Horizontal top-bar hive
A top-bar hive is a single-story frameless beehive in which the comb hangs from removable bars. Hives that have frames or that use honey chambers in summer but which use similar management principles as regular top-bar hives are sometimes also referred to as top-bar hives. Top-bar hives are rectangular in shape and are typically more than twice as wide as multi-story framed hives commonly found in English speaking countries. Top-bar hives are usually not portable, and allow for beekeeping methods that interfere very little with the colony.
Top-bar hives are popular with some beekeepers who believe it is a more natural form of beekeeping, and with beekeepers with little access to materials and machinery to manufacture complex bee hives that require precise measurements, such as those in developing countries.
Although the two most well-known styles of long top-bar hives are named "Kenyan" and "Tanzanian", the Kenyan hive was actually developed in Canada, and the so-called Tanzanian hive is not the same as the top-bar hive that was developed in Tanzania.
The design of top-bar hives has its origins in the work done in 1965 by Tredwell and Paterson. A tub shaped top-bar hive was trialled in Rhodesia in the 1960s by Penelope Papadopoulou. Long top-bar hives began to appear in the 1960s and were first referred to as "grecian" hives. Similar "long" top-bar hives were also developed in the early 1970s by other authors. The David Hive (1972) was similar to the Kenyan top-bar hive, except that the comb was not cut from the bars at harvest time but reused after extraction. Also in 1972, William Bielby designed a top-bar hive that featured catenary curved comb.
Although modern "long" top-bar hives originated in the middle of the twentieth century, initial for use in development projects, a "tub shaped" top-bar hive has been in use for centuries in some regions such as Greece. An example of the tub shaped top-bar hive is the so-called Greek hive that was first described in the 17th century and that have been used in Crete until recently. Tub shaped top-bar hives are usually small enough to be portable, and allow beekeeping methods that involve periodic merging and splitting of colonies.
- Tub shaped top-bar hive 1
- Tanzanian top-bar hive 2
Kenyan top-bar hive - KTBH 3
- Design 3.1
- Geographical distribution 3.2
Advantages over hive systems using standardized frames 3.3
- Simplicity and generality of construction 3.3.1
- Reduced storage requirements 3.3.2
Hive management 3.4
- Queen exclusion 3.4.1
- Hive inspection 3.4.2
- Harvesting honey 3.5
- References 4
- External links 5
Tub shaped top-bar hive
Bee hives that conform to the general description of top-bar hives have existed for many centuries. The earliest known possible mention of a bee hive with removable top-bars is in Giovanni di Bernardo Rucellai's didactic poem Le Api, written in 1539.
The travelling pair George Wheler and Jacques Spon witnessed a beekeeping method using woven tub shaped top-bar hives in Greece in 1676. Spon briefly mentioned this in his memoirs, but Wheler gave a detailed description and a drawing of such a hive in his work Journey Into Greece, published in 1682. The dimensions of that hive (including the supposed width of the top-bars and the angle of the hive sides) are variously indicated in modern citations of Wheler's work, but that is pure fiction, since Wheler himself mentioned no dimensions in his book.
The beekeeper Zuanne Papadopoli described tub shaped top-bar beekeeping in clay pots that were used prior to 1669 in Crete. He wrote about it in his memoirs in 1696.
Although there is evidence that beekeeping was commonly practiced in Crete since the Late Minoan I period (1600-1450 BC), the most common method of beekeeping in that region is using clay or woven long, cylindrical hives. The earliest mention of tub shaped top-bar hives in Crete is by Wheler in 1682. In 1790, Abbot Della Rocca from Syros also wrote about tub shaped top-bar bee hives used in Crete during his time.
Thomas Wildman described tub shaped top-bar hives as "skeps that are open at the top" in his Treatise on the management of bees in 1768.
Tanzanian top-bar hive
Although the term "Tanzanian" top-bar hive is currently used in English-speaking countries to denote a Kenyan top-bar hive with straight sides instead of sloping sides, the original Tanzanian top-bar hive was developed independent of the Kenyan hive, and had design features that do not occur in modern so-called Tanzanian top-bar hives.
