Build a Top Bar Hive

Ah, the joy of building a top bar hive.

The Idea

Top bar hives are the ultimate do-it-yourself hive for a non-commercial beekeeper. They:

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

Since a top bar hive’s volume and shape are fixed, it’s important that a top bar hive is evaluated for suitability before committing to a design.

And it’s important to field test any design for suitability as experience is the best teacher.

It takes much beekeeping experience to design and build a optimal top bar hive. Fortunately, a fully adequate and functional top bar hive can be easily build by just about anyone regardless of their experience.

The Details

Before building or buying a top bar hive, a beekeeper must determine it’s suitability. A beekeeper should:

  • list the bee’s needs
  • list the beekeeper’s limitations and needs

Everything is local as different bees, climates, and management practices dictate different needs. And different needs result in different requirements for a top bar hive.

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

  • a top bar hive that’s too small for a beekeeper’s management style will require frequent working
  • a too small top bar hive might not have enough room for sufficient winter stores
  • follower boards can be used to reduce a large top bar hives volume. But a too large top bar hive wastes material and cost more than they should
  • a top bar hive that’s too short could overwinter poorly
  • a top bar hive that’s too tall might not produce harvest-able honey on short, marginal nectar flows
  • a too tall top bar hive might not handle high summer temperatures without comb failure

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

Bees are adaptable and can make just about any sufficiently large cavity work. Not so for the beekeeper. So always field test a top bar hive design before committing to a single design on a large scale. Sometimes a minor design change can make a lot of difference in how they are managed.

Bee’s Needs

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

The bees need a cavity that:

  • is large enough to accommodate both bees and food resources
  • moderates the broodnest environment from climate and weather
  • and is defensible

Cavity Volume

Bees are adaptable creatures with minimal shelter requirements. They need a suitable cavity to over winter in:

  • 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 forsake a cavity for a 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

The shape of the cavity 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 in a more compact shape resulting in better over wintering.

In warmer locales, with more frequent but less intense flows, a longer top bar hive with a shorter combs is more functional. The shorter combs allow the beekeeper to harvest surplus honey, which might be inaccessible if stored only in taller broodnest combs. A cluster is a long, shallow box would have more surface area which might be easier to cool during the hottest times of the year.

Beekeeper’s Needs

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

Beyond what the bees need, a top bar hive must meet a beekeeper’s needs. After all, it’s the beekeeper who needs the beehive and not the bees. They could easily find a suitable cavity and go to it on their own. But then we would have to climb that tree or cliff to get them. And it’s just much more convenient and safer to bring the bees to the beekeeper, rather than the beekeeper to the bees. šŸ™‚

Cavity

Extra hive space allows more flexibility for hive management. It:

  • decreases the need for frequent inspections
  • provides a convenient space to feed or split 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 maximum 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 have been 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 would be a beauty. And I know it would be the best top bar hive ever built. Because it would give you more satisfaction than any other hive. And it would be 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 much fun building it
  • then make it work for you and the bees
  • share your joy and fun with others

-dM