A top bar hive ready to be worked.

To work a top bar hive, a beekeeper must know:

  • about old habits
  • what to take
  • how open a top bar hive
  • how to cut comb attachments
  • how to safely remove top bars
  • how to handle top bar comb
  • how to insert top bars
  • when not to open a top bar hive

Old Habits

I learned to work bees by working for a commercial beekeeper with thousands of hives. Hives were worked as fast as possible, with much of the work done on the run. And it was often a good thing as his bees were hot, even during good weather.

If one is accustomed to working bees this way, working a top bar hive is completely foreign. And working a top bar hive on the run guarantees comb failures. It’s a disappointing and frustrating experience until the proper way of handling frameless comb is mastered.

Working a top bar hive is almost a leisurely exercise compared to my on the run commercial days. It takes time to carefully cut a comb loose from the side wall. And it takes more time to replace the comb and top bar without squashing bees, as there’s no bee space between the top bars. Often, habits learned while working with frames must be unlearned to work with natural comb.

What to Take

So, let’s work a top bar hive. You’ll need:

  • veil
  • smoker
  • serrated knife
  • bee brush(the yellow plastic bristle kind)
  • clean bucket to hold extraneous comb
  • a top bar stand
  • some water
  • hive tool
  • bee gloves are optional

Handy Stuff

I found two items are almost a necessity when working top bar hives:

  • a source of water to wash tools, hands, etc. as cutting comb attachments sometimes generate sticky tools, which makes for sticky hands
  • and, if your top bar hive is legless, a super or something suitable to sit on is handy

Yep, you can keep bees by occasionally sitting to save a back and not running around. 🙂

Let’s Open It Up

Cover off. Two comb-less top bars, behind the broodnest, removed.

In a standard hive, the beekeeper works near the entrance. This attracts the guard bees. So smoke is frequently used to distract them.

In a top bar hive, the beekeeper starts work at the far end of hive, away from the entrance. Bees come and go without realizing the hive is being opened. Lightly smoke the hive entrance. Only a small amount of smoke is used on a top bar hive.

Remove the cover to expose the top bars. The cover isn’t propolized or glued to the hive. The bees don’t have access above the top bars. So, the cover isn’t pried or broken loose when it’s removed. There’s no jarring. There’s no bees. And no hive tool is needed.

Before removing any top bars, it’s important to keep track of their location and orientation. Number the top bars. Or handle them in a logical way, so they can be put back into the same way they were removed. This preserves the broodnest structure which prevents confusion and allows the bees to quickly recover.

Starting behind the cluster, toward the hive’s rear, remove the spacer cleat or several empty top bars. This gives rear access to the comb. Top bars, with comb, are found nearer the entrance.

Additional top bars moved to provide a working space.

Push other comb-less top bars toward the hive’s far end until a working space is created next to the rear most comb. This narrow slot allows access to the comb without much disruption to the hive interior.

Only a small open area is needed to inspect a top bar hive. Most bees continue working with limited bee flight coming out the narrow opening. When larger areas are opened, the bees quickly retreat to the dark, safe, broodnest area toward the hive’s front.

In contrast, a lot of surface area is opened up when working standard hives. The bees are exposed to radical changes in temperature, humidity, light, odors and movement. This gets their attention. Then, they often get yours, unless you smoke them frequently. 🙂

Cutting Attachments

Slightly attached brood comb.

The bees attach comb to the sidewalls. Most attachments are small. But they extensively attach all heavy comb to the hive. They know when and where more comb support is needed. Attachments aren’t a problem. They are an asset. But even the smallest attachment must be cut before a top bar or comb is moved.

Before moving a top bar or comb, cut it free of all attachments. Inspect every comb carefully. If attachments are left uncut, moving the top bar tears the comb. Even the smallest attachment can cause big problems. A torn or damaged comb almost always fails. It unzips from the damaged area. This failure can happen instantly if the comb is new, hot and heavy. Or it can slowly fail, before the bees repair it, leaving a surprise for the next inspection.

Comb damage also occurs if the attachments aren’t carefully and gently cut. Take your time. Don’t tear the comb free. Instead gently cut it loose. If the attachments are torn instead of cut, the comb is damaged and can fail.

Cutting attachments with a hive tool often causes comb failure. A hive tool is blunt. It tends to bulldoze the comb and not cut it. When cutting attachments with a hive tool, the force is directed toward the hive’s bottom. This creates extra stress in the comb. I’ve entirely abandoned my hive tool for this purpose.

Completely attached honey storage comb.

