What can you tell me about Top Bar hives for beekeeping?

Top Bar hives have been used for centuries, and their practicality and more natural approach to beekeeping is still favored by small-scale farmers around the world. Top Bar hives allow the bees to build their own comb and are an alternative to the standard Langstroth hives with movable frames. Top bar hives are gaining in popularity among beekeepers in the U.S., in part because they are easy to construct, relatively cheap to produce, and do not require any frames or supers. Top Bar hives tend to produce less honey, but that honey does not have to be extracted. Instead, honey is harvested as whole-comb and is either pressed or drained.

There are two types of designs for Top Bar hives, the Kenyan and the Tanzanian. The designs are similar in that they both include a sturdy box with an entrance on one side, 20 to 30 top bars, and a roof. The difference is in the sides: the Kenyan style has walls that slope inward toward the bottom while the Tanzanian has straight sides. Both designs work well; however, bees tend not to attach comb to floors, and with the sloped sides of the Kenyan-style hive, bees think the walls are part of the floor and attach far less comb, making it easier to remove the comb. Brood is built near entrances, so placing the hive entrance on one end for brood results in the bees filling comb with honey on the opposite end. Consequently, it is easy to harvest honey, and no queen excluder is needed. A queen excluder is used in Langstroth hives, placed between the brood chamber and honey supers. It allows for worker bees to move throughout the colony but keeps the queen and drones confined to the brood chamber. As a result, the honey supers contain only honey—no brood—and can easily be removed for harvesting.

The key principle with Top Bar hives is making sure that the top bars are between 1¼ and 1½ inches wide. This is the proper distance apart to allow bees to build comb. In addition, a top bar length of 19 inches makes it convenient for starting comb and brood rearing in a Langstroth hive and later transferring it to a Top Bar hive. When starting a top bar, attaching ½ inch of beeswax, masonite, or hardwood to the top bar will help the bees start building comb in the right place. Many top bars have a groove down the center so that the starter can easily be wedged into the bar. When reusing a top bar, the starter can be achieved by leaving ½ inch of comb attached to the top bar when the rest of the comb is cut away during the harvest. Since top bars are not supported by a full frame, the comb is more fragile than in a standard hive. The comb should always face down and can be turned upside down, but should never be turned sideways.

Learn more in the ATTRA publication Small-Scale Livestock Production. The Resources section of this publication includes information on building a Top Bar hive.  Be sure to also check out the ATTRA blog post Beekeeping Basics: Making Splits, by NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Justin Duncan.