Until the 1960s, beekeepers in rural Tanzania used predominantly log hives, which consisted of a cylinder with closed ends and a harvesting hole near the middle. The fact that harvesting was done from the middle of the log meant that brood comb was destroyed every time honey was harvested. The Tanzanian government then promoted two alternative hive types, namely a log hive that could be harvested from either end (so that the brood nest in the centre remains undisturbed) and a plank hive, which was a simple top-bar hive. The plank hive did not use moveable top bars, however—bees would attach comb in natural patterns to the roof. The advantage of the plank hive was that it enabled some inspection before harvest.
The researcher G. Ntenga then designed a transitional hive, in 1972, based on the plank hive that uses moveable top-bars. This hive is sometimes called the Tanzanian Transitional Hive in literature, and was the original Tanzanian top-bar hive. Ntenga's hive had very precise measurements. It used top-bars with either a centre groove, a V-shaped bevel, or flat surface. The top-bars had lugs that were narrower than the bar itself. The hive could take 28 combs. The hive was covered with two lids, each covering half the hive.
One variation of Ntenga's hive used top-bars of 60 mm instead of 30 mm wide, that would each carry two combs instead of one.
Kenyan top-bar hive - KTBH
The hive commonly referred to as the Kenyan top-bar hive was developed by Dr. Maurice V. Smith and Dr. Gordon Townsend from the University of Guelph in Canada, sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) under an initial four year overseas project which began in Kenya in 1971. The hive and its development was subsequently and extensively described by Dr. Isaac Kirea Kigatiira from Kenya, who was a student at Guelph in the early 1970s.
Although the hive's management differs strongly from the tub shaped Greek hive, early publications about the Kenyan hive often mention the Greek hive as an inspiration for the Kenyan hive.
The original Kenyan hive was designed to hang from trees or poles. Other modern variations of this hive, such as the Jackson hive used in South Africa, are also intended as hanging hives. Hanging the hive protects it from both wild and domestic animals, as well as from ants and beetles.
Due to the ease of construction and simple design, the Kenyan top-bar hive has become popular all over the world, even in colder countries for which the hive was not originally designed. Most modern top-bar hive designs are variations of the Kenyan top-bar hive.
Although guidebooks for use in Africa often give precise dimensions for the Kenyan hive, and encourage beekeepers to keep their equipment of uniform and interchangeable sizes, one of the main selling points of the KTBH among proponents from English speaking countries is the fact that it can be made to practically any size and shape, as long as the top bars have a certain width.
The angle of the sloped sides is most commonly recommended to be 30 degrees. The width of the top bars is the sum of comb thickness and one measure of beespace. This helps ensure that bees build exactly one comb per top bar. Most top-bar hive plans freely available on the internet show hives of roughly 1 meter long and between 30 cm and 50 cm wide and high.
In English speaking countries, the top-bar hive is usually mounted on a set of legs that lift the hive to a height that is comfortable for beekeepers. In African countries, the height of the hive is often also determined by the type of animal the hive is meant to be protected from.
A beekeeper can make top bars from any plain wood. The top bars are usually 1¼ inches to 1⅜ inches (32–35 mm) wide, depending on local conditions and the type of bee to be housed. Combs can be handled individually. The depth of the bar and the length of the bar can be whatever the beekeeper wants, but usually between 17" and 20". The hive body can be a long box, covered by a series of top bars laid side by side like a wooden keys of a marimba. The depth of the top bar hive should be 12" or less. If deeper, the weight of the comb filled with honey tends to cause it to fall off the bar into the bottom of the hive. The bees will lose access to this during the winter cluster in the hanging combs, thus increasing their likelihood of starving.
