A top bar hive is just that: a long narrow trough-like hive that has bars on top that the bees build their comb on independently. The traditional hive style – the one you visualize – is called a Langstroth hive. It is essentially a box filled with frames of prepared comb for the bees to move into and build upon. When one box is filled, with honey, another is added to keep production of honey and to keep the bees busy and happy. Langstroth hives are designed to maximize honey production for humans and often use chemicals or supplements to keep the bees healthy.
Top Bar hives may have their roots in ancient Greece and gained popularity in African countries (where they are called Kenyan or Tanzanian hives) as a shift in the 1960’s from hives maintained in logs.They require only basic building knowledge and materials and no special tools to keep up. Some are fancy – like mine above (or even with a long viewing window) and some are very simple. That is the appeal of a top bar hive – simplicity and leaving the bees alone.
Top bar beekeeepers are the rebels of the bee keeping world. In fact, on a recent trip to my local apiary store (tried and true Langstroth devotes), a man followed me outside and said in a very conspiratorial tone, “Hey, I have a top bar hive too!” It was as if he didn’t want to confess in front of others that even though he also had Langstroth hives, his favorite was his top bar. Why? I asked. “Because it is so cool to see the bees do their own thing without my intervention!” For some reason, less human intervention into something bees have done for millenia is suspect. I think we may be confused about our level of importance.
Top bar beekeepers tend to use sustainable, natural methods of beekeeping. And while a top bar hive (at least for the novice) requires more hands on work than a Langstroth to keep the hive and combs producing smoothly, the work makes logical sense. With minimal intervention the bees just do what bees do…build comb then fill it with honey, bee-babies and pollen.
There are tons of plans online for how to build a top bar hive (which is what we did) or you can go a top bar beekeeping site like Bee Thinking and buy a kit or a complete hive and have it shipped. Top bar hives can be made of nearly any material and are not terribly expensive to make if you have a little construction knowledge. Mine cost about $65 though the roofing material was scraps from another project.
On the left you can see the basic trough.
Here is an up close picture of what the bar looks like:
The bees will build their combs on these bars – I made sure to encourage them by putting some beeswax left over from a candle along the ridge in the center of the bar so that they got the right idea.
Eventually, in a perfect world, you will have nearly every bar in the hive filled with nicely drawn out straight combs that are bigger, full-bar versions of my (our) first comb: