Build a Top Bar Hive

The Idea

Ah, the joy of building a top bar hive.

Tbhs 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 tbh’s volume and shape are fixed, it’s important that a tbh 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 tbh. Fortunately, a fully adequate and functional tbh can be easily build by just about anyone regardless of their experience.

The Details

Before building or buying a tbh, 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 tbh.

Tbhs are limited by their shape and volume which is fixed by their design:

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

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

Bees are very adaptable and can make just about any sufficiently large cavity work. Not so for the beekeeper. So always field test a tbh 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 very 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 tbh 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 :-)

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.

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, tbhs have been constructed out of:

  • steel barrels.
  • adobe.
  • recycled water heaters.
  • plastic food grade barrels.
  • old refrigerators.
  • ammunition cases.
  • pallets.
  • papercrete.

Your Tbh?

So, what would your tbh look like? I bet it would be a beauty. And I know it would be the best tbh 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 tbh plan? Here are a few tbh plans of my own:

Final Thoughts

Finally, don’t sweat the small stuff. It takes much experience to design and build an optimal tbh. But the bees really don’t need an optimal hive. Look at what they naturally choose and how easily their needs are met.

Optimizing a tbh really 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.

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10 Responses

  1. Elijah Cobb says:

    Hi, I am building a Top Bar hive to specifications Bakyardhive.com.(similar to the Padilla design you have a photo of) They are in Colorado and I think our climate here in Cody Wyoming is more extreme. My question is about a screened bottom feature I have seen in some TB hives and hive designs. Do you think this screened bottom idea is useful for summer ventilation? I will be insulating the top and sides of the hive for winter and would certainly cover an open screen for cool and cold weather.
    Elijah

    • -dm says:

      Hi Elijah

      I haven’t found a need for the extra ventilation in Wyoming’s summers. But they can be a handy way to monitor mite levels.

      -dm

  2. If bees are wanting a cavity with huge entrances (20-40 square cm) why oh why do we give them the tiny ones?
    Maybe Anastaisa is onto something when making a very long slit on her hive design. Hive for cold Russian winters;
    http://chopwoodcarrywaterplantseeds.blogspot.se/2012/09/anastasia-beehive.html

    • -dm says:

      Hi Che

      That’s an interesting thought. The bees could easily control the entrance size with propolis when it’s more slit like.

      I know the Russians have done a little experimenting with entrance sizes/locations versus overwintering. At some point only a single, small top entrance was recommended.

      -dm

      • Hi Dennis,
        Do you know of any reference to this Russian experiment with a tiny top entrance?
        This is very interesting for me since I have converted all my hives to a single 30mm top entrance hole. Worked very well last winter, lets see how it goes this time.

        • -dm says:

          Hi Che

          Sorry, I don’t have the reference on hand.

          But it’s good to know that a top entrance worked well in your cold, northern climate. Thanks for sharing.

          Regards – Dennis

  3. Jenna says:

    Do I NEED to “bee keep” if I build this? Can I create it for the bees and leave them be? Just to support the bee population?

    • -dm says:

      Hi Jenna

      You could just let honeybees use it like they would use a natural cavity. But I wouldn’t go through the trouble of building one if that’s what you want it for.

      My thoughts. If you rather not keep honeybees, then why not just provide some habitat and nestings material for natural bees. It’s

      – much less intimidating.
      – costs less.
      – less intrusive.
      – ideal for an urban garden.
      – more diversified.

      Check out Wild Bees. And be sure to visit the /www.wildbienen.de. Lots of great wild bee ideas.

      Regards -dm

  4. Bee-villian says:

    Hi, I’ve had two hives here in Pinedale Wyoming going on the fourth winter. It was bad timing from the beginning. My daughter got sick and I have spent most of my time in Laramie with her, very sorry to say neglecting my honey bees. The only beekeeping I’ve done was winterizing, box on and box off. One hive is almost gone and the other is surprisingly strong, but pretty aggressive. I want to depopulate, ugh! both hives because:
    1. The hives are such a mess.
    2. The hive boxes(traditional 10’s) and supers(10’s) are too heavy, I need another system. Maybe (8’s)? or top bar?
    3. I need to re-queen, where do I begin with that?
    4. I want to use the surplus honey to start new-bee’s this spring. Is there anyone in Wyoming selling honey bee packages?
    So, I realize you want to tell me to do the bee’s a favor and stop beekeeping, but now that my daughter is much healthier, because of probiotics yea! I think I deserve another go at it. So, please and thank you.

    • -dm says:

      Hello Bee-villian

      For packages, I’d recommend Brian Houtman. He runs a California/Wyoming operation out of Riverton. And supplies packages to the Intermountain states. You could get a few queens from him as well. I’ll pm his phone number to you.

      Not much more can be done this year for the bees this season. They will be what they will bee. But, by next April, all things are possible.

      I’m not sure what kind of mess you mean. Sometimes what’s messy for the beekeeper is just fine for the bees. And any efforts to fix a mess should do more fixing than messing from the bee’s perscpective. I’ve done more than my share of fixing. Later realizing that most of my fixing was really messing up the bees.

      Unless your bees are sick, I wouldn’t depopulate your hives. Use their senergy, maybe by splitting, requeening, etc. to head in the direction you want. It’s just too tough, in our short season climate, to get a hive to survive. And a thriving hive in early spring is worth more than a few packages.

      Since you already have Lang frames, why not try a long hive like my Combo Long Hive?

      Thinking of Pinedale beekeeping takes me back to the earliest commercial beekeeping. I was in high school. And a Riverton beekeeper, Charlie Miller, whose family homesteaded directly across the Wind Rivers from Pinedale, ran bees there. Great honey. Fantastic views. And a big adventure for a young guy like me back then.

      It’s great to hear that your daughter is doing better. And it’s not a problem to leave the bees alone for awhile. For my kind of beekeeping, it’s actually a priority. And if I can’t leave them for awhile, I figure I must be doing something wrong. :-)

      Let me know what you decide.

      -dm

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