A serrated knife is a better tool for cutting attachments. It’s longer, thinner and sharper than a hive tool. Work from the bottom of the comb upward. Don’t saw the comb with the serrated knife. The horizontal forces created stresses a comb. Rather than saw the comb, move the knife slowly up while slightly withdrawing it. Allow the knife to ‘melt’ its way through the comb. Don’t pull the comb backward, even the tiniest amount, as you withdraw the knife. Or the comb will be put in tension just like it is when using a hive tool.

Top bar hive beekeepers are innovative. One beekeeper bent a stainless steel auto radio antenna into a ‘J’ shape. Then fixed some thin wire across the gap. It’s works like a cheese slicer for cutting attachments.

After the attachments are cut, don’t scrape them off the hive’s sides. When the comb is returned, the bees quickly repair the attachment, which greatly strengthens the comb.

Brushing Bees

Brushed bees quickly retreating toward the front of a top bar hive.

When  it’s necessary to brush bees off a comb:

  • always use a yellow, plastic bristle bee brush
  • make sure it’s clean and not sticky
  • brush the bees off the face of a comb before cutting any attachments
  • use short quick strokes toward the bottom of the hive

Bees brushed this way will quickly retreat toward the darker, front of the hive.

Removing Top Bars

Top bar stand with top bar.

Once a comb is cut free from all attachments, the top bar is slowly separated from its neighbor and gently removed from the hive. Don’t yank it up. That acceleration can cause a heavy comb to fail.

Keep the plane of the comb vertical. If the top bar is even slightly rotated out s natural hanging position, this stresses the comb and the comb fails. Rather than grabbing the top bar and holding on to it like one would do with a standard frame, let the top bar ends rest freely in the hands, hanging naturally from its own weight. When held like this, any movement causes both the comb and the top bar to roll, which is much less stressful to the comb.

After inspecting a comb, gently set it down in a free space toward the hive’s far end or use a top bar stand. I consider a top bar stand a necessity, as handling a top bar with its comb requires two hands. It’s almost impossible to do anything other than observe a comb without one.

Be aware that a strong wind could stress the comb when using the stand. The top bars rest solidly on the stand but the wind can cause the comb to flap, ever so slightly. This flapping makes the same effect as rotating the top bar. It causes the comb to fail. The wind can do it. And rapid or careless comb movement can also do it.

New, hot and heavy honey comb is fragile. If there’s room and the hive is healthy, it’s best to leave such comb alone for a season. Beekeepers using standard frames, often set aside newly drawn comb for the same reason.

Inserting Top Bars

There’s no beespace between these top bars.

To maintain proper broodnest structure, keep the top bars in the same position and orientation when placing them back in the hive. Some beekeeper number the top bars so they don’t get confused and rotate or switch top bar positions.

Top bars must be set down gently and slowly. The comb is only attached at the top and if a heavy comb is dropped in place, the sudden stop causes the comb to fail. Take your time. Give bees, which might be cleaning up honey on the attachments, time to move out of the way. Only a despot kills the workers that feed him. And one of those bees might just be the queen.

Unlike standard frames, top bars don’t have a bee space between them. If top bars are set down quickly or carelessly slide together, bees are crushed. Once the hive is closed up, the bees don’t have access to these areas. Crushed bees are preserved for the next inspection. It’s a grizzly sight if one is careless or hasty.

Bee-down Strip

Inserting a bee-down strip between two top bars solves this problem. The thin strip herds the bees beneath the top bars. Then strip is removed and the bars are pushed together.

Other Methods

There are other methods to avoid squashing bees. One method, a more horizontal approach, involves slowly setting the top bar in the hive. Then carefully moving one top bar end closer than the other end to create a V shaped space. The end with the widest opening is gradually moved to close the gap. It’s moved carefully enough so that any bees feeling squeezed can move toward the wider part of the gap and escape the squeeze. Eventually the gap is closed. It normally takes less than 30 seconds and works well for heavy comb. I sometimes establish the V, then use a few puffs of smoke and a bee brush on the bees in the gap.

The second method involves a more vertical approach. The leading edge of a top bar is aligned with trailing edge of the top bar in the hive. The top bar is carefully slid down the trailing top bar edge in the hive. This pushes the bees out of the way. Some bees end up below the top bar and some end up above. It’s fast, takes less than 5 seconds, and works well with light comb.

Smoke moves the bees along. But it seems about as many bees scurry into trouble, as scurry out of the way.

When Not To Open It

Have you read Heat? It’s a must read before opening a top bar hive when the weather’s hot.

Failed Comb?

Encounter a failed comb? Check out my Failed Comb page.


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