Bjorn Apiaries

"Really we create nothing.

We merely plagiarize nature"

                                                             Jean Baitaillon

TBH - Top Bar Hive Beekeeping

We have been keeping top bar hives for the past 6 years We have had many beekeepers ask about our experiences and want to know both sides, pro and con, of such as style of hive arrangement. The information below is not to sell you the idea that everyone should be keeping bees in TBH's. It is our assessment of both the good and bad of TBH beekeeping, so you can make an honest evaluation to determine if TBH beekeeping is right for you.

Top Bar Hives are mainly sought after

for three mentioned reasons:

1) They are inexpensive to produce. You can make a complete working TBH for the cost of a sheet of plywood and an 8 foot two by four piece of lumber. (Not counting your time and labor cutting the pieces.)

2) They use natural drawn comb with no foundation.

3) For reasons of a TBH being more natural or the idea that TBH beekeeping is better for bees, and probably better dealing with mites and disease issues.

Our first custom built top bar hive with full 19 inch length combs.
Natural comb with various cell sizes as dictated by the bees.
A couple of our more reasonable sized top bar hives. (With IPM mite trays)

Our Evaluation of TBH Beekeeping

Top bar hive beekeeping is far less costly in the construction of the hive for the right beekeeper, depending on your viewpoint. The start-up costs really translates into you having the expertise and ability to actually make the top bar hives. If you were to buy a top bar hive, you would probably spend a good amount of money, just as you would buying a standard hive. If you have the ability and skill, you can build a top bar hive for less than 50 dollars. Of course that same savings can be said of making any hive, if you have the ability to make them.

In third world countries, where top bar hive beekeeping was first promoted and used, using a 50 gallon drum cut in half, or using scrap wood, made this type beekeeping very economical. But if you do not have a 50 gallon drum or the ability to make the top bar hive yourself, your savings from this type beekeeping is not going to as great as some suggest.

Is top bar hives more natural than other type hives? I guess that would depend on your definition of "natural". TBH beekeeping does use naturally drawn comb without the use of foundation. So the bees make the comb (and cell size) as they see fit and need, depending of the brood chamber needs, the flow, season, etc. We are huge fans of natural comb. So this is a big advantage to us. But it should also be noted that foundationless comb and naturally drawn comb, both can be utilized in any other type bee hive setup.

Management of horizontal type hives, like the top bar hives, adds a certain component not seen in other type "vertical" hives. Heat dynamics may change in regards to benefits in early season brood rearing and clustering. Placement of honey stores to be used throughout winter may be at odds with the natural upward movement of the cluster. We do think that horizontal hives have a disadvantage to vertical hives. And certain management such as using follower boards and extra steps to ensure winter survival should be considered.


We see the following as advantages to top bar hive beekeeping:

* You can build them if you have the expertise.

* They use natural comb

* They are unique and fascinating to keep.

* As you harvest the comb and honey, new comb is constructed.

We see the following as disadvantages:

* No standardization of equipment.

* Comb collapse is a possibility in hot regions.

* Heavy to move depending on the size. You move the entire hive as one unit with TBHs.

* Honey harvesting usually means destroying some of the comb.

Overall, we do not see many advantages in the comments that some use to promote top bar hive beekeeping. Top bar systems can be used with traditional hives (Long or trench style), natural comb can be implemented in any hive (foundationless), and we see no less problems with mites or disease as compared to our other hives.

What top bar hives do give you, is a different style hive that is fascinating, unique from the sense that few actually have them, and allows you to see how bees create comb throughout the chamber as they need it.

I have often said, "When there is nothing more to build, nothing more to learn, and nothing more to dream about with bees, I will probably move onto something else." This is a style of beekeeping that adds to one's overall experience and expertise. It is not going to solve all your mite problems, make your bees superior or magically "more natural", for the mere sake of keeping bees in this style of hive arrangement.

Beekeeping should be fun. And keeping bees in TBH's are exactly that..... fun, fascinating, and educational. We love our top bar hives. We do promote them. But we want to be reasonable and realistic for those who are thinking of starting one.

