. They:

  • can be built from local material
  • require few construction tools or skills
  • can be designed to fit unique needs
  • cost almost nothing
  • can be easily modified or scrapped

Just about anyone, regardless of experience, can easily build a fully adequate and functional top bar hive.

So always field test a top bar hive design before committing to it on a large scale. Sometimes a minor design change can make a lot of difference in hive management.

Different bees, climate, and management practices affect design hive criteria. Bees are adaptable and can make just about any sufficiently large cavity work.

Not so for the beekeeper. Before building or buying a top bar hive, a beekeeper should determine it’s suitability.

  • to provide for the bee’s needs
  • and the beekeeper’s management style and limitations

Top bar hives are limited by their shape and  fixed volume:

  • hives too small need frequent work
  • can’t store enough winter reserves
  • hives too large waste material and cost more
  • hives too short could overwinter poorly
  • hives too tall might not produce harvestable honey on marginal flows
  • and might not handle high summer temperatures without comb failure

So, compare all top bar hive designs to them. There’s simply no single design that is best for everyone.

Bee’s Needs

A swarm resting on its way to a new home. What does it need?

Bees need a cavity that:

  • can accommodate brood and food resources
  • moderates temperature
  • protects the colony from climate and weather
  • and is defensible

Cavity Volume

Bees are adaptable creatures with minimal shelter requirements. They prefer:

  • a cavity
  • a south facing entrance
  • 3 meters to 5 meters above the ground
  • at least 25 liters volume
  • 40 liters to 60 liters average volume
  • a 20 to 40 square centimeter entrance
  • an entrance at bottom of cavity
  • a 4 centimeter maximum entrance diameter
  • subtropical climate bees prefer smaller cavities of 30 liters
  • German bees prefer 60 liter cavities
  • Africanized honeybees prefer smaller cavities of 22 liters
  • in the hottest areas bees often prefer to nest in an open, shady, sheltered place

Mark Winston’s “The Biology of the Honey Bee” and Tom Seeley’s “The Wisdom of the Hive” are two great books to read about the bee’s needs.

Cavity Shape

Cavity shape is also important. In a temperate climate, with a few, intense nectar flows, taller comb and a shorter hive length works better. The bees can backfill a larger broodnest before storing surplus honey. That insures the best possible conditions for survival during a bad season. And the cluster is more compact, and overwinters better.

In warmer locales, with more frequent but less intense flows, a longer top bar hive, with shorter combs are more functional. With shorter combs, surplus honey can be harvested more often. A cluster is a long, shallow box has more surface area which is easier to cool.

Beekeeper’s Needs

Different beekeepers, different needs. This paleo-beekeeper didn’t need much from a hive.

Beyond the bees needs, a top bar hive must meet a beekeeper’s needs. After all, it’s the beekeeper who needs the functionality and not the bees. They could  find a suitable cavity and go to it on their own.

But then we would have to climb a tree or cliff to get them. And it’s just much more convenient and safer when the bees are in our box. And the box is where we want it.

Cavity

A hive with some extra space is more flexibility for hive management. It:

  • decreases inspection frequency
  • provides a place for feed
  • can hold a split or a nucleus
  • makes a hive easier to work
  • and can be reduced using a follower board
By the beekeeper's hand.
By a paleo beekeeper and Eric Tourneret.

A beekeeper should also consider his:

  • beekeeping focus
  • construction skills/tools
  • construction materials
  • migratory requirements
  • management style
  • scale of operation
  • conventional equipment integration

For example a migratory, extensively managed, large-scale, commercial beekeeper could value:

  • compatibility
  • stack ability
  • portability
  • optimum conventional material use
  • enough volume for flexibility
  • minimum hive cost/unit of production

An organic gardener, needing a few hives for pollination, might value:

  • appearance
  • workability
  • stealth

Ranging from the rustic to the ornate, top bar hives are constructed out of:

  • steel barrels
  • adobe
  • recycled water heaters
  • plastic food grade barrels
  • old refrigerators
  • ammunition cases
  • pallets
  • papercrete

Your Top bar hive?

So, what would your top bar hive look like?

I bet it’s a beauty. It is the best top bar hive ever built. Because it gives more satisfaction than any other hive. And it’s made especially for you and your bee’s needs. Here are a few of my thoughts on building the:

Plans

Want to start with a top bar hive plan?

Here are a few top bar hive plans of my own:

Final Thoughts

Finally, don’t sweat the small stuff. It takes much experience to design and build an optimal top bar hive. But the bees don’t need an optimal hive. Look at what they naturally choose and how easily their needs are met.

Optimizing a top bar hive has more to do with the beekeeper’s needs than it does the bees. And I’ve found that a beekeeper’s need are constantly changing.

So:

  • decide on a design
  • make sure it’s big enough
  • be safe and have fun building it
  • then make it work for you and the bees

Most importantly, share your joy and fun with others

-bW

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