Vertical Top Bar Hives

The Idea

Nick Hampshire’s Warre, a vertical top bar hive.

After reading about:

I wondered if a vertical top bar hive might be the ultimate natural comb hive.

It’s shape and orientation are a better approximation to the natural tree cavities bees prefer. And it’s modular design provides much more flexibility than does a fixed sized horizontal top bar hive.

I don’t know a thing about how bees construct natural comb in a tall vertical cavity. I do know, from my horizontal top bar hive observations, that a vertical orientation is a critical dimension to colony behavior when they swarm and prepare for winter.

The Details

Lacking practical experience with these hives, I’ll share more of my thoughts.

Advantages

New comb in David Heaf’s Warre.

A vertical hive has several advantages over a horizontal top bar hive:

  • it’s a better fit to a tree cavity’s shape/orientation
  • modular design allows dynamic volume adjustments, equipment replacements
  • faster to handle boxes rather than combs
  • have a smaller footprint
  • can be split apart for easier/lighter moving
  • comb is better protected
  • comb not restricted by top bar limitations
  • no need to level hives when drawing comb
  • hive manipulations can be reduced to twice a year
  • can easily be paraffin dipped
  • facilitate comb rotation
  • can be moved with a hand cart
  • optimum material use per hive volume

All internal access, for a horizontal top bar hive, is through the top bars. Fragile combs must be removable or the hive becomes unworkable. So, starter strips are used. And much attention is initially needed to keep the combs center on the top bars.

In a vertical top bar hive, assuming that minimal management and inspections requirements can be met, the orientation of the comb is irrelevant. Boxes can be separated to provide access. No beekeeper managed comb needed. The bees get to build it their way with minimal interference.

Disadvantages

Bees entering one of Steve Ham’s Warre hives.

There are some disadvantages as well:

  • additional storage space required
  • boxes are heavier to lift than combs
  • removing comb is more disruptive
  • hives are tall, top heavy, narrow and tippy
  • hives break open when tipped over
  • boxes must be lifted for most hive manipulations
  • hives are bottom supered
  • require conventional building material
  • take longer to work
  • not compatible with standard beekeeping equipment

Ifs

Lots of ifs here:

  • does a vertical orientation have some biological advantage over a horizontal one?
  • will the bees build a broodnest core in an empty box placed on the bottom?
  • can the hive be run with minimal management
  • is it economically worth building vertical boxes versus buying/shipping lang deeps?

Fit

Steve Ham’s Warre ready to harvest.

If vertical top bar hives are managed like Ian runs his Simple Beehive, natural beekeeping would be easier than ever. Rather, than handling single top bars, whole hive sections are handled. That keep comb attachments intact and protects comb from damage.

But my experience with horizontal top bar hives indicates that finding a proper fit to box height, type of bee, area resources and climate might take more experimenting than is generally indicated in the Warre literature.

Everything works for liberal, prolific bees in an area with abundant sustained flows. But with conservative bees in a less yielding environment, the fit would be harder to get.

The bees could quickly reach an optimum situation for survival without storing much harvest able surplus for the beekeeper. Bottom supering would only exacerbate this situation as the bees que off of empty comb above the broodnest. The bees might be quite happy to live in a couple of boxes at the top of an empty cavity.

I suspect that the top bars could restrict or maybe even reset the bees concept of broodnest structure. If so, a box would have to be tall enough for the bees to develop a proper broodnest structure. Conservative bees might not every get out of one box!

The only option, in such a situation, would be shorter boxes without top bars. It’s not a bad option. But non-removable comb might give the bee police something to occupy their time.

Box Separation

Steve Ham shows not all vertical hives are square wooden ones.

Warre beekeepers report few problems with bees attaching the bottom of a comb to underlying top bars. A thin cutoff wire, much like the one a potter uses, could be slowly run between two boxes to free any attachments.

  • it should be slow enough to allow any bee, like the queen, to escape from the wire
  • the box could be tipped back, in the same plane as the comb
  • and any comb attachments to the sidewall cut
  • that box could be set back up, being rotated in the same plane as the comb
  • and combs carefully removed, much like any top bar hive comb

Legality

A vertical top bar hives removable comb makes them legal in the USA. That would allow any required comb inspection to be done.

Ultimate Hive

Or no comb work, ever, if they work like they should. 🙂 And that might be with a proper sized top bar-less box, interspersed with some means of comb reinforcement.

That’s a better match to what the bees would do in a natural cavity. And that’s what would make for the ultimate vertical hive.

  • one with minimal beekeeper interference
  • easy, less intrusive management
  • simple, modular construction
  • and optimum material usage

Examples

To date, most vertical ttbhs are Warre style hives. Most are built closely to Warre’s specifications. So, most look about the same.

Some have observation windows, screened bottoms, etc. One is made entirely from plexiglass. I’ve seen one that’s a combination of a horizontal top bar hive with Warre type supers. And I’ve got my own design as well.

Three box vertical top bar hive.

And Google has more images as well.

And I’ve got my own vertical top bar hive plans and some ideas on how to convert convention foundation based beekeeping frames into natural comb frames.

-dM