We have top bar hives, as well as many other types of hives at Honey Comb Farms of Bjorn Apiaries. We also use our top bar hives for educational and instructional use in our sustainable beekeeping classes, as well as have them available for any visitors throughout the year. They are always a center for discussions at the annual picnics.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. We will answer the questions honestly to the fullest extent possible. And if we do not know something, we will tell you so.

Top Bar Hive Frequently Asked Questions

1) If I make my own top bar hive, what is the best size?

We feel that something around 48 inches long is best. This allows ample spring brood expansion and honey storage during the flow. The larger size also lessens the natural swarm urge. This size may be a bit large for wintering. We recommend using a follower board to down size the hive for winter by moving unused or unfilled honey comb to outside the brood chamber and filling in the void with newspaper or other material.


2) I've read about using two different width top bars, one for the brood and one for the honey comb? Is that really needed.

No. The bees producing brood never stay on the designated bars anyways.  And they fill in the smaller width comb with honey just fine. We found that the best place to draw comb, and fend off any curving of the comb, is by feeding in the empty bars between the already drawn comb. Combined with the fact that bees will move during winter and come into spring on comb that may of previously been designated honey bars, then the system just really gets messed up over time. Trying to keep bars designated for brood, while keeping others for honey, is a senseless system and advice that achieves nothing. Make them all one size (1-1/2 inch) and manage as needed.

3) I've heard that bees will work themselves into a corner in winter and starve. Is that true?

Yes, it can happen. As mentioned in the text above, management in horizontal hives such as a top bar hives, brings a different set of management tasks to beekeeping. If the cluster starts off in the middle of the hive going into winter, then they may work to one side and isolate themselves from half their honey stores. So some pre winter manipulation as to where honey is stored and where the cluster is located may be required. This of course allows the bees to move across the combs throughout winter and will be raising brood the following spring on previously designated honey comb if you use two different sized bars. (See question #2 above)

4) Are there any issues with heat dynamics inside the hive? What about heat and brood rearing in winter?

Yes. The total volume of some top bar hives, along with the fact that bees can never truly use the upper chamber with trapped heat such as in standard hives, and the limitation of the bees natural impulse and ability work upwards, does impact early season brood rearing. Constricting the number of bars down to those filled with honey and brood going into winter, using a follower board, using insulation on top of the bars, and not using top entrances, are some of the management steps we found to be beneficial to top bar hive beekeeping.


Feeding a Top Bar Hive


The feeding of top bar hives presents some challenges by the design of the hive and limitations to options as compared to Langstroth or other hives. The best advice is to:

1) Feed new top bar hives almost non-stop the first season. This allows the maximum amount of comb, and stores to be built up. Internal feeders sitting on he bottom of the hive works well. But make sure they are moved to stay clear of comb being produced.

2) If your TBH is light, feed as early in the season as you can, after the main flow. We also may start open feeding as early as early July giving the bees several months (July, August, September, October) to pack away stores.

3) Additional feeding can be accomplished by packing empty comb with syrup or sugar. Take out unused or empty comb surrounding the cluster and fill with syrup a couple times a week. (*Dipping the combs in syrup is effective) Once cold weather sets in, the use of dry sugar is suggested.

4) Some beekeepers have made custom feeders which are like a frame (A TBH "frame" with sides and a bottom for support), covered with screen, and filled with fondant. Then it is placed as close to the cluster as possible. If you build a custom top, giving you more room above the bars than what most designs call for, you can also feed with jars or other feeders. But the top usually inhibits most top feeders.


5) Some beekeepers have made "feeder bars". (An empty bar with no comb; just a series of holes) This allows fondant to be placed over the holes. The effectiveness is low on this approach but could be used as  last resort. 



* We have found no real effective way to separate the bars to place jars, baggies, or other feeder devices. Separating the comb usually means breaking the cluster to one side or the other. In warm weather, this means burr comb being produced to fill the void. In cold weather, this is detrimental to the cluster. The best management of a TBH involves feeding while the bees are still active. Light hives in winter are very difficult to manage.


Beekeepers are a creative bunch. If you have anything to add or have had success with other approaches, please pass them along.