Top bar hives are hives without frames. They have bars running across the width of the hive on which the bees fasten the comb. In order to stay within bee space the top bars have to be 1 3/8 inch wide, all the other dimensions are not that critical. Top Bar Hives are a nice tool to observe what bees would do if left to build their hive to their own liking. The beekeeper can learn a lot by watching the combs grow and paying particular attention to the placement of brood, pollen and honey. The rapid expansion of the hive is remarkable to observe during the honey flow. Beautiful, flawless white combs are build containing golden nectar. The honey combs can be harvest to sell or simply enjoy yourself.
This particular top bar hive was build with a window to better see what is happening in the hive without actually having to open it up. The original design of this hive can be found at this web site, I modified it a bit but the gist of it is still there. As you can see the bees fixed the sides of the comb to the window. This gave me an unexpected view of bees working inside the cell. The wider combs gave an even better view of bees working inside the individual cells. Some top bar hives are designed with slanted sides, which is supposed to discourage the bees from attaching the comb to the sides of the hive. There is lots of information on the web about that design.
To see through the window properly you need a flashlight. Otherwise it’s too dark to really see what’s going on inside.
Top Bar Hives can be started like any other hive, with a swarm, package bees, or simply shaking bees into the hive. In this case I used a large swarm that I found hanging on a branch. Fortunately the swarm landed on a young oak tree. I brook off the branch and placed it in front of the entrance. The bees hurried inside and took up permanent residence.
Here is the picture of the inside of the hive taken through the window. The cluster starts at the front of the hive and builds beautiful white combs. They attach each of the combs to the strip of plastic that is hanging down from the center of each top bar.
There are a number of different ways to get the bees started on the center of each top bar. In this case I cut a groove in the center of the top bar and glued in a strip of plastic foundation. You don’t have to use plastic foundation. You could use strips of wood. I tried this on a top bar hive while I was in Nigeria and it worked just as well. It is also less expensive.
Hive manipulation is similar to a standard hive. The top bars have to be handled very carefully because the combs are fragile. Each comb has to be checked to see if it’s attached to the side walls, if it is then it has to be cut with the hive tool or a sharp knife. It’s easier to start from the back and work towards the front. The entire hive is never open at the same time, like in a standard hive. Rather only the space that you are working on is open This helps in keeping the bees calm.
No two combs in the top bar hive will be exactly the same. During a good honey flow they will make combs the full width of the hive.
See if you can find the queen on the pollen/honey frame.
When full of honey the combs weigh a lot and it’s very easy to accidentally brake them off and have a huge mess in a hurry!
Wintering the top bar hive in Manitoba is a real challenge. I’ve only managed to do it a few time successfully. One of the problems that this particular hive that I have is, it has no upper entrance. The moisture can not get out well enough during the winter making conditions very difficult for the bees. I make small changes to the hive every season to see if it will winter better. It’s an ongoing experiment.