How to Start a Top Bar Hive
by Taryn Murphy
What is a top bar hive?
We talk a lot about top bar hives over here at Bee Built, and for good reason!
The top bar hive is one of the oldest and most commonly used hive styles in the world. Historians have discovered early designs of top bar hives dating back to ancient Greece which consisted of sticks laid across the top of baskets or pots. Today’s modern top bar hives similarly feature individual bars laid across the hive cavity, allowing bees to naturally build comb without 4-sided frames.
Bees benefit from top bar hives because of their organic nature: the foundation-less horizontal top bars permit the bees to build their own natural comb just as they would in the wild.
Beekeepers also benefit: they don’t have to lift heavy boxes, use chemical-laden foundations, or overly agitate the bees during colony management. Top bar hives can also reduce beekeeping costs as they do not require honey supers, extra frames, foundation, queen excluders, uncapping knives, extractors or other expensive tools.
Where do I get a top bar hive?
Our favorite top bar hive is the Golden Mean Hive, crafted by our friends at Backyard Hive. After noticing how productive bees were in hives built in the “Golden Mean” proportion, Corwin Bell developed this hive which inspires productive and healthy hive colonies. To get 10% off your purchase of the Golden Mean Hive, use our code BEEBUILT at checkout.
You can also build your own top bar hive using our Top Bar Hive Plans and Hardware Kits. Be sure to source clear, FSC® certified wood.
How do I install my bees?
When you get your bees you should install them at one end of the hive with the follower boards spaced so that 8-12 bars are accessible to the colony.
Upon installing bees in the spring, most beekeepers feed their colony a syrup made of sugar water to promote building comb for their new home. To learn more about spring feeding, click here.
Allow bees to access only one entrance and leave the rest closed. Over the first few weeks, the colony will rapidly build comb from the bars and soon this comb will be filled with honey, nectar, and pollen. The queen will be producing her next generation of bees.
As you check your hive, make sure that the comb is straight. If it is crooked or “cross-combed,” you must gently push it back into place on the bar. Failure to catch cross-comb early on will make it almost impossible for you to remove single bars of comb.
How do I manage a top bar hive?
Bees are remarkably intelligent creatures--they’ve been minding their own beeswax for millennia. What does this mean for beekeepers? It means that caring for bees requires “less work than a dog, more than a goldfish.”
What sets top bar hives apart from Langstroth or Warre hives--and determines how much work they require--is that the hive space cannot be expanded through the stacking of additional boxes. Instead, beekeepers must frequently monitor the bars on which bees build comb by making sure the hive doesn’t overcrowd, adding new bars to create space, and harvesting honey when necessary.
As your colony grows, move the divider board down the hive cavity and add empty bars. After your final honey harvest, you should shrink the size of the hive cavity so there is less space for your bees to heat during the winter months. In a top bar hive, bees tend to attach their comb to the walls of the inner hive cavity. This requires an extra step: detaching comb from the hive before pulling bars out.
While managing a hive bar-by-bar takes slightly more time and attention than other hive styles, beekeepers often prefer them because the bees are more docile. The individual bars allow beekeepers to easily inspect specific parts of the hive and control the amount of exposure to light and air.
What should I be doing in the winter?
As winter approaches, make sure your hive has sufficient honey stores (about 30-50 lbs here in Portland, Oregon). During winter, a small population of bees ball up at the center of the hive, moving through as a group and eating honey and pollen stores.
Don’t open up your hive in the winter or when it’s below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Your bees will start making cleansing flights once the weather is above 45 degrees, and the queen will begin building the population.
What should I be doing in the spring and summer?
Is the weather over 50 degrees? It’s beekeeping time!
You will want to monitor your hive's health and productivity by frequently opening and inspecting it. At the height of beekeeping season in early-to-mid summer, check your hive about every week and a half to determine if you need to make more space or harvest honey. Keep these inspections short and sweet; every time a beekeeper opens a hive, the colony's productivity stops.
How do I harvest honey?
Honey harvest in a top bar hive is straightforward and requires few tools. Simply cut the comb from the top bars, crush it, and strain it. For more details on honey harvesting from a top bar hive, click here.
We don’t recommend harvesting any honey in the first season. Leave all of it for the bees and hope for a surplus next season!
Ready? You got this! We wish you a happy and successful beekeeping season.