It is important to give the bees a clear starting point to build comb on each top bar. Some TBH beekeepers fashion their top bars with a V-shaped bottom to guide the comb building. Alternatively, some use a table saw to cut two closely spaced slots along the long axis of each new top bar. Either type of guide, wax line or grooves, gives bees a place to hold on to with their hooked feet. This allows a substantial "drape" of bees to form, which is always the beginning of comb building.
(There are many other variations of this same idea: for example, some beekeepers cut a single thin groove, then firmly glue a Popsicle stick or a thin slat of balsa wood into it with wood glue, thus creating a slightly protruding piece upon which the bees begin their building.)
Unlike the conventional Langstroth hives, the entrance is not part of the hive's ventilation system. This allows a great deal of flexibility in both placement and configuration.
The provision of a single entrance with a landing platform at one end will help in restricting the placement of pollen stores. Combs with pollen will tend to be in the first two combs nearest the entrance. A single entrance is also more defensible and enables the bees to combat robbing by bees from other colonies. This entrance should be protected by some sort of canopy (or an extension of the roof) to reduce or eliminate the formation of dew on the landing platform — large drops of water will tend to trap early leaving bees until the water evaporates.
The entrance should not be placed high on the hive as this will allow the escape of winter heat. Rather than place the entrance in the end wall it should be located in one of the sides of the hive, especially in the Tanzanian (straight sided) hive. This will allow the bees to access the side which they must use to access comb in the back of the hive for storing nectar.
One very effective entrance configuration is to provide a landing pad, which is an extension of a covered porch for the guard bees. All bees are prevented from flying directly into the hive by making the entrance a number of 5/16 inch (8 mm) holes in the hive end wall. Thus any bee entering the hive must land on the pad, cross the sheltered porch and walk through one of the several entrance holes. The guard bees on the sheltered porch may here inspect and communicate with the arrivals and so reject any raiders, which are recognized by not carrying food and by carrying scents from a foreign hive.
(Of course, some beekeepers instead advocate placing several small entrance openings at the top, at one end of the hive only and not of sufficient size to allow significant loss of heat, with or without landing platforms.)
It is suggested that bees in a Kenyan hive will have much less tendency to adhere comb to the sides of the hive. Once adhered comb is freed from the side (leaving a beespace) the bees tend to not rejoin the comb, so this is not a significant problem for either hive. It is important in either type that end access or some free space without comb is available so adhered comb may be freed.
A purpose built hive may be designed for better ventilation and pest control. Usually protection against ants, hive beetles, and other predators (such as honey badgers in Africa or skunks or bears in North America) must be provided. An open, screened bottom providing both ventilation and varroa mite ejection appears more hygienic than a closed bottom. With all hives a dry, sunny location for wintering combined with good ventilation appears to reduce the incidence of nosema while regular culling of dark comb after two year's use appears to eliminate American foul brood. The culling of old comb is easier in the top-bar hive as a part of the managed progression of bar use.
Traditional top bar hives are appropriate to locations with tropical or temperate climates. Owing to the elongated horizontal configuration of the hive they are not generally believed to be appropriate for latitudes with severe winters.
Some beekeepers are experimenting with short versions of top bar hives which have ~1 cm notches cut in the center edge of the bars so that they can 'super' them (put another hive body above an existing hive body to stimulate bees to produce honey in it) with another short top bar hive, or even a standard Langstroth hive body. This method reportedly works well. These sorts of top bar hives could be insulated easily, as is done with Langstroth hives, for colder climates.
Another variant that may improve over-wintering in cold climates is a design pioneered by Phil Chandler in the UK, which has a central side entrance and two follower boards, between which the colony is confined. This leaves large, stationary air-filled spaces either side of the colony, which can be filled with insulation in winter.
Advantages over hive systems using standardized frames
Simplicity and generality of construction
The simplicity of the top-bar hive allows use of salvage materials and even boxes and containers such as half-drums, drawers and packing crates. Almost any container may be used as a hive, provided appropriate bars are placed across the top and a weather tight cover and a single defensible entrance are provided. While this is an advantage in impoverished areas, purpose-built hives offer certain advantages in pest control, durability, and defensibility. While hives in a beeyard should use identical bars for convenience in management, the construction does not require the precise dimensional control of the Langstroth type.
