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What are Top Bar Hives



These top bar hives are on a stand, which permits them to be worked without bending over.

1. What is a top-bar hive (tbh)?

2. Are tbh's "legal" to use?

3. What is a top bar (tb)?

4. Who invented tbh's?

5. When was the tbh invented?

6. Why was the tbh invented then further developed more recently?

7. What are the advantages of beekeeping in tbh's?

8. What are the disadvantages of beekeeping in tbh's?

9. Should a beginning beekeeper start with a tbh?

10. Can tbh's be used for commercial honey production?

11. Can tbh's be used to provide commercial pollination services?

12. What is a "honey cow?"

 

I. OVERVIEW AND HISTORY OF TOP BAR HIVES

 

1. What is a top bar hive (tbh)?

A tbh is a movable comb hive. Narrow bars, normally of wood, rest across a container (usually a long box or trough), which forms the cavity containing the bees' nest. Bees build comb from the bars which are wide enough to give proper spacing between combs. A bar with its attached comb and adhering bees can be removed from the hive and examined. Each comb is built naturally by the bees, suspended from its top-bar. (i.e., none of the combs is enclosed in a complete frame.) No **full sheets** of comb-foundation *are* used.

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2. Are tbh's "legal" to use?

Yes, in so far as I know, since all of the bars and combs can be moved to enable inspection of the hives to comply with laws in those states or municipalities that require inspection.

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3. What is a top bar (tb)?

Top bars are the "slats" to which comb is attached. Placed side by side across the hive cavity/container, they form a roof for the hive. Bars may be made from a variety of materials. They can be cut from scrap or purchased lumber, may be made from tree branches or bamboo of appropriate size. The bars may be of any suitable length to reach across the hive, but it is critical that they be of appropriate width (or diameter) to provide proper spacing of combs for the species or strain of bees involved. An outer lid or covering is provided over the bars, for additional protection from the elements.

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4. Who invented tbh's?

It probably isn't really known, but according to Eva Crane on p. 300-301 of her *opus magnum*, "Bees and Beekeeping", the earliest knowledge of tbh development was in Sir George Wheeler's book, "A Journey into Greece" published in 1682. Wheeler describes basket tbh's. One of his illustrations is reproduced on p. 301 of Crane's book

The Greeks for centuries have been utilizing upright, woven "baskets" as hives. Bars placed across the top of each basket individually support the combs. By removing each bar, the attached comb can be examined or moved. Evidently, due to the slope of the basket shape (narrower toward the bottom), the bees do not attach their combs to the sides (or do so only minimally). Therefore each comb is movable by removing the top bar from which it has been built.

In Britain and North America, bar-type hives of various sorts were often used in days of old. However, the combs were invariably attached to the sides of the hive as well as to the bars. Therefore the side-attachments had to be cut away in order for the combs to be removed. This was not much of an improvement over straw skeps or simple box hives.

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5. When was the tbh invented?

Loooooooong ago. Obviously prior to 1682.

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6. Why was the tbh invented then further developed more recently?

I can't say for certain, but it was probably to provide a means of keeping bees, rather than of just "having" bees. With a tbh it is no longer necessary to kill the bees to harvest honey, nor are brood combs disturbed. In many areas of the world today, tbh's are used because the "low tech" aspects of tbh's meld better with the social and economic conditions at the present time.

[Tim Haarmann] You mention "low tech". I like to think of the TBH as a "moderate tech hive". I think of a container of bees (used in many parts of the world) with no moveable frames as low tech, the TBH as a moderate tech. hive, and the Langstroth as a high tech. hive. I often talk to people about the "natural/ simple" aspects of the TBH, which appeals to a lot of the gardening, hobby beekeeper types. This is the market that I think can best benefit from TBHs. Who wants to sink $500 into a hobby right off the bat? A TBH is much cheaper and includes a lot less equipment.

[Tim Haarmann] I think the TBH has a lot to offer people in more developed countries if we are willing to step away from the monster named technology and embrace the beauty of simplicity.

[Kevin Palm] From information sent to me by Dr. James Tew of OSU, (and this is from memory), he states that the TBH was designed to be a transitional hive, helping beekeepers in developing countries make the step from log hives to the much more "advanced" Langstroth hives.

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7. What are the advantages of beekeeping in tbh's?

There are many in my opinion. Some of them might be: a) the hives are inexpensive and can be made by recycling scrap lumber or fashioning the hives from existing materials such as bamboo, reeds, clay, etc., b) there are no supers to lift, frames to nail together, sheets of foundation to put in frames, no extractor and supers with sticky combs to store, c) bees are disturbed less as the hives are worked, d) more beeswax is harvested since the combs are removed from the hive, e) the honey is "comb honey" and if it is pressed or squeezed from the virgin combs, it has a superior flavor...or so I believe. :)

[Tim Haarmann] Not to mention that a well built TBH is much more attractive than a square, white, Lang.

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8. What are the disadvantages of beekeeping in tbh's?

There are several in my opinion. Consider these: a) the hives may require more management in that the brood may have to be spread to get good spring buildup or if the hive becomes honeybound, b) combs may have to be harvested regularly during a heavy honey flow rather than just adding another super, c) because surplus honey-combs are detached from their top bars in harvesting the crop, and are not reused, the tbh's are probably not capable of producing as much honey as supered Langstroth hives with drawn combs, d) newly drawn and filled combs must be handled carefully. Older brood combs are very tough, e) finally, tbh's may not be suitable for a beekeeper who must, psychologically, have the very best and very finest of the latest technology in everything, or who must produce more honey than anyone else.