Reduced storage requirements
Since no seasonal storage of honey collection boxes ("supers") is needed, nor is a centrifugal extractor commonly used, the storage requirements are also greatly reduced.
It is recommended that new or recycled empty bars be placed at each side of the brood chamber just before spring build–up as it is easier for the bees to make new comb than to move honey stores to make room for new brood. This will also ensure the maintenance of a well built honey barrier between the brood and higher grade stores. To prevent the buildup of old comb in the brood chamber it may be advantageous to add new bars only on the entrance side of the brood chamber just past the pollen stores. This will cause a collection of older honey in re-used comb, which may be removed and used to produce a somewhat lesser quality of honey, as it will have additional flavors from the propolis used to strengthen and protect the brood comb. Such honey may be especially appropriate for making mead and root beer, as additional flavors will predominate. The progressive removal of brood comb appears, as noted above, consistent with control of AFB. The use of follower boards to selectively control the amount of interior space available to the bees can be helpful, particularly in young hives or when dealing with newly captured swarms.
The recent introduction of sliding 'follower boards'  to enclose the colony within the hive body has enabled more flexible management of top bar hives and facilitated quicker inspections with minimal disturbance to the bees. (Follower boards are adjustable solid panels, which effectively reduce the size of the interior space within the hive box that is actually accessible to the bees.)
Natural queen exclusion occurs more frequently in top-bar hives, because the brood nest is separated from the honey section by at least a full bar of honey comb, and not just a few centimetres of honey as may be the case in a multi-storey framed hive. And the more honey is gathered, the further the brood nest becomes from newly created comb.
However, some commercial top-bar beekeepers have found that artificial queen excluders are sometimes necessary to keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey section of the hive. Another way to augment the natural method of using a honey barrier for queen exclusion is to separate the brood nest from the honey section by a couple of empty, combless bars.
A top-bar hive is inspected by lifting the bars of comb individually. Inspection can be started at any one of the bars, and can be completed over several sessions.
Inspection of the combs can be carried out with far less disturbance to the bees than is the case with multi-storey hives, since only a small amount of the hive is exposed at any one time. Some hives incorporate a viewing glass window in the side of the hive that allows for observation without opening the hive itself, since in theory the combs do not get attached to the sloping sides.
The top-bars rest freely on the hive walls without spacers, which means that the top-bars can be slid easily along the length of the hive during the inspection, without altering the sequence of the combs, and non-inspected bars need not be lifted out of the way to gain access to other bars.
The comb should never be held flat, since there is a risk that the combs might break off the bars, due to the fact that that comb is not created in frames, and supported by wires.
The most popular method of harvesting honey from a top-bar hive is by cutting the comb from the top-bar, crushing the comb and straining the honey. This results in honey with a higher pollen content than honey that is extracted by flinging out without crushing the comb. Top-bar hive comb can be extracted by flinging motion, e.g. in a hobbyist or commercial rotary extractor, but it can be problematic, because (a) if no foundation was used, the comb will break more easily during rotary movement, (b) top-bar hives combs have irregular or non-standard sizes that do not fit into commercially available extractors, (c) if the comb is not uniformly flat, it may be difficult to uncap the cells, which is required for rotary extraction, and (d) not all rotary extractors have cages or mesh to prevent loose pieces of comb from falling into the drum.
Honey can also be harvested from top-bar comb as cut comb.
Owing to the fact that crushing and straining is the most common method for honey harvesting in this type of hive, wax harvesting as a by-product is common in top-bar hive beekeeping.
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- Centerfuge extractor being used for honey extraction of a Top Bar Hive
- "Alternative" Hive Designs from BeeSource
- VelaCreation's DIY TBH
- A Top Bar Observation Hive
- WikiBooks: Top Bar Hive, Kenyan TBH