To prevent a "honeybound" condition (i.e., not enough empty comb available as laying space for the queen), the brood portion of the hive can be supplied with additional bars, to allow the bees to construct new combs within the nest. This provides ample laying room for the queen and reduces congestion during the spring buildup.

The routines involved with tbh inspection and harvesting just differ somewhat from the procedures for movable-frame hives.

[Tim Haarmann] You mention that the hives may require more management. I guess I feel that they require less management. I remember back when I was using Langs and a beginning beekeeper. One of my biggest frustrations was knowing when to add a super so my bees didn't swarm. To add to the frustration, I always had to have a super put together and ready to go. As you mention, the only management of a TBH is to make sure the bees don't get honey bound. This seems like a simple thing compared to the confusion I felt when I first started using Langs. Of course, it has become almost second nature knowing when to super a Lang now, but back then it was troublesome. I just don't see this same frustration in new beekeepers using a TBH.

[Mike Allsopp] I am not an avowed fan of TBH's. My feeling is that they are fun to work with, and very suitable under certain conditions (strictly for hobbyist and sedentary beekeepers), but I am doubtful on whether we should be encouraging their general usage. I think I differ from others on this due to four things:

1. There is a lot of misinformation on the importance of certain features of TBH's, such as the slanting sides and the reduction in defensive behaviour. In reality, TBH's are just low technology, horizontal Langstroths. In East Africa these days they have given up the slanting sides as they make no difference.

2. No-one has yet to adequately test the performance (in monetary return) TBH's and Langstroths. I have a guy in Cape Town doing just this at present. At first glance the TBH's are very impressive, but over a couple of seasons their total honey yield is far below that of standard Langstroths.

3. TBH's should only be used if suitable hive material is available. How can we counternance the destruction of hard wood trees to produce TBH's or log hives, as is the practice in much of Africa?

4. And the major reason: All of us bee people in South Africa are involved to a lesser or greater extent in "beekeeping development programmes" - advancing beekeeping in the rural and disadvantaged communities. In this respect I believe advancing the use of TBH's is the wrong approach. The aim of the programmes I am involved with is the rapid development of semi-commercial beekeepers that can compete with the established beekeepers, not the provision of one or two hives to each member of the programme. I suggest that using TBH's for these people retards their chances of ever becoming successful commercial beekeepers, rather than advances it. You can't easily follow honey flows or do commercial pollination with TBH's.

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9. Should a beginning beekeeper start with a tbh?

It would seem that it might be best for a beginner to start with a pair of conventional hives and the associated equipment if it is financially possible. Certainly in many parts of the world more help and advice would be available than in others. But the honeybees don't care, and I really can't think of anything that should prevent a beginner from using and enjoying a colony of bees in a tbh.

[Tim Haarmann] I have started a few people with TBH. After about a year, they are almost embarrassed to tell other beekeepers they don't use the high tech Lang--go figure? Sometimes I suggest a TBH to a new beekeeper, and tell them that if they like beekeeping after a year or two, then they can purchase some Langs and all the expensive equipment. A TBH is not a very big financial investment i.e. perfect for a beginner. However, most never want to give up their TBH.

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10. Can tbh's be used for commercial honey production?

In some sections of the world, tbh's are being used to produce honey that is sold in local markets. For the beekeeper whose goal is to produce tons of honey and to make a living keeping thousands of colonies, the tbh is probably not a suitable option. Allen Dick suggested that cut comb honey could possibly be produced profitably in tbh's.

[Tim Haarmann] Les Crowder, the president of the NM Beekeepers Association promotes the use of TBHs. Les uses them for comb and chunk honey as well as some queen rearing. He is a perfect example of someone who has successfully integrated both types of hives into a commercial business.

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11. Can tbh's be used to provide commercial pollination services?

Dr. Wyatt Mangum is using around 200 Kenya tbh's to operate a pollination service in North Carolina. He loads the hives in the back of a pickup truck and on a trailer. Good, straight brood combs are never replaced in his hives, so some of the combs are old and very sturdy.

Wyatt prefers using Kenya tbh's because the sloping side gives him a better center of gravity when he carries the hive. He says that it fits against his abdomen better.

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12. What is a "honey cow?"

Joel Govostes stated that in Bernhard Clauss' book on Botswanan beekeeping, the locals refer to the tbh's as "honey cows." Joel suggested that I could just add four legs and a head....say, that got me thinking. I am going to use some 30 gal plastic barrels this spring for tbh's. I'll make a cradle with four legs for the barrel half to rest in. Cut out a cow head and neck...grazing?...looking alertly?...decisions, decisions... add a tail. I'll use an arching tin roof on top. Then paint the entire hive white.... paint the black spotting of the Holstein (Freisen?) cow...eyes, etc. Then I'll put it down in the orchard...could have an entire herd.....yeah!

[Tim Haarmann] Just an interesting side note. In Spanish we use the term "la colmena batea" to describe the TBH. colmena=hive and batea=trough. This, because it looks like a watering trough for livestock. Aagghhh, a new twist to honey